How to Teach Writing

Antony Theobald, '= // =' 2009

Antony Theobald, '= // =' 2009


With that laughably optimistic title it’s clear from the start: this blog post is in trouble. I have no idea how to teach people to write, and it’s a big part of my job.

It’s not like I need to convince anyone of the importance of writing: it’s the most powerful intervention we make in students’ lives (assuming they need interventions - an assumption educators make a lot). Second to reading it’s the greatest source of solitary joy I know of, and probably the greatest source of power, too; most importantly, it’s something most of the writers I meet as a writing consultant struggle with.

It’s disingenuous to just call it writing though, isn’t it? Occasionally my students will ‘friend’ me on social media after we finish a course together, and I’ve noticed that even the writers who found my class most challenging are facile online writers. Freed from the monolingual, monocultural expectations of Standard Edited American English (SEAE) they conduct an important part of their lives in writing that expresses logic and emotion efficiently, according to rules widely understood; it’s just not writing. SEAE is writing, and it’s hard to teach.

It’s hard to teach because it’s complicated – there are a lot of rules, and despite the almost Academie Française-like fervor with which some people oppose this fact, those rules change over time. I was raised to put two spaces after a sentence, and I’m beginning to think that words like ‘impactful’ and practices like using contractions in formal writing are here to stay. There are also rules that have never been fully codified or are undergoing major changes, like the use of the dreaded word ‘I’ – some instructors don’t mind it, some consider it abhorrent, for political reasons some instructors (like myself) prefer that students mainly do situated writing and give up the pretense of objectivity that avoiding ‘I’ supports.

It’s also hard to teach because of the politics involved. As Nancy Effinger Wilson points out in Praxis 10.1’s “Stocking the Bodega: Towards a New Writing Center Paradigm,” SEAE has a contentious history. Its roots in the nascent Northeastern U.S. collegiate institutions of the late 1800s, SEAE was codified as the ‘civilized’ dialect, in contradistinction to the rough, multilingual Englishes common on the frontier, and that codificatory process was undertaken by elite white protestant males. In other words, SEAE is WASP English. Forcing students from diverse backgrounds to go through the process of solidifying their grasp on SEAE sometimes feels like giving them power by helping them to master the institutional dialect, but at other times it feels like encroaching on them in a deeply intimate way by strictly regulating the ways they express their inner being and their understanding of the world. One wonders if (and how, and in what ways) this regulatory regime changes that understanding and that inner being, and whether that’s an ethical project for a writing instructor to take upon themselves.

And that’s to say nothing of the politics of working with writers trying to write writing in the writing center. As we’ve seen in the comments and posts on this blog, consulting with writers from the ethical standpoint that writing centers often take up can be very complicated when the standpoint of an instructor or department differs. Writers can end up between a rock and a hard place, the center unwilling to provide a proofreading service and the instructor expecting every comma to be not only in the ‘right’ place, but in the place where the instructor would have put it themselves; additionally, writing centers can be attached to a hostile department, or have their value to the community questioned or misunderstood, and one of the major constituents of every challenge the writing center faces is the role of writing in higher education. Are writing centers places for ‘remedial’ writers to master the institutional dialect? Are they places for every writer to receive specialized support, working within their department’s or instructor’s generic expectations? While the questions of who bears responsibility for teaching writing and how they should do it remain, adding the question of whether we should teach writing at all, and how writing centers should support that teaching, leads directly to aporia.

Thus I suppose that many of us in writing centers use an aporetic writing approach, and this is probably more or less what many of us ‘teach’ through the consultation process. While calling something ‘aporetic’ can denote that it puts us at a loss, inclines us to doubt and raise objections, that it may even be impassable altogether, here I think it works better to think of aporetic writing as a writing (and reading) practice that occurs in a constant state of readiness, the purpose of which is to foster an attention to how individual thought and experience is becoming-writing, the method reliant on a shared willingness to engage with change. This is just editing, more or less, but editing understood not as copyediting but as a reflexive consideration of the writing process in its full institutional context. When we use aporetic writing approaches in the writing center we communicate to student writers that it is possible to accede to the strict expectations of SEAE, or of whatever other writing an instructor expects, but that it is only one of many possibilities.

This is a dubious conclusion in all the meanings of that word. Student writers sometimes misunderstand the aporetic approach as an unwillingness to help them achieve their goals, and their instructors sometimes feel strongly that writing centers should share those goals; the dubious stance writing centers take towards received ideas of what writing is or should be can feel like criticism or incompetence rather than critical thinking. Nevertheless this seems to be a widely agreed-upon approach in writing center work, at least as Praxis envisions it.

That doesn’t mean we’re not in trouble, but maybe it does mean that we know how to ‘teach’ people to ‘write.’