Composition Theory and Pedagogy
The Purpose of Writing: A Tool for Learning
by Shirlee Dufort
A number of people whom I have heard recount their former school days with an overall sense of calm or detachment have been moved to more intensity when speaking of their experiences with writing. Their stories either enthusiastically celebrate the encouragement and praise offered by teachers who facilitated their self-confidence and pride, or are miserable tales that depict feelings of humiliation, disappointment and failure. A closer look at these two extremes is imperative as we consider teaching writing and the impact of that teaching on the students.
While listening to recollections of English classes, I have found that it is not unusual for the stories of a single individual to weigh as heavily in one direction as the other. One of the reasons I feel strongly about this issue is that it mirrors my own experiences as a returning student. Like the others with whom I’ve spoken, I have been applauded by some teachers and judged harshly by others. Comments on my papers have ranged from, “An outstanding essay. I enjoyed reading it immensely,” and “This is one of the best papers I’ve gotten in years. I shared it with a colleague of mine,” to “Who ever taught you how to write?” and “What? What? Cut, cut, cut. So wordy. Not more backfill!” A simple explanation might be that disparaging comments were directed at early writing and praise at later work, but that is not the case. What then can be the reason? Inconsistent work, of course, or perhaps the incongruity can be explained by the subjectivity inherent in the judgment of writing, particularly when contrasted with a more systematic assessment tool like multiple choice tests (there is subjectivity even in these, as regards wording and interpretation of the questions, but that is another discussion). And subjectivity is not limited to the teacher. Memory is illusory, our perceptions influenced by our emotions, and not simply reflections of “objective reality.” The student writers’ reminiscences are likely more intense and polarized than would be their teachers’ memories of the same incidents. The vulnerability that is a result of the personal nature of writing could account for this. Even when writing in a formal or academic style, we reveal ourselves in a more obvious way than we do when we choose between a, b, c and d. When we write fiction or poetry, we surely do so even more.
Given all of this, what can be done? We can look at writing in a deeper way. The factor that emerges, that warrants serious consideration, is the purpose behind writing. Of course, the purpose may differ somewhat between teacher and student and among individual writers, but a clearly understood and stated intention could bring closer to center some of the extremes on either side. Ideally, both sides would be brought into balance. There are those who would argue that only the negative experiences should be softened, but there is also danger in high praise. Student writers may be so entranced by exclamations about their talent that they will attempt to repeat the praised piece rather than growing and continuing to expand in new directions. Another possible hazard would be writers becoming overly dependent on an outside source for validation, as opposed to using various kinds of feedback to hone an intuitive sense about their own work.
Of greater concern, though, are the stories that are resurrected with a distress that obviously still lingers, in spite of the fact that many of the incidents happened years earlier. If the point of writing is to produce a text that is held up as tangible evidence of talent or magic (and skill, to be fair), then the likelihood of disappointment on the part of the writer is great. If the magic doesn’t happen, it means that the student doesn’t measure up. S/he either has it or s/he doesn’t; the material that is produced determines the very value of the one who is doing the producing. The ego is involved and the aim, at best, is to turn out a piece that is deemed worthy of the praise of the authority figure and, at worst, is a scramble to stave off failure and embarrassment.
However, what would happen if the goal weren’t something tangible? If the purpose of writing is actually to aid the writer in learning, then what and how we see become considerably different. The focus shifts and is no longer on producing a product or winning approval or praise. It is rather on entering into a process in order to study and more fully understand the area being researched, the question being considered, the argument being readied, the form being utilized, the individual as person or writer, organization of thought, etc. The possibilities are many. The way that writing facilitates the learning process is one of its under-appreciated gifts.
In “Writing as a Mode of Learning,” Janet Emig provides information that supports the wisdom of the aforementioned shift in how we view writing. In fact, it is not difficult to find support for this argument in articles that emphasize a variety of themes. Emig’s text mentions the four processes of language: writing, listening, reading and talking, and the unique combination of characteristics that is found in each (7-8). Writing is productive (compared with receptive), has the qualities of being both originating and creating, and then is graphically recorded. This unique combination makes writing the powerful learning strategy that it is. Further, writing has many of the characteristics that psychologists have found essential to the learning process: learning by doing, by depicting an image and by representational restatement in words (10). In simpler terms, these may be said to be the predomination of the hand, the eye and the brain respectively. All three ways of learning are utilized in the act of writing, one effectively reinforcing another.
Emig also calls writing cyclic: the student learns to write and writes to learn. The learning is integrated at a fundamental level, involving both the right and left hemispheres of the brain (11). Writing offers a unique form of feedback that is immediate and visible, thereby providing another example of powerful reinforcement. Since writing is done at the rhythm and pace that best suits the student, and this mirrors the way that each of us best learns, education and understanding are further strengthened (12).
Closely related is Donald Murray’s “Writing as Process: How Writing Finds Its Own Meaning,” which is not surprising since he quotes Emig in the article. He calls writing a “significant kind of thinking,” (3) and says that the writer learns from the writing (7). The act of writing itself can help the writer to focus more clearly on the subject.
Sondra Perl goes further in “Understanding Composing,” when she says that with our words we craft meaning, shaping and adding structure to the sense with which we began, and thereby we discover something new in ourselves and in our subject (153). In Writing Without Teachers, Peter Elbow details the method that he suggests, one that alternates free writing with intervals of editing, the point being to better our “ability to think carefully and discriminatingly” (33). A number of prominent educators, who differ in other aspects of their philosophies and theories, come together on this point.
In a discussion about writing, with a professor who has published a number of books, I revealed that while I often start a paper with an introductory paragraph and a thesis statement, I find that I modify these continually as I write. While I shared this with an attitude of embarrassed confession, he said that that is exactly how he writes, indeed that he can’t imagine any other way.
When I am preparing to write a critique of an article or book for a class, I read and think about the source material, scribble notes and drawn general conclusions. However, as I articulate those ideas at the keyboard, they rarely remain constant. The change seems to come from greater organization and from examining thought in the more meticulous way that writing challenges us to do. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that this careful analysis is something that writing insists on.
Until this point, I have avoided any mention of assigning grades. The likelihood is that I will be part of a system that calls for grading, with no choice but to assign letters to written assignments. My initial inclination was to downplay the assessment of form and content and to strongly favor an emphasis on the learning aspect of writing. However, after reading Lisa Delpit’s article, “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children,” I’ve modified my position. Delpit says that students, especially children of color and those of lower socio-economic status, find themselves in situations in which they must operate by rules that have not been made explicit to them (573). She then argues that teachers of writing do not serve their students well when they imply that the end product is not important, because students are, in fact, judged on what they produce.
With this in mind, I would attempt to achieve a balance between the requisite assessment of the tangible product and the student’s use of writing as a learning tool. One answer is to give split grades, expanding the two letter grades that are sometimes given for form and content, adding an additional letter grade to reflect the student’s use of writing as a learning tool. Along with writing comments on their papers, to both teach and encourage, the grade would be form/content/ learning. The latter could be discerned by having students hand in drafts, thus showing the stages and progress of their learning process. I could also ask the students to describe to me, either verbally or by writing an informal page, what they learned in the process of creating their texts and in what way writing was helpful in that. Whatever they detail that they have learned, whether about the subject, form, thought, argument, organization, themselves, etc. would be acceptable. The point would be to expand beyond the focus on form and content that has consistently been emphasized in our educational system. Considering how radical this change would be, I can’t decide whether students would embraced it as long overdue or view it with suspicion due to its unfamiliarity. Perhaps it would take some time to implement.
I would also acquaint the students with a quote that has been a favorite of mine since high school. It is from “Of Studies,” written by Francis Bacon: “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.” My experiences have borne this out; nothing leads me to the kind of exactness and clarity of thought that the commitment of writing does. This is further affirmation of the unique place of writing in the learning process. Donald Murray adds his own twist, “I would not write-would not need to write-if I knew what I was going to say before I said it” (13).
When I stop pressuring myself to be talented or to try to win praise, and I write in order to sift my thoughts or delve more deeply into a subject, I have a much more positive experience. I then know, without insecurity or self-doubt, that I am a writer. If I discount my intuition and hold up my work for scrutiny, asking (whether aloud or silently, whether consciously or unconsciously) whether it’s any good, indeed whether I’m any good, I am invariably disappointed and discouraged. Since this is relevant to a forty-seven year old student, it certainly applies to younger students, who have much of the work of maturing and developing ahead of them. The question that remains at the center of teaching is how we can teach without discouraging, helping students to find their strengths while they sharpen skills in the areas with which they struggle. While the focus I’ve proposed may not be the definitive answer, it moves in the right direction.
Bacon, Francis. “Of Studies.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. General Ed. M. H. Abrams. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1993.
Delpit, Lisa D. “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children.” Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. Ed. Victor Villanueva, Jr. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1997.
Elbow, Peter. Writing Without Teachers. London: Oxford University Press, 1973.
Emig, Janet. “Writing as a Mode of Learning.” Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. Ed. Victor Villanueva, Jr. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1997.
Murray, Donald M. “Writing as Process: How Writing Finds Its Own Meaning.” Learning By Teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1982. 17-31. Originally published in Timothy R. Donovan and Ben W. McClelland, eds. Eight Approaches to Teaching Writing. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1980.
Perl, Sondra. “Understanding Composing.” College Composition and Communications 31 (1980): 363-369. Reprinted in Gary Tate, Edward P. J. Corbett and Nancy Myers, eds. The Writing Teacher’s Sourcebook, 3rd edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. 149-154.
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