Chaos Theory: Relevance, Public Prose, and Design Thinking in the Writing Classroom

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Sketch of a brain. Left side of the brain is filled with math formulas; right side of the brain is painted in multicolors.

Anguishing over self-doubt is perhaps one of the most common traits of an educator or academic. It’s what drove rhetorician Robert Persig to the brink of insanity as he searched for an objective meaning of quality in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It sprinkles itself in the crevices of subjectivity—what is writing/rhetoric, how do we effectively teach it given the assortment of pedagogical approaches that exist, and what qualifies it as “good”? 

I’ve been teaching for almost six years now and I’m still no closer to answering those questions with a level of certainty. What I am certain of, however, is that the subjective nature of writing instruction lends itself to a chaotic complexity seen in the realm of professional or public-facing development. That complexity, instead of being something that establishes self-doubt, is advantageous; it allows us to create transfer in the classroom. 

Writing and rhetoric, then, become applicable to almost anything. 

Prior to teaching at Georgetown, my curriculum followed a Writing About Writing (WAW) approach. My Professional Writing students explored writing in their fields of study throughout the semester, culminating in a final project that had them create artifacts. My web development students coded websites. Education majors wrote syllabi and lesson plans. Journalism students preformed interviews and wrote features. A dance student I had even created and preformed their own choreography. After, they all wrote a reflective piece about the rhetorical choices in the development of their artifacts.

On paper the ideas seemed fun—exciting even, for a writing class. My students seemed into it because they were able to make things applicable to their fields. But that fun was hastily met with trepidation as I began to grade. It was, in so many ways, chaos. What sort of rubric could qualify grades for these assignments? How could a writing teacher grade JAVA or dance? Did I lead them to failure instead of growth? 

But once I began to read my student’s reflections—how they tied the relevance of audience and purpose into their creations; how they understood writing and the creative process as something that is applicable to them and no longer a checkbox requirement—that anything they make, when given an audience, becomes an argument, I realized I did not have to be the subject matter expert here. I could be a guide. I just had to become comfortable with the flow of disorder, failure, and growth. Prototyping and testing. Prototyping and testing. And then finally something that works. 

Writ 015 affirmed this. My WAW approach was hybridized with the department’s focus on design thinking in the context of tackling wicked problems. And that’s when everything clicked. This idea of tackling a problem—that is professional writing. This is what a team does in workplace: a crazy mixture of group ideation, individual research, synthesizing ideas, and prototyping. Throughout the semester my students formed teams, qualified a wicked problem to explore by writing a pitch, preformed a rhetorical analysis of an existing intervention, delved into primary and secondary research with the flair of journalistic voice, and then got back into their groups, fused the information, and developed interventions of their own. We even found a way to delve into public-facing writing through establishing a class publication on Some even pushed themselves further, drafting proposals and outreach emails and sending them to their intended audience voluntarily. 

While I did not enforce public-facing writing on a scale beyond, largely because I am still growing comfortable with that in the classroom myself, my students realized that it was necessary for their own interventions, or creations, to be feasible. They wanted their work to matter. As teachers and rhetoricians, we want the same—for students to write for more than just a grade. To approach work with a purpose and transferrable essence. 

Though this curriculum is still in its infancy, I’m happy to chat about delving into public-facing writing, or how the professional writing/design experience can be explored in the classroom.

Happy writing!

-Katy Goodman

WRIT015, course design, multimodal