Writing is a road trip

A moment of horror in the copy room. That’s where this post started.

A moment of horror borne of another instructor’s handout, one that simultaneously reduced and universalized the writing “process” to a tick sheet of dos, don’ts, and otherwise. Writing is a formula, this handout shouted, one that I, as your instructor, have licked. Follow these steps, do exactly as I say though I don’t explain why, and I’ll give you an A.

I wish that I’d saved it, this castoff from another classroom, but at the time, all I wanted to do was escape it.

As a writer, as someone who teaches writing, I see composition as a road trip: you point the car in a general direction and let the road take you where it may.

Sure, you might have some idea of where you want to end up–you might choose a particular highway to take over another, after all–but you’re open to diversions, to side trips off of what you thought was the main route. And you’re willing to let those diversions rewrite your travel plans entirely.

Such an approach, however, doesn’t neatly line up with the ways in which many instructors teach writing as a “process.” While early discussions of writing-as-process made note of the messiness involved, much of that acknowledgement has been stripped away in the professionalization/commodification of composition. In place of such mess, a process designed for a flow chart, for easy replicability in any classroom, with any students, any instructor, because of course, all writers—especially first year writers!–are alike.


Yeah, no. No no no.

One of those steps in the “process” that makes me particularly enraged is forcing students to write a “thesis statement” before they start writing an essay. See also: the horrifying “write a topic sentence for each paragraph before you start writing the essay” variant.

Let’s talk for a second about why this tactic often frustrates the crap out of students and, bonus, results in boring, slack-tastic writing:

Look, when you put these restrictions on students’ writing, you’re reinforcing the idea that a writer should know exactly what she or he wants to say before they sit down at the keyboard. You are preventing a student from writing, period. Continue reading “Writing is a road trip”

Composition’s Industrial Turn (And The Question of Who’s Left Holding the Wheel)

Ok, a quick trip down disciplinary history lane:

As Geoffrey Sirc and others have noted, composition had a choice to make back in the 1960s, when it began to behave (and thus be recognized as) a discipline: a) to fashion itself as an integral part of the university’s mechanics, thus ensuring its survival; or b), to keep on keeping on as its own weird, inscrutable thing, one whose value the university itself was likely to recognize.

In his book English Composition as a Happening, Sirc talks about this in terms of theater: composition could either become a scripted drama or remain more akin to a “happening,” a particular kind of immersive, often improvisational theater in the 60s and 70s that valued the unexpected rather than the preordained. As an audience member, you were never quite sure what to expect from happening, which were often staged in industrial spaces 180 degrees from a traditional proscenium stage and called upon each member of the audience to move independently throughout the play space. The expectation was that each individual would have a distinct experience with the play and its actors; no two encounters with the text were the same.

Of course, as Sirc bemoans, composition moved away from the spirit of the happening and towards formalization within the official structure of the university. As a discipline, composition valued its own legibility and viability over what Sirc constructs as its original, free-spirited ways–and this, for him, marks a tremendous loss of possibility and opportunity. Composition, he seems to suggest, chose to be boring. And that sucks.

I was reminded of Sirc’s argument today when reading through the website of a composition program at a land-grant university in the United States. Since I only came upon this site because of my job search, you’ll forgive me if I don’t identify which one it is (and if I complicate the quotes below a bit to obscure identifying details). That said, what’s of import here is not the university’s location, but the way in which it talks about the values of its composition program.

To wit, the program attempts to “advance [the university’s] mission to pursue academic excellence in the context of writing instruction. Undergraduate composition courses . . . help students [to become more effective] writers and researchers by [offering students]. . . flexible strategies for researching and composing texts.”

On solid ground so far. But then, there’s this: guess who is charged with “advancing” this central element of the university’s mission? Yes, they’ve chosen those who traditionally possess the least amount of teaching experience—grad students who are new to the university themselves.

Continue reading “Composition’s Industrial Turn (And The Question of Who’s Left Holding the Wheel)”