Vignette: Rhetorical Clash in Draft Review as Productive Intercultural Kairos

Chanon Adsanatham

Open up disparate writing textbooks and syllabi, and we will likely see that rhetorical situation constitutes a major concept. Indeed, some of us posit first-year writing, as well as other composition classes, as a course that helps students acquire flexible, transferable skills for writing in a variety of contexts--or rhetorical situations (Nowacek; Wardle; Yancey, Robertson and Taczak). That aim is congruent with the Council of Writing Program Administrators’ outcomes for college composition: to enable students to “use composing and reading for inquiry, learning, critical thinking, and communicating in various rhetorical contexts” (“Outcomes,” emphasis added). While that aim is undoubtably important, as a bi-cultural scholar-teacher-translator who has taught in the United States and now Thailand, I often wonder: How heteroglossic are the rhetorical situations we invoke in writing assignments and textbooks; to what extent might they reflect and reify hegemonic cultural assumptions and practices that are too often white, bourgeois, able-bodied, and heteronormative? In other words, in what ways might the rhetorical situation we and our students assume reflect Euro/phallo/logocentricism? Unless we critically consider these questions, I worry we might be creating “trained incapacities” that run counter to the goal of helping students become effective composers across contexts. My recent initial confusion while reviewing drafts of Thai students’ business correspondences in English is a case in point. This essay presents a retrospective reflection about how contextualizing my understanding of students’ composing moves in letter-writing motivated me to recalibrate my perspective about their rhetorical situation and arrangement decision. Ultimately, the reflection challenged me to embrace confusion during draft evaluation as a potentially transformative pedagogical moment to gain a more reflexive intercultural understanding about the limitation of my assignment design.   

Recently, I taught an advanced writing course for the British and American Studies Department (BAS) of a competitive public university in Bangkok, my hometown. The Department aims to help students become effective communicators in Western contexts. All teaching and assignments are thus done in English, and they follow the conventions of British and American English. All students in the program are fluent in English as a foreign language. One of the assignments required students to conduct primary research about a local issue in Bangkok. They wrote a business correspondence in English to request information from or interview with Thai officials, many of whom speak English. Before sending their letter, students asked me to check their draft for clarity, organization, and formatting, and while doing so, I noticed that students opened their letter by describing who they are, what they are studying, and what classes they are taking. Then in the body section of their document, they proceeded to state what the advanced writing class is about and what topics they are researching. Finally, in the closing paragraph, they articulated their purpose for writing: to request information or interview. As a whole, students developed their correspondence by providing background information and delaying their purpose until the end. 

The students’ arrangement pattern is not unconventional in Thailand. Thai business correspondence typically begins with background information that can stretch from the opening to the final body paragraphs. The letter’s purpose is then disclosed in the closing section. Knowing this, sometimes I would read the conclusion paragraph of a correspondence first to grasp the point of the document before looking at the rest of the paragraphs. Evidently, my students were writing in English but following a conventional Thai arrangement pattern.

At first, their arrangement perplexed me because I taught them to observe Western conventions for business letter-writing, using Philip Kolin Successful Writing at Work as the primary textbook and model. In American business correspondence, the author typically states why they are writing in the opening paragraph, and they may also provide background information to clarify their writing purpose in the same section. Thus, when I saw that students were organizing their letter differently, I initially thought they “failed” to understand what I instructed and what they read from Kolin’s book. My first reaction was to have them revise their opening paragraph to lead with their purpose for writing, followed by supporting details arranged in the order of most important to least. This, I thought, was the “right” move because, after all, BAS curriculum aims to help students build verbal and written communication for American and British audiences. 

On second thought, however, I realized my students were doing what was appropriate for their rhetorical situation. They were writing to a Thai audience who can read English, so no wonder, they organized their letter following Thai letter-writing convention, which their audience may expect. It seems students have thought about their rhetorical situation. I, on the other hand, had made a serendipitous fluke.[1] I realized that while my pedagogy aimed to help students master how to write and organize a business letter for a Western audience, the reader and context in which my students were writing were Thai. Although there was a disconnect here, the letter assignment created a more varied rhetorical situation. Students had to think more carefully about arrangement, considering the cultural context they were writing.

In hindsight, my initial reaction to students’ drafts reflects what I want to call a rhetorical clash: a moment in which knowledge, familiarity, and expectations about discursive arrangement, conventions, and practices from a tradition or curriculum creates questions or doubts about appropriate composing moves in a writing assignment in an intercultural rhetorical situation. This clash is not undesirable or unproductive. It led me to recalibrate my understanding of the context of my students’ writing and to suspend my erroneous judgement about students’ “failure” to follow conventions. Thus, rhetorical clash can be a transformative opportunity for us to reconsider how we read, respond to, and make sense of texts and, most importantly, to reexamine what type of rhetorical situations we are assuming and creating in our classroom and pedagogy. Ultimately, doing so allows us to take up the call to internationalize composition studies and rhetoric as a global art and discipline (Baca; Garcia and Baca; Donahue; Mao), as well as to actualize the WPA Council’s aims of teaching students to write and read in various rhetorical contexts. I now consider rhetorical clash as a kairotic moment—one that can potentially nuance how I design writing assignments. This, I submit, is what reading students’ writing has taught me to embrace, as I continue to teach and learn with/from learners in my intercultural classrooms. 


[1] Serendipity has been posited as a productive and important part of knowledge-making and research. See Goggin and Goggin’s Serendipity in Rhetoric, Writing, and Literacy Research

Works Cited

Baca, Damian. Mestiz@ Scripts, Digital Migrations, and the Territories of Writing. Palgrave, 2008.

Donahue, Christiane. “‘Internationalization’ and Composition Studies: Reorienting the Discourse.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 61, no. 2, 2009, pp. 212–243.

García Romeo, and Baca Damián, editors. Rhetorics Elsewhere and Otherwise: Contested Modernities, Decolonial Visions. NCTE, 2019.

Googin, Maureen Daly and Peter N. Googin, editors. Serendipity in Rhetoric, Writing, and Literacy Research. Utah State UP, 2018. 

Mao, LuMing. “Beyond Bias, Binary, and Border: Mapping out the Future of Comparative Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 43, no. 3, 2013, pp. 209-25.

Nowacek, Rebecca S. Agents of Integration : Understanding Transfer As a Rhetorical Act. Southern Illinois UP, 2011.

Wardle, Elizabeth. Creative Repurposing for Expansive Learning: Considering ‘Problem-Exploring’ and ‘Answer-Getting’ Dispositions in Individuals and Fields.” Composition Forum, 26, 2012. 

Yancey, Kathleen Blake, et al. Writing Across Contexts : Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing. Utah State UP, 2014.