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
present.
(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
talking.
–“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.

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 farther.

Bread Loaf International Work

A little over a year ago I wrote about having the great pleasure of funding a small college scholarship for a student attending Interlachen High School in Florida, where my sister Liz has taught for many years. It’s called the Liz Middleton “You Can Do It!” Scholarship and is awarded every year to a student who shows good promise of doing college work but who needs support to get there.
Last year, the award went to Skylar Midkiff, who matriculated this last fall and has been on the Dean’s list both terms since beginning her college career. This year has been even more exciting because there were TWO recipients of the award: Richard Midler, who will attend the University of Florida in the fall; and Keely Brown, who will go to Santa Fe Community College before transferring to a four-year university. Both these students were in Liz’s 10th grade world history class and she has had an opportunity to watch them both develop (and struggle) and be admitted to the National Honor Society, which she sponsors. Richard wants to major in computer science and minor in theater (hooray!); Keely has so many interests she’s not sure what she will major in (she has been taking an online course in Latin, “just for fun.”)
Here’s a picture of Keely and Richard along with their teacher, Liz Middleton. When I’m feeling a bit down in the dumps about the state of learning in this country, I like to think about these students (and their teacher) and reflect on the fact that there are thousands and thousands and thousands of young people across the country who are as energetic and bright and ambitious as Richard and Keely. My hope is that they are finding support from members of their communities as well. Sometimes it doesn’t really take a village: just a dedicated teacher and another teacher ready to come up with the financial support to help make a few dreams come true.
So hooray for these Interlachen High students and for their teachers—and for teachers everywhere who are making good things happen for young people.

Liz Middleton You Can Do It Award

A little over a year ago I wrote about having the great pleasure of funding a small college scholarship for a student attending Interlachen High School in Florida, where my sister Liz has taught for many years. It’s called the Liz Middleton “You Can Do It!” Scholarship and is awarded every year to a student who shows good promise of doing college work but who needs support to get there.
Last year, the award went to Skylar Midkiff, who matriculated this last fall and has been on the Dean’s list both terms since beginning her college career. This year has been even more exciting because there were TWO recipients of the award: Richard Midler, who will attend the University of Florida in the fall; and Keely Brown, who will go to Santa Fe Community College before transferring to a four-year university. Both these students were in Liz’s 10th grade world history class and she has had an opportunity to watch them both develop (and struggle) and be admitted to the National Honor Society, which she sponsors. Richard wants to major in computer science and minor in theater (hooray!); Keely has so many interests she’s not sure what she will major in (she has been taking an online course in Latin, “just for fun.”)
Here’s a picture of Keely and Richard along with their teacher, Liz Middleton. When I’m feeling a bit down in the dumps about the state of learning in this country, I like to think about these students (and their teacher) and reflect on the fact that there are thousands and thousands and thousands of young people across the country who are as energetic and bright and ambitious as Richard and Keely. My hope is that they are finding support from members of their communities as well. Sometimes it doesn’t really take a village: just a dedicated teacher and another teacher ready to come up with the financial support to help make a few dreams come true.
So hooray for these Interlachen High students and for their teachers—and for teachers everywhere who are making good things happen for young people.