On mass writing: Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

Over the past two weeks, our readings have centered around the process of writing, the way that writing is taught in tandem with reading throughout grade school and the implications of those techniques on writing as a whole. With the growing importance of writing in not only a collegiate but a professional setting, it is perhaps important for us to examine how we — we being the future lawyers and doctors and teachers of America — write and not just why we do it. Twice, we have read about how institutions should shift to account for the rising stock that is writing.

Today, I read “Reading and Writing without Authority” by Ann Penrose and Cheryl Geisler. Both investigate differences in writing styles between novice academic writers (the x-factors). During their study, the authors experienced writers and analyzed them through several lenses: knowledge of a subject, education level, age, gender etc. They argue that whereas domain knowledge helps writers gain some authority, students must be taught rhetorical strategies, no matter what their specialty may be. Furthermore, they suggest that students should be taught to analyze authors’ assumptions, motivations and the situations that inform their work to help them gain agency as writers who recognize knowledge. If rhetorical strategies are the key to good writing across the board, and those skills need to be taught, there should be an institutional shift towards writing in curriculum, much like Brandt suggested in her piece comparing reading and writing.

We also read about types of reading, reading with a purpose, taking steps along the way to ensure critical thinking along the way. Going through a process in reading will subsequently train people to become better readers and ultimately writers. PROBLEM: I don’t read, literally ever, and I’m doing just fine in the classroom and in my writing career.

First and foremost, I believe that my writing “talent” was not something I was taught, and it was most certainly not something I “practiced” or “developed.” In elementary school, me being the nerd of the century that I was, I played copy-cat with my teachers, adopting their language and thus developing a knack for words like “therefore” and “however” and “similarly.” Later, I was told I have a “voice” and now a “strong voice,” but I can assure you I have never had a singing lesson in my life.

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. 

I mention the Wizard of Oz not because I managed to sneak a Dorothy-and-her-red-slippers reference into my last hockey article (which I’m also proud of), but because that is what these recent articles have made me feel. The suggestion that we teach people to do what we Writing Minors have been doing without instruction for years is daunting. If we are the Great and Powerful Oz in this very poor metaphor I’ve drawn up, then institutionalizing writing for the masses means pulling back the curtain on the the us writers means the end of all the magic — we will not be of value any longer. Both readings made me feel as if they had figured out the secret, unlocking the safe that holds our most valuable asset as future employees. Call me a cowardly lion (OK, yeah I hate me too), but it seems all too daunting.

A few words of solace: the change will likely be a long time coming, if ever. Reading is too highly correlated with writing ability, such that it is about the only viable way to teach writing. What’s more, to institutionalize writing would mean making English teachers around the country masters of writing, and frankly, that isn’t going to happen in the near future. And if that isn’t comforting enough (which it isn’t to me, either), in two years we will have a certification from the University of Michigan, saying that we are “elite” writers. It will be an immediate signal of our ability to employers, something that very few people from this University or around the country will be able to claim.

In the end, Tin Man got a heart and the Scarecrow got a brain and the Lion got his courage and Dorothy clicked her heals three times to go home. So maybe we will get to keep our pen and paper, or our fingers and keyboard, after all.

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