Tuesday, June 30, 2015

On Why I Call People Who Are Writing Writers

You are a reader. You are reading this now, and as I write this (making me the writer), I am thinking of you, dear reader, because as the writer, that's one of my many jobs. I am the writer of this blog post, thus I am a writer at the moment, even though my title is Director of Digital Teaching and Learning. But while I write, I am a writer. Seems logical, doesn't it?

Still, the term 'writer' carries some very specific cultural connotations. In our literate culture it is an elevated term, an honorific of sorts that one earns, or takes on, by virtue of  job title and/or aspiration. It is also a term some people guard or that others are wary of claiming for themselves.

Rachel Toor, whose Monday, June 15 profile of Anthony Grafton, a historian who writes and teaches his history students to write, finds the generous application of the term irritating.  She guards the term. In the interview, which I recommend, Grafton, a good writer, modestly denies the term applies to him.  Her piece came to the attention of an e-mail discussion list for writing center directors and scholars when Steven J. Corbett, Assistant Professor  at George Mason, sent the following:
Colleagues, hope your summers are going well so far. A new post on the _Chronicle of Higher Education_ from Rachel Toor, "Scholars Talk Writing: Anthony Grafton: The Princeton historian is a teacher, scholar, collaborator, but not, he says, a writer" http://chronicle.com/article/Scholars-Talk-Writing-Anthony/230845/ starts off talking about a writing center:
Every time I walk to and from my office I pass a big poster for the Writers’ Center at my university. The poster features an oversize photo of Ernest Hemingway, and next to it, in proud and arrogant type, the following assertion: 'Everyone is a writer. Period.'
I try to avert my eyes, because I get irritated every time I see this poster. I go into class and start ranting. No, I say, everyone is not a writer. Just because you write — because you have to write to get your degree — that, my friends, does not make you a writer.
What do you think about this way of characterizing writers and/or writing centers? (Note: see http://lyris.ttu.edu/read/messages?id=24656464 for full email.) 

The conversation unfolded and several good e-mail messages came round, but most useful in helping me frame my own thinking were two from Scott Pleasant, Writing Center Coordinator at Coastal Carolina University. He wrote a smart take that echoes Toor's and Grafton's sentiments, but unlike Toor, Pleasant doesn't avert his eyes in irritation:

I was just saying there's a perspective from which the phrase "I am a writer" means something very different from "I write" or "I can write."

I write all the time. For pay, even. . . . But if someone were to ask me, "What ARE you?" I kind of doubt my response would be "I'm a writer." I'd probably say I'm a teacher if I really had to characterize my existential essence. . . .

. . . I've now contributed two e-mails to an online discussion, probably because I'm looking for ways to get a break from the tedious document I'm writing. If all of that makes me a writer, then fine, I'm a writer, but right at the moment, I really just feel more like a person who happens to be writing than like "a writer."

. . . If it helps them learn to write, then by all means let's call them all writers. But I'd have to see some convincing data before I would accept the idea that simply calling them "writers" helps them to write. 

(For full e-mail, go to: http://lyris.ttu.edu/read/archive?id=24656491)
While my experience isn't convincing data, it has convinced me that calling folks in my courses and workshops writers helps. But like so much in teaching, it helps because I work at making it work for me. I do not want to suggest that what helps is "simply calling them 'writers.' That's not enough. What helps is both calling workshoppers and students "writers" while also teaching them to act and think the way writers -- or people who are not "writers' but who do write an awful lot in their professional capacities --  do.

And you can see from that last sentence one reason I like to call students writers. It's easier than saying, "person who is not a 'writer' but who is learning to write based on some approximation of what I as a teacher of writing understand writers do for a probable future where they will need to write, if not a lot, well enough to succeed at the work their writing needs to do.

I have been calling students writers for a long time, and I fell into it because I had a teacher who called me and my classmates writers and made it fun to be called a writer. I took an advanced writing course my first sophomore year (I had three of those in my peripatetic road to a BA.) with Leo Rockas at the University of Hartford in a class that met for three hours, 5 - 8 pm, I think on a Monday night. The class started with us getting in a circle, and Dr. Rockas telling us we were all writers in this course, and that he wanted us to think like a writer, argue like a writer, call our work "stuff," like he said writers did, and, he too he said, we should drink. Writer's drink he said, and from a brown super market paper sack he pulled up a gallon Gallo sherry (This was in in '78 or so, before the winery went more upscale.), paper cups and invited us to imbibe (The drinking age was 18.) if we were of a mind to. He set a scene (He also taught a playwriting course, so no surprise.) and invited us to play at being, as a way of becoming, writers. In fact, the class had folks in it who wanted to be writers (myself among that crew).

I don't serve sherry in my courses or workshops -- though when I've had a class of all adults, I've met them for drinks and spotted them a pitcher of beer or two -- but I like the fun of calling students writers, of getting them into the role-play of being a writer while being in my course. And I start that from day one. Consider this first day of class writing prompt from 1993:

Hello Writer,
      Since for most of you thinking of yourself as a writer may be a new notion, I'd like you to recall your history as a writer. Your history can include talking about any writing experience you've had in the past, including shopping lists, essays in high school, letters, journals, any and all writing you've ever done.
      You can talk about how you feel about writing. You can talk about the best writing you've ever done. You can talk about what kind of writing you like to do. You can talk about what you think makes writing good. You can talk about what has influenced your writing.
      You can talk about your writing habits--where do you write best?, when do you write?, how many drafts do you do? You can be specific or general.
      Here, for example are some things other writers have said about writing. I'll start with one that is especially true for me.
      "I hate writing but I love having written."
     --Dorothy Parker.
I can imagine this kind of prompt might disturb Toor -- equating even the making of a shopping list with being a writer.  But you can see too that idea was simple -- when you write, you're a writer is the formulation here. You may not be a particularly competent writer, I tell my students, no more than I am a competent (all right, if you must know, I stink) golfer when I golf.

But when I play golf now, in my increasingly late 50's, I play with the same kind of imagination I played any game as a kid: I imitated and imagined I was Reggie Jackson at the plate when I played baseball; was Jack Nicklaus when I played golf; Jim Brown when I was a running back; and James Bond when I played baccarat (which I played only once and only so I could pretend to be James Bond). I pretend to be, when I play, if only for a little bit, those who are good at what I am about.

Of course it's hard to imitate a writer per se. The only novelist whoever wrote for an audience in a stadium, with a play-by-play announcer and analyst was Thomas Hardy, and most students don't know him. But my courses and workshops focus on teaching folks who are writing some of the things writers do: the habits of mind they follow; the strategies and work habits for writing and revising and revising and revising they explore.

Stephen North, in "The Idea of the Writing Center" (1984), famously wrote,
Let me use it, then, to make the one distinction of which it still seems capable: in a writing center the object is to make sure that writers, and not necessarily their texts, are what get changed by instruction. In axiom form it goes like this: Our job is to produce better writers, not better writing.
One step in making better writers, a fun step, is to start by calling the students writers. I do not expect students to identify themselves as a writer ever more, though some of them may go on to careers where they do that, write for a living and with a job that has writer in the title, careers, maybe, in journalism, the literary arts, professional writing, ghost writing, research writing, speech writing, copy writing, comedy writing, and so on.

No, I call them writers in large part too, on top of the fun of it, to get them to understand some of the responsibilities a writer takes on. In the game of writing, the writer must find a purpose for writing, an argument to make, and an audience who will read their stuff. To learn to do that, the student must inhabit the writer role, and must be able, to analyze and reflect on how they are doing, step outside of themselves, seeing themselves as a writer in that context, in that course or workshop writing activity. So the appellation, then, serves for me a necessary metacognitive function.

Grafton, the subject of Toor's profile, a man who writes well but doesn't think of himself as a writer, does, however, even if he may not call them such, think of his students as writers. He says to Toor, "Where writing is concerned — as with scholarly research — I work very hard with my students, and the better the writer, the harder I push him or her."

It's hard when you teach writing -- whether in a course you teach, a workshop you lead, or a writing center where you tutor -- to not think of students as writers. It makes the teaching and learning of writing less fun in the end. Where good learning is hard fun, less fun hurts instead of helps.


dkeppy said...

It might be helpful to attempt an analogy that frame an opinion on this issue. In my case, I would look to mathematics and the teaching of calculus for a comparison. Students have long since convinced me that saying "Everyone is a mathematician. Period." contributes minimally to the productivity of calculus classes. If this were a valid analogy, I would be with Toor all the way. Perhaps the rejection of a like imagined analogy is the basis for Toor's response.

The problem is that being a writer is an altogether different thing from being a mathematician, and not a translation of existential essences. Or even epiphenomenal categories. One cannot help but think in a language, a language susceptible to being written, and a language the writing of which can and, upon occasion, will be used by everyone mastering it to consciously convey ideas or feelings. Even for long articles and blog entries. And hence, everyone is...a writer of the sort that Toor probably expects. There is no counterpart to this in mathematics. Brain structure etc., etc. notwithstanding, number, set, and other mathematical entities are not part of the natural medium of thought. They are concepts acquired much later by in human development than are words. Thought does not depend upon quantification in the way it does upon verbalization.

Consequently, calling students writers is more a less a call to self-actualization; calling students mathematicians voices only instructors' kind wishes. Toor may be thinking that some students, those who have earned it, benefit from calling themselves writers (maybe graduate students in creative writing?), where others do not. My guess, however, is that calling oneself a writer and being called a writer is relevant and motivating in any writing course. By extension, in any Writing Center. By synechdoche, on a poster hanging in a Writing Center.

Calling most calculus students even aspiring mathematicians seems a bit affected. The analogy I attempted is, I am afraid, quite imaginary. And Hemingway's quip is a jibe at "writing officialdom" whereas, if Euclid had said "Everyone is a mathematician. Period."...well, he didn't. See, however, this for what everyone is, vis-a-vis mathematics.

Nick Carbone said...

Good points, dkeppy.

Your post reminds me of what I've heard history teachers say when I talk to them about their teaching. They don't expect students to see themselves as historians per se, but they do want them in the course, and in writing assignments they give, to be able to "think historically," to ask the kinds of questions and do the kinds of analysis and reasoning historians use.

It's a slight shift, but an important one.