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A Rhetoric of Guided Empowerment: Lynn Z. Bloom’s “What is Good Enough Writing Anyway?”

By Sara Heckelman | Rhetorical Analysis Essays

It is hard to imagine that college writing professors, experts in their field, could be at fault for leading their students towards writing, reading, and thinking in a less than exemplary manner.  Nonetheless, a chronic problem of acceptable, mediocre writing is sweeping college campuses worldwide. Students, with low expectations from their professors, are writing, reading, and thinking in a manner that is just barely “good enough.” Many professors have recognized this problem, but few have taken action to solve it. Lynn Z. Bloom, a professor emerita of English at The University of Connecticut, seeks to change the status quo as she delves into this issue in her 2006 article, “Good Enough Writing: What is Good Enough Writing Anyway?” Bloom examines this chronic problem of academia: professors’ acceptance of “good enough” writing lacking creative and analytical thought (526). She intends to combat the negative effects of complacent academic writing professors by demonstrating to them how they can defy the constraining nature of academic writing and help their students create genuinely good writing.

In her article, Bloom expresses her disapproval of academia’s strict structure and its requirements of adhering to “normative literary conventions” (530). She feels that the normative overwhelming focus on structure and rationality (otherwise regarded as plain, anti-analytical logic) has led students to face a “suppression of the self” (531) as creative writing and use of their personal voice is unacceptable. “Good enough” writing, she explains, is characterized by a lack of creativity and individuality, and an overwhelming focus on simply getting one’s point across. She describes that professors are dismissive of “ethical and emotional appeals” as well as the use of anything other than standard English, the lingua franca (527). Additionally, she adds that teachers should be able to exemplify their own “appreciation of, understanding of, and ability to write with creative, confrontational, or otherwise original thinking and expression, for it’s hard if not impossible to teach what one cannot do” (530). According to Bloom, to prevent students’ writing from reverting to the bare minimum, full of facts and figures and lacking in creativity and analytical depth, teachers must be adamant about expecting high quality writing from their students, provide students with examples of such writing, guide them towards a deep understanding of critical analysis, and offer opportunities for creative writing.

Bloom is challenged with telling professors that their ways of teaching are flawed and resultantly damaging for students. This is a difficult task to accomplish as professors are likely to be comfortable with their current teaching decisions and tactics and resist the changes she proposes. Bloom overcomes the challenge of communicating with a difficult audience and is able to effectively get her message across through use of crucial rhetorical appeals and strategies, including identification, use of inclusive pronouns, flattery, avoiding condescension and accusation, use of pathos, prompts towards imagination, and use of personal anecdotes. In exposing professors to the root of the issue of “good enough” (526) writing as well as how professors contribute to the progression of this issue, she hopes to empower her readers to rise above the philosophical and objective constraints inflicted upon them and their students. Through guided empowerment, Bloom hopes to eliminate the problem of “good enough” writing by stopping it at its source: complacent teachers and professors. She succeeds in doing so using rhetoric that ensures the maintenance of trust of her readers through phrasing that deems her suggestions forms of empowerment and means of professional improvement.

Bloom recognizes the best way to ensure the trust of her audience is to reduce the possibility of counterarguments. She begins doing so by establishing an identification with her audience “to lessen the possibility [that her audience will attack her premise that “good-enough-writing” is undermining the potential to cultivate excellent writing]. First, she uses first-person, inclusive pronouns such as “us” and “we” to include herself in contributing to the problem. She mentions: “We get what we ask for, a plethora of procedural virtues” (532) and “[w]e cave on this quality” (526). She includes herself in these statements to cushion the blow felt by her readers as a result of being told they are doing something wrong. Highly educated professors, the primary audience of her article, will likely be reluctant to admit to, let alone change, the behavior she identifies as problematic. Her readers’ likely resistance to this argument leads Bloom to make a preemptive effort to emphasize identification. She also uses the word “I” throughout her writing. The use of this word is twofold: (1) It provides a personal tone of voice to sound more advice-oriented and non-accusatory, (2) it provides support for the fact that use of the personal tone in academic writing, although not in accordance with the strict structure of academia, can actually be an effective writing tactic. She also uses words such as “teachers” and “they” instead of the plural “you” to indirectly speak to her audience and lessen the backfire effects of accusation (i.e. refuting, ignoring). If Bloom, a renowned professor, is also making these described mistakes and is able to recognize them, then her readers may be more inclined to follow suit.

To reduce the possibility that her audience will perceive her tone as accusatory, Bloom identifies her readers as “insiders” (533) and not just as teachers. In doing so, she flatters her readers, identifying them as members of a knowledgeable group of people. Bloom becomes an insider speaking to other insiders. Not only is Bloom successful in warding off alienation, but she is also successful in conveying a shared stake in her argument and its solution.  When she writes “as innovative writers who understand from the inside out… ” (536), her readers, being deemed innovative and understanding of the topic from a unique “insider” perspective, are left feeling confident in themselves and are thus more likely to internalize her advice and ideas than they would be had they not been complimented. The segue that leads to this complimentary description of her audience - “should we, dare we, ask more of ourselves as teachers?” (536) - further supports the notion that Bloom successfully convinces her readers that they have just as much at stake as their students and should thus take the transformative action she proposes.

As Bloom assumes the position of knowing that professors are competent, smart people, she refrains from condescension and direct accusation. When discussing the negative effects of writing restraints, Bloom writes, “In point of fact, as all researchers and writing teachers know, every piece of academic writing has a point of view and presents an argument…” (527). She makes it clear that she is aware of professors’ abilities and that they, collectively, just may be missing something crucial. Empowered by Bloom’s recognition of their competencies, teachers are more likely to make the proposed changes and improvements in their teaching.
Just as Bloom recognized establishing a rapport with her audience would be essential in getting them to accept her argument, so too does she establish a connection and an empathy with her audience to effectively identify and address readers’ possible frustrations with academia’s stringent structure. Bloom critiques elements of strict academic rationale as she boldly pinpoints flaws of The Harbrace Handbook, a foundational textbook of academic writing. She identifies the harshness of the regulations and constrictions in its guidelines as the primary source of the problem of “good enough” writing, rather than the advice of professors (530). She makes a clear distinction between the source of the rules and restrictions (The Harbrace and the academy’s “virtues”) and professors’ adherence to and promotion of these rules and strict rationale. Her rigorous critique of The Harbrace Handbook acts a means of shifting blame from professors to an external source. Recognizing her reader’s possible frustrations with academia’s strictness is a crucial step in framing her suggestions as means of empowerment to rise above these structures and defy the odds. Recognizing that Bloom does not blame faculty, Bloom’s readers  are more willing to not only continue reading but also to internalize her advice and employ it in their teaching.

Continuing with this strategic use of empathy with her reader’s possible frustrations, Bloom affords her readers an opportunity to put themselves in the shoes of their students. She hopes in doing so that educators may see the full extent of damage that can come from simply cultivating “good enough” writing. If professors feel the constraints of textbooks and philosophies, it should be easy for them to imagine how their students feel with those strangulating restrictions.

In this way, Bloom supplies her readers with advice in a manner that provides inspiration rather than allegation. She provides anecdotes and examples from her own personal teaching experiences: splitting students into teams, providing them opportunities to see a genre from the inside out by writing their own personal pieces in that genre (534) She describes that the result was immensely positive as the students’ “discussions were energetic, enthusiastic, and engaged” (534). In vividly describing the positive outcomes of her creative teaching tactics, Bloom increases the likelihood of her readers employing her suggested strategies. She hopes that teachers will gain inspiration as she offers her ideas as possibilities for them to emulate. Bloom eliminates any feelings of insubordination that may have arisen had she phrased her ideas as requirements rather than suggestions. Consequently, teachers feel empowered and thus may be more likely to employ similar tactics when they feel they are doing so on their own accord.

Bloom empowers teachers to rise above the constraints inflicted upon them from handbook regulations and age-old philosophies. In doing so, she takes on an unlikely role for a member of the academic community: a self-critic, teaching other academics to lead by her example. Through her skillful rhetoric of empowerment as opposed to accusation in order to refrain from condescension and eliminate alienation, Bloom successfully overcomes the challenge she is faced with: to pinpoint problems within the constraining world of academia and prompt professors to make necessary change.

Works Cited

Bloom, Lynn Z. "Good Enough Writing: What Is Good Enough Writing, Anyway?" Inventing
Arguments: A Rhetoric and Reader for the University of Maryland's Academic Writing Program, 2nd Custom ed., New York, Pearson Education, 2017, pp. 525-39. Originally published in What Is "College Level" Writing?, 2006.