*** WARNING LONG POST: CASLL LISTSERV DOESN'T ALLOW ATTACHMENTS. I have
put it on the wikispace, though, as well as pasted it below. ***
Let me preface this by saying this is a very odd collaboration -- and I
will not be at all insulted is this draft is not at all what you want to
represent us. Because it's going to UA, I've made some voice (ethos)
choices that may be very different from what others would do ... but let
me know if this is of any use to the process of responding to the
I have found the responses on the listserv really helpful in terms both
of substance and of approach.
Here beginneth the draft:
Those of us in the scholarly field of writing 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?
[Quotation here from one of those lovely 19th c documents?]
So it’s a delight 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 writing scholars. And just as we
wouldn’t dream of teaching marketing, even though we know something
about marketing because we are consumers, so we scholars of writing
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. We will be brief and selective.
“Writing” is a poor 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, and it’s not
an adjunct to other disciplines. A discipline is defined, after all,
not by its subject matter alone, but by the characteristic thinking and
writing processes 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
must assigned across the curriculum in order to be evaluated: no,
writing must be used to serve the purposes of learning across the
curriculum. When we encourage writing across the curriculum, we
encourage our colleagues to assign journals and reflection pieces,
on-line discussions or in-class responses, to give practice in
uncovering and articulating ideas. “How do our students know what they
think till they see what they 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 hopposed 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. We writing scholars are
quite modest, really. We know that we’re not the best people to teach
apprentice sociologists or historians how to write sociology or history.
And that’s also why requiring a writing course – whether it’s a
first-year comp or English 1000 or a writing intensive course – does not
meet that need. Expecting students to transfer what they learn about
writing from such courses to the rest of their academic career is like
expecting the child who can ride her tricycle down the sidewalk to be
able to pass her driving test without further instruction or practice.
It’s the sociologists and the historians (and the marketing profs and
the chemists and the ...) who know how writing works in their
disciplines. They also know how long it took for them to learn how to
do it. The commitment to writing therefore needs to be not only across
the curriculum but in the disciplines.
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 to surface correctness is not what we mean when we say writing
needs to be learned in the discipline as part of the discipline. 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. 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.
Here endeth the beginning.
Susan Drain, PhD
Department of English
Mount Saint Vincent University
Halifax, NS Canada B3M 2J6
902 457 6220
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