When I heard John Warner had some books coming out I accosted him on a Twitter backchannel to ask for reviewer copies. (This actually works, and I have the reviews to show for it.) This week marks the release of one of these books, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities, from Johns Hopkins University Press.*
That title sounds as if it will be a grumpy polemic, but it’s actually an inspiring exploration of what learning to write could be, framed by an analysis of why it so often is soul-destroying for both students and their teachers. There is some grumpiness there – necessary background on education reformers trying to turn students into product for corporations, the conditions for underpaid and contingent teachers of writing, and the misery of being a student who loves learning but hates school. But inside those slices of whole grain context are lots of ideas about writing and how we can teach it in a way that helps students understand writing as a practice of making choices rather than a recipe for producing academic-sounding text.
“To write is to make choices,” he argues, but the way writing is taught and assessed is not about making choices, it’s about not making mistakes. We end up with “not so much writing as an imitation of writing, creating an artifact resembling writing which is not, in fact, the product of a robust, flexible writing process.” He makes it clear he doesn’t blame teachers for this state of affairs. Rather, reformers and policy makers have too often decided teachers are a problem that needs fixing. Teachers in our K12 system are the last people who get to make choices about how to make choices about writing, and instead are stuck with formulae.**
Those formulae, which may help students survive a process that demands they demonstrate competency within a very narrow set of skills, hinder acquiring the habits a writer needs: curiosity, engagement, persistence, flexibility, empathy, being comfortable with ambiguity while also valuing truth. So often we ask them to write about things they don’t know, as if by finding information, copying chunks of it, arranging those chunks, and tacking on a moral they will learn the material. They might learn something, but they aren’t learning how to write.
Nor are they learning how information works. Here’s a money quote for my fellow librarians:
The library skills needed to use the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature and the card catalog are irrelevant in a world of databases at our fingertips. And yet, students are often required to work with information in ways that more resemble what I did in grade school almost forty years ago than in ways that reflect our interconnected world. . . . To do better means introducing lessons in Internet literacy that extend well beyond traditional approaches to teaching and learning in academic contexts. Writing instruction will need to be the front line in helping students figure out what is shit and what is shinola.
Warner describes some ways that writing can be more formative, less summative, more involving, less rote, more meaningful, challenging, and rewarding. He also tackles some big questions: what about grammar? What about rigor?*** What about grades? What about the children?
His argument is important, and I hope his ideas get traction, but old habits are hard to change. My college has had a robust writing-across-the-curriculum program for decades. Even though we’ve devolved the task of writing instruction to departments with an early vaccination from a first term seminar taught by tenured or tenure-track faculty across the curriculum, it’s still hard for faculty to think of themselves as writers except as writers of academic prose. (There are many exceptions to this – practicing artists have to come up with inventive writing assignments and our scientists have developed some great writing-for-the-world situations, but writing in the manner of the discipline is generally considered easier to teach than writing that doesn’t fit a disciplinary genre and voice.) We spend time on making sound rhetorical moves (and knowing that there are moves) in the fist term seminar, but advising and other matters take up a lot of the space where writing could be practiced. More challenging is the fact that many academics don’t write confidently, even if they write a lot.
But they are used to having to make writing choices, including how to respond to Reviewer Number Two. They know a first draft is only a first draft. They know that when a sentence just doesn’t work they have to fix it. They know they can’t pretend to know stuff that is completely foreign to them by flinging some big words around. Well, big-word-flinging is a major sport, but if their subject is history they would be unable to write something meaningful about biochemistry in a matter of weeks and vice versa. Why, then, do we expect it of our students? We need to rethink both process and product and stop asking students to mimic scholars. Instead, we should create opportunities to be curious and take risks safely as they practice being writers. Warner has some good ideas about that.
*At least I think so. Amazon says it was released in November, but I’m going with JHU Press’s listing.
**Ironically, Warner felt free to experiment and write about his experiments publicly in a way that would have been risky had he been on the tenure track. When you think about it, this is totally messed up.
***When it comes to “rigor,” Warner channels Inigo Montoya: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Incidentally, you know how John often has notes at the end of his posts, and sometimes they are portals into entirely novel ideas or jokes or the jab of a sharp stick? He does that with the notes at the end of this book, too, including plans for a heist at McNeese State University’s library and how dithering about where to put a particular chapter is an example of what he’s writing about. He’s a funny man.