Herndl – “Teaching Discourse and Reproducing Culture: A Critique of Research and Pedagogy in Professional and Non-Academic Writing

Herndl, Carl G. “Teaching Discourse and Reproducing Culture:A Critique of Research and Pedagogy in Professional and Non-Academic Writing.” Central Works in Technical Communication. Eds. J. Johnson-Eilola and S. Selber. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 220-231. Print.

In this chapter, Carl Herndl argued for the need to have a more grounded theory of pedagogy in technical writing instruction based in his experience as a technical writing instructor and theories from Composition and Rhetorical Studies, Marxism, Feminist Studies, and critical pedagogy. Because education is not neutral, Herndl asserted that if we are uncritical in our research and teaching “our pedagogical practice will produce students who are ignorant of the ideological development of discourse and who cannot perceive the cultural consequences of a dominant discourse or the alternate understandings it excludes” (222).

Herndl cited Paulo Freire as the most familiar voice of radical pedagogy for writing theory. Several of Freire’s assumptions regarding critical pedagogy, including:

  • to be human is to develop a conscious recognition of your relationship to the social world and that educations can transform this relationship
  • to be oppressed is not only having your economic and political rights violated, but also to be submerged in what he calls a “culture of silence” by the misrecognition of your relation to the social and ideological
  • misrecognition is when you accept the practices and rationalities of your social position as natural and necessary rather than seeing them as ideologically constructed and politically interested; misrecognition leads people to accept and cooperate with an ideological system which oppresses them (223).

The goal of radical pedagogy, according to Herndl and Freire, is to bring students to consciousness where they neither accommodate nor merely oppose the social order, but can actively reposition themselves within it: “From this perspective, teaching a non-academic discourse without a careful cultural analysis reinforces the culture’s dominant ideological structures and makes cultural self-consciousness difficult if not impossible” (223).

Herndl theorized that individuals could use rhetorical and discursive action in order to come to a greater consciousness:

“That is, by recognizing and articulating the medium of their actions, they can affect the outcome of those actions. Thus education becomes a key process for either cultural self-recognition (Freire’s conscientizacao) or the reification of the structural properties as simply ‘the way things are’ (Freire’s ‘culture of silence’).” (224)

In his outline for a pedagogy for professional writing courses, Herndl suggested that instead of taking a theoretical approach, teachers need to begin working with a discourse and institution which is “palpable” to students. In accordance with this grounded approach, Herndl argued that students would more readily “recognize the connections between ideology, power, and discourse, and the value of resistance, if teachers started with a discourse that directly affected student’s lives” (229).

Within this model, difference is only accepted, but encouraged. Herndl drew on John Trimbur’s rhetoric of dissensus which argued that “collaborative learning can develop a ‘rhetoric of dissensus’ which leads students not to a conformity which reifies the existing social and institutional relations, but rather to ‘collective explanations of how people differ, where the differences come from, and whether they can live and work together with these differences’ (610)” (229).

Herndly asserted that a rhetoric of dissensus applied to technical writing pedagogy would benefit students:

“Once students see how these issues apply to their academic discourse, they can begin to apply the same understanding to the professional discourses they are entering. This rhetoric of dissensus does not condemn professional or technical discourse as ideologically incorrect, but it does allow students to recognize the ideological conditions and consequences of these discourses, and it provides a practical model of resistance.” (229)

More research is necessary, however, in professional and technical discourse in order to aid students in making the shift from discussing the
discourse of the university to analyzing professional discourses.

“Working from such reinterpreted and reconceived research, students and teachers can begin to explore the sources pf power and authority which condition their disciplinary and professional discourse. When it is successful, this pedagogy will allow students to participate in these professional discourses with a degree of self-reflexivity and ideological awareness necessary to resistance and cultural criticism.” (229)


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