rrriting. (part 1 of x)


Today, I met with my Theories of Composition class.  This course is aimed mostly at English majors who will pursue a career in secondary education but also at those who plan to go off to graduate school, where they’ll be hurled into the ranks of FYC teaching assistants.  Topics range from… well, if you want to read about it, look here.

After a broad discussion of writing, digital text, and multimedia (texts at hand were Yancey’s 2009 report on 21st century writing, Trauman’s video on multimedia and meaning-crafting, and Wesch’s “Machine is Us/ing Us”), I dropped the following “big question” on them:  Why teach writing?

It’s not the first time I’ve asked them this question (and likely won’t be the last), but it is the first time I’ve asked it in this way.  That is, early in the semester, in a discussion of Chapter 1 of Lindemann’s A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers, we emphasized the first word in the question: Why?  The reasons she offers are no doubt familiar to anyone who has grappled with the question on their own, and are fairly standard answers for our discipline: writing is tied to economic power, is a form of social commitment, plays a role in problem-solving, and serves any number of important humanistic functions.  But today, I emphasized a different word: Writing?

Why teach writing, specifically (as opposed to drawing, to videography, to graphics-editing, to podcasting)?  Is the purview of the “writing classroom” really just writing? Or is it tied more closely to composition? Or to rhetoric?  As I pointed out to them, the distinction between these processes and concepts is wider than it might seem initially.  Do we teach writing for a meaningful reason? Or do we simply teach it at the behest of history?  Do we teach writing because it’s important culturally, socially, economically, individually, materially, or do we teach it “just because”?  (Other questions, which I won’t get into here, today, now–what counts as writing? and when we teach writing, what are we teaching?)

Though it might seem otherwise, asking “Why teach writing?” isn’t a summative dismissal of alphabetic text (though it could be).  Today, however, I ask it as the foundational intellectual (and indeed emotional) issue that any writing teacher ought to give serious consideration to at some point.

Why am I teaching writing?  Why writing?

(to be continued…)


One thought on “rrriting. (part 1 of x)

  1. I love this question.

    Socrates thought, perhaps rightly, that writing is dangerous. He thought it was dangerous to memory, and that increased reliance upon writing as a memory aid would cause one’s memory to atrophy. But Socrates wasn’t, as it turns out, exposed to the great knowledge-glut of the Internet. He wasn’t even faced with the somewhat more limited knowledge represented by Richard de Bury’s 14th-century collection of a thousand or so books. Socrates, in fact, may well have believed that the only things worth knowing were those things one could derive through cleverness.

    Socrates was wrong. The world is full of information, and in order for us to use it we’ve got to find some memory transmission and storage device that’s better than an individual’s memory. I’m not talking about storage media, such as paper or hard drives: I mean writing itself as a storage medium. Writing is far more reliable than memory, and reading is far faster and more reliable than listening. In short, writing may be the only technology we have which makes leverage of the human mind’s pre-existing capabilities. I mean writing in the largest sense possible, of course, beyond novels and poems and into the realm of written calculations and equations, spreadsheets and graphics, and even the maudlin, dying creatures called newspapers. So my answer is that we teach writing because we’ve developed the capacity to observe and the desire to take note of the observed.

    I wrote that “the world is full of information.” Of course, that’s only half right. The world is full of information because we are a curious set of monkeys bent upon poking and prying, and we have pretty much come to the consensus that understanding stuff is good. Given that I’m right, the end result is the desire to communicate as much of what we’ve learned about the world to each other in the hope that someone else can tell us what it means. In short, the world is only full of information because we desire it to be so. Writing is, currently, one of the most effective methods of transferring that information from one person to the next.

    So that’s why we teach writing. Without it, our investigations mean little because little would be remembered or understood.

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