Writing is Hard(ly Something You Should Be Doing Alone)

Last month, I attended one of the two big conferences in my field, that of the Rhetoric Society of America (RSA). Ironically, it was the first rhetoric or composition-focused conference I’ve attended and the last conference of any sort I’ll attend (gulp) before I go on the job market this fall.

Eeep! No, I’m ok. I’m alright. I swear.

Anyway, one of the most interesting panels I attended at RSA was ostensibly about the future of journals in our field. I took this to mean there would be a discussion about the journal model more broadly, about restricted vs. open access, etc.

Yeah, no.

Instead, the panel featured the editors of three of the BFD journals in rhet/comp riffing on their roles as editors, the kinds of submissions they receive and why they do or do not suck, and the messy nature of the review process. Not what I expected, no, but fascinating all the same.

For me, one of the most striking moments was when Jim Jasinski, the editor of Rhetorical Studies Quarterly, described his role in this way:

Editors are there to help writers figure out what they’ve got.

YES. Exactly!

The best editors I’ve had a chance to work with have been able to do precisely that: to peer into the abyss of a messy first draft, pick out the ideas worth exploring, and make concrete suggestions as how I might make the most of what I’ve got. This is also what I see myself doing (what I try to do) as a teacher when I ask my students to write: to read their drafts with questions like what have they got here? where are they trying to go? how can I help them get there? in mind.

 

And yeah, it’s fucking hard to do that, sometimes; to see the bigger pieces of a student’s essay or argument and think through how those pieces might fit together more snugly–or what pieces are missing and need to be added. Harder still, I think, to communicate to the student in a way that she or he can understand–and it’s different for every kid, I’d argue–what you’re seeing, where you see them going, and then LISTENING to how the student responds to what you’ve suggested.

Ahem. Not that I have strong feelings about this. No.

Granted, I find this kind of engagement really, really difficult–especially when you have 20+ students in a class–but, when it works, it’s rewarding; because in the end, writers and teachers, just like writers and editors, are collaborators. To me, the best writing happens at least in part in conversation, rather than Platonic isolation, so I was heartened to hear Jasinski talk about his role as a journal editor in those terms.

However, if a thoughtful reviewer can have such a productive effect on a writer, then what might the equal and opposite reaction do?

In my experience, there are some profs who simply cannot get out of the mindset that feedback on student writing = wielding the pen as a weapon of mass destruction. They think that there’s a correlation between the amount of comments and their value (more comments, no matter how nitpicky, are always “better” for the student than a few), or that students can learn grammar, mechanics, and the weird vagaries of aca-speech from furiously scribbled marginalia bequeathed to them by their prof.

Grrrrrr.

This kind of approach pisses me off in part because, hell, spend three weeks in a composition theory seminar and you will KNOW that treating student work in this way is pretty damn ineffective. At the very least, it doesn’t have the sort of world-shifting, angels-singing effect on students that profs seem to think that it does.

But, as this excellent post on the Thesis Whisperer blog pointed out, getting angry at profs who act this way fails to acknowledge this simple fact:

Bear in mind that academics are never taught properly how to give feedback, which is why it’s such a slippery, contradictory, prickly process.

WHOA.

I’d never thought about it that way, but ok. Holy shit.

This explains so much.

I mean, in composition, we think and talk A LOT about how to give feedback on students’ writing; in my book, that’s 90% of your job when you teach first-year writing: reading and responding to your students’ work. Although I went into the classroom with some understanding that the scorched-earth approach wouldn’t work, the way that I comment on my students’ work continues to evolve over time. In general, I write fewer comments than I used to, but the comments/feedback I choose to offer are more substantive and (I think, I hope!) more useful now than they were when I first started teaching. Part of teaching writing is constantly revisiting and revising your own approach to feedback, tuning it to meet your students’ needs as well as your own.

But this isn’t a conversation that folks in other disciplines–even others in the humanities; hell, in English departments, for crying out loud–generally have, I suspect. Which is not a good or a bad thing–simply a reality. The expectation is, I think, that by the time you make prof or instructor, you already know how to effectively provide feedback–and (even more troubling) that your students already “know” how to write.

So imagine putting four people in a room (say your dissertation committee) and asking them to respond to and provide feedback upon the same document. No freaking wonder the advice we get is often contradictory, sometimes misguided, and frequently soul-crushing–the peer review skills that we try to teach our kids in first-year writing are probably not present there, among the elite of our profession. At the very least, it’s likely that they don’t all agree on what “good” writing, effective writing, looks like, much less on how to help a grad student figure out how to get there.

Writing is hard, always. But writing, at its best, is always collaborative. See: fan writing. See: writing centers. See: academic articles with informed reviewers and engaged editors.

See also: student writing. Because maybe the big takeaway for me from RSA, from this whole conversation I’ve just staged with myself (and you, fair reader) is this: I’m always going to be a student writer, picking up tricks from my editors, reviewers, and friends as I go. If I can just remember that (and resist the temptation to believe that I’ll ever be–that I’d ever want to be!–a writer who doesn’t thrive in conversation), I think I might be alright.

Hey! How’d that happen?

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