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Composition Forum 43, Spring 2020

Learning from Interdisciplinary Interactions: An Argument for Rhetorical Deliberation as a Framework for WID Faculty

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Chris Mays and Maureen McBride

Abstract: As this article argues, a systematic approach to WAC/WID work that conceptualizes interdisciplinary interaction as a deliberative argument (rather than a benign collaboration) benefits all aspects of a WAC/WID program, in particular projects involving writing and other disciplinary faculty. Our approach builds from scholarship that highlights the distinction between “adversarial” and “collaborative” deliberation, in particular the work of Patricia Roberts-Miller and the foundational rhetoric theories of Chaïm Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca. After laying out the contours of our approach, the article details a recent not-quite-successful attempt at interdisciplinary collaboration. In documenting this example, we illustrate that a systematic focus on combining adversarial and collaborative deliberation can prevent common pitfalls of writing scholars working with other disciplinary faculty, including the problems that arise when writing is considered ancillary to disciplinary “content.” In this sense, our example highlights the deliberative missteps that our approach is precisely designed to prevent.

Perhaps the key component of Writing across the Curriculum/Writing in the Disciplines (WAC/WID) work is collaboration. Naturally, when designing and implementing a program that involves several disciplines, there will be a diversity of views to be negotiated. William Condon and Carol Rutz describe what they call a “complex partnership” in this kind of work (359), which in fact may be somewhat of an understatement. As Sanford D. Eigenbrode et al. describe, the differences involved in this complexity are not just trivial; collaborators must negotiate different “worldviews,” each of which entails different assumptions and values that may be taken for granted among similar disciplinary allies (56). When encountering stakeholders from other disciplines, these divergent worldviews may present unique challenges. Collaborators must “display a high degree of cognitive flexibility” in recognizing and valuing “multiple epistemological frameworks” (Paretti et al. 79). In addition to the need for this flexibility, there are several other barriers to WAC/WID collaboration identified in prior research. For example, Justin K. Rademaekers writes of not only “entrenched disciplinarity” among collaborators (2), but also “linguistic divides” and “power concerns” among the participants (6). This latter issue is related to several other factors that could lead to uneven relations, such as the potential discrepancies Cecilia Jacobs describes involving “age, life experience,” and “teaching experience” (232). Moreover, as Sandra L. Tarabochia explains, gender can play a major role in negotiations especially in the presence of conflicting assumptions about stakeholder power.

What is common to many of the accounts of interdisciplinary collaboration is the need for successful negotiation (Oughton and Bracken; Lillis and Rai; Taylor; McConlogue, et al.). This is true in all kinds of interdisciplinary projects (to which some of these sources refer), but especially in WAC/WID projects. WAC/WID negotiations often pose a particularly tricky problem for collaborators in part because the collaboration is about writing. As Marie C. Paretti describes, there is often a “neat division between language and content” (in this case “language” is a stand-in for writing), wherein problematic power dynamics can arise (2). Describing Cecilia Jacobs’ work on writing/content collaborations, Paretti explains:

In the cases [Jacobs] studied, power imbalances emerged when the language expert, who brought broad pedagogical expertise, was perceived as dominant or overreaching. In U.S. contexts, the imbalance often operates in the opposite direction, with content faculty devaluing the expertise brought by language experts. Writing is often seen as a service course or an activity that “anyone” can teach, and ... partnerships can be characterized by intellectual inequities resulting in distrust or devaluation (6).

The kinds of negotiations entailed by collaborations between writing and other disciplinary faculty is particularly tricky as the expertise of disciplinary writing is not necessarily located exclusively in the content nor in the form of the writing. This, of course, follows a principle that writing studies scholars have long argued: content and form are in many ways inseparable, so the question of who teaches each does not have a simple answer. In fact, this question has fueled a substantive tradition of scholarship on the very notion, and opposition, of Writing Across the Curriculum versus Writing in the Disciplines. This question is also what makes the need for delicate and nuanced negotiation exigent in interdisciplinary collaboration around writing, which may be marked by fundamental misunderstandings of what writing instruction should look like. Many referrals to writing centers, for example, assume a “fix-it” mentality and assume that writing skills are learned outside of or in addition to complex disciplinary work (Harper and Vered 689). So, while WAC/WID programs generally believe that writing is a way to learn disciplinary content and develop disciplinary expertise, disciplinary faculty may still assume that writing is a foundational concept often in need of remediation. For writing faculty and writing program administrators involved in WAC/WID initiatives, invitations for expertise can sometimes feel like a request simply to provide a service intended to “repair” student writing.

As we are proposing in this article, a systemic model of collaboration that treats cross-disciplinary negotiations as a rhetorical deliberation that involves both collaborative and adversarial interactions is a viable approach for these situations and provides a framework that writing faculty can use to help guide them through this complex process. Moreover, employing deliberative theories of interaction in these negotiations benefits students in the classroom, since more successful WAC/WID partnerships can lead to more, and better, writing pedagogies across disciplines. As we will argue, when writing faculty negotiate with other disciplinary faculty in ways that recognize differences in values, the curricula and pedagogies we design together can more robustly do justice to both sets of values.

Mapping Our Strategy

Approaching WAC/WID collaborations from a perspective of value differences has been explored previously and provides some foundation for the examination of our own project (which will be offered as a detailed case study later in this article). For example, Heather Bastian articulates a WAC collaborative model that makes use of Krista Ratcliffe’s notion of “rhetorical listening,” which, as Bastian writes, involves a “delicate rhetorical dance” in which the “claims” and “cultural logics” of other disciplinary faculty are explored to find both common ground and what she calls “productive identifications.”

As much of this WAC/WID scholarship attests, in interdisciplinary negotiations, conversation is important. In a survey about WAC/WID, Mary Soliday reports professors involved claimed “the WAC program’s most valuable feature” was “conversing” with the other involved writing representatives (9). As well, Charles Bazerman et. al write in The Reference Guide to Writing Across the Curriculum that one key to successful writing integration across disciplines (in addition to “continuous support”) is that it is “viewed positively by faculty and students” (109). As such, productive conversation—wherein Bastian’s “productive identifications” can be established—would seem to be crucial.

One step toward encouraging such a positive conversation and avoiding many of the pitfalls and obstacles described in the above research is the facilitation of dialogue that respects the rhetorical position of the interlocutors involved. For this, we argue, rhetorical deliberation gives us a useful model from which to draw. Building on such a rhetorical approach, we seek here to build a systemic framework wherein key tenets of deliberative rhetoric fundamentally inform the model of interaction in WAC/WID collaborations. We agree with those scholars who point to the complexity of these rhetorical situations, and in this article, we aim to examine what these inter-disciplinary negotiations might look like. Looking to the specific differences between what rhetoric scholars define as “collaborative” and “adversarial” (or “agonistic”) approaches to argument, we assert that blending the two is a workable strategy, especially in situations where collaboration without agonism—that is, collaboration without conflict—would typically be thought to be more desirable. In short, in presenting this more complex model of communication, we aim to account for what Jacobs describes as “a gap in the literature as to how such [interdisciplinary] interaction might happen and what the nature of it should be” (227).

Such a strategic map can lead to better outcomes for faculty, but also for students. As Chris Thaiss and Tara Porter’s 2010 national survey of WAC/WID programs in the United States and Canada indicates, WAC/WID programs have grown significantly in the last few decades, with 51% of institutions of higher education claiming a WAC/WID program (540). Effective WAC/WID collaborations have the potential to enhance classroom learning in both writing and non-writing courses, and given the widespread nature of these programs, the stakes here are significant. As we detail, failing to account for the need for adversarial strategies can militate against possibilities for student success in a WAC/WID environment. Students in these environments have great potential to increase their understanding of inter-disciplinary transfer of writing skills, and in general, for writing better in their disciplines.

Interdisciplinary Conversations: The Collaborative Approach

There are several ways of conceptualizing deliberative rhetorical interaction, all with their own advocates, detractors, and schools of thought devoted to them. It would be remiss, however, to speak of a deliberative model of rhetoric. A common distinction is often made between collaborative and adversarial deliberation. In a very general sense, the former could be considered a seeking of common ground, with attention paid in collaboration to interlocutors’ overlapping premises, and to the use of more inclusive tactics. Rogerian rhetoric is one example that could be considered a strong collaborative model. As Doug Brent writes, Rogerian rhetoric “moves away from a combative stance” and attempts to “create the grounds for reasonable discussion” by stressing things like empathy—both “imagining” and “reading” with empathy in order to better understand and embrace the views of others (Rogerian 73, 77-78). While the popularity of Rogerian rhetoric has waned since the 1970s, its influence is still pervasive. As Brent puts it, Rogerian rhetoric “refuses to be shaken from the collective mind of our discipline” (Young 462) and thus may encourage a general aversion to conflict.

Similarly, the value of collaborative deliberation seems unshakably integrated into disciplinary and public consciousness. Examples of the high value placed on collaboration, cooperation, and empathy in deliberative argument abound. As Patricia Roberts-Miller notes, the phrase “‘from conflict to community’ serves as the title for numerous books, reports, and articles” (Fighting 586)—the common theme here being that community is the remedy for conflict. That need to “remedy” conflict through collaboration is exemplified in Deborah Tannen’s popular book-length critique of “The Argument Culture.” Tannen embraces the dichotomy of collaboration and argument, writing in her subtitle that we need to “mov[e] from debate to dialogue.” The “dialogue” to which Tannen refers is a similar kind of amicable collaboration stressed in Rogerian rhetoric. Tannen devotes most of her book to an extensive analysis of the “pervasive warlike atmosphere” that encourages us to approach an argument as if it were a fight” (3). Toward the end of her text, Tannen presents an alternative to “fighting” in which “the goal” is to “mediate and defuse polarization” in argument (288). Tannen’s book serves as a good illustration of both the positive version of collaboration and the often correspondingly negative depiction of non-collaborative “warlike” argument.

Tannen’s bifurcation of good and bad kinds of argument is also invoked in George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s successful work, Metaphors We Live By. Presaging Tannen’s framework (writing 18 years before Tannen), Lakoff and Johnson assert that some cultures, including ours, tend to view argument through the lens of a war metaphor, with concomitant terms and concepts that frame argument using warlike concepts: when we argue, we battle, attack, and strategize. Alternatively, other cultures view an argument through the lens of a “dance” metaphor: “to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way” (4-5). The authors don’t necessarily favor the dance version, but this conception does tend to get a bit more favorable treatment—their characterization of argument as a dance that is “balanced and aesthetically pleasing” is an honorific description. In most cases, one would rather dance with a person than go to war with them.

The appealing picture that Lakoff, Johnson, and Tannen paint, wherein collaborative argument is an alternative to the negative warlike version of debate, has become ingrained into popular culture. In academic culture, collaboration also has its supporters. One of Tannen’s central examples of a collaborative approach is writing scholar Peter Elbow’s “believing game” (273). This concept is well-known and well-cited in composition and writing studies scholarship, coming from an appendix essay to Elbow’s landmark text, Writing Without Teachers. Elbow’s version of this “game” involves a benevolent, charitable kind of collaboration, in which the interlocutor essentially assumes—believes—that their argumentative opponent (although Elbow would not use the word “opponent”) is correct, or at least, has a valid point that should be considered. As Elbow writes, “the cornerstone of the believing game is the principle that whatever your mistake may be, your only chance of correcting it is by affirming, believing, not-arguing” (165). The “rules” of this game include remembering to “never argue” and to “believe everything, particularly what seems strange or unpleasant” (169-70). Key words Elbow associates with the believing game include “cooperative,” “agreeing,” and “nonaggressive: meeting threat by bending” (179). The believing game mirrors the kind of emphases held in collaborative deliberation, which stresses an openness to the others’ argument, even if that openness comes at the expense of holding onto what one’s own position can bring to the situation.

The Adversarial Approach

As mentioned, this split in conceptions of argument, with the adversarial model defaulting to the negative side of the comparison, is common. As Roberts-Miller notes, setting up the dichotomy between adversarial and collaborative deliberation is typically followed by a “dismissing [of] the former” (Fighting 585). Such dismissal is “likely to be simply the reflection of the larger cultural assumptions about agonism” (586), wherein adversarial debate is thought to encourage participants to become stubbornly entrenched in their own positions and to deny the merits of other positions.

While some of the cultural aversion to adversarial argument may be warranted, Roberts-Miller also reminds us, following Hannah Arendt, that there is a “playful and competitive space” within the adversarial/agonistic tradition that is worth holding on to (588). Such a version of agonism involves “tak[ing] risks,” in that

[O]ne tries to articulate the best argument, propose the best policy, design the best laws, make the best response. This is a risk in that one might lose; advancing an argument means that one must be open to the criticisms others will make of it. (589)

Crucially, Roberts-Miller also writes that a productive agonism entails “the necessary presence of difference” (589).

Contending with difference in a way that does not collapse that difference is precisely the point of a more agonistic deliberation. Susan C. Jarratt notes that in many situations involving power imbalances—she describes pedagogical situations, but the point applies more broadly—a more purely collaborative approach foregrounds the “ideal” of “homogeneity” as a “way of avoiding confrontations over social differences” (109). Differences, though, are important to recognize in most deliberations, as failure to do so can obscure closely-held values of one set of stakeholders (usually those with less power). Iris Marion Young points out that collaboration that adheres to “the ideal of community” problematically “denies and represses social difference,” and in so doing “operates to exclude those with whom the group does not identify” (227). More agonistic and adversarial modes, though, do not dissolve differences, which often means the values of multiple stakeholders are foregrounded—we are forced, that is, to acknowledge and deal with our differences. Allowing, and perhaps even encouraging, discussions of difference enables the complexities inherent in writing in the disciplines to be part of the conversations and the collaborative interactions.

Finding Agonism in Collaboration: The Combined Approach

The two approaches—collaborative and adversarial—are not absolutely opposed; there is certainly scholarship on adversarial deliberation that intertwines some collaboration. However, it is also true that typical advice on collaboration does eschew conflict—witness the earlier discussion of Tannen’s subtitle: “from debate to dialogue.” As Roberts-Miller sums it up, Tannen “both asserts and assumes that agonistic argument is bad” (Fighting 586).

Interestingly, Elbow’s “believing game” is not one of those approaches that totally proscribes agonistic debate. The mirror image of the believing game, he explains, is “the doubting game,” and while Elbow spends a lot of time explicating the downsides of the doubting game, ultimately, for him they are complementary—you can’t have one without the other. As he puts it, “the fully developed believing game as I conceive it [...] wasn’t possible till the development of the doubting game,” and “the two games are only halves of a full cycle of thinking” (187; 191).

Similarly, we assert that both of these modes of deliberation are necessary when engaging in WAC/WID discussions. In the project that we detail below, we did not recognize the importance of discussions about potential differences in values for writing and writing support. We were so intent on collaborating with disciplinary faculty in collegial ways that we avoided agonism. This does not mean that collaboration is a misguided goal, but rather, that negotiations of definitions and plans in WAC/WID collaboration may well be agonistic before they are collaborative. In other words, a model in which agonism and collaboration are both emphasized helps us better understand the barriers that may impede successful communication, productive negotiation, and ultimately, better writing pedagogies for students.

One of these barriers is the way value claims can motivate an argument. As rhetoric scholars Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca argue, it is flawed and potentially deleterious to assume that the values one holds dear in a given situation will also be important—or recognized—by another person, and thus to assume that your argument will be received exactly as it would if you yourself were the audience. To make such a mistake is to commit a version of what Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca call petitio principii, which is to “base one’s argument on premises that [your] audience rejects” (114).

One of the benefits of Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca’s ideas about rhetorical deliberation is that they foreground the possibility of difference—something that is very real when stakeholders may have drastically differing premises and values, such as in a WAC/WID negotiation/collaboration. For Perelman (in a later work), the heart of the difference lies in language itself; as he puts it, “the language upon which argumentation must rely possesses ambiguities that cannot be worked out in advance” (9). Here is a key point: even if potential collaborators use the same terms to talk about the same topics, for each side those terms may mean different things, as the collaborators will have differing value systems through which terms and topics are filtered.

An adversarial model recognizes that WAC/WID negotiations will entail differences in values and epistemological frameworks. This model also recognizes that these differences, combined with the natural ambiguity of language, mean that multiple and divergent interpretations of key terms will be unavoidable. Participants in these conversations may not simply be reflecting different-but-easily-negotiated frameworks; rather, their dialogue may be incompatible.

This model also dovetails with rhetoric theory that recognizes other barriers to conversation. Roberts-Miller, for example, describes the effects of ingroup affiliation on argument: as she explains it, our perception of a speaker as a member of either an ingroup or outgroup (relative to ourselves) affects our interactions, in particular our assessment of claims and evidence (Dissent 184). This general tendency of deliberation to be influenced by factors outside of and prior to the negotiation itself may be familiar to rhetoricians who are aware of, say, the importance Aristotle places on the ethos, or character of the speaker. However, the manifestation of this phenomenon in conversation is not often foregrounded in discussions of WAC/WID collaboration.{1}

Overall, an adversarial model helps remind us that we need to consider differences, and external influences, as elements that influence the negotiations we undertake in WAC/WID work. Such consideration will help reduce the sense that some negotiations are futile, since unforeseen complications may be better understood, planned for, and responded to. To be sure, adversarial emphasis on difference does more than provide a repository of explanations for unexpected argumentative reactions. It can productively inform strategies for collaboration. Understanding how an argument may progress unexpectedly, and where intractable premises may give rise to argumentative standoffs, can help us better collaborate despite these challenges.

Benefits of a Combined Approach in WAC/WID Discussions

To be clear, we value the collaborative approach and agree that its use can have productive benefits for WAC/WID partnerships. However, we would also submit that a parallel embrace of agonistic engagement can complement the collaborative approach and might make collaboration ultimately more successful. An agonistic tendency, for instance, would embrace difference, and so recognize how the claims of our collaborators may function within completely different value systems than our own. This is not so far removed from Bastian’s description of a “delicate rhetorical dance” in which participants negotiate these differences. However, in this case, we would put more emphasis on recognizing that the dance partners may not be dancing to the same song.

The negotiations required to bring together disciplinary faculty, writing faculty, and writing centers are on the surface quite simple. The disciplinary and writing faculty discuss ways in which students’ writing is not meeting expectations. Discussions about what has been done in the past, including assignment descriptions, lectures, and feedback are described. A plan to bring in additional support for students is developed in direct response to the requests of the disciplinary faculty member. The outcomes are assessed and reported. Throughout this process there are obvious needs for effective communication but rarely do WAC/WID faculty have a specific model to use to help navigate those negotiations.

The commonly assumed perspective of writing support as service has little use for the adversarial-collaborative approaches discussed here. In part, service models inherently assume collaborative deliberations without adversarial elements. The reality of effectively interacting with disciplinary faculty to provide writing support, however, requires space for each stakeholder’s expertise to contribute, and perhaps even to be in conflict, and presents a more difficult negotiation that requires committed and informed participants to successfully navigate it.

For example, writing faculty, as stakeholders in WAC/WID and writing centers, understand that writing is both a process and a product and understand the pedagogical importance of writing to learn and of learning to write. This understanding can be useful to faculty in collaborative interactions, where the writing faculty expertise may be essential to the disciplinary faculty. However, writing faculty need to check their own motivations in promoting writing (or even multi-modal) texts as the best tools to achieve the disciplinary faculty’s goals, since often written language is not the only nor always the best approach for achieving those goals, even if the goals are critical thinking and problem solving (Ochsner and Fowler 119). Such self-awareness of the potentially divergent values and beliefs we hold as faculty is part of adversarial rhetorical thinking and planning, and can inform interdisciplinary negotiations as well as any curricular or pedagogical decisions.

As well, though, while we must acknowledge that disciplinary faculty understand their discourse communities (Swales) in ways that writing faculty cannot, including contexts, purposes, genres, and language norms (Harper and Vered 691), the prevailing deficit view of writing instruction and support often held by disciplinary faculty competes with the goals of the WAC/WID stakeholders. If writing faculty do not fight against this deficit view and establish the role of all stakeholders as experts who have standing to promote pedagogical strategies during collaborations, the intervention will most likely fall back into the service-model. This would ultimately lessen the effectiveness of both writing to learn and learning to write strategies, and would reinscribe a simplistic positioning of communication skills—as linked to study skills, for example (Harper and Vered 692). In short, including adversarial tactics in collaborative rhetorical deliberation can be useful, and could also answer Jacobs’ call to emphasize more defined strategies of negotiating interdisciplinary interactions.

The Story of Our Interdisciplinary Interactions

In WAC/WID discussions, the collaborative rather than adversarial model is often used, as it might seem to be the easier path to successful writing partnerships. Within WAC/WID and rhetorical scholarship, the negotiation of divergent “worldviews,” the valuing of “multiple epistemological frameworks,” and the exercising of “cognitive flexibility” are valued as part of collaborative interactions. These hallmarks of the collaborative approach stress an extension and adaptation of one’s own argumentative premises so as to accommodate others.

In the following sections, we detail a collaborative experience we enacted with a psychology professor, wherein we found ourselves expecting a straightforward collaborative, almost co-teaching model, but instead were immersed in a linear service model. That is, our project was not, as we expected, a chance to help students and disciplinary faculty by simply providing our expertise and setting up projects. Instead, our collaborative interactions highlight a need for specific ways to encourage the expertise of all stakeholders, both to avoid a service situation and to avoid a situation in which students go through the motions of receiving writing support but do not gain the intended benefits. Our experience illustrates that the interaction of writing faculty and other disciplinary faculty is a complex negotiation, one that needs both collaborative and adversarial approaches to account for the range of expertise and motivations of stakeholders on all sides. In other words, WAC/WID collaborative interactions should be negotiated using diverse tactics of rhetorical deliberation.


Communication is a commonly listed outcome for institutions of higher education as well as a skill that employers value, for some employers even more than technical skills (Harper and Vered 689). Even internationally, communication skills are important to being competitive (OECD). At our institution, every major program and college lists communication as a learning outcome; additionally, our first institutional outcome is communication competence. Our president created a writing initiative partially in response to discussions with businesses who claimed that while our graduates had good technical skills, what companies wanted more were good written and oral communication skills.

The example we describe here included a WID program, a senior-level psychology faculty member, and our writing center. The project was initiated as a part of an outreach by the WID program inviting academic faculty to engage with that program, called Composition and Communication in the Disciplines (CCID). Our WID/CCID program has a 50% director and then small service commitments from tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty in our Rhetoric and Composition Program. This project was initiated by one of those tenure-track Rhetoric and Composition faculty members as part of his service commitment to CCID. Initial communications were just between that faculty member and the psychology professor. After initial discussions about writing support and what would be helpful, the writing center director was brought into discussions with the CCID representative (the Rhet/Comp faculty member) to determine what types of coordinated support could be established. That faculty member met with the psychology professor multiple times face-to-face and via email. The writing center director never met directly with the psychology professor; however, they were aware of each other’s involvement and briefly discussed the project when the writing center director presented to the professor’s psychology class. The Rhet/Comp faculty member and the writing center director met in-person twice and corresponded as needed via email.

The assignment we were supporting with our WID intervention asked students to write an abstract of one of two different peer-reviewed journal articles that were selected by the professor and related to the course content (students had the option of proposing a different article; however, the writing center staff did not see any students who had selected an alternative article or who were planning to select this option). As a side note, while the professor used the term “abstract,” she meant something more developed than the abstract already published for each article—more of a short summary than an abstract.

The initial face-to-face meeting between the Rhet/Comp faculty member and the writing center directly resulted in options for the writing intervention, including required writing center support as well as a classroom workshop offered via the writing center. Because this 400-level (senior level) psychology course was a large lecture (approximately 80-100 students), it was determined by the writing center director that small-group sessions would be both beneficial and feasible. The small group sessions were paired with a writing response workshop (delivered after the required writing center consultation due date for the class) to help facilitate peer response for drafts of what the professor called an abstract of the peer-reviewed journal article. The writing center brought in the director to lead the workshop along with four peer-writing consultants to provide feedback. At the end of the semester, sample papers were collected and assessed by a group of graduate students trained by the CCID program director, culminating in a written report.

Our Collaborative Interactions

Our lack of clearly defined WAC/WID goals and our inability to effectively communicate how and when writing interventions can be effective hindered this project. No specific goals other than a general desire to improve the students’ “abstracts” were identified or discussed. A desire to avoid conflict meant that differing positions were never overtly discussed, and this may have encouraged a collegial acceptance of stakeholders’ positions instead of a more robust negotiation of how these positions and values would impact our interactions and overall plans. So, the goal of being collaborative partners (Russell) was never established and thus true effective collaboration did not transpire—ironically, because of our embrace of a purely collaborative model. In this sense, our lack of a systematic approach relegated us to a service role that reduced the effectiveness of all stakeholders. By better recognizing and asserting the expertise of each stakeholder, we could have expanded the resources for teachers and students to use writing to learn and learning to write.

Throughout the intervention, the psychology professor seemed to have a view of writing as a pedagogical tool, whereas the CCID program was expecting writing to be more about rhetorical development. These subtle yet important differences in expectations may have contributed to the service-model expectations and the “inoculation” approach the psychology professor took to this intervention. The faculty member was never engaged in direct conversations about the value she placed on writing within psychology or about her potential expectations of first-year writing courses or writing center support. This lack of deliberative dialogue about expectations contributed to the mismatch for the writing intervention and led to missed opportunities to engage in ongoing productive collaborative conversations.

Linguistic divides, evocative of Perelman’s point about the problem of language ambiguities, in this case definitely created barriers to effective collaborative interactions. For instance, the ways in which the psychology professor used the language of “abstract” became a confusing issue for students as well as the CCID faculty member. Understanding the differences between a traditional abstract and the professor’s “abstract” was essential to student success. However, while the writing center staff identified this terministic problem early on, they did not feel it was appropriate to ask the professor to shift her practices and assignment explanation in the middle of the project, even though it would have been to the benefit of the students and their texts. This reluctance was driven in large part by an avoidance of adversarial deliberations.

When it was identified that students were not using the writing center support for revision (as had been proposed as the goal to the writing center) but rather for understanding the assignment (specifically, how to critically read the assigned article), the writing center tried to collegially renegotiate the collaborative relationships of the three main stakeholders and at the same time to shift the writing center role to support student understanding of the assignment and of the concept of an “abstract.” Instead of asserting expertise that would most likely disrupt the collaborative intentions of the project, though, a subservient role of support prevailed. Again, the lack of direct adversarial pushback in negotiations among stakeholders led to an aversion to the discussion of an important linguistic difference, and so significantly affected the success of the intervention as a whole.

One of the most egregious examples of the failure to negotiate came when the need for a “how to write” component of the assignment was identified. Concerns about this alteration to the assignment were voiced by writing center peer consultants at a point when the project was fully underway—well beyond the point at which this kind of obstacle should have been dealt with. An initial recognition of this need to first teach students how to read the texts required for the assignment would have very likely made the intervention more successful. Throughout the project, but in particular during the initial stages, the limited communication opportunities and the lack of a systematic rhetorical approach to deliberation meant that our conversations were focused on the students’ writing rather than on addressing the complexities of the collaborative interactions. If more, and more effective, deliberation had taken place early-on, it is possible that during these interactions the various stakeholders—in this case, the writing center and the disciplinary faculty—could have brought these concerns into the deliberations and adjustments could have been made during or even prior to the project’s start.

Since it is often WAC/WID faculty who are called upon to establish interdisciplinary interactions, we argue that having a systematic collaborative/adversarial strategy to engaging disciplinary faculty in these rhetorical conversations could be a component of the WAC/WID expertise. Additionally, including adversarial deliberations in our collaborative conversations would also bring WAC/WID stakeholders’ expertise and values more to the forefront of deliberations. One outcome of this would be more attention paid to how a particular writing intervention might treat the role of the disciplinary faculty member and how much deference should be given to their expertise and ability to apply lessons from the intervention in their own classroom. Too much deference in our case led to our assuming things that we did not actually know to be true. Moreover, if goals of WAC/WID stakeholders are to influence the teaching and inclusion of active learning, these concepts should be a part of our collaborative discussions and negotiations.

Our intentions in the collaborative approach we used were to support the disciplinary faculty member as well as her students. The idea that we had consulted and collaborated in ways that would lead to successful outcomes seemed obvious. Each contributing party had been given a voice in the conversations about what writing interventions would be useful to everyone involved (however, no single conversation had included all of the stakeholders). Each contributing member was a willing participant in the intervention. The collaborative interaction was part of the mission of the writing faculty member’s service to the institution’s WID program as well as the writing center’s mission. The large lecture structure of the course (approximately 100 students) meant the disciplinary faculty member was eager to find ways to improve the successes of her students. Despite all of this, we neglected to implement a strategy to engage each person’s expertise during the intervention. By avoiding the adversarial conversations that may have been necessary for this kind of engagement, stakeholders ended up excessively deferring to each other, which facilitated a power imbalance that prevented effective deliberation. The power imbalance was apparent between the disciplinary faculty and the WAC/WID and writing center stakeholders, as well as between the WAC/WID program and the writing center. In short, we had not established a strategy for engaging stakeholders in the kind of adversarial collaboration where competing values and expectations could be clearly negotiated.

During this project, we experienced a mismatch of visions for the teaching of writing, which has been noted as a common challenge to developing successful collaborative relationships (Peercy, Ditter, and Destefano 216). In essence, the writing faculty and the writing center became classroom assistants rather than collaborative instructional partners. This approach to co-teaching has been identified as the most often used but also the least effective approach (Peercy, Ditter, and Destefano 217). In this situation, the kind of engagement that happens can easily be assumed to be a linear service model. As we found, though, such engagement is much more complicated than that—it is more than simply helping students and helping disciplinary faculty by providing our expertise and setting up projects. To better achieve the full extent of the possibilities for engaging disciplinary faculty and their students, we realized that we need a specific and systematic approach to encourage the expertise of all stakeholders.

Discussion and Takeaways

In the collaboration just described, there were several moments at which an adversarial conceptualization of our negotiations may have shed new light on what was happening in the project and could have helped us formulate new strategies for our interactions. It is important to recognize, of course, that there were also important collaborative steps missing from our process, which illustrates our earlier point that an adversarial approach should work in tandem with collaboration. In this case, the lack of meetings and communication between all stakeholders meant that we each had an inadequate understanding of the goals of the other and that we were unaware when intervention plans or strategies, on either side, shifted. In general, the lack of sustained adversarial and collaborative discussion of the goals of the stakeholders was, from the get go, a significant hindrance to effective collaboration.

The communication deficit that led to an insufficient collaboration, however, was only one side of the story. Looking at the situation more specifically through the lens of an adversarial deliberative model reveals that we failed to account for the fundamentally different value systems each set of stakeholders brought to the project and failed to acknowledge the fundamental differences between our apprehension of the “problem” with student writing and the disciplinary faculty’s perception of this same problem. This is a key point, as what we thought of as mismatched expectations could also be considered as a flawed assumption that our values would be shared by all involved. This goes back to Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca’s notion of petitio principii, as we committed the error of basing our communications on premises that our interlocutors did not share.

As an example of this, while we felt that changing the assignment design itself, based on feedback from students, would be helpful, this may have seemed too obvious to us—so obvious that we didn’t consider that this may have been a nonstarter for the disciplinary faculty involved. That is, to us, the need to revise the assignment was clear. Students coming to the writing center were confused by the mismatch between the abstracts they were reading and the “abstract” they were expected to write. The original concern that the psychology professor had articulated—that students did not know how to effectively summarize the articles—ended up being secondary, since students were having issues even understanding the professor’s version of an “abstract,” which was compounded by them being unfamiliar with how to read an academic article to produce the type of abstract the professor was looking for. Because of these two more pressing concerns, writing consultants could not help students plan their writing, and so the writing consultations took on different purposes than had been originally anticipated.

Not revising an assignment prompt based on student feedback may seem, for writing faculty, to be an unwise pedagogical choice, perhaps an illogical one. But, that is precisely the point here. An adversarial and agonistic model of deliberation reminds us that there is no “logic” that is universal, nor is there basis for us to claim that our system of values is more correct than any other, nor is our logic based on exclusively unassailable ground. Even premises that are well-worn truisms for writing faculty are not guaranteed to be so for our collaborators. Again, to take such premises for granted is to commit petitio principii, and to assume that which we do not actually know to be true. In this case, writing pedagogy directly suffered from the lack of agonism in our interactions.

The differing value systems of writing faculty and disciplinary faculty presented several other unrecognized obstacles, as well. Bringing these obstacles to the forefront would be an important benefit of a more explicitly agonistic/adversarial model. For instance, as we noted earlier, the very nature of the intervention was characterized differently by each camp, who focused either on “writing development” (our characterization) or “writing problems” (as the disciplinary faculty member understood it). While neither understanding was wrong, per se, this difference hints at divergent sets of values that engender different collaborative premises. So, we saw the collaboration as an opportunity to incrementally develop students’ metacognitive rhetorical skills. This approach and outlook values writing as a non-linear, recursive process, and holds so-called “local errors” (basic grammar and syntax inconsistency, stylistic cohesion on the sentence level) as subordinate to writing attributes such as effective integration of the ideas of others, construction of a coherent main point, and the ability to understand larger rhetorical “moves” in both students’ own texts and in the texts of others. However, it is quite possible that the disciplinary faculty viewed the collaboration as a chance for writing “experts” to intervene in a more instrumental and service-oriented way (the “fix-it” approach). This approach and outlook values direct and linear improvement in writing via a focus on succinct, grammatically correct writing that displays hallmarks of “clarity” such as primary use of the active voice, judicious punctuation, and consistent agreement of syntactic and stylistic elements. In fact, the project’s conceptualization as “intervention”—a word used quite often in describing the project—may have been interpreted divergently by each party, as either something that can produce incremental effects that may not show up immediately in the clarity of students’ sentences (our view) or as something that should produce immediate and clearly noticeable effects (the disciplinary faculty member’s view).

Furthermore, when we shifted midway from a focus on writing assistance to reading strategies, we felt this was a productive adaptation of our efforts. However, this could have been seen as a step backward by the psychology professor, who may have valued only our efforts that were ostensibly directly focused on the end products of students’ writing. For our part, if we argued, for instance, that the end product should not be the measure by which our intervention was assessed, this could have come across to the psychology professor as an abdication of the very justification for the whole collaboration, and therefore a waste of her time and effort. Sure enough, there ended up being a strong difference of opinion over whether grades should be the only measure of the success of our intervention—we opposed the sole use of this measure, while the disciplinary faculty member disagreed. Such is an example of a key classroom practice that could be better served by more productive interactions: assessment. If we could have negotiated more effectively, we may have been able to take a stronger stand that grades are not the only way—nor even the best way—to determine if students are learning to write or not.

While the writing center eventually identified many of the problems with the assignment itself, those revisions to the assignment and to the assignment language itself were not implemented. A significant reason for this was the notable lack of direct engagement between the writing center and the disciplinary faculty member. Since we had not emphasized deliberation as a primary component of our engagement strategy, nor had we planned out a specific deliberative approach, we did not adequately realize that our conceptions of the project were not fully aligned. A failure to establish a robust back-and-forth deliberative dialogue meant also that we didn’t consider potential mismatched values that could have impeded assignment revision. The writing center, in fact, did not have any direct interactions with the psychology professor prior to the discovery of this terminology problem on the assignment. Once the problems became apparent, then, it became difficult to present the issues with the assignment, which had already been used in previous semesters, and which the professor was likely less willing to change.

Without deliberating about these issues, we were not able to know in advance how willing the professor was to alter the assignment. For all we knew, it may have been important to the professor that students work with the assignment they have been given, no matter the difficulty. In this way of thinking, students’ failure to grasp the components or internalize the vocabulary of the assignment would be considered a part of what students needed to grapple with—the opacity may have been a feature, not a bug, in other words. In short, we did not ascertain nor plan for the basic pedagogical values that were guiding the disciplinary faculty member’s thinking. Again, explicit recognition of this divergence, as would be more likely in an adversarial mode, could have resulted in a different pedagogical outcome, that recognized and integrated these differences into the assignment, and into our own work with students on the assignment. Here a more effective negotiation could have changed how we approached our teaching: we could have recognized that gaining comprehension of difficult assignments is something we should be explicitly teaching, and helping the students with.

Once again, it is not that the psychology faculty member’s approach nor the writing faculty’s approach were wrong. Rather, each approach sponsored a completely different set of epistemic and practical commitments, and importantly, each conceived differently what seemed to each party a clear, logical solution to the writing “problems” in the students’ work. These commitments entail different classroom practices and at times different pedagogical philosophies, both of which would be better served by mutual recognition by all parties.

Implications and Recommendations

Our example is one of WAC/WID stakeholders trying to collaborate for the sake of student success. This is a good goal; however, our approach could have been more successful by foregrounding deliberation as a strategy, and in this deliberation, being more open to adversarial collaboration. Many of our disciplinary, philosophical, and value differences manifested in specific classroom practices: for example, in disputes over the importance of correctness and conflicts over outcome measurements for the writing assistance (in terms of grades, and in terms of what aspects of writing to measure as successful outcomes). These, of course, are not new issues in WAC/WID collaboration, but a more adversarial/agonistic model would emphasize that we should not view these differences as misunderstandings to be adjudicated in a collaborative spirit. Rather, these are differences that exist outside of and prior to the collaboration itself, that influence the situation in potentially deleterious ways, and importantly, that are worth fighting over. We argue that perhaps the question should not be, what can we sacrifice to make the other collaborators happy, but rather, what is the best strategy to respond to these fundamental differences within an argumentative framework? This is not a renunciation of collegial collaboration—there is no need to be confrontational in any of this. Neither does this approach diminish or belittle the values of one’s interlocutors. Rather, the adversarial/agonistic approach asks us to recognize divergence in values, and then to decide where and how to make an argument for our own values, and perhaps, when to accede to or incorporate the values of our interlocutors.

For example, under this approach, we might decide to impress upon the disciplinary faculty (as well as their students) the expertise and authority of the writing center consultants. We may insist upon more authority in the psychology classroom as a condition for our assistance. Either of these strategies may establish credibility in lending assistance such that our values may be more effectively recognized. Alternately, we may recognize that opposition of writing center consultant expertise is so entrenched that our demand here would backfire. In this case, we could strategically decide how we might make our case more subtly, perhaps by changing the venue of the intervention from the psychology professor’s classroom to the writing center itself. These are strategic, anticipatory moves that counter a lack of acknowledgment of expertise and may help create the conditions for such recognition. They are also distinctly adversarial strategies.

As well, a more adversarial approach might compel us to consider ways we need to alter our own value structure in order to better position ourselves for deliberation with dissimilar value systems. WAC/WID stakeholders engaging in collaborative coordination between faculty and writing programs might consider that writing may not be the best tool in certain situations. This may entail the expansion of writing program faculty’s understanding of how they can help disciplinary faculty engage students in other kinds of active learning, such as reading to learn and speaking to learn. These alternative approaches could allow for more flexibility to support different learning styles while also achieving the same goals of critical thinking and problem solving (Ochsner and Fowler 119; Russell) and importantly, are often valued differently (and, potentially, more) in other disciplines. Intentionally opening up such discussions about genre and expectations invites collaborative discussions that may involve conflicting values, but could be important starting points in an adversarial deliberation.

Finally, developing longer-term relationships between WAC/WID, writing center, and disciplinary faculty stakeholders, instead of relying on course- or semester-long inoculation approaches for cross-disciplinary writing assistance, offers a more effective way to reach the goals of WAC/WID programs. Creating lasting relationships and connections between writing faculty, writing programs, and disciplinary faculty addresses the perception of a separation between student support and faculty development. For our example, a follow-up observation of the teacher may have provided more evidence for a shift in teaching practices, and so of a lasting impact of the intervention. One way to approach this might be to see WAC/WID programs as creating opportunities for cross-disciplinary mentoring, using writing faculty and other members of institutional writing programs to engage disciplinary faculty in discussions and projects that are focused on goals such as active learning and writing. This model is very common in English Language Learner (ELL) situations in which content-area teachers (e.g. disciplinary experts) work with ELL specialists, establishing mentoring roles and providing the ongoing professional development that has demonstrated gains in students learning (Bartell 74). Additionally, the long-term relationships would invite more deliberative discussions about conflicting values and ideas—in other words, incorporate adversarial strategies—without as much risk to specific individual interventions or to short-term stakeholder relationships.

Key to successful collaborations between disciplinary faculty and writing programs is a consistent routine of planning and reflection to create a successful collaborative moment, which can lead to successful outcomes for students who are the subject of these collaborations. In fact, a systematic approach to rhetorical deliberation in WAC/WID collaborations could be based on writing center agenda-setting practices, in which clear goals are discussed, including discussions of how language is being used (by all parties), the values and priorities of the stakeholders, and disparate approaches to accomplishing the work. Also crucial would be the recursive and ongoing incorporation of collaborative reflective interactions that stakeholders can use to navigate the multifaceted perspectives and values inherent in cross-disciplinary interactions.

Overall, the point in using the adversarial deliberative model is not to feature exclusively a negative, combative version of conflict. The point, rather, is to understand the approach to interaction as strategic, and to understand the interaction itself as not only a collaboration, but also as an argument between those with fundamentally different and perhaps even competing interests. As Roberts-Miller reminds us, the agonistic approach is about “taking risks.” The benefit of this risk-taking is that we can change the framework of WAC/WID collaboration in such a way as to produce optimal outcomes. Ultimately, if we believe our expertise can contribute to better student learning and cross-disciplinary faculty interactions, then participating in more adversarial deliberative arguments means that all parties involved—and especially the students we are attempting to help—will benefit.


  1. Tarabochia’s study, which shows how “relational forces, such as institutional position, can intersect with gender to shape perceptions of relational dynamics in WAC/WID contexts” (64), documents one pernicious manifestation of the tendency of outside and pre-existing factors to influence our interactions. Specifically, these factors were gendered professional identities among Tarabochia’s two participants, which “fueled a power imbalance” in their relationship (64). (Return to text.)

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