Saturday, November 19, 2016

On the artificiality and the realness of academic writing

I've been trying to articulate for a long time the tension I feel between the relatively staid, formulaic way we tend to teach writing in the places I've taught it, and the inherent sense of possibility and promise I intuit about the act of writing itself.

After a longish lecture on introductions, paragraphs, and conclusions yesterday, I attempted to explain this to one of my classes. (I tried again in the second class and was able to get it across in a more abbreviated fashion.)

As a teacher of writing in a high-stakes "foundational" writing course which in some ways exists in relationship to the dreaded "writing-as-skill" discourse (which frankly I am not as scared of as some people), I feel a tension between:

a) the fact that what I teach, assign, and assess are basically "mutt genres," or rather all a part of the meta-genre that I call "Prove You Can Do What I Asked You To Do So You Can Pass This Class and Get On With It." (Formerly known as "Prove You Can Write an Essay," but not everything we assign in the course is an essay.) In other words, we have very specific types of assignments with very specific rubrics, and we do practice versions and then final in-class versions in which students are tested on whether than can write a summary, a critique, and an "essay" based on fairly explicit, strict conventions laid out in a textbook and/our lectures; and

b) the fact that I truly believe that aside from that somewhat artificial, overly school-ish rhetorical setting, which does not feel very "real" or "writery" -- not even when compared to what I believe/assume is assigned in other courses at the university -- when it just comes down to the rhetorical triangle of writer-topic-(imagined-or-real) audience, something true, good, and powerful can happen, that if somehow one of the in-class essays a student wrote blew away and ended up on a streetcorner in Saskatoon or Cleveland or Bristol or Mumbai, someone could pick it up, read it, and go "Huh! I never thought of that before! That's really interesting! That changes how I think about this thing!" ...Or that even I, the teacher who grimly sits down to grade 36 very similar essays, could have the same experience.

In a way this is a tension between camps in writing studies -- very broadly, current-traditional vs. expressivist (except I wouldn't claim either of those traditions, really, being an applied linguist by training) -- but I can't help feeling there's a dynamic tension here that could produce a new way of looking at the kind of class I teach.