Re: investing in writing and revision?

Nick Carbone (nickc@MARLBORO.EDU)
Fri, 16 Aug 1996 16:55:34 -0400

On Fri, 16 Aug 1996, Marcy Bauman wrote:

> I also think that there are a lot of tired old tape loops about
> those topics, and the challenge is to create situations where the tape
> loops can be gotten past. It's been my experience that if I can create a
> situation where people feel free to debate the issues and to counter one
> another respectfully, nearly everyone learns something about audience.
> It's the quality of interaction about it that makes a topic "real," not
> the topic itself.
Getting past loops (as opposed to hopping, or in my case colliding,
through them) requires having some reason to take up the issue, no matter
how much it's been troped out. What's a reason for speaking to any given
audience? In Marcy's description above, as near as I can tell and I may
be wrong because I'm near-sighted and lack all foresight and far sight,
the students discuss amongst themselves. Why? Presumeable because the
course builds that in. They may find the discussions fun, like late
night chats that make up the collegiate experience, and they might
discover new arguments. Still, they're brought together by the whims of
scheduling and the vagaries of a syllabus--the tacit choice they made is
applying and coming to college and implicitly accepting those conditions.

What I've found in trying to work through this conundrum, is that unless
we generate some sense of audience, either by design or fiat or accident
or by community service writing or letter to the editoring, we are almost
always stuck with students who have no need to speak to anyone. They
have no salient sense of audience (to quote Odell's rubric #1). Also,
for many of us, we are required to prepare them to write for an audience
almost too obtuse to imagine clearly--the members of various academic
disciplines; we're asked to teach some variant of academic writing to
students who don't yet know the academy. (Hell, after nine years as an
undergrad and another 9 as a grad, I'm a student who still doesn't know it.)

So much of the writing we ask students to do is practice for an audience
they don't know and can't clearly see. I think it's why so many student
essays are toneless, lack voice; the words can't be embodied because tehy
can't imagine an audience made flesh. It's abstract beyond reality,
except for the teacher as icon and judge on how well they do at pleasing
this mythical audience.

But even when we diverge from that academic thing, when we have students
write on lists, write to one another, I'm still not convinced that the
writing is all that much more invested. Sure there's an audience that at
least responds and that helps shpae some revision. But not as much as is
generally claimed. In part because we've moved from asking them to
imagine the unknowable to playing some sort of game of house. Often they
pretend to be audiences and speakers to audiences, but only because fate
put them in a course where the teacher aksed them to do that.

It's rare that students have their own compelling reasons to write.
E-mail's nice, and sometimes compelling, and certianly combines speaking
with writing, but it's also ephemeral in many ways and transitory. It's
one draft, often episodic, ocasionally epistloray. I guess that's why so
many of us like it. But it's hard to require isn't it.

Ideally we would offer writing courses that are open for students to come
to as theysee fit when they have something they really want to work on.
There would be no requirement, including that they take the class. But
that posits a world in which more peopel valued writing beyond the lip
service paid to the glories of knowing the three Rs, a world where people
had the time and urge to write because they would be read. But if
everyone were doing that, that would mean people would have the time and
urge to read more than they do. Students know that for 90% of what they
ever write, there will never be an audience.

Nick Carbone, Writing Instructor
Marlboro College
Marlboro, VT 05344