“Why College Writing Matters”
UNT Writing Program Orientation
August 20, 2014
Those of you who know me, and especially those of you who have taken my classes, know that I am pretty cynical about composition. My invitation to talk today about “Why College Writing Matters” may therefore seem like the height of irony. But obviously I don’t think it is, otherwise I would’ve had to politely decline Dr. Yeatts’s gracious invitation. In fact, although I am cynical about composition, I am also rather idealistic about why college writing matters, and especially why teaching college writing matters.
For me, the crucial distinction to be made at this point is between composition and writing. The former, to my mind, is a uniquely institutional creature, caught up as it is in discussions about FTEs, assessment reportage, and degree plans. Probably synergies and deliverables, too. Composition in this sense is 150 years old, give or take. Writing, on the other hand, is a couple millennia older and it is neither organically nor necessarily linked to institutions of higher education.
Here’s the other thing about writing—it’s really hard to define in a satisfactory way. I can say, for instance, that my 3-year-old daughter is learning to write just as truthfully as I can say that I am still learning to write. The common thread that ties these two usages, and many others, together is that writing is a form of cultural participation. My daughter is in the early stages of learning to participate in a broadly literate culture; I like to think I’m a little further along in learning to participate in a series of much more focused professional, public, and personal cultures.
Both composition and writing matter, in their own ways. Both, in fact, are absolutely necessary for our existence as college writing teachers. But unlike composition, writing matters in a way that we—as writing teachers—can actually affect on a regular, individual, personal basis. My idealism about writing, then, is grounded in a deep-seated optimism about the possibility of participating meaningfully in culture and about the possibility of helping students to do so, as well.
The remainder of what I have to say today is essentially an amplification of this theme. I’ve broken it down roughly into three sections to tease out what I think are some useful distinctions as we approach the beginning of a new semester. First, I plan talk more specifically about teaching, second about culture, third more properly about today’s theme, why writing matters.
First, teaching. I hope you will forgive what is sure to be a classic case of preaching to the choir. I am quite certain that we all believe teaching is important—some of us maybe even think teaching is virtuous. No doubt this belief is reinforced by how challenging good teaching is. In a recent essay for Slate magazine, former Yale professor William Deresiewicz writes that [QUOTE] “College teaching, like any other kind, is a slow, painstaking, difficult process.” [UNQUOTE]. It is complex, uncertain, and often ambiguous. [I warned you that I would be preaching to the choir.]
The thing is, teaching is also fundamentally a hopeful process. We believe that students can learn, and in so doing, can be better, smarter, happier, and more successful people. And we believe that we can help.
To be sure, the slowness and difficulty and painstakingness that Deresiewicz talks about can make the hopefulness hard to maintain. As you’re all undoubtedly aware, when you spend days and weeks and months with students who seem not to get what you’re trying to teaching them, it is hard not to come away feeling a little frustrated—maybe even occasionally dejected. And even when teaching works well, the evidence of success may be invisible for weeks or months or years—which can mean “invisible forever” to teachers whose students move on after a semester or two. Yet, despite the all reasons to be frustrated or dejected—and there are plenty—teaching remains at its core an optimistic endeavor.
Recently, I had to go see my doctor to update some vaccinations. This was the first time I’d been to see this doctor and he asked me what I do for a living. I bet you can guess what his response was when I told him I teach writing. Right on cue, as if reading from a script:
“Oh, that’s fantastic. I don’t have to tell you” [BUT OF COURSE HE DID], “Kids today can’t write. It’s all text speak and tweeting.” Etc. etc. etc.
I have a standard response to these kinds of conventional complaints about “kids these days.” I always respond, “It’s a good thing they can’t write—otherwise I’d be out of a job.” Depending on how snarky I’m feeling, I might also add, “After all, if they could already write, they wouldn’t need college, would they?”
I relate this anecdote for two reasons. The first, of course, is that it’s a common experience for writing teachers. You could replace doctor with “stranger on an airplane” or “grocery bagger” or “President of the United States” and predict much the same response. Heck, you could replace doctor with “President of the university” and the script would probably stay the same. I find this routine intensely aggravating, and many of the teachers I know do as well.
But the second reason I tell this story is the reason teachers tell it to each other all the time—it reminds us how hopeful we are about teaching and about students. It illustrates what I think is the hopeful difficulty of teaching—and especially of teaching writing. I am aggravated by the conventional “Kids these days” script because I believe that what I do is worthwhile. And I believe it is worthwhile because I am really, truly, deeply optimistic about students.
I hope that those of you who have taken classes with me (or will be soon) know this to be true. For all my theatrical blustering, I know that students are enriched by education and by good teachers (a designation to which I fervently aspire). I am hopeful FOR students and I am hopeful BECAUSE of them. I’ll wrap this section here with a quick summation lest I start gushing—teaching is intrinsically an optimistic undertaking, even when it is otherwise burdened by frustrations and delayed gratification.
Which brings me to section two: This section will be both shorter and less optimistic than section one. My academic background is in rhetoric, and it is my unequivocal belief that the study of rhetoric is also fundamentally optimistic. Rhetoricians are relentless in their pursuit of positive change through the power of language. We’re practically a bunch of Pollyannas.
Except, of course, the insistence on bringing about positive change also incessantly directs rhetoricians’ attention to all the negative things that need changing. As it happens, culture—broadly-defined—is a roiling mess of negative things that need changing. Cultures—more narrowly-defined—are also ripe with things that demand positive change. And, as we see in any number of spots around the university, the community, the nation, and the world, the need for positive change is intense. It is also interminable and controversial.
I suppose this, like the previous section, is preaching to the choir. Nevertheless, it returns me to my definition of writing as cultural participation. What we are enlisted to do as writing teachers is to help our students make sense of and thoughtfully participate in cultures that are roiling messes in need of positive change. So here’s where we are so far: teaching is an optimistic pursuit, and culture is intensely fraught. Based on my definitions, then, teaching writing is a grand paradox.
You have no doubt noticed a theme in my talk by now. To wit: the abundant rewards of Teaching…Writing…and Teaching Writing are always complicated by serious obstacles. But, of course, another way to say this is that the slow, painstaking, difficult process of teaching writing is always accompanied by serious rewards. This, to my mind, is precisely why college writing matters. College writing matters because, done well, it is an invitation for students to encounter the complex challenges of the worlds they live in—to participate in them—by holding out the possibility of actually making positive cultural change.
Granted, this is not a one-to-one transaction. College writing does not necessarily make positive cultural change. In Writing at the End of the World, Richard Miller confronts this uncomfortable truth directly. He writes, [QUOTE] “The dark night of the soul for literacy workers comes with the realization that training students to read, write, and talk in more critical and self-reflective ways cannot protect them from the violent changes our culture is undergoing” [END QUOTE]. His examples are of 9/11, Columbine, and pervasive sexual assault on college campuses, among others. We might update them to include Afghanistan, Ferguson, and countless more.
Not cheering stuff, and not likely to be solved by 15 weeks’ worth of exposure to Ancient Rhetorics or The Shallows or a half dozen progymnasmata exercises. But Miller is a committed teacher, and as such he cannot help but betray his hopefulness. Miller is non-plussed by claims that reading or writing will empower students, or make them good academic arguers, or will save them from the blight of modern life. He’s not a romantic. Nevertheless, he sees real value in teaching students to [QUOTE] “use writing as a technology to think with.”
At the risk of oversimplifying Miller’s subtle arguments, I read him to say that writing is a way to explore, confront, and engage in the concerns that shape our lives—not just students’ lives, but our lives as well. College writing may not solve the world’s greatest problems, and in fact it may be one of the world’s problems, depending on who you talk to. But college writing nevertheless matters because it can help students make sense of and thoughtfully participate in cultures that that need positive change. And college writing matters because it does not abandon those processes for students to figure out alone. As I said earlier, whatever the frustrations, teaching writing matters because writing teachers can contribute meaningfully to students’ participation in their worlds through regular, individual, personal interactions.
Perhaps it would be worthwhile here to reframe this point about why college writing matters. My doctor thinks college writing solves problems—this is the crux of his complaint about “kids these days,” with their twitterizing, and their text messaging, and their fashionable ankle monitors. But of course he is exactly wrong. Or more precisely, solving problems is the purview of composition—which is assessable and achieves outcomes.
As I said in the beginning, composition matters, but composition is not writing. College writing in the way Miller invites us to see it doesn’t solve problems as well as it reveals them. Teaching in the way Deresiewicz invites us to see it, likewise reveals problems. In this sense, the paradox of college writing is its greatest strength. The paradox of college writing exemplifies the hope and difficulty of teaching writing more generally.
And, of course, it’s a beginning, not an end. After 15 weeks of strict drilling, my students would probably not impress my general practitioner with their erudition, nor even probably their punctuation.
And what I am asking them to do is much harder in the long run than excising dangles from their modifiers.
And they may choose not to accept the invitation, and they may defer the invitation until long after we’ve parted ways.
And in the end, of course, the composition creature must be fed. Miller again: [QUOTE] “Students must attend; teachers must be present; papers must be solicited, assessed, returned. And, regardless of what actually happens during this process, instruction must be said to have occurred” [END QUOTE].
And all of these things conspire to undercut the hopefulness of teaching.
And yet they are exactly why college writing matters. Because while the college writing classroom is certainly not the only place that students are invited to discover the problems of the world around them, it remains, against all odds, a hopeful place for discovering ways to participate in the process of solving them.