Legos and Eggs

lego breakfast plate

I’ve been sampling bits of the new 4th edition of Jim Williams’s Preparing to Teach Writing, in part because I wanted to see whether Williams had changed any of his approach (he hasn’t), but mostly because I was thinking about his chapter on the relationship between teaching grammar and improving writing (there is no causative relationship, as he has argued since the mid-80s, so far as I know). I remember being convinced by his argument about that relationship (or, rather, a lack of relationship) when I read it in the first edition, and I still am. When I was in graduate school, we used the first edition of this work while learning the pedagogy of the college writing courses we were teaching. Jim Williams was also Associate Director then, so all that was reinforced frequently face-to-face. Williams advocates enthusiastically for the “process” pedagogy, defined as the familiar trio of planning, drafting, revising, he also told us that in a student-centered classroom the instructor must limit speaking to  10-15 minutes per hour. I agree there, too, so long as we’re talking about writing.  He also strongly advocates for assignments that give students the opportunity to write about things “related to the world outside the classroom” (237). On this particular expedition into the new edition, I lingered with that discussion some and found myself mentally weighing in, which is a sign that I should write a blog about it.

To Williams, making that “real world” connection to writing prompts is the best way of “helping students see themselves as writers,” which, he continues, “is rewarding and, fortunately, not very difficult” (237). He goes on to decry some assignments he’s seen that involve writing letters to senators or editors, or even to write letters of complaint about “unsatisfactory service or a shoddy product” (237). He notes that students quickly see through those artificial exercises (presumably because, as Williams seems sure, they don’t even know who their senator is). I’d agree that they see artificiality of the assignments, though I wouldn’t presume to judge their political awareness or how much shoddy workmanship they will tolerate before posting their displeasure on Twitter for the whole world to respond to –with the company’s handle prominently displayed and an appropriately snarky hashtag to ensure their tweet trends quickly.

But I digress. Those senator-editor-CEO assignments, he concludes, “are not really writing to the real world and are likely to convince students that the writing class is yet another meaningless hurdle imposed by adults and the education system” (237). As a remedy, Williams suggests service learning, which surely is a useful approach, yet I’d note that not every student here will take a service-learning course. In a service-learning class, students will undoubtedly have ample real-world opportunities to persuade large constituencies, or craft policies for this NGO, or write grants to fund the agency. To be clear, that is important and instructive work, and many students I’ve come across who have taken a service-learning section of a course have found it to be fulfilling, life-changing, even.

But, as I said, not everyone is going to take a service-learning section of a writing course, for whatever reason. Sure, we could change the curriculum entirely and make every writing course a service-learning course, but I’m not sure that would have the desired outcome. Couldn’t it be argued that students would see the writing they do for a service-learning course as a “hurdle imposed by adults and the education system,” too? Does service-learning cease to be voluntary”service” when it’s conscription learning? Some will balk, some won’t. A predictable reaction to any curricular matter, so far as I can tell.

Some might also argue that the writing done in a service learning course might in fact be a little too narrow, and therefore a little less transportable, to a wide range of general education courses. I would wonder if a very practical, service-learning course focused on deliverables might end up being less focused on acquiring the kind of meta-knowledge about writing that I would advocate for. I’d like students to spend more time questioning why a particular form is used in a particular instance in their own writing. I want my students to begin to see that “writing” as a practice doesn’t mean filling in a prescribed templates with words pulled out of another container, and assembled like Legos; I want them to see that every choice in their writing has an effect, that words form networks of meaning they can make do what they want them to.
I’d prefer the transportability of their learning include the ability to read a writing prompt for a subsequent course and think about the way s/he wants to write in response to that; I want him or her to consider the form in relation to the content to fit the particularities of that project. I don’t want them to respond to a writing prompt for a subsequent class by sorting through and various recipes to quickly cook up an efficient response tucked inside a form they were told would work for “writing in engineering” or “writing in a psychology course.” Why would we want them to simply mindlessly reproduce the same forms if what we keep saying we want them to do is be creative, to innovate, to solve problems? I absolutely believe they have to consider the expectations of the genre and the “discourse community,” but how much would they really learn about writing if reproduce a standard form without thinking through the hows and whys of that standard form? If it were me, I would just learn how to fill out forms and dish up, essentially, the same thing. And I don’t think I would have learned much about writing, or about making words do what I want them to (and how that’s an acceptably difficult, sometimes frustrating task). Instead, I want students to make conscious decisions about how they are writing given the content, conditions, and contexts of the assignment. To write that paper may take a little longer—at least in the beginning—because the writer isn’t just delivering yet another hard-boiled egg. Instead (I’m stuck in this metaphor now), consider what can be done with that egg.