Paul Kei Matsuda

Breadth and Depth of Knowledge

Lately, I have been thinking (again) about the importance of breadth and depth of knowledge for doctoral students and, more important, what I can do to help them in this regard.

In the seminar on composition theory--where I emphasize doing theory rather than merely knowing or critiquing theory--I have mentioned on several occasions the importance of having the ability to construct and analyze arguments on the one hand and the broad knowledge of the topic on the other hand.

This sounds pretty basic, but these are the two most important things in philosophical inquiry, in which theory is developed discursively. If the argument is strong (not in the sense of forceful but in the sense of informal logic, where argument is evaluated on the strong-weak continuum), and if the argument accounts for a large body of existing knowledge, the bar is raised for those who seek to critique it. Likewise, those who can analyze arguments well and know more about the subject (or other related subjects) have an edge.

I can help my doctoral students with the analytical skills by focusing on theories of argument (the effectiveness of which is debatable, I realize) and by giving them ample practice in constructing arguments (through presentations and writing assignments) as well as critiquing arguments in the field (through reading assignments and discussion). But what about the breadth and depth of knowledge? The field of composition studies is quickly expanding and becoming more fragmented, and in many cases it is impossible to even give them a comprehensive reading list of publications related to the topic of the course. And if I assign too many readings, the quality of the reading experience may go down, and there is not enough time to discuss each of the readings in sufficient detail.

This semester, I have tried to solve this problem by assigning a presentation and a bibliographic essay about a topic in composition theory in the middle of the semester. The idea is to get students to practice defining a knowledge domain and tracing how different theories interact with one another while, in the process, helping them learn (incidentally) how to identify relevant sources and to read critically but quickly. I also encouraged students to think of it as a practice for the doctoral exam. All of them took it seriously and did a pretty good job--they are ambitious students.

If they got a sense of how much more there is to know about any given topic, I would consider that a small success.

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One of my major agenda items over the last ten years has been to prevent CCCC and TESOL from meeting at the same time. Every year, I try to remind both organizations about this problem and get them to cooperate, but it has been difficult because they are both fairly large organizations and have many other constraints to work with.

But since many organizations are now trying to maintain--if not boost--conference attendance, they should see an added incentive for avoiding schedule conflicts with another major organization in a related field.

The creation of the CCCC Committee on Second Language Writing in 1998 helped me to maintain communication with the Executive Committee on a regular basis, but there was no formal mechanism at TESOL that I had to talk to Board of Directors and Presidents every year. Now that the Second Language Writing Interest Section is in place, I hope there will be a more systematic and sustained effort to keep this from happening in the future.

Here are the dates of future CCCC and TESOL conventions:

CCCC 2007 New York, March 21-24, 2007
TESOL 2007 Seattle, March 20-24, 2007

CCCC 2008 New Orleans, April 2-5, 2008
TESOL 2008 New York, April 2-5, 2008

CCCC 2009 San Francisco, March 11-14, 2009
TESOL 2009 Denver, March 25-28, 2009

CCCC 2010 Louisville, March 17-20, 2010
TESOL 2010 Boston, March 24-27, 2010

Future Conference Dates and Locations

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Dissertation Defense

Michelle Cox, one of my doctoral students, successfully defended her dissertation--a qualitative study of clinical writing at an on-campus speech clinic. Her work usefully complicates the binary distinction between classroom and workplace writing by examining the writing practice at a site where two activity systems--those of school and workplace--overlap.

The defense went smoothly. It was more a conversation than a defense--as it should be with a quality dissertation. Everyone on the committee--Tom Newkirk, Jess Enoch, Cindy Gannett and John Brereton--seemed to think highly of Michelle's work. She worked really hard in developing her understanding of various theories--situated learning, activity theories, rhetorical genre theories--and in synthesizing them as she prepared for her project. I hope she will continue to pursue this project.

Congratulations, Michelle. Well done!

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Last update: January 6, 2008