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.

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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)”

Who Has the Right to Talk About (Teaching) Writing?

In the last few days, there’s been some really interesting meta kerfluffle over Rebecca Schuman’s “The End of the College Essay,” which you may recall I flipped some tables over about earlier this week. By now, we’ve reached the stage in the Schuman-fueled fallout where we’re talking more about the conversation that we’re having about the essay than about the content of said essay itself.

And one of the key themes that’s arise from this meta!talk is this: who in academia, exactly, has the right to talk about the teaching of writing?

This discursive tide reached a new peak today with the publication of a post titled “An Open Letter in Defense of Rebecca Schuman” on the ProfHacker blog, one that’s hosted on The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s website. For readers who dwell outside of academia, CHE is one of the most reputable and widely-read sites within the university world; posting the letter within the in body of that site = how many hits?

Exactly.

Now, depending upon your perspective, this letter–to which any interested party can affix their name via change.org–does one of two things:

Continue reading “Who Has the Right to Talk About (Teaching) Writing?”

Taking Pleasure In The Here and Now

The space from which I write, or: how I spent my spring break.

I’m working on a paper for school in which I’m tangling with two scholars’ notions of “good” writing, or what elements or actions or characteristics of writing should be valued, and why.

Tripping through their definitions, their contradictions, their idealism has gotten me wondering, again, about how writing–good or otherwise–can be taught.

Indeed, the more experience that I have in teaching writing, the more I am convinced that writing can’t be taught. Not in a single course, or semester, or even a school year. Rather, I think writing is an accumulation, a collection of ideas or imprints or gestures that build up in the mind over time like shells on the shore that get honed by the waves and bleached by the sun and experience, uncovered and buried and swept away as needed. Refashioned, again and again, piece by piece, instructor by instructor, book by book, blog post by blog post.

Writing defies testing, defies concretization. Deconstruction teaches us that meaning is not fixed; that the world is text; that the writer cannot hope to master language and its infinities of meanings, only to tangle, to temporarily tame, the words with which we are surrounded. So why do we pretend that writing is an act, a series of performative moves, even, that can be “taught” as if they were a universal constant? As if there were agreement over the unstickiness of language and meaning? As if we can even agree over what we mean by “writing.”

People ask me: how did you learn how to write? And I say: I read. Which some writers think is a total fucking copout, a justification for NOT writing. An excuse for why you haven’t written. Okay, I can see that. Maybe it is, sometimes.

I can speak only for myself, then: reading taught me how to write. But it was up to me to actually, you know, write. To do something with that knowledge. Intellectually understanding how words can fit together, what they can do in certain combinations, is all well and good, was all well and good, for me. Even got me to a point where I could “teach” other people how to write. Like painting a wall, or something; where to put the masking tape, how to position the ladder, what kind of brush to use and when.

But it wasn’t until I started writing regularly, for myself and not simply in response to [or in order to resist] an academic assignment or prompt that I started to do writing rather than just talk about it, teach it, dissect it.

So maybe it’s not fair to say that it’s the experience of teaching writing that’s made me question if and how “writing” can be taught. Maybe it’s being a writer. And I don’t ascribe to the romantic Platonic notion of writing being some super-secret gift from the Almighty or something.

But.

But writing isn’t math. It can’t be boiled down to formulas or prescriptions or balanced equations, no matter how often I tell my students that one can figure out what makes a piece work or what undermines its effectiveness. There’s no magic bullet for writing, period. Probably for a lot of other shit, too, but writing’s the only thing I know anything about.

So I don’t acribe any mystical powers to myself, ok? But still, I’m a “good” writer. A distinct one. One with a distinctive voice, anyway, in a couple of different genres. But how did that happen? Where did it come from? And not all of my readers dig the way that I write, the way that my characters–including my academic self–sound; but, by now, I’ve had positive responses from a wide enough variety of readers to buy into my own hype, a little. Temporarily, at least.

My composition theory professor once asked us–aspiring composition teachers all–if we thought that one had to be a “good” writer in order to effectively teach writing. Though she did not say it then–let us argue it out amongst ourselves instead–her answer? Is yes. It was part of the reason that she encouraged me to teach composition: because she thought I was a “good” writer.

I suppose what I’m getting at is that I don’t understand, yet, how that is supposed to translate into the classroom. For the most part, I don’t introduce my students to my writing; this piece, this term, being the rare exception. The only writing of mine to which they are regularly exposed are my comments on their own work. And especially given what I do write, both as a scholar and as a fan, I’m reluctant to even talk about my own writing too much to my kids. If they ask, I’ll tell; otherwise, I’m still squidgy about talking about slash fic with freshmen who are an awesome combination of world-weary and wide-eyed innocents, sometimes.

And yet, as a new-old friend said to me recently: I read your writing because otherwise, how will I know you? Which, exactly. I would agree. So since my students don’t read my writing–nor am I arguing that they should, I don’t think–how does me as a writer get translated into me as an instructor?

Whatever sustained joy I find in writing is newly grown; barely nine months old, yet. And I know, as I ask my students to write multiple drafts, to revise, to talk with others about their writing, that, for many of them–like me–these are motions to be gone through, rhetorical moves to be performed, but, for the moment, they find no value in them, other than they must be done. I’ve been in school–even just graduate school–for a loooong time. I’ve written a lot of shit. Some of it good, some meh, some of it I even liked. But I didn’t have a “writing process”–revise: I didn’t have a stack of writing processes from which to choose–until I started writing for myself. Until I started writing fan fic.

Some would argue, I think, that I am able to craft said processes because I’ve been “trained” in the Writing As A Process model. That the instruction I offer my kids might not be useful to them now, but it will be “in the future.” At some point. Maybe.

But I would say: that’s not good enough. I want to teach them something they can take pleasure in now, that they can have fun with now, that they can re-make for their own purposes now, not in some distant pretend future which may or may not come to pass. Why can’t writing be good to them, for them, in the moment? Because if Godot ain’t coming today, who’s to say that he’ll come on any other tomorrow?

Writing, now, brings me so much joy that I get a little stupid about it, sometimes. As evidenced by this post, perhaps, if given the chance, I will go on and on about my processes, the different ways in which my stories came to be, how I fought them, how they seduced me back to the keyboard, etc.  Because, to me, it’s a freaking miracle. It’s like the baby Jesus springing to life on the screen sometimes; that is, when I look up after an hour and there’s a little fic there, done, completed by me, apparently, it’s like, wow. Where in the hell did that come from?

I used to be really weird about reading my own writing. As in, I wouldn’t, once it was turned in. I’d read any comments that I received, but I’d never look back over the piece as a whole. But now? I read all my stuff multiple times, once it’s “done.” The fic especially, but even my academic pieces. Ok, my papers, I still don’t really read carefully until after I’ve gotten them back from the prof, but my presentations? My research? Hell yeah, I read that stuff. Because I’m good with it, I’m ok with what’s on the page. I take some pleasure in seeing how it works, what didn’t, and why. I genuinely like writing, damn it.

So I want to find a way to bring that into my classroom, that love of practice. But I practice writing, for the most part, on my own terms. Because I want to. Because I enjoy it. My kids, however, aren’t in the same boat, so it’s not as simple, I don’t think, as bringing my practices themselves into the classroom.

Still, I have to acknowledge that, as Della Pollock suggests in her essay “Performing Writing,” “performance, as practice…is never fully in control of its effects” (80). And what is teaching, ultimately, if not a performance? So no matter how much energy I devote to puzzling my way out of this rhetorical paper bag, I cannot claim full control over the effects of my teaching, of my time in the classroom. And that’s ok. I’ve accepted that.

But still. I want my kids–if not all, at least some–to one day [stupid future!] find the love and joy and pleasure in writing that I have, finally, after all these years. I don’t want to create clones of myself–I’m a goddamn mess!–but I do want to open as many door as I can for them, give them as many chances to monkey around in my classroom while they can. And as wishing cannot make it so, I’ve no choice but to keep playing around, to keep testing, rearranging, revising, rewriting in my classes as I do on the page, on the screen.

So for all that angst about “how can we teach writing?,” I end up writing myself back into this job, this calling, into those awesome five hours a week I get to spend in the classroom with my students. There are some traps, I suppose, from which we do not wish to escape.

Canon fodder (updated)

One of my favorite ongoing debates within slash is whether K/S is “canon” or not. There seems to be a real desire among some slashers (neatly summed up in the image above) for Kirk and Spock’s romantic relationship to be read as part of Star Trek canon: an immutable, irrefutable “fact” about the ST universe, like dilithium crystals or McCoy’s Southern accent.

Dude!–this argument goes–it’s clearly evident in the text (of canon) that Kirk and Spock totally love each other and/or totally had a complicated and acrobatic sexual relationship. On the one hand, then, K/S is already canon in these slashers’ minds; on the other, only Paramount (who still owns ST, right?) can make K/S “official” (and thus legitimate? Easier to talk about with friends and family? Facilitating slashers’ ability to come out of the textual/sexual closet, as it were? I don’t know).

This desire is complicated, I think, by the presence of Star Trek (2009), which reboots Kirk and Spock and makes an overt case for Spock’s heterosexuality (or penchant for humans, depending upon your perspective). However, the movie also recognizes the most important material object of the original Star Trek–Spock’s body–and carefully retains and protects that object and transports it safely to the new 23rd century. (I went on about Spock’s body-as-object in an earlier post here.)

[The question of K/S in the 2009 new-verse is an interesting one that I need to work with further–as a researcher. As a reader, I don’t buy 2009 K/S, but that’s a long story that has as much to do with where I went to college as my opinions on the film.] Continue reading “Canon fodder (updated)”