Beware Fools Bearing Advice

When I’m angry or uncertain, the first place I turn in my writing is to style.

To wit, the original opening line of this post was:

Friends, colleagues, countrymen: we come to bury the permission slip, not to praise it.

Right. Because what’s set me off today isn’t anger, really, though it may have a shade of frustration. It’s passivity.

Specifically, what I read as passiveness in this essay, On Writing in Grad School; the gist of which is: in general, we don’t teach graduate students how to write.

On the one hand: true.

On the other: tough shit.

To be clear, I bear no ire towards Kevin Gotkin, the author of this piece. Indeed, his grievances, the absences he’s noted in his own graduate education, truly seem to trouble him greatly, and I admire his ability to transform that sense of injustice into a cogent piece for The Chronicle of Higher Ed. There’s a conversation to be had there, and he’s kicked it off clean. Well done, sir.

Rather, what troubles me is the way in which Gotkin’s essay repeats with difference (as Jenny Edbauer might say) similar complaints I have heard of late within the rhetorical ecology of higher education in the humanities.

(Heh. How’s that for wonky style?)

 

What I mean is: what Gotkin is saying, I’ve recently heard from within my own department: the belief that graduate programs should explicitly “teach writing.” Gotkin lists several ways in which he wishes the coursework for his social science PhD had done so:

I have never workshopped a piece of writing during a course. And no one else in my classes has, either.

and

I have never been taught to read a journal article. I have rarely discussed a text in terms of its formal features.

and finally

I have never given others comments on their writing within the format of a course.

The writing teacher in me, of course, believes in the pedagogical power of writing workshops, of detailed discussions about other people’s writing, and of providing thoughtful, substantive comments on a peer’s text.

Spoiler alert: my students in College Composition will be doing all three this semester. Repeatedly.

All of these activities are wonderful things. And I think Gotkin is quite right to note that many graduate programs implicitely (if not explicitly) reinforce the notion that writing is a solitary activity, one that is supposed to happen, as he puts it:

[in] our quiet, lonely spaces

This is certainly true in my program, one that is ostensibly devoted to the study of, oh, rhetoric and writing.

But the graduate student in me–no, the stubborn son-of-a-bitch that IS me–can’t help but wonder this:

If you recognize what’s missing in your education, friends, then what are you waiting for?

Make it yourself. DO it yourself. Share your ideas with other people and make it, do it, together.

No graduate program, no matter how brilliant the faculty, or comprehensive the content, or creative and productive its students, can offer you all that you need. And perhaps Gotkin is right; perhaps we in higher ed need to consider a formal incorporation of the teaching of writing into graduate training.

I myself am wary of such an idea, on its face, but I do think it’s a discussion worth having.

But waiting on change in higher ed is like waiting for a star to explode: it’ll happen, eventually, but none of us will be around to see it.

So here’s my wee piece of advice–

Don’t wait for the educational apparati to catch up to what you see as your needs as a graduate student: seek it out for yourself.

1)  Form a writing group with your colleagues, the ones whose opinions you trust, or the ones who always give you a hard time. Often, they’re your most useful reviewers. Share drafts of your writing, whatever it is you’re working on; the dirtier the drafts, the better, and solicit comments and feedback. Give generously of the same to your peers. Rinse. Lather. Repeat.

2)  Alternatively (or in addition!), go to your university’s writing center. Work with a peer tutor or coach who knows nothing about what you’re working on, about your topic or your favorite theoretical frame. Doing so will force you to have a conversation about your writing, your thinking, and that can be a great jumpstart for your own meta-cognition or for discussions with your colleagues and friends.

3)  If the profs aren’t teaching you how to dissect an academic article or essay, get together with a friend or two and do that work for yourselves. You may think, hey, I don’t know enough to understand what makes a paragraph work, or an argument seem like nonsense; but dude, you’re in graduate school, ok? You are smart. You are well-read, and getting more so all the time. Trust yourself. Trust the clever people around you.

4)  Certainly, if you are so inclined, get involved with the curriculum committee in your college or your program, and bring up the changes that you wish to see. However, don’t put all your eggs in that basket: make change for yourself first, for yourself and your colleagues on your own time, outside of the formal channels.

You don’t need anyone’s approval or an official mandate to do any of this. What you need is the recognition of what’s lacking and a desire to address it, to get what you need to make you a better scholar, a stronger writer, a more effective job candidate.

5)  And last and most important of all:

WRITE.

Write for yourself first. Write in academic mode or outside. Start a blog! Write bad teenage poetry or fanfic or movie reviews or journal entries–whatever. Write your own shit for yourself. Take joy in creating, in putting words on the page, not for a grade or for anyone else’s pleasure, but for yours.

For what it’s worth, I’ve learned more about myself as a writer–about my process, my foibles, my tendency to lean on style sometimes at the cost of substance–from writing outside of the academy, both in blogposts and in my slash fic. I used to be very very private about my writing, but I’ve seen the proverbial light: for me, putting my stuff out there for people–many of whom I don’t know!–to read has made me a much better writer than I was alone.

If you love to write, do it. Do it a-freaking-lot, but outside of official channels. Yes, on its face, it takes time away from what you’re “supposed” to be doing. But if what you’re supposed to be doing is becoming a stronger writer, a more solid scholar, then it’s the best “waste” of your time that you’ll ever find.

Because you’re right on this point, Mr. Gotkin: despite what the romantic, Platonic ideal tells us, writing is NOT a solitary activity; it’s an act of communal creation. It’s just a matter for us as writers, as scholars, as frustrated graduate students, of finding our audience–of finding our light.

Easy to say, yes; harder, in truth, to do.

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15 thoughts on “Beware Fools Bearing Advice

  1. Pingback: Beware Fools Bearing Advice | cute girl discount | Part Time Monster

  2. I scanned that piece earlier and almost shared it on Facebook, but I did not because I thought I needed to look at it more closely, and boy was I correct. I am leery of having all graduate programs teach writing. What I think needs to happen is that undergraduates need to complete their degrees with enough competence to learn to write for a discipline should they choose to pursue a graduate degree, and graduate programs should teach writing for their own particular disciplines.

    I agree with your practical advice wholeheartedly. I wrote the following in a post at a blog I am redesigning today, just after I changed the tagline to “Anyone can become a competent writer:”

    “The way one becomes a competent writer, I think, is by practicing. That means writing a lot, and reading a lot of good writing.”

    I wish I’d included the social component in that post now. It took me a long time to realize that writing is not, in fact, a solitary activity. Composition is a solitary activity, but there is much more to writing than composition. So, I am glad I read this, because it’s shown me something that I need to emphasize more when I talk about writing.

    1. Cheers for reading, and for your thoughtful response.

      I love this distinction:

      >Composition is a solitary activity, but there is much more to writing than composition.

      Yes, exactly. So much of the way we talk about writing–and teach it–is hyperfocused on composition, the act of putting words on the page for the first time. There’s no doubt that’s important, of course; but as you note, so much happens before and after those solitary moments of communion between the writer and her keyboard: things like conversation, consideration, review, and revision. I think the profession of college comp recognizes the importance of the social aspects of writing in theory, but has a much harder time (in my experience) incorporating the social into the writing classroom.

      And I’m also intrigued by this point:

      >What I think needs to happen is that undergraduates need to complete their degrees with enough competence to learn to write for a discipline should they choose to pursue a graduate degree

      For you, what would that kind of competence look like? What would undergrads be able to do as writers upon graduation that they could’t do when they started their studies?

      1. They need to be able to do things like make an argument and give a couple of pieces of evidence to support it; put together a 2- or 3-page narrative, take an image or a short piece of writing and analyze it, and edit their own work to the point that someone else can read it and understand what they are getting at.

  3. Reblogged this on The Writing Catalog and commented:
    I talk an awful lot about the importance of writing and reading good writing here; I should probably talk more about the importance of having someone read your writing. The advice he gives here is good advice; I encourage you to read it and think about it if you want to improve your writing.

  4. I agree with all of this, but I also think it needs back-dating. If students are getting to graduate school without those, essentially quite basic, skills, then they have already been let down by their education too many times.

    1. Interesting–I know some teachers of college comp who’d say the same thing about our freshmen. I think these are skills that take a lot of time to master (with mastery looking a bit different in every student’s case) so it would make sense to start these discussions/practices in high school. I have to admit–I don’t know what writing instruction looks like at the high school level right now.

      1. I’m in the UK, so I can’t comment on any other systems, but I got lucky in that my school did actually teach us how to structure an essay, and I did an optional A level in Critical Thinking that polished my skills. A lot of schools tell students too much of what to write, rather than how to do it.

      2. >A lot of schools tell students too much of what to write, rather than how to do it.

        Well said. I think there’s also a discomfort in acknowledging that writing is *difficult*, and in giving students the room they need to struggle with it.

  5. To Gene’O’s point re: fundamental writing skills that students need to leave undergrad possessing:

    >They need to be able to do things like make an argument and give a couple of pieces of evidence to support it; put together a 2- or 3-page narrative, take an image or a short piece of writing and analyze it, and edit their own work to the point that someone else can read it and understand what they are getting at.

    These seem eminently reasonable to me. I think the difficulty lies in part in our inability to agree on what a effective/successful completion of these tasks might look like. Is is grammatical correctness? Evidence of thoughtfulness? In my experience, it’s hard to get two teachers of writing–much less profs in other disciplines–to come to consensus on this point.

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