Thursday, November 05, 2015

Disenjoyment: Science and Loathing in Writing Instruction

Earlier this year, I suddenly realized that my impulses run counter to an important trend in writing instruction—one that follows a broader trend in higher education. The trend is to base teaching, not on the experience of teachers, but on the evidence of studies of teaching. On a number of occasions that I've recently attended, I've noticed this strong emphasis on what the "research" tells us when thinking about how to teach students how to write, from their first year of undergraduate study to their last year in a PhD program. It's as if writing instructors no longer trust their intuitions. They want to implement writing methods (and the means to teach them) that "studies have shown" to be effective. I find this trend distressing.

Why wouldn't we want to base writing instruction on the careful study of how students learn to write? I think I can best explain what I mean by beginning with the two sources of trouble in contemporary writing instruction that Dino Knudsen rightly identifies when he introduces his "deliberate practice" approach:

1) Many teachers do not write well themselves.
2) Many teachers do not know how to teach writing in their field.

I suppose these are themselves both "empirical" claims, and they could be (and no doubt already are) subjected to careful scientific study. But let's grant them at least for the sake of argument. My first question is: can science help us to develop teaching strategies that don't depend on solving these two problems first? That is, can we develop writing modules, to be taught by writing instructors, that can succeed in improving student writing without affecting the ability of their course instructors to either do their own writing or support the students' writing? When I look at the approaches that are suggested, this often seems to be the goal: we want to make students better writers while accepting that their teachers aren't very good at it.

My second question is this: if we solved Dino's two problems, would there be any significant problem of "student writing" left to solve? That is, if the students' content teachers were good writers and knew how to teach writing, would there be any need for a "science of writing" to figure out what good writing is and how to teach it? Both of these questions are, of course, rhetorical ones, and my view is clearly that the answer is "no". I don't think there is any hope for writing instruction, no matter how much research it is backed by, if we ignore the competence of those who teach the students in their regular courses.

The problem, in my opinion, is precisely the separation of the writing problem from the problem of knowing. As a "writing coach" I'm fully aware that there's a sense in which I'm part of the problem. I guess that also puts me in a position to be part of the solution. This post is small step towards it, I hope.

Let me suggest two additional, and perhaps deeper, problems that underlie the current "crisis" of student writing. (I do believe there is a crisis, and I believe it goes beyond student writing. It's academic writing as such that is coming undone at its foundations.) Here are two theses I'd like to add to Dino's:

3) Many teachers hate reading student writing.
4) Many teachers hate writing.

I think the real driver of "scientific" interest in the writing process is the search for solutions to an underlying difficulty that we might call "disenjoyment". I thought I'd have to coin this word (it is not often used) but it already exists. I'd like to use it in a way that resembles the use of "disenchantment" to describe the influence of modern science on our understanding of both nature and culture, i.e., an undermining of a belief in magic. Modern science has taught us to understand the world in which we live without positing "occult" forces or divine interventions. Instead of miracles, we have accidents; instead of creation, we have evolution. Disenjoyment is the influence of modern science, not on our faith in magical powers, but on our joy in artful making. Please note that disenchantment can be a good thing, if you like, and disenjoyment still make you a little sad, as it should.

What I would like to accuse modern instruction of is to propose approaches to writing that constitute a "work-around" for a lack of joy in writing. My suggestion is that no such work-around is possible in the long run. If we rely on it, we will end up transforming all writing into the loathsome activity that some teachers, it seems, already see it as. Like a crutch, scientific studies of writing take the "load" off our hearts and, in the end, will foster a kind of writing that, if we tried to enjoy it, would break them. Good writing, and certainly the good writing that should be modeled by writing instructors, is enjoyable writing. I do not say that writing should be easy, nor even always a joy, but it should be enjoy-able. One should be able to enjoy it.

This will be a long argument. And I'm perfectly willing to develop it in reaction to forceful criticism. So please bring it on in the comments. I'll start developing this theme next week.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

Here's one of my posts: