Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Does writing exist?

It seems paradoxical to write the question, "Does writing exist?" but what I mean is: is there some thing called writing that someone can be good or bad at, teach, or simply do? According to John Warner, we know how to teach writing. But what is the evidence? And what is it that we, supposedly, know how to teach?

Warner's concern is with student writing, and in particular with the common complaint that students write badly. One part of his response, to which I am very sympathetic, is to say that people have been complaining about bad student writing forever. Saying that students can't write is like complaining about kids these days. I get that.

A second part of his response relies on agreement among people who teach writing about what works and what doesn't when trying to get students to write better. I have some sympathy with him on this too. When you teach something you do find out what works, and this isn't necessarily something you can easily prove to people who have not taught that subject. On the other hand, there are some questions one could ask about his main claims, which he says most writing instructors would agree with. Here are the claims:
  1. The more reading and writing we do, the better.
  2. Writing is best taught as a recursive process which includes (but isn’t necessarily limited to) pre-writing, drafting, revision and editing.
  3. Writing should engage with the rhetorical situation: message, audience, purpose and genre.
  4. Reflection and metacognition are key ingredients to developing as a writer.
  5. Isolated exercises in grammar and mechanics that don’t engage with the students’ own writing are not helpful.
  6. Sentence diagramming is not an important skill for good writing.
  7. Peer response and collaboration are useful tools in helping developing writers
  8. Writers write best when engaging with subjects they are both interested in and knowledgeable about.
  9. Developing as a writer requires a mind-set where we seek to increase our expertise without ever declaring ourselves expert. (There is always more to learn.)
  10. Writing itself is an act of thinking that allows for discovery while writing. In other words, the ultimate message is constructed through the act of writing, as opposed to being fully formed prior to starting to write.
  11. Developing writers benefit from close one-on-one instruction from an experienced mentor
Here are my responses to these claims:
  1. Agreed (within reason)
  2. This sounds right, too, as long as we keep in mind that this probably does not apply to all writing (e.g texting my kids) and that not everyone works best like this 
  3. Probably also true, although I sometimes fear that in teaching this point too much attention is paid to teaching and learning the meaning of 'rhetorical situation'
  4. This seems doubtful. "Reflection and metacognition" sounds as though it means self-consciousness, and I can imagine this doing as much harm as good. But perhaps this is because (or why) I haven't developed much as a writer
  5. Could be true. But when people complain about student writing I think that grammar and mechanics are primarily, if not exclusively, what they have in mind. So if these things cannot be taught (which I know #5 isn't saying) then perhaps we should stop trying to teach students how to write in dedicated writing courses 
  6. Depends how it is done, I think. (I have never done it, by the way.) Argument mapping has been found to improve critical thinking. (I don't mean that it has been conclusively proved to help in all cases.) But perhaps argument mapping is too different from sentence diagramming for this to count. Or perhaps critical thinking is not relevant to good writing. Or perhaps what almost all writing instructors would agree on is not the same as what empirical evidence shows.
  7. Maybe. My students very often think it is a waste of time (I still do it sometimes, because it seems as though it ought to help.) I believe that people with MFAs disagree about whether this kind of thing actually improves one's writing or, instead, turns it into writing by committee. Peer response will only be as good as the peers in question anyway.
  8. Plausible. But students must learn to write about things they are not already interested in. 
  9. OK
  10. Certainly writing should involve thinking
  11. Surely this is true
In other words, many of Warner's claims are at least highly plausible. But I also get the distinct impression that he wants to focus on teaching writing in a sense that is quite different from what the "kids these days can't write" crowd want. They want spelling and grammar. He, and others who teach writing, want something else. That's fine. But I think the reason so many students are required to take so many writing courses is because of "kids these days" concerns. If these courses don't address those concerns they should probably be optional.

Here's another questionable claim from Warner, one that I've heard before from other people (emphasis added):
Supposed tensions such as “Do we hold students accountable to sound mechanics?” or “Do we let students engage in self-expression?” are not actually tensions when students are required to work in a full rhetorical situation because they are forced to do what all writers must do -- make choices and wrestle with ideas that will be presented to interested audiences.
Do that enough times in enough different contexts and not only will you learn how to write, but when you’re confronted with a type of writing you haven’t done before, you’ll be able to figure out how to write in that form or genre as well.
Seriously? If you write a novel, a political speech, and a lab report then when you have to write a sonnet you'll be able to do it? That's absurd. So maybe that's not what he means. You might be more confident of your ability to rise to the challenge, and confidence surely helps. You might also know something about how to learn how to write a sonnet. But you won't actually be able to do it just because you have written other kinds of things. If you really want to learn how to write sonnets you should take a sonnet-writing or poetry-writing course. Just as if you want to know how to write a lab report you should probably get to a lab and ask someone there.

Which is to say that I have real doubts about the point of trying to teach generic writing, unless it really is focused on precisely the grammar and mechanics that people like Warner, understandably, seem not to want to teach.


  1. ... couple of random thoughts. Most kids these days are first regimented on being library hounds and doing something not unlike what dogs do when they play fetch. Retrieve, repeat, summarize, regurgitate, citation form. mechanics. I think all of that is fine, but not if it swallows up locating how well a student formulates a constellation of ideas, which is not equal among them. When I teach Wittgenstein, I specifically tell them: fetching other people's ideas is not what I want in this course. I want to see how well you see connections. This itself is a skill that shows itself. And if it does so in numbered remarks, we will accept that.

    I think the educational experience should be varied. In my own university designated writing-intensive classes, I choose to focus upon how well they understand and formulate thoughts, not their grammar, diction, spelling, citation or anything else. I figure they will get that in other classes.

    I think "writing" should be distinguished from composition. Many of us are interested in writing as a window to thought. The English professors are often interested in writing for its own sake. My guess is that philosophy has always been least concerned with that.

    The lawyers, on the other hand -- who have no original ideas -- surely they need militancy in composing. Be brief. Stop being wordy. Cite. Get to the point. Topic sentences.

    I'm not sure really good thinking necessarily needs this as much, because, one wants to say, it bleeds for itself.

    1. I teach writing-intensive courses too, and although I focus on understanding and formulating thoughts, I do give some weight (5% of the grade, to be precise) to spelling and grammar. Because I don't think they do get this in other courses, but it still matters. (Matters, that is, in the sense that people do judge on the basis of such criteria and so being able to spell is the kind of thing that can help or hinder one's attempts to get a good job.)

      I'm a great believer in writing across the curriculum. As long as you have this, i.e., as long as professors in, roughly, every subject except mathematics, assign as much writing as they should (rather than multiple choice tests, etc.) then I don't see that generic writing courses, such as freshman composition, have much to do. And if people are giving multiple choice tests in place of essays, then I doubt that one or two courses in writing will ever make up for that.

      But I don't know. I'm interested, nonetheless, because so many of my friends and colleagues teach writing, and I wonder about what it is they do, what they take themselves to be doing, and whether it is worthwhile, in probably something like the way they might wonder what philosophers do and take themselves to be doing.

    2. ... our experiences are no doubt due to differences in our institutions. Over here, many of us reacted negatively to writing across the curriculum because of how bureaucratized it was. They tried to tell us that our papers needed to be a specific length and that we had to be offering English-professor feedback. And that re-writes were mandatory. So, many of us just said: okay, screw the paper. Or we kept doing what we always did and elected not to count the class as one requiring "writing."

      My view was that if students need additional composition skills, they should just double the English-writing class. Make them take more than one semester (like with language).

      But I do get what you are saying. Any attitudinal difference here is likely due to how our institutions are different (I think). And probably because I just don't like coaching their composition. Honestly I hate it. So maybe it's just me. (God knows it wouldn't be the first time).

    3. It's somewhat bureaucratized here too, but papers don't need to be any particular length, and we aren't told what kind of feedback we have to give. We do have to allow re-writing, but that gives students a reason to read and think about my comments on their papers, so I like it.

      One thing I like about writing across the curriculum is that you get history profs teaching students how to write history papers, philosophy profs teaching how to do philosophy, etc. I'm not sure what else you need (unless, as I say, it's a course or two on grammar and spelling). Some people try to teach generic writing and generic research (or so it seems from the outside), and this makes little sense to me.

  2. 1st I think it's a good/real question as to whether or not Writing exists, seems to me that literally speaking there are just individual acts of writing and the artifacts they create (the relation between the two in process, via something like extended-minding, is also of interest), so is the 1st open to something akin to a sort of design approach where we get a specific as possible about what we are focusing on, break it roughly into components, and than think about teaching others how to assemble/enact them? I think so but the question of what is Good or not seems to me to take us back around the old Witt wheel here of how do we come to see/assess such matters. Gotta say I've been either grading undergrad papers (not in a great while thankfully) or editing graduate and faculty work since the 80's and I do wonder when the golden age of academic writing is supposed to have been, as you say has a bit of make America great again to it old mann-ism to it.

    1. Yes.

      I just don't know whether the design approach works. Maybe it does. I can, though only vaguely, imagine a sort of recipe or step-by-step guide that actually works for producing relatively good writing of any and all kinds. But I certainly don't write like that, consciously thinking about what I'm doing at each stage and why I'm doing it. Perhaps I should.

      It seems a bit like programming a robot. You might need to tell it explicitly not to tell dirty jokes at funerals, etc., but do you really need to tell people this kind of thing? And if you encourage them to think about rules like this will it make their writing better or worse? That seems like an open question to me. (Though perhaps there is widespread agreement among good writers that this type of self-consciousness is very helpful. Are writing instructors good writers though? They don't seem bad, but I've never been struck by how much better they are at communication that the rest of us.) Another approach to AI involves a sort of black box where you don't put in explicit rules but you tell it every time it gets things right or wrong, and it adjusts in response. (I'm not remembering this well--I hope that makes sense.) I suspect the best way to teach writing might be like this. Instead of following a recipe you try and fail then try again, perhaps sometimes getting advice on something specific you should not do, or could do better. In the end you get the hang of it, like riding a bike.

      Particular forms of writing (lab reports, job application letters, etc.) have rules, but it seems implausible that there would be rules for good writing generally. I like Orwell's rules but they don't always apply. And you don't need a two semester sequence of freshman comp to learn them.

      Good writing is a lot like good thinking. And you don't learn that in one course.

    2. this is where I think a kind of enactivism after Wittgenstein converges with enactivism after Heidegger/M-Ponty see Bert Dreyfus on expertise at his webpage or

  3. Hey do you or any readers remember a blog that had imaginary discussions between Wittgenstein and Freud in heaven? Good stuff.