Monday, September 19, 2011

Why Write?

Grading a recent round of student essays got me thinking about why we write at all. At first I was thinking specifically about why we use writing as a primary mode of learning in formal education, but I have some pretty well-established ideas (mostly taken from Janet Emig's "Writing as a Mode of Learning" pretty old, 1979, I think) on that subject. But then I started thinking about why students think they write, and about why professional writers (from journalists, to academics, to lyricists, and beyond) actually write.


One thing I've noticed about student writing is that it is often rhetorically situated as a means of demonstrating what the student knows. In other words, based on my reading of student writing (and my experiences as a student writer), I think students often write to show their audience that they've gained knowledge.

While demonstrating knowledge is a necessary by-product of writing, a better aim for most academic writing, and for most writing outside academia, is probably the communication of an idea. By this I mean that I do want to see that students have increased their knowledge bases, but even more so, I want them to communicate some idea of their own. Another way of thinking about this idea is to point out that I can go research and build the exact same knowledge base that they are building through writing their papers, so I don't simply want to hear them report on knowledge that is available to pretty much anyone. Instead, I want them enter into a conversation with the other writers who represent their new knowledge. I want them to formulate their own ideas about whatever it is they're studying, and then communicate those ideas to me. Because I am not them, they can necessarily develop a unique way of looking at their respective subjects that I might not necessarily be able to develop.

The tough part is, of course, that writing is not only a unique mode of learning but also a unique mode of communication, a mode of communication that carries with it unique difficulties that make the communication of ideas difficult sometimes. Take this blog post, the basic idea I'm trying to communicate could be presented in writing in a variety of ways, but I chose a kind of narrative of my thought process that led me to some conclusions about what I want to see out of student writing. This mode is probably not the most effective, or clear, or concise way to communicate my basic idea. In fact, I think my basic idea is more implicitly than explicitly stated in this post, and I guess I'll leave it that way.

1 comment:

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