We the People?

I’m writing this post on election day, November 9, 2016, as I try to take in what has happened to bring an unexperienced and malevolent person to the highest office in the land. I’m nervous and fidgety and despairing, though trying to do some writing. But I’ve also been thinking back over this interminable campaign, pondering moments that especially stood out for me. One of them came in during Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, when Trump said, referring to “the system,” said that no one knows the system better than he does and that “I alone can fix it.” As my British friends would say, I was gobsmacked, stunned at the enormity of those five words, leading off with “I.”
During the last thirty years, I have worked very hard, along with many colleagues, to resist what Lisa Ede and I call “radical individualism,” the constant focus on self, the refusal to recognize that knowledge and art and all our accomplishments are the product of collaboration, of sharing. That making progress will always call for cooperation, for working together, for joining hands and giving up the myth of the solitary “great man” who will act as knight in shining armor. Ask the leading tech companies today and they will agree that a focus on “I” doesn’t ; even in the Academy, the realization that “we” is more powerful than “I” has taken hold, widely in the sciences and now even to some degree in the humanities, with their still strong ndividualistic bias.
Imagine my delight, then, when on the eve of the election I found Nick Sousanis’s comic on this campaign/election, expressing what I have been feeling. He too found that the “Only I can fix it” line haunted him and brought him back to thinking of another powerful phrase, “We the people.” We, not I. Our, not my. I could describe Nick’s terrific cartoon, but better yet take a look at it for yourself on Nick’s blog, Spin, Weave, and Cut, at http://spinweaveandcut.com/we/
Yet this election shows that “I” has trumped “We,” once again, keeping the glass ceiling firmly in place and offering up a “hero” to save the day. I have read, and reread, W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” written in 1919 in the horrific aftermath of war and asking “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?” It’s a question worth pondering today.
Right now, I feel like assuming the fetal position—for the next four years. But teachers don’t get to do that, especially teachers of writing and rhetoric. Now more than ever we must steel ourselves to working harder than ever to teach our students to think critically and carefully, to shape arguments that are deeply resourced and replete with credible and reliable evidence, to continue making their voices heard in all their rich complexity and diversity. So as I grieve for what I see as the triumph of “I” politics and wait to see what a President Trump will actually do, these are the goals I pledge myself to pursuing.

Combat Paper Project!

Have you seen the Combat Paper Project ?
Drew Cameron joined the Army in 2000, right out of high school, and served as a Sergeant in Iraq. In an interview, he says he realized fairly early on that what was happening in Iraq was all wrong and that “we shouldn’t be here,” but he served his tour of duty anyway. When he came home in 2006, he sought ways to express his experiences, without success, until one day, he said, he put on his uniform and then began cutting it off his body.
Thus was born his Combat Paper Project. As he puts it, “Language to articulate the complex associations and memories wrapped up in military service can be a mountainous task. Starting with a non-verbal activity, with the intention of exploring those places, is a phenomenally empowering act. “ An artist and paper maker, Cameron took his cut up uniform and began hand transforming it into handmade paper, which he then painted or drew or wrote on. Slowly, he began to contact other veterans who wanted to take part in this process, who were interested in fiber art and in how “we might transform [materials] into a narrative that illustrates our collective stories.”
I first met Cameron a year or so in Chicago, where he was exhibiting his work in connection with the world premiere of composer Jonathan Berger’s “My Lai,” which tells the story of the Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot who tried to stop the My Lai Massacre, was reviled and ostracized for his actions and only 30 years after the fact recognized with a Soldier’s Medal for bravery.. Sung by Rinde Eckert (with lush and moving libretto by Harriet Chessman) and performed by The Kronos Quartet, “My Lai” is one of the most gripping and memorable musical works I have ever heard. It was after the haunting performance that I met Cameron, along with one of the two 18-year-old crew members who was with him during March 16, 1968 (the second young soldier died in battle three weeks later). I believe that this work will be touring the country for the 50th anniversary of this tragedy: if you and your students can possibly see it, do so.
Recently I encountered Cameron again, this time at UCLA where he was leading papermaking workshops with first-year undergraduates (and others). Students were bringing in all kinds of materials: some, of course, were veterans themselves, with uniforms and other materials from their service; others had relatives who had given them articles, like the young woman whose grandfather had given her parachute cloth. Together, they were learning to create a remix, a mashup, as they turned the cloth into pulpy fiber and then learned to make sheets of handmade paper with it.
What struck me during this encounter was how Cameron spoke about the stories that these artifacts tell, and about the stories that they elicit from the people who work with them. Somehow, he says, this process of unmaking and remaking seems to release the words necessary to share experiences further, as a visual art leads to a verbal one and back again. Some of the paper makers have gone on to write blogs, articles, essays, even books. And continue to make visual art as well.
I left wishing that every college in the country could have a visit from Drew Cameron and his Combat Paper Project. He has conducted them from coast to coast and is currently engaged in teaching others to carry out similar projects. The college frosh who either drop in or sign up for these workshops may never have heard of My Lai, may have thought very little about war, about the way war is inscribed on the bodies of those who are caught in its vice. But they leave with new knowledge, as well as with the experience of having made something good and strong and real out of the materials of war.
You can read more about Combat Paper on PBS News hour’s “The Rundown” from April 30, 2012 at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/combat-paper-ptsd-treatment/ and check out Combat Paper’s Website at https://www.combatpaper.org.

Shoulder the Lion

Seems like I’ve been thinking about abilities/disabilities a lot lately. I’ve written about Brenda Brueggemann’s brilliant work—and recommended her “Why I Mind,” which is on YouTube—and our Bread Loaf class has been doing quite a bit of soul searching in terms of our relationships, as teachers, to students with varying abilities/disabilities.  And now comes Shoulder the Lion, a documentary film by Erinnisse Heuver and Patryk Rebisz.  Because a good friend is featured in the film, I drove to the Rafael Cinema House in San Rafael a few days ago to see a screening.  Knowing my friend, I expected it to be good: but in fact it was so far above good that I was just stunned.  You will want to check it out at shoulderthelion.com.

This searing documentary tells the stories of three artists:  Alice Wingwall, an artist and photographer who lost her sight in 2000; Graham Sharpe, an Irish musician whose advancing Tinnitus makes it impossible for him to participate in his beloved band; and Katie Dallam, a veteran and psychologist who lost half her brain in a boxing match (“Million Dollar Baby” was inspired by this event).  The film moves back and forth among these stories, as the artists speak directly to viewers of their ongoing work and the emotions that accompany it.  In the Dallam sections, we learn that losing half her brain left her with “nothing, nothing at all.” She had no memory, and she had to re-learn absolutely everything, from eating to speaking.  Eventually, Dallam discovered art and found that her “disability” had taken away all her inhibitions.  The results are fantastical, larger than life, monstrous, fabulous, riveting sculptures and paintings.

Sharpe never tells us how his tinnitus developed or whether doctors have tried any treatments, but he dwells on his emotional state as he sank into and eventually accepted the fact that no matter what he would hear ringing in his ears:  the sound, he says, is like TV static, with no reception, and it’s LOUD.  He turned his talents to building a music festival in Ireland, which after ten years had won the reputation of “Best Small Festival” in the country. At the end of the film, we see him sitting in a field, strumming his guitar, and writing lyrics, something he continues to do even though he can’t really play them.

Alice Wingwall, a dear friend for well over a decade now, speaks eloquently of losing her vision, of her deep anger at being blind, of her realization that “seeing” is about more than vision, of her sadness that so many sighted people today do very little true seeing—bombarded by images as we are—and of her determination to keep on capturing images.  And so she does, as brilliantly and dramatically displayed in the film.  With her husband, architect and writer Donlyn Lyndon, she answered questions after the film in her typical straightforward, witty way.  And we met Rumba, her guide dog, who took the entire screening in stride, as though she knew she was a “star” of the show.

This film, and the artists represented in it, give testimony to an argument Shirley Brice Heath has made throughout her career:  that some form of art (music, dance, sculpture, painting, drama) is essential to human development.  Heath’s work with youth groups across the country has engaged young people in artistic endeavors, and for decades she has documented the progress they have made and the way in which art has enriched and changed their lives.

Of course, I think of writing as an art—and speaking as well.  That’s one reason I want writing teachers everywhere to focus on the ART of and in writing/speaking.  The style, the rhythm, the cadences, the syntax, all of which bring a written or spoken performance to life.  As teachers, we need to remember that all people have artistic potential (just ask comics artist Lynda Barry, and check out her books!), and especially so those with “disabilities.”

Michelle Obama’s speech to the DNC

¬¬Like many Americans, I stayed close to a TV on July 26, listening to the prime time speeches during day one of the Democratic Convention, just as I had done a week before during the Republican Convention. I knew there would be protests, that Sanders supporters were set to make a stand, and that Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Michelle Obama, and Bernie Sanders would speak.
I expected all the speakers to do well—to deliver their messages with pride and passion. And they did. But from the moment the first lady stepped onto the stage, I sensed a change in the convention hall. She was radiant in deep blue, with that wide smile and direct way of looking at her audience. As she began to speak, the raucous crowd quieted; all eyes on her, and then she delivered what to me was the most impressive speech of either convention so far. In roughly 1500 words, she supported her husband’s legacy, showed why Trump would be an inadequate president at best (without ever mentioning his name), explained why she supports Hillary Clinton (and why it’s important that girls everywhere think of it as routine for a woman to be President), and underscored her (and Clinton’s) focus on children and families. This brief speech packed a powerful yet subtle punch.
I took a closer look at the speech today, and came away impressed again with our first lady’s ability to connect to audiences and with the strategies she uses to do so. Of the roughly 1500 words in this speech, 43 of them are “we” “our,” or “us”—and another 35 are words that refer to young people—“kids,” “daughters,” “sons,” “children,” “our children,” and so on. The repetition of these key words hammers home her message: that the decision we make in November will affect how our children are able to lead their lives. And in this endeavor—this focus on the good of our nation’s children—Ms. Obama aligns herself with Secretary Clinton, as mothers who care above all for “our children.”
So repetition is one key to the power of this speech, but alliteration and parallelism also work to make the words very memorable: “the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation”; “character and conviction”; “guts and grace”; and many more. And the use of simple word choice and syntax underscores and amplifies sentences like “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”
So this is a speech to savor, and to save. I plan to use it in classes, asking students to read it and then carry out their own mini rhetorical analyses, then to watch the speech as Michelle Obama delivered it, noting her pacing (flawless), her pauses, her facial expressions and body language. My guess is that students will learn a lot about how they can improve as speakers and presenters. And that they will have more insightful and thoughtful responses to the message the speech sends from having done so. You and they can watch the speech here: http://www.vox.com/2016/7/25/12282760/transcript-michelle-obama-dnc-speech

Vernacular Eloquence!

I don’t know how or why it has taken me so long to find this book, but once I did I read it straight through (even though it’s nearly 450 pages long). It’s Peter Elbow’s latest work, and surely some of the best work he has done in his long and brilliant career. Check it out!
Here’s the link to it on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Vernacular-Eloquence-Speech-Bring-Writing/dp/0199782512
As you no doubt know, Elbow published Writing without Teachers way back in 1973, making a case for allowing students to write freely as a way to come to voice. He is an ardent and eloquent proponent of freewriting (along with Ken Macrorie) and this latest book (published, like Writing without Teachers, by Oxford UP), carries on this tradition, but now with a decided twist. The subtitle of the book is “What Speech Can Bring to Writing,” and his answer is summed up in two words: “a LOT.” From the introductory part, in which he distinguishes between speech and writing before demonstrating the very large areas of overlap, to his closing meditation on the future, when he believes (and I agree wholeheartedly) that vernacular eloquence will be fully recognized and that writing in vernaculars will be accepted and valued in school and out, he held my attention. This text is pure Peter Elbow: while reading it, I felt as though I were in a spoken conversation with Peter. He writes clearly, lucidly, examining his subject from one angle, then another, patiently surveying all perspectives and acknowledging counterarguments while still sticking to his guns.
I am perhaps most impressed with the breadth of the scholarship that underpins this book. Now I’ve been studying the history of writing and literacy for decades, and for about 15 years I taught a course on this subject. I always began the course (which I titled “The Language Wars”) with the struggle for the vernacular in Europe, tracing how ever so slowly the “high” languages eventually made way for the low vernacular, as in Chaucer’s Tales or in Dante’s masterful Comedy. Along the way we looked at other struggles—over the English Only movement in the U.S., over African American vernacular, for example (the great Ebonics brouhaha in Oakland included), and eventually over what constitutes “good” writing in the academy today. We read Lee Tonouchi writing in pidgin Hawaiian, Geneva Smitherman switching from formal academic discourse to African American vernacular to create powerful connections with audiences, Warren Liew on the struggle over “Singlish” in Singapore—and a whole lot more. In reading Vernacular Eloquence, I found that Elbow had apparently read everything I ever read on the subject of literacy and vernaculars, that he had gone back to Janet Emig’s early work differentiating speech and writing and carefully analyzed and responded to it as well as to other work that it inspired, that he had read deeply in anthropological literature (starting with Goody and Watt’s influential text and apparently everything Shirley Heath has written), that he was thoroughly versed in the debate over orality and literacy carried out in the works and careers of Walter Ong, Eric Havelock, and others, that he was in conversation with Suresh Canagarajah, Vershawn Young, and others who write about “code meshing” in addition to “code switching,” and that he was ready to talk about all this work in the most straightforward, clear way possible.
Note that I said “talk,” rather than “write.” For Elbow’s book talks the talk and walks the walk: it is itself a demonstration of his subtitle—what speech can bring to writing. As I wrote to Peter after reading his book, I agree with him about the deep relationship between speaking and writing, especially in this digital age, and about the power that speaking strategies can bring to writing (one immediately recognizable strategy is the use of repetition for special emphasis, but there are lots of others).
Some years ago, two of my former students and I did a directed reading course on the question “How is writing performative?” We spent ten weeks reading and talking and arguing and in the end we came up with a list of ways in which writing can be a performance, from the obvious performing for the teacher to syntax and word choice. In fact, one student used the list of features we came up with to create a software program he called the “performativity rater.” It looked for things like repetition, images and figurative language, action verbs, rhythmic patterns, and four or five other elements, all of which create a sense of movement, of action, of performance. I think Peter would love the performativity rater!
So Bravo to Peter Elbow for this learned, provocative, and forward-looking book. Just say “yes” to vernacular eloquence!

O Canada!

This month found me returning to Canada, land of dreams for me ever since I taught at the University of British Columbia for ten years (1977-1987).  This time I was in Calgary, at Mount Royal University, where I gave a talk as part of their Distinguished Lecture Series and then participated in a colloquium on writing and teaching writing that brought together scholars and teachers from other Alberta Universities.  Calgary still has a frontier feel to me and I loved being in “big sky” country once again. 

Professor Sarah Banting of Mt. Royal’s English Department and Writing Program, convened the colloquium, which began with tea (in real teacups!) and pastries.  And it really was a colloquium, one that left plenty of time for talk and interaction, and that featured panels that were more like conversations than lectures.  (You can check out her blog, Issues in Teaching Writing: A Mount Royal University Conversation, here:  https://issuesinteachingwritingmountroyal.wordpress.com/

One major standout:  five students and one faculty member responding to questions from a moderator.  The students were thoughtful, insightful, and witty, reflecting on their experiences with writing, writing classes, and writing instructors—and on their sense of the role writing may play in their future lives.  One student, a biology major, was particularly eloquent in describing what she had learned about herself through writing and about how she expected to use writing for the rest of her life.  Other speakers described innovative courses and assignments and explored new uses of technology in the classroom.  Heather and Roger Graves (both of the University of Alberta, where Roger is Director of WAC) talked about the development of a fascinating project, The Game of Writing, which allows students to monitor their own writing processes, making progress step by step, and also to receive multiple forms of response to their writing.  You read more about The Game of Writing here:  http://www.ualberta.ca/~graves1/documents/GamificationPaper.pdf

An extra bonus was seeing Nick Sousanis, now on a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Calgary.  Sousanis is a comics artist who visited Stanford’s Graphic Narrative Project a couple of years ago when he was writing his dissertation at Columbia University, in comic book form (!).  The book based on his dissertation—Unflattening—is just out from Harvard University.  An shape-shifting, deeply engaging meditation on the relationship between words and images and on visual thinking, it’s a book you should check out soon!  (See http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674744431)   

As always, I came away from this colloquium energized and happy to be part of the writing studies community in North America.  After 45 years in the field, it’s good to feel that if I were starting all over again, I’d choose the same path!







Where’s the Index?

Bedford/St. Martin’s editor extraordinaire Carolyn Lengel and I have been interviewing student writers as we’re working on a new edition of The Everyday Writer. We haven’t met these students; all we knew is that they had used Everyday Writer in one of their writing classes.  As we talked, the students told us when and why they used the book, what they thought it had been helpful for, what about it they liked—or would like to see improved.  But we were also interested in HOW they used the book.  So we asked them to walk us through one time when they wanted to find information in their handbook—step by step.  What did they do first, and so on.  To our surprise, several students said they began by looking at the words on the tabs to see if it looked like one or more of them contained the information they wanted.  A couple of other students said they started by looking at “that list in the front of the book,” AKA the table of contents.  Finally, we asked a student if he had checked the index to help him locate what he was looking for.  “So, where’s the index?” was his response.

We subsequently asked all students about the index, and most seemed only vaguely familiar with it.  The online sources they go to, they pointed out, don’t have indexes.  These students, bright and generally school savvy, are not completely savvy about print book conventions.  “So, where’s the index?” is a question worth listening to.

I’ve always urged teachers using one of my textbooks to spend class time early on getting the students into the book, showing them what’s there (these books are packed absolutely to the gills with what I’ve learned about teaching writing over 40+ years, so I know they can seem dense!) and how to find information.  When I teach with one of these books, I use it frequently, often kicking off my course with the chapter on “Writing to Make Something Happen in the World.” I want students to read this chapter, to hear about the students featured in it, and to ask themselves how they define good writing and how often their writing makes something happen in the world.  (I’ve found that students have fabulous stories to tell about such writing!)  So we talk about writing as a performance, as active, as something that makes things happen.  That’s writing, I find, that they can be committed to.

I also love to focus some class time on style, using chapters on sentence structure, on language, on word choice, and so on as a platform for workshopping some of their own work.  I love working on sentences, taking one from each student and working together to make that sentence “sing.”

What I’ve learned over the decades is that if I want students to get the most out of a textbook, I have to bring it into class on a regular basis, showing them how to make it a valuable friend to their writing and their writing processes.  And now I know not to take anything for granted!  So early on I’ll ask a series of fairly abstruse questions and ask students to work together to answer them, using their handbook to help. Then we map the processes they used to find the answers, including false starts and missteps as well as successful moves in locating the needed information.  And along the way, I make sure to ask, “So, where’s the index?”

Corpus Linguistics Anyone?

About a year ago at a symposium at North Carolina A&T, I had an opportunity to meet and talk with Laura Aull, Assistant Professor of English and of the Writing Program at Wake Forest University. I learned that Aull did her doctoral work at the University of Michigan, where she focused on linguistics and especially on using corpus linguistics to compare writing across fields and cultures. Now in her fourth year of teaching, Aull has recently published First-Year University Writing: A Corpus-Based Study with Implications for Pedagogy. (London: Palgrave Macmillan. 2015). In an interview, she said that her new book
analyzes over 19,000 essays written by incoming college students from the University of Michigan and Wake Forest for empirical, linguistic features which distinguish first year writers from expert ones.
Having done a couple of very large-scale studies of student writing myself, I was very interested in Aull’s work, and especially about some of her findings. For instance, she found that use of the personal pronoun “I” varies not only across disciplines but also between expert and first-year writers, with the former using “I” primarily to indicate what or how they are going to argue and the latter using “I” to narrate experience. Her research also revealed that expert writers tend to use more neutral words in introducing sources (verbs like “note” or “finds”) while first-year student writers tend to use more loaded words (verbs like “fails” or “ignores”). In addition, she told me, expert writers use more “hedges” or qualifiers than do student writers, who sometimes can come across as more aggressive than they mean to.
I also learned from her how students, and particularly multilingual students, might use large corpora (such as The Corpus of Contemporary American English, or COCA) to learn how to distinguish between confusing phrases (is it “in regards to” or “in regard to”) or to answer other questions they may have about how expert writers use language in different disciplinary settings.
I’ve recently been reading Aull’s book, and I’m learning a lot from it, so much so that I have asked her to consult with me on how to incorporate some of these findings into tips for student writers in the sixth edition of The Everyday Writer, which I’m revising right now. It’s exhilarating to learn how to begin using corpus linguistics to help first-year writers!

Magnificent Failure?

William Faulkner considered The Sound and the Fury (1929) a failure, albeit a “splendid” failure. As he said in a 1957 interview:

I tried first to tell it with one brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section One. I tried with another brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section Two. I tried the third brother, because Caddy was still to me too beautiful and too moving to reduce her to telling what was going on, that it would be more passionate to see her through somebody else’s eyes, I thought. And that failed and I tried myself — the fourth section — to tell what happened, and I still failed. (seehttp://people.virginia.edu/~sfr/enam312/wfhp.html)

I thought of this statement when I read “Next Time, Fail Better” by Paula Krebs in a Chronicle of Higher Education commentary (http://chronicle.com/article/Next-Time-Fail-Better/131790/). In it, Krebs—then a professor of English at Wheaton college—recounts her experience of sitting in on a colleague’s computer science classes and being amazed, and then impressed, with the degree to which students in those classes expected to fail at many or even most of their attempts:
A computer program that doesn’t run is a failure. A program that produces no usable data about the text it was set up to analyze is a failure. Why don’t those failures devastate the developers? Because each time their efforts fail, the developers learn something they can use to get closer to success the next time.
Krebs goes on to think about her own students in the humanities: they fear and shun failure, she writes, they “aren’t used to failure” and want to get everything right the first time. So Krebs thinks we should take a page from the sciences and teach students to learn from failure:
That’s what we should be teaching humanities students—to look at what went wrong and figure out how to learn from it. OK, that didn’t work. But my next try isn’t then going to be a complete ground-zero beginning. I’ll be starting with the knowledge that my last try didn’t work. Maybe it worked up to a particular point, and I can start over from there. Maybe it didn’t work because I took on too much, so now I will start smaller. Maybe it can’t work at all, and I need a new text from which to begin—a text in a different genre or a text in combination with something else.
What Krebs is describing, of course, is the way most writing teaches approach the production of texts—as a laborious process that encounters many roadblocks and wrong turns and re-starts. Yet I think we can still learn from Krebs and her computer science colleagues, for far too many students come into our classes with the expectation that if they can’t do well right away they will never do well. It’s up to us to get that attitude out on the table for discussion on day one, and to keep returning to it throughout the term: success can and often does lie at the end of a string of failures.
When I started teaching at the University of British Columbia in 1977, I found that over half of the students in my classes were what they called “ESL” students, even though for most of them English was not a “second” language but perhaps a third or fourth. These were terrific students—bright, eager to learn, extremely hard working. And they made great progress. But if they knew one thing, it was that their successful path toward fluent academic English would be strewn with failure. In a conference with one of my students (first-generation Canadian who spoke Mandarin at home and just about everywhere but in college), he said “it’s just that the alphabet doesn’t go down low enough for me.” “What?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “it only goes down to F: I wish it went at least to M: then when I got to “F” I could see that I’d made a lot of progress, not that I was a FAILURE.”
Those words have always stayed with me, and when we’re teaching student writers, we need to remember them: the “failures” this student experienced were in fact important steps on his way to fluency. Not to be experienced with shame or fear and loathing but with the confidence that they would lead to success. If only the alphabet had gone down just a little bit farthe

Differences between speaking and writing

I can still remember where I was when I opened my copy of College Composition and Communication (The May 1977 issue) and turned to Janet Emig’s “Writing as a Mode of Learning.” I had recently submitted my dissertation and was in that grad student’s limbo, waking every morning with the panicky thought that “I’ve GOT to finish my dissertation” only to realize that I had, indeed, done so, and preparing to move from the university that had been my home for five years to a new and scary “first Ph.D. job” in Vancouver, Canada. I was sitting on the floor in my tiny bedroom in Columbus, Ohio, where I had written a lot of the dissertation, and I’d taken a break from sorting through stacks of sources and files to read the new CCC.
I read Emig’s article straight through twice before putting it down. I knew her work, of course, and respected it (and her) enormously, but I knew when I read this essay that I was learning to think in a new way about writing. Indeed, at that time, Emig taught many of us to think about writing in a new way.
I am still grateful for all of Emig’s work, and particularly for this piece, so I recently went back to take another look at it. It is much as I remember: clear, straightforward, bold in its claims, scrupulous in its presentation of evidence in support of those claims. And while Emig is careful not to essentialize either writing OR speaking, she is very clear on the differences between them and on the importance of teachers of writing recognizing those differences. Here are the ones she outlined almost forty years ago:
(1) Writing is learned behavior; talking is natural, even irrepressible, behavior.
( 2 ) Writing then is an artificial process; talking is not.
(3) Writing is a technological device, not the wheel, but early enough to qualify as
primary technology; talking is organic, natural, earlier.
( 4 ) Most writing is slower than most talking.
( 5 ) Writing is stark, barren, even naked as a medium; talking is rich,
luxuriant, inherently redundant.
(6) Talk leans on the environment; writing must provide its own context.
(7) With writing, the audience is usually absent; with talking, the listener is usually
(8) Writing usually results in a visible graphic product; talking usually does not.
(9) Perhaps because there is a product involved, writing tends to be a more responsible
and committed act than talking.
(10) It can even be said that throughout history, an aura, an ambience, a mystique has
usually encircled the written word; the spoken word has for the most part proved
ephemeral and treated mundanely.
(11) Because writing is often our representation of the world made visible, embodying
both process and product, writing is more readily a form and source of learning than
–“Writing as a Mode of Learning,” CCC (May 1977) 122-28.
In the full article, Emig nuances many of these points, but what interests me today in re-reading her work is how changes in technology and especially the rise of “new” media practically beg for us to reconsider these distinctions. While I could talk about each one of the distinctions Emig raises, I’ll concentrate here on four of them: 5, 7, 8, and 9.
“Writing is stark, barren, even naked as a medium; talking is rich, luxuriant, inherently redundant” gives me special pause. Today, with so much multimodal writing that is full of sound, still and moving images, color (and more), the medium of writing seems far from stark or barren—and so more rich and luxuriant than it was in 1977. Talk still seems to me to have those qualities along with inherent redundancy. But writing today is also redundant: we have only to think of retweets to see just how much so.
“With writing, the audience is usually absent; with talking, the listener is usually present.” This is a distinction Walter Ong makes as well, but today I would say – yes and no. Audiences for writing are virtually present and often immediately so, while with talking an audience can be as present as the person next to you—or as distant as listeners to radio or a podcast. In fact, the whole concept of audience is in flux today, as we try to understand to think not only of the “audience addressed” and “audience invoked” that Lisa Ede and I described decades ago, but of the vast unknown audiences that may receive our messages and the ways we can best conceptualize and understand them. Audiences today, it seems, are both present and absent.
“Writing usually results in a visible graphic product; talking usually does not” likewise raises a number of questions. Writing online certainly results in a visible product, but it is digital, not graphic; talking, on the other hand, is often made visible through transcripts or text that accompanies the talk.
“Perhaps because there is a product involved, writing tends to be a more responsible and committed act than talking” strikes me as perhaps the most problematic of the points Emig makes. As noted above, talking now often results in “products” and would therefore seem to have the same opportunity to be “responsible and committed.” But writing—especially on social media sites and other online discourses but also in a lot of print journalism—now seems decidedly irresponsible. You may have heard the story about a California teacher who has caused an uproar for the remarks she made about students on Twitter (“I already wanna stab some kids” for example), remarks she claims were not meant seriously at all. Is it because they are “visible” that she has been taken to task for them? Would it have made a difference if she had voiced the remarks in public? Are these remarks “written” or “spoken”?
Re-reading Emig’s seminal article raises these and other questions for teachers of writing today, questions that many are attempting to answer (see, e.g., Cindy Selfe’s wonderful essay on aurality and the need for attention to it—“The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing” in the June 2009 issue of CCC). As always, I want to engage students in discussing and debating these questions. So I’m planning to ask students I regularly correspond with to write to me about their current understandings of the differences, and similarities, between speaking and writing. I wish others would do the same, so we could compare notes.