on hating to write

It's that time of year again, when teachers, instructors, and professors at all levels and institutions encounter many students who express their indifference, distaste, antipathy, and hatred toward writing. Not every student, of course, but many students. It's not unsual to look at one's predecessors and blame them for both our students' writing deficiencies and attitudes: "what did they teach you in high school!?!" With two kids now entering sixth and ninth grades, I do believe that the standard curriculum is deeply problematic. Too often, the K12 writing assignments my kids have been given offer pre-digested formulae that turn the student writer's focus to sentence-level issues and stress proofreading as the primary form of revision. Obviously this narrow focus is one of the primary things we try to alter in FYC. Students have trouble conceving of projects and articulating the rhetorical operation of the larger conceptual structures of their writing because, quite simply, they have rarely been asked to work at that level, and they certainly haven't been asked to revise based on such concerns.

But all of that is not why students express this dislike of writing. While I don't believe kids are born with this feeling, I also don't believe we can simply blame schools (or even a larger cultural attitude about literacy practices). Instead, we need to begin with the realization that writing is nonhuman. On some level we probably realize this… that writing is a technology (or a constellation of technologies) and is no more human than a mobile phone or a combine harvester. But we also typically imagine writing as connected with our thoughts and personal "voice." This connection is real, but it isn't necessarily comfortable or "natural."

What we don't usually tell students is that writing doesn't often feel good or comfortable. Honestly, I think few teachers spend much time writing beyond some formulaic report-writing that they have forgotten that, or they don't associate their own writing struggles with their students' struggles. But I will admit that writing is rarely easy. Sure, it's usually easy to write an email. Often a blog post will at least begin with ease. And in the midst of even the most challenging writing tasks I can discover moments of flow. But it's not always easy to enter those states or remain in them. Many times writing is difficult: either because I'm writing something I don't feel like writing or because I am struggling with the material. In those moments I suppose I could wish for a model to follow or some authority figure who would specify what I am required to do. But writing isn't usually like that. 

The truth is that writing is indifferent to our goals and is indifferent to whatever rhetorical situation we find ourselves in. Writing doesn't care about this blog. So, if you want to describe your relationship status with writing, the appropriate drop-down menu option is "it's complicated." I imagine that part of many students antipathy toward writing is the belief that writing plays favorites, that writing gives its love to some and not to others. Sure, it's true that a very small number of people will end up becoming fantastic, gifted writers. However writing is as indifferent to them as it is to the rest of us. If they love writing it is an unrequited love. Perhaps though, having a better understanding of writing as nonhuman might shift our affective relationship toward it and generate a more productive, less painful, relationship.