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In my opinion

Who cares about writing? We do!

A writing studies professor offers a spirited reply to a rhetorical question from an associate dean of graduate studies

BY SUSAN DRAIN | JUN 09 2008

Those of us in the field of writing studies are delighted to find a positive response to the question “Who cares about writing, anyway?” (University Affairs, April 2008) We are more used to complaints about our students’ deficiencies, and faint hopes that someone somewhere (the schools? the writing centre? the English department? divine intervention?) will rid the university of the plague of error, the distraction of disorganization, the scourge of non-standard usage, oh, and while we’re at it, could we solve the problem of plagiarism, too?

So it’s a pleasure to read Sunny Marche on the need for commitment to writing in our universities, and not only because his writing has energy and style. (Love the anaphora in the first paragraph! Great use of rhetorical questions. Excellent personal details to make the generalizations vivid.) There’s also so much with which we concur:

  • Writing matters for most professions.
  • Writing matters even in a digital age.
  • Writing is not an all-or-nothing mysterious gift – it can be taught and it can be learned.
  • University faculty are all writers.

But university faculty are not all scholars of writing studies. And just as we wouldn’t dream of teaching marketing, even though we know something about marketing because we are consumers, so we in writing studies would like to clarify some points in Sunny Marche’s piece. These clarifications will help make our ongoing conversations with colleagues like Sunny more productive.

“Writing” is an inadequate label for the complex of processes that we understand. The one word is used to include everything from recognizing the first glimmer of an idea, through the hard slog of researching and assembling evidence and drafting, to the shaping that we call revision and the fine-tuning we call editing. It’s not one thing, it’s not a simple thing and it’s not a mere adjunct to other disciplines. A discipline is defined, after all, not by its subject matter alone, but by the characteristic processes of both thinking and writing by which knowledge is constructed and communicated in that field. So hurrah for marketing professors who care about how writing is used in the study of marketing, and for math professors who see that writing can be used to solve problems, even those usually expressed in symbols.

That brings us to our second point of clarification. If we agree (and we do) that writing needs practice and that writing matters in every discipline, then we agree that writing across the curriculum is a good way to ensure that students do get writing practice and do see that writing matters in all their courses. That doesn’t mean that writing for the purposes of evaluation must be assigned across the curriculum: no, writing must be used to serve the purposes of learning across the curriculum. When we encourage writing across the curriculum, we also encourage critical thinking and knowledge sharing. Among the best practices of writing across the curriculum are the use of journals and reflection pieces, online discussions or in-class responses, to give practice in uncovering and articulating ideas. In this way, our students are no different from novelist E.M. Forster when he said, “How do I know what I think till I see what I say?” And they are less likely to be thinking if their only writing in a course is taking lecture notes – and even less if they are downloading webnotes or podcasts.

A related clarification has to do with writing in the disciplines as opposed to writing across the curriculum. Writing differs from discipline to discipline because writing is so connected to thinking. Sociology handles evidence differently from, say, history, and in every discipline various writing genres and conventions have been developed to suit the intellectual needs of the discipline. These are some of the issues that scholars in writing studies concern themselves with – both to theorize what they mean for knowledge production itself and to address their pedagogical implications. This scholarship makes us well suited to and very interested in collaborating with historians and sociologists, both expert and novice, to apply our findings. It is also how we know that requiring a “writing” course – whether it’s first-year composition or English 1000 or a designated writing intensive course – does not fully meet the needs of students who are expected to become expert practitioners in their disciplines. Sociologists and historians (and marketing profs and chemists and … ) do know how writing works in their disciplines. They also know how long it took them to learn how to do it. The commitment to writing therefore needs to be not only across the curriculum but also in the disciplines – and over time.

But English is my second language, one sociologist says. And I don’t do grammar, says the historian. Well, says the writing scholar, paying attention solely to surface correctness is not what we mean when we say writing needs to be learned in the discipline as part of the discipline. Explicit knowledge of grammar, we know, does not readily translate into effective writing. In fact, what are often called “grammar problems” are the symptoms, not the cause, of ineffective writing. And when students understand what they are supposed to be doing intellectually when they’re writing – how the discourse works and sounds – many of the surface problems disappear.

Finally, we have to agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Marche’s view that greater support and training is desirable for the teaching assistants upon whom the burden of dealing with “the writing problem” is often placed. Teaching and learning centres increasingly offer training courses for TAs; building on the scholarship of writing studies would strengthen those courses. Even the TAs in physics, statistics and finance (who, Dr. Marche fears, might not be motivated to provide help on the writing front) would come to understand that “providing help on the writing front” really means teaching the discipline. In fact, all faculty could benefit from greater support for and more dialogue with one another about teaching and learning to write. And the scholarship is there. Though their work and expertise is too often unrecognized or housed on the institutional periphery, in writing centres, extra-departmental programs, and the like, there are on every campus members of one or other of the Canadian professional organizations in writing studies listed below.

Thanks, Dr. Marche. Let’s talk some more.

Susan Drain

Dr. Drain is a 3M Teaching Fellow and writing coordinator in the department of English at Mount Saint Vincent University. She wrote this piece on behalf of and in collaboration with members of the following professional associations for writing studies in Canada:

  • Canadian Association for the Study of Language and Learning
  • Canadian Association of Teachers of Technical Writing/ Association canadienne des professeurs de rédaction technique et scientifique
  • Canadian Society for the Study of Rhetoric/Société canadienne pour l’étude de la rhétorique
  • Canadian Writing Centres Association/Association canadienne des centres de rédaction
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