City metaphors have been popular in what I’ve been reading this past year. In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson credits the city (along with the reef and the web) with “an undeniable track record at generating innovation” because it possesses “a series of shared properties and patterns [that] recur again and again in unusually fertile environments” (17).

In an article on editing posted in the Chronicle of Higher Education this past fall, Rachel Toor talks about the look of a manuscript as a suburb or army base or city depending on its organization and style. She advocated for essays “that presented themselves as appealing and interesting, more like maps of Paris or lower Manhattan.”

In “The Idea of Community in the Study of Writing,” Joseph Harris urges us to consider the place of academic discourse not as a cohesive community but as a city, “as a sort of space in which competing beliefs and practices intersect with and confront one another” (756). To Johnson, good ideas act similarly: “they do want to connect, fuse, recombine. They want to reinvent themselves by crossing conceptual borders” (22).

Harris continues to sketch out a few other benefits of academic discourse as city, with parallels to Johnson’s work, including the productive role of “change and struggle” and the space “for ourselves, our disciplinary colleagues, our university coworkers, and our students” (756).

Once we start to consider academic discourse through this metaphor and in light of Johnson’s work, the innovative possibilities for writing and the university start to make themselves visible.  Below, I’d like to sketch out three such possibilities for writing teachers and administrators.

1) Mistakes and failure start to shine.  

Specifically, dissent for Harris and error for Johnson are no longer read as problematic, but recast as means to continue conversations and promote learning. Johnson argues that “innovative environments thrive on useful mistakes” (148).  The city metaphor shows us we were mistaken about mistakes.

It’s time (at last) for writing teachers and WPAs to rethink how we approach dissent and error so that we might embrace what they can teach us.  Andrea A. Lunsford and Karen J. Lunsford‘s 2006 National Comparative Study offers a similar message.  Even the title of their 2008 CCC‘s article on the study—”‘Mistakes Are a Fact of Life’“—calls us to rethink how we handle error in academic discourse.  After all, Lunsford and Lunsford tell us that the rate of error in written work is really the rate of attention to error.  What’s important, they remind us, is our response.

But, with Harris in mind, we must be careful that our response isn’t one generated from consensus.  General agreement, especially when it operates as a form of quality control, can limit the innovative potential of academic discourse.  Rather, we need, as Lunsford and Lunsford point out, to “respond in an open and exploratory way, searching with the student writer for the intended meaning” (798).

But the city is expansive. There’s space for all. And even room for growth.

2) There’s space for all.

In the university, consensus can work to maintain power relationships and hierarchies that favor the university and those in positions of power. Harris points out that this process works paradoxically to promote a specific consensus while preventing “the formation of consensus by shrinking the public sphere and excluding the majority of the population from the conversation” (742).

For writing faculty, this point requires us to question our pedagogical and administrative decisions.  We must ask, Who is getting left out?  We must see consensus in its various forms—standards, common cores, even mechanics and grammar guidelines—for what it is: agreement established under certain conditions for certain purposes to simplify something that probably shouldn’t be simplified.

We know this: exclusion leaves us with insiders and outsiders, winners and losers, students and teachers.  But the city is expansive. There’s space for all. And even room for growth.  Teachers as students.  Students as teachers.

city image

3) An essay as city?

On the surface, it might look like lower Manhattan or Paris as Toor suggests, but what would happen to the concept of coherence? Perhaps coherence would go the way of consensus for Harris, turn utopian, and get entangled with audience awareness as “a necessary fiction of reciprocity and mutual recognition” (743). That is, there would have to be a shift in focus from what the essay says to how it is saying it, as utopian coherence, like utopian consensus, “would provide students with a critical measure to identify the relations of power in the formation of expert judgment” (743).

This is process pedagogy, the return, no longer confined to the mechanisms at work to create a text but now deeply invested in the workings of the text itself. There is no content, actually, no subject matter. Instead, essays would have to concern themselves with the processes involved, the how of content, of subject matter. All writing would have to become meta-cognitive inquiry.

I kind of love it. Students would have to stop just grappling with the object, the interface, and start also tooling around among the gears and code. They’d have to take to the streets.

All writing would have to become meta-cognitive inquiry.

Lindsey is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Georgia.  Her research interests include rhetoric and composition, creative writing, and digital humanities.  You can find her on Twitter (@linzharding) and online (