Sunday, October 25, 2015

writing and "teaching" writing

I have believed for several years now that I should not be teaching writing in my classes, because it's not my job. I teach philosophy, not writing, except to the extent that students need guidance in explaining philosophical ideas in writing.

I'm uncertain I still believe that it's not my job to teach writing. For one thing, I've accepted at last that the implicit form-content dualism of that belief is untenable. Writing is not a container, and ideas are not pre-existing stuff to fill it.

On Thursday, I went on a bike ride after finishing grading 108 student papers, and thought about how to begin teaching something about writing to my students. I began by telling them that reading student papers causes me great pain, because I empathize with the pain I can see in their writing.

I then asked about their pain and anxiety about writing, and when I asked them what they do in response, the first answer in each class was, of course, procrastinate. They listed a number of other responses: they stress-eat, lose sleep, plagiarize, rush through, or give up. I asked how well those strategies work out.

It's hard for me to understand this, because I write all the time. I love constructing sentences and paragraphs. I delight in playing around with words. It's easy. It's easier for me to write than not to write. I struggle to refrain from writing. (That's not entirely true. Some days I can't write easily or well. I just don't have any words. When that happens, I don't push it. The next day, it's back.)

It's also perplexing because I believe most people I come across who have to write as part of what they're doing dislike or even dread writing. How--or more to the point, why--anyone who hates writing becomes a successful academic is beyond my comprehension.

If I state everything I know about good writing, the dilemma of teaching writing is clear. What I know about writing is that good writers learn by copying good writing. Duh. You fall in love with a writer, read everything you can find by that writer, and attempt to write in that writer's style. Then you fall in love with another, and repeat. After 7 or 13 repetitions, your own writing has become a bad pastiche of these styles, and with any luck, someone tells you this or you notice it, and start taking out all the obvious thefts you can identify. You continue this, and add new stolen pieces and removing them, until you die. 

I have my students for a 15-week semester. I can tell them what good writing takes, but they typically lack even the basis of reading and mimicking good writing for years. This extends to fundamentals. Even correcting punctuation and usage on five-page papers is meaningless, if my students lack the habit and the models of conventional style.  

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