Composition Theory and Pedagogy
Write a Lot
by Scott Wagar
“Write a lot.” Could this idea be the foundation of a sound writing pedagogy? It seems almost too simple. It also seems solidly in line with Peter Elbow’s ideas for the “teacherless class”and therefore, if we believe Berlin’s formulation from “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class”, perhaps part of a pedagogic philosophy that can easily marginalize certain students or be “co-opted by the agencies of corporate capitalism” (697; in Cross-Talk). But I’m thinking more in terms of establishing writing for students as something that ought to be done in volume in order to build it as a habit. In my own experience as a student, this never happened. Nor did I hear about the social implications of writing or the power structures inherent in the classroom, ideas that might pique student interest in writing’s possibilities and demystify the classroom enough to make students want to write more. Now I think these elements could be the keys to better writing.
Elbow opines, “If you are serious about wanting to improve your writing, the most useful thing you can do is keep a freewriting diary” (9). When I recently read Writing Without Teachers for the first time, the assertion that writing a lot is a good thing hit me as if it was completely new. And I think of myself as a writer! But some reflection showed me that my education, from grade school through college, had done very little to actually encourage me to write with any sort of regularity, or to revise what I did write. And so I produced little actual writing - just enough to get by. If this was the case for me, it may well have been the case for others. And if, regardless of our particular philosophical approach to instruction, we are in agreement as teachers of writing that we are trying to get students to write ”better” (however we understand that), then shouldn’t establishing writing as a habit be a priority? It is unlikely that any teacher of writing thinks that less, and not more, practice makes a better writer.
How might we encourage regular writing for students? Are daily journal entries a good idea, as Elbow suggests? Anecdotal evidence from our class suggests that some teachers find journal writing effective, while others are convinced that assigning a ten-minute freewriting exercise really would tend to produce pages full of the sentence “I hate this assignment” repeated over and over. Journal writing seems to me like a good start because of its nature: students are producing words on a page each and every day, in the majority of cases in a meaningful, if not necessarily “well-written”, way. Ideally, the habit of writing every day for at least ten minutes will take hold beyond the classroom; but for this to happen in reality, writing needs to be seen by students as more than a classroom ritual. It might be useful to expose students explicitly to such ideas as Emig’s assertion that writing is a unique mode of learning, or Murray’s claim that it is a “search for truth” (5; in Cross-Talk). Presumably our own experience as writers has shown us that writing is something special, and sharing that notion with students may be a way to encourage them to find out for themselves if it is true.
Of course, it may seem that promoting writing as “something special” would be to lean toward Elbow’s “expressionistic” philosophy, a particular way of understanding writing and, by extension (again, if we believe Berlin), reality. This is why I would also argue for the explicit statement of (among others) the ideas that writing is a social activity, that ideology necessarily comes before any particular teaching method, that “proper English” is one particular kind of discourse out of many. Just as Elbow’s simple assertion that more writing is a good idea was striking to me, some of the ideas we’ve encountered about writing as regards society have surprised me. Why? I was never exposed to these ideas in explicit terms. I was struck by Delpit’s example in “The Silenced Dialogue” of a conversation between a black teacher and a black student about “correct” English versus “Black” English (583-584; in Cross-Talk). Delpit points out how this sort of conversation might be a way in which “students begin to understand how arbitrary language standards are, but also how politically charged they are” (584). Along the same lines, I wonder if it might be possible for a teacher to tell students something like “I’m the teacher, and the way the system is established, I have a certain amount of power even if I try to pretend that I don’t. I want to make this explicit so that we can try to minimize the inequalities, not to pretend that they don’t exist. Also understand that this established system might not be the way things will always have to be done, and your writing might even help bring about change. I try to be mindful of this as I teach, and I’d ask you to be mindful of it as a student.” If writing is seen as more accessible (because of less “fear” of the teacher) and potentially empowering (because of the possibilities for affecting social change) to students of diverse backgrounds, it seems more likely to become something they attempt to claim for themselves.
If, as we teach, we foreground some of the social factors inherent in the classroom setting, journal entries focusing mainly on student’s individual experiences would be only part of the picture. Someone from our class suggested that material from private journal entries might be used as the basis for pieces intended to be read, and discussed, by the entire class. Students would thus be responsible for choosing topics, and they could be encouraged to “work up” the material through multiple drafts - again, encouraging more writing in volume. The resulting pieces could be shared in class and used as springboards for discussion not only of writing but also of the contexts that gave birth to the writing - if the teacher is willing to take the risks inherent in making inequalities and dissimilarities part of the conversation. Susan Jarratt discusses such a classroom in “Feminism and Composition”, “in which personal experience is important material but (teachers) openly acknowledge that differences exist and cause conflicts. The negotiation of these conflicts becomes the subject of the dialogue” (119; in Contending With Words). Dialogue, and the arguments that might become part of it, would be an essential part of the class. Along with regular writing, it, too, would become a habit.
A pedagogy requiring large amounts of student writing could obviously present practical problems for teachers, which is why the idea of working with a small number of formal assignments for each class seems like a good one. Peer review of drafts seems to me to be a good way to take some weight off a teacher’s shoulders, although effective methods need to be utilized to encourage substantive and useful comments about peer writing. As we’ve noted in class, peer review can help students become better readers of others’ -and hopefully their own - work. I’ve been amazed by the difference I see in the final versions of my own writing in classes that require at least one draft to be presented to fellow students, although such classes have been few and far between. Reflection on my experiences as a student has made me realize how disconnected I’ve felt from much of my own writing. This is not because I had nothing worthwhile to say, but, I think, because I usually didn’t - it wasn’t my habit to -- leave myself enough time to really be a reader of my own work, to step back and try to enjoy and even get something out of what I had written. I wasn’t really accustomed to acknowledging that it might have value beyond its immediate purpose in earning me a grade. Of the many papers I’ve written over the years, the vast majority of which were first drafts written immediately before they were due, I would guess that fewer than half received even a single, final read-through before they were submitted. Now they are forgotten, and it as if I never wrote them at all. What might have been possible if my education had led me to feel a real sense of involvement with my writing?
Murray recommends that “we should teach unfinished writing, and glory in its unfinishedness” (4; in Cross-Talk). A piece of writing can be seen as part of any number of ongoing dialogues, both personal and social, internal and external; to fail to make students explicitly aware of this is to risk denying them a chance to be excited by the implied possibilities. It seems to me that an effective writing pedagogy cannot be one that serves to make students feel distanced from their own work by assigning topics and doing little to encourage revision and discussion of what they write. A solid pedagogy, as I envision it, would attempt to habituate writing and revising as a means for students to better connect with their own writing, and to understand it in context with the writing of their peers and with the world in which they live.
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