Rigor Mortis

I just did a search for posts on WPA-Ls on personal writing over the last 13 years.  As I expected, there are hundreds of postings. I’ll collect them on my research page & maybe try to code & analyze them.  Most writing professors are suspicios & some downright hostile to the use of personal writing.  If you read Beth Daniel’s response to me, you might think there is good reason for this hostility–the times when writing teachers more or less intrude into their students’ lives.  On the nether end of this complaint lies the writing teacher who plays therapist–Jeffrey Berman comes close to this, but he has researched the process and to my mind, handles the emotional and psychological dangers quite well.  But there are reasons to worry–I suppose.

But I sense a different source of antagonism–and I don’t know whether I’ll be able to explain it.  The general culprit is “rigor” combined perhaps with the grade issue.  Personal writing seems too soft, too easy to do, too, well, too feminine–no rigor.  It’s this hard stuff (sorry) that gets people excited.  Hard stuff is also more academically rigorous.  One could go a long way with this thinking, but I’m sure you get the point (again, sorry).  

It just seems too easy to give writing tasks that students are going to enjoy and that the teacher is going to enjoy reading.  Everybody’s just not working hard enough.

I’m pretty certain that this reaction to fun is crazy.  I think writing should be fun.  I think living should be fun.  I think learning should be fun.  I think Beth said that she wants her students to learn how to learn–I don’t think that will happen unless the experience of learning is fun.  And I also think the experience has to be fun for both the teacher & students, in which case a kind of double reinforcement occurs–the teacher and student enjoyment feed and enhance each other.  I am certain that when my students know how much I enjoy being with them and reading what they write, then they enjoy the process of learning, and their enjoyment feeds back to me and to each other.  I know some of my cynical friends will just be thinking, he’s just taking the easy way out (that might be true–but I’m all for the easy way out); he’s not teaching them what they need to know; he’s unwilling to do the hard work of reading lifeless papers.  But I think that a lot of what we think we need to teach is bogus.  This claim is hardly news to educators who have, let’s say, thought critically about education. 

John Dewey was hardly the first or last person to acknowledge that most classroom seat time is wasted (Freire, Kozal, Holt, Postman & Weingarten, etc).  As soon as one notices how little education actually occurs in (and out) of the classroom, one is led to wonder about the hidden curriculum (Anyon, Clark), possibly the social reproductive function of education. 

One assumes that in our field, we are far from immune to delusion, thinking we are teaching something useful when in fact we may just be ensuring through what we teach that the redistribution of wealth, assets, and privileges continues in the current pattern.  Or we think we’re teaching critical thinking without thinking critically about critical thinking.  Or we think we’re teaching writing when in fact we’re teaching our students how to dislike writing and do what they can to avoid writing situations.  Well, there are all sorts of possibilities of misdirected instruction.  And each of us knows the misdirected instructor might be us.

I wonder how much of what we teach in required writing classes proves useful to our students either in their undergraduate courses or in their personal and professional lives.  For instance, all this time we spend on teaching argumentative strategies.  Have you ever seen that U-tube presentation, The Five-Minute University?  Hmmmm.  And I know that the current trope among comp/rhet people is evidence-based writing.  Actually, I don’t have anything against evidence-based writing (or thinking) if it’s fun.  If it’s a bore—or painful—well, I’m not for it.

I might be misdirected, but particularly in these waning years of my professional life, I want to teach writing as fun.  I almost don’t care what else my students learn if they learn that writing can be fun—and even enlightening.  Writing to express, to learn, to communicate seriously, to explore, to bring to life half-formed thoughts and vague memories you don’t want to die.  I don’t know—I think we might be more productive in our field if we focused on the joy of writing and passed that joy on.  I think we have to begin from that joy—and it’s the joy we feel when we read and respond to our students and they read and respond to each other and are responded to.  Thinking of basics:  that’s basic.  We can work outward from there.  But if we don’t get that one down, well, I think we’re traveling down the wrong road.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *