learning to write

One of the truisms of composition pedagogy asks the teacher to think about his/her own experiences learning to write and his/her own development of a writing practice. It is an approach that is fraught with all kinds of problems, though that depends on what one makes of the insights.

My development as a writer was essentially outside the classroom. My FYC course was thoroughly nondescript, in part because I remember almost nothing from it, except that I got a C+. Most of the writing I did while an undergrad took place off the campus: technical/professional writing for my job in the pc industry, creative writing, and writing music.  I had a couple creative writing classes that were useful, but otherwise there was no discussion of writing in my undergrad majors (English and history).

If I were to look at my early writing experiences, I would identify three contradictory practice.

  1. For academic writing assignments that were uninteresting (i.e. most of them, not that there were many) my strategy was to take the path of least resistance. My English lit classes were all New Critical. I think there was one course where I needed to do library research.  No process; no rough drafts; no revisions; barely any proofreading. And in return I would get a few checks in the margins with a comment like "Very Good" and then a letter grade. Looking back, I'm sure I was in a series of co-dependent literacy relationships where no one was paying much attention.
  2. For interesting classroom assignments and the creative writing I was doing, I would essentially follow my own instincts and interests. I would experiment. And I wouldn't care too much about the reception of the piece or the grade I received. Plenty of rethinking and playing around, but not for any extrinsic purpose. Only for my own pursuits. I'm not suggesting, btw, that this is a practice to imitate. But that's what I did.
  3. And then all the technical and professional writing I did, where I was writing to meet another person's standards and the point was effective communication undertaken in an efficient manner. Here the idea was to avoid revision if possible, to work quickly, to operate within recognizable genres, and to steer away from unnecessary complications. In other words, in many respects this writing was opposite to the expectations of academic writing.

In thinking about my academic career, many of these trends have carried forward. In my research (and in my blogging) my writing follows my interests and answers the intellectual demands I encounter through writing. Much of my writing is instinctual in the sense that I have a strong hunch that certain disparate ideas belong together or that some insight is lurking, and I write until I discover it. It's not an efficient process. I seek out the difficulties and contradictions and pursue them. It's not a process of internal discovery. I envision writing as an exploration of a symbolic field/network.  I just keep going until I get somewhere. Of course there's a lot of revision that follows on that.

I often get the sense that this is the kind of writing practice we seek to teach students in FYC: writing as an open-ended process of inquiry that eventually comes to take shape as a rhetorical, communicative text.

But I don't do all my writing that way. I don't write grant proposals or strategic plans or program policy memos that way. In those cases I'm back in the realm of technical and professional writing. Now let's be clear. There is plenty of technical writing that presents significant intellectual and rhetorical challenges. And if you think it's easy to write an effective sales letter, then please write one selling English as a major. And anyone who would like to write a magic strategic plan that will get me all the resources I need can feel free to email me.

These are all demanding, rhetorical tasks. But I don't think the writing practices associated with humanistic inquiry are of much value there. And I expect we know that. Isn't that what we mean when we say that writing "skills" are not particularly transferable?

Of course I have a fondness for writing as inquiry and experimentation. I've been reasonably successful at it. I often enjoy it. I think most folks in English Studies have similar experiences. But I also think that the further one gets from English, the humanities, and higher education, the less common that experience becomes. So it is unsurprising that we want to pass along our particular writing experience, views, and habits to our students. And it is unsurprising that when we think of "writing," we think of (and value) the particular kinds of writing we tend to do. But I don't know that it makes particular sense to make FYC a course in humanistic writing. I don't have a problem with a course in humanistic writing; I just don't know that it needs to be a mandatory part of everyone's education. And if it is/should be, then it certainly shouldn't be billed as a course in "how to write" or even "how to write 'academically.'"

But all of that is the danger of looking to our own writing experiences as a basis for FYC.