Snow Write and the Eight Habits

In the last year, there has been some buzz in the field of rhetoric and composition over a document called the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing, which, from what I gather, is designed to provide some key terms for ongoing debates about what writing instruction should be. The document, however, is rather quiet about the particulars of teaching writing, choosing to get at the subject obliquely, through the privileging of two descriptive categories, “habits of mind” and “experiences.” In carefully worded, committee-approved prose, the authors assure us that the habits of mind they delineate here “are crucial for all college-level learners” and that the particular forms of experiences described herein “contribute to [these] habits of mind.”

I like the rhetorical jujitsu of reversing the expectations of who or what is at fault when “our students can’t write.” The document does not promise that instructors of writing will provide skills and instruction that guarantee success in writing and in life. Rather, the document asks that the students be provided with environments and experiences that will make writing possible at the college level. The authors offer some examples of what teachers can do to provide these experiences, but, ultimately, who can say how a habit of mind is formed?

When I first saw the eight habits of mind— Curiosity, Openness, Engagement, Creativity, Persistence, Responsibility, Flexibility, and Metacognition—I couldn’t help but think of a Bunyan-esque allegory (The Life and Death of Mr. Badwriter?) or a really dreary adaptation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Who (other than perhaps a jealous queen) could argue with these eight virtues? What is less certain is how we might promote, underscore, or develop such habits. Or where or how writing enters the picture. Or even if “habits” is the right word for categories such as curiosity, openness, creativity, and flexibility. I am glad to see a document for writing teachers that does not hinge on measurements and outcomes or the impossible minutiae of describing presumed best practices (that quickly become reified routines). But I’m less enamored of a document that hangs so much on such enormous abstractions. I don’t mean to be grumpy (or Grumpy), but I wonder how such broad, open-ended key terms made it past the first draft. Isn’t asking for “creativity” a bit like beginning an essay with “Since the beginning of time…”?