in which The Atlantic demonstrates its understanding of writing

The Writing Program Administrator's list has been discussing the recent Atlantic series on writing education. The series begins with Peg Tyre's "Writing Revolution" and then a series of pro/con responses follow. However, the entire series seems to create a bewildering dichotomy. Actually, that's not true. "Bewildering" would suggest that it's genesis is hard to follow, and I don't think that's true at all, as I will try to explain.

Briefly described, here are the two sides. Tyre is advocating what she sees as a kind of revisionist back-to-basics approach where students are given formulae for constructing more complex sentences that will lead to more complex thinking. If you are familiar with They Say, I Say then you get the picture; otherwise, read her article. This instruction is connected with argumentative, expository essay writing, which Tyre opposes to the expressive, creative writing she claims dominates public education, especially at early ages. She offers the story of one school (how many times have we seen this trope) where the test scores changed radically. And in a way, it makes sense. The state test (in this case the NYS Regents) will give you a good score for a formulaic, expository essay. So if you focus on teaching students to write that, then they should probably pass the test at a better rate. 

The other side of the "debate" is represented by the Freedom Writes and National Writing Project approach, which is characterized (in Atlantic) by journal writing and self-expression. Here the counter-argument is that students will tune out formulaic approaches that devalue their own perspectives and do not connect with their lived experience.

This debate would be a head-scratcher for me, except that is history is recognizable. I will only briefly rehearse that history that begins with rhetorical invention dividing into scientific method and romantic inspiration, turns arrangement into form, and forgets about memory and delivery, leaving only "style" as rhetoric. It's the history that also separates literary practice and study from rhetorical practice and study more than a century ago. The basic problem is that very few people are at all interested in understanding what writing is and how it actually operates: an understanding that you would think would be crucial to teaching. Instead, whether we focus on process or product or the demonstration of some critical-thinking ability, writing instruction has always emphasized the more pragmatic concern of getting students to produce texts that we judge as "good."

The difference between the understanding I am talking about and the more pragmatic concern is analogous to the difference between a heliocentric and geocentric model of the solar system. The latter may offer very accurate predictions of the movement of heavenly bodies (it produces good results). It's just totally wrong. In fact a more accurate analogy might be sacrificing goats to ensure a good crop. There's no doubt that the cultures involved in ritual animal sacrifice believe it produces good results. I'm fairly certainly they are wrong about the casual relation there, but there is very little common ground on which either party could go about trying to change the other's mind. 

I think that we can all agree that students tend to struggle to produce the kind of academic writing expected by these Regents exams, as well as the kinds of writing asked of them in college composition courses. I would also suggest that students struggle to produce the more self-expressive writing that represents the other side of this debate, particularly if we held that kind of writing to any quality standard. So we can agree on the problem, but we probably can't agree on what causes the problem. Texting? Bored students? Angry gods? Burned-out teachers? Economics? Rigid institutions and policies? All of the above? None of the above?

I suppose the first question we should ask is why we want students to produce this particular kind of writing and why we establish the particular standards that we have? The answer to the first question is more crucial, and I believe we teach a kind of writing that we imagine as a general, foundational kind of argumentation. This imagined foundation spawns from our observation (reading) of many different kinds of texts and our discovery of these common attributes in our reading. But to me this is like the geocentric model. The ability to describe and even predict textual features bears no necessarily relation to the ontology of those texts or the process by which they were composed. The standards then follow upon this intellectual error and constitute what we describe as these general features of argumentative writing. But our descriptions of argument rest upon ontological assumptions that arise from Enlightenment thinking about humans and language. Personally I would suggest that one is better of sacrificing a goat before writing an essay then going with those assumptions, especially if you can bring yourself to really believe that the dead goat will cause you to write well. 

What is writing then? Well, it's not human. Let's start with that. Then let's add that it is many things that withdraw from one another and that cannot be overmined by some generic account. I think that activity theory and actor-network theory approaches to examining specific sites of writing are a good start, but are probably not enough. And it might be a long journey from there to teaching. Or not.

If we recognize that the idea of a generalized writing is no more real than say "nature" then how do we change our writing instruction? What becomes the objective of K-12 rhetorical education? There's the writing revolution that we might need.