Friday, June 9, 2017

Post 2: The Most Important Thing about Writing

Of course, writing classes have to cover lots of issues, but if I had to choose just one issue that every writing class should deal with, then I would choose conversation. I wish every writing student could see how writing is a conversation with ideas and people.

My 30-years of teaching writing in college have convinced me that too many students write poorly because they are simply filling up paper with 500 or 1,000 words, or however many words the assignment calls for. They are not really engaging with ideas and people. Consequently, they say nothing to nobody, which results in empty, vapid papers, which we teachers then have to read and grade. It's enough to drive a teacher to drink or suicide.

Now, this may sound like an attack on the students, but it isn't. I don't blame students—not completely. Students are quite willing to write, and they have great experience, especially today, with writing as conversation. All my current students write daily: in countless texts, Facebook posts, and tweets, and they write all that stuff because they instinctively like to engage in conversation. It's what humans do. All of us engage a few conversations intensely (say, fashion, sports, politics, religion, or romance) and many other conversations more casually. Today's students are already writing more than at any other time in history. According to a 2016 article on the website Text Request, "In June of 2014, 561 billion text messages were sent worldwide. That’s the most recent number we’ve got. Obviously that’s a rounded figure, but it brings us to roughly 18.7 billion texts sent every day around the world." That adds up to about 7 trillion text messages a year. That is a hell of a lot of writing about nearly everything you can imagine. This generation is producing more writing per year than in all of previous human history combined, and they are doing it because they want to. No doubt about it.

So why don't they like academic writing? I think it's mostly because they don't see academic writing as a conversation about engaging topics with interesting people. For most students, a class paper is just an assignment, empty blather to no one about something that doesn't matter. When they find themselves trapped in that kind of situation, they don't know how to get out of it. College writing courses should teach them strategies for turning any class writing assignment into an interesting, worthwhile conversation. In her presentation "Writing Is a Conversation," writing instructor Johannah Rodgers says that treating writing assignments as conversation has numerous benefits for students. First, it increases student's confidence in their writing, and then it makes the connections between the written conversations student already have in their social spaces with the academic conversations they engage in college. This can make for better writing and higher grades for students and better reading for teachers. That's a win-win.