The Fear of Writing

Some friends on WPA-l are engaged in a mild conversation about the pleasure of writing. I want to elaborate here and then let one of my students, Jake, describe his problem with writing & how it has been taught.

I know my position is not popular; it might even be called dangerous. For a host of reasons, I would not recommend it for untenured or non-tenure track WPAs. Essentially, promoting the pleasure of writing is uncool–it’s not rigorous.

I have, when trying to make my position sound more scholarly :-), called it the transfer of affect. I think one of the best ways of helping students negotiate difficult rhetorical situations (the kind I usually call school writing–I think in A Theory of Literate Action, Chuck Bazerman calls them school genres) is to encourage a positive attitude toward writing.  As others in the WPA-l discussion have noted, making a positive attitude primary does not stop us from teaching many other writing and research skills. I work with my students on grammar, style, rhetorical theory, and research strategies.

I think we can make all of these interesting and pleasurable, although several of my students are clearly enduring my grammar lessons. But above all, I want my students to come out of our class having enjoyed their writing and reading (mostly reading each other) experiences. Achieving this objective is really not very hard. In fact, it’s fun. If you look at Rachel’s essay at the end of this post, you’ll see why.

I do know that encouraging pleasure in writing has invigorated the writing program I have been directing at Drexel. Almost all of the teachers have embraced it. The students as well have responded positively to it. My colleague, Karen Nulton, and I have significant research to support these claims. I think, however, focusing on the pleasure of writing is not the best way to make friends with administrators and other teachers who very likely do not enjoy writing. These are the people who believe in minimum word counts and a required number of scholarly sources.

I need to let Jake speak. But I do want to ground my theory as essentially a progressive, liberatory pedagogy. More lately, educators like Will Richardson, John Tagg, and L. Dee Fink refer to it as engaged learning–Tagg pushing for The Learning Paradigm College. None of this is new.

Here’s Jake’s description of why he had come to loath writing:
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After some consideration, I have decided to completely rewrite my essay.  Why?  Well that’s because I still have no clue what I want to write about.  I wrote my first essay about the power of words since it was the easiest thing to write about, but I still wasn’t that interested in it.  The main thing I wanted to pump out was how fascinated I was with the deaf 20 year-old story, which isn’t much to go on.  While I was reading Professor Peckham’s response to Chris Z’s essay, what he wrote about caught my attention.  Professor Peckham was curious as to why some students can’t find something to write about when provided a blank canvas.  It is pretty strange if you think about it.  Everyone has different opinions, ideals, experiences and thoughts, so there should be at least one interesting thing to write about, right? 
Even when I realized this, my mind still remains so empty that my head would have better use as an over-sized pickle jar.  I can’t understand why this is, but Professor Peckham provides another hint that really set the gears in motion; “There is no reason why people should not like to write—unless they have been trained not to”.  Reading this really makes things clear; the reason I’m not passionate about writing is that I was conditioned all throughout school to see writing as a chore.  This is all due to the various different English classes from grade school to high school.  I can’t recall a single class where I could reflect on anything that I wanted to.  All of those classes just had the same old routine; read a book, do work about said book, and then make a book report.  As you can probably guess, doing something like this wasn’t the least bit enjoyable.  In fact, the rules for writing got more constrictive throughout the years.  Those English classes left little room for creativity and really put a damper on my feelings towards writing.  I honestly wish that that phenomena could be fixed for future generations, but I don’t have the time nor drive to do something about it.
                After reflecting on this, I’m still very concerned for my writing career.  Is there any possible way that I can recover from this deep-rooted bias towards writing?  In general, writing doesn’t seem like something boring.  To express one’s complex thoughts upon a piece of paper (or more commonly today, upon a computer screen) in a way so that other people can feel the same way you do just by reading seems pretty interesting.  Maybe if I started to keep a personal journal, I can get to the root of the problem.  I’m glad that I finally realized my problem with writing.  After all, the first step towards recovery is acknowledgement.

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Jake was writing about his last essay. Really, I could post so many powerful last essays from my students to demonstrate how students can enjoy writing. I’m going to link to Rachel’s — both because it was a compelling essay and because Rachel came into this class utterly loathing writing. That’s not how she went out. Her shift in attitude wasn’t because of me–it was because of the class.  

For the record: there aren’t any word limits to this assignment. I just basically asked students to write a reflective essay, for themselves first, for the rest of the class after.

Frankie: My Glasses

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