Monday, November 2, 2015

Turn of Phrase: A Writing Teacher's Manifesto

The look they give me lies somewhere between irritation and perplexity when I say that writing is different from speech. I tell them that writing allows them to revise, to polish, to sharpen, to deepen, and to explore in ways that spoken language seldom does. They persist in "the look," not buying it, or maybe even not understanding what I am saying. The concept is sometimes resisted, dismissed, or seen as a threat to familiar ways of thinking and expressing.

As a teacher, I think it's worth the trouble to break down and explicitly name what I mean by writing being different from oral communicating. This is not to say that literate oral discourse is not possible, but it often is based on being steeped in written treatment of a subject.

Writing, for one, allows one to be more precise. Not "car," but "candy apple green, metal flake, '68 Chevelle with Hurst shifter, black leather interior, Bose 12 inch woofers, and fuzzy dice." Sometimes a subject needs that kind of precision. Or, not just "love," but "that time you had no money, but gave me the last can of Mountain Dew you were saving for the final game of the World Series."  Writing teachers harp on the need to specificity, precision, concreteness, vividness of language, but we don't always help students see what that looks like, how they can break out of highly abstract thinking.

Writing also allows one to create frameworks of categories. It pushes students to see what it is that they didn't see before about a particular subject. They might see a sequence of steps in a process that would never have been pursued in spoken conversation, or reasons for an argument they hadn't though about before. The defining characteristics, for example of a group they belong to, might escape if they didn't think to name them. A baseball player for example, did not notice that his team was almost all white, in spite of it representing a high school that was very diverse. Another student found that the "unity" she felt at a college football game came from the prospect of "taking territory" from the opposing team. She wrote "our tribe gained ground from the other tribe, and it made us all feel part of the taking. Now it was ours."

Writing also requires that the writer stand back from a subject enough to see it differently. Talking is so often so immersed in what it is that it can't see the forest for the trees or the water fish swim in. Talking takes things for granted, asks listeners to take speakers' word for the topic, to give benefit of the doubt. Writing invites critique. The best writing demands critique, or at least detachment from the subject to see it better for what it is and isn't.

Writing makes the writer accountable to support assertions. Writing carries more burden of proof than speaking, usually. Truisms and self evident claims don't often stand up to much scrutiny. Readers want examples, evidence, explanation in what they read.

Readers want writers to do the work of digesting an synthesizing their subjects. They want writers to divide and arrange material into bite-sized pieces that can be considered for their integral complexity. Writing addresses complexity in a way that speech often avoids. Creative tension, opposing but united traits, round characters and subjects come across better in writing than in speech. In speech, we can lapse into stereotypes and over simplification and get away with it. "She's such a drama queen," for example, in speech, will likely get a "yeah," while in writing, there may follow something like "but she also works the phones at the domestic violence center." People, like the subjects we consider in writing, are often far more complex than spoken discourse tends to address.

Students often wonder about these differences, especially when the topic of grades comes up. "A" writing tends to require that students convey complexity, order, shaping, division of ideas, careful explanation or commentary. Students often resist taking the step beyond what is a shared level of obviousness, or self-evidence.

I know, or infer this because of "the look" when I question widely shared cultural assumptions, such as the beliefs underlying patriotism, gender roles, the functions of asking questions of authority or what is deemed "normal." Constructs like white privilege, in particular are met with resistance when I ask students to step back and take a look at them.

Writing, as an act of inquiry, of re-visioning, or re-considering, can function to create new understanding, but sometimes students need to hear this stated explicitly, demonstrated, modeled, and then practiced.

It is only then that "the look" may turn from one of resistance and perplexity to one of surprise, curiosity, and wonder.

[This is a rough draft. More to come as I get some of these ideas together.] 

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