This post does not seek to discredit teachers using older editions of Writing and Rhetoric textbooks. I will offer an alternative model that can be useful for contemporary teachers of writing composition in higher education. During this academic year, I have focused on teaching Bad Ideas About Writing (2017), which is a collection of essays exploring myths about “good” English prose in the twenty-first century. Some authors focus on subjective difficulties including the assumption that individuals must have an innate ability to compose from the start or else they will not become satisfactory writers (Parrot 71).
As a graduate assistant who was an undergraduate only a short time ago, I think that it is important to expose students (English and non-English or writing majors) to the current debates surrounding the practice of writing. When I took similar classes as an undergraduate (even as an English major) I felt distant from the content being taught. Perusing the textbook and moving through the motions, I often wondered about the value of what we were learning. Possessing this first-hand experience, when I began teaching in higher education for the first time last fall, my first thought was: how can I make the content that I need to teach more accessible and useful for my undergraduate students?
Before I taught the class, I turned to each essay in Bad Ideas About Writing (BIAW) and selected the essays that seemed most applicable for the student body at my institution. Since I have published elsewhere regarding my use of the concept “failure” in the composition classroom, I will share another experience that I have had with the second class I’ve taught. My research focuses on literature and pedagogy following a similar trajectory as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak who argues that aesthetic education is the “uncoercive rearrangement of desire.” I haven’t, until recently, focused on the scholarship produced by scholars in Writing and Rhetoric.
When I read a chapter from BIAW by Jimmy butts titled “The More Writing Process, the Better” I recognized an opportunity to discuss a contemporary controversy in the field of composition studies that is relevant for our current students. Rather than encouraging students to passively engage in reading a textbook, we actively collaborated on a dialectical reading of this chapter. To provide some context for readers, this chapter emphasizes what might be called a post-process mentality about writing composition. This attitude towards writing emphasizes the value of a final product rather than focusing on drafting “ad infinitum” (111). Butts will argue that “efficiency” in the sense of a focused determination to publish or produce is more important than spending an abundant amount of time drafting and revising:
This decadent view of the writing process simply isn’t where we are as a culture… And it is a vanity. Time is a luxury. Revising too much can be unethical—a waste. There are diapers to be changed. More than that. People are dying. You are dying. And you need to write as though your next piece could be your last. (113)
The way that I have traditionally taught writing as an instructor and a tutor comes from the opposite tradition. Butts locates the origin of “process writing” in the 1960s and 70s. He argues that this movement originated with the work of Donald Murray and Peter Elbow who “embraced a kind of slower process in the teaching of writing that resisted the kind of production-line expectation of writing work that can sometimes arise along with a lot of anxiety” (110). Reading this chapter allowed me to assemble a teaching opportunity for my students and I to work through. I found that they (my students) were very capable of following these two lines of thought (process and post-process writing) through a dialectic model. After we read this chapter in class (it is a short piece and only took us fifteen to twenty minutes to read) I explained on the board what the dialectic model is.
Once we had discussed this model thoroughly, I quickly adumbrated the distinctions in the field between process and post-process practices. After reading the chapter, I asked students to help me think of words associated with each argument and here is what we came up with:
We discovered by way of our analysis that “failure” was a concept that both arguments embraced, but in very different ways. Failure for process-inclined writers would be akin to accepting the responsibility of multiple drafts and becoming comfortable with the “failure” inevitably present in the earlier stages of writing. Butts, on the other hand, argues that failure is okay so long as we produce a product quicker:
I think that this view also invites us to stop dilly-dallying, and saying that we are writers when we are sometimes not acting like it and to accept our successes along with our failure (112).
I argue that introducing composition students to this debate is important today because there are pros and cons that we can derive from each “school” of thought. In a world of ever-increasing productivity, we do have deadlines. At the same time, those deadlines may cause anxiety and those who have not been prepared to consider fine details and spend more time putting together an argument, email, offer, or speech; might not have the capacity to reach an audience of colleagues, customers, clients, or patients as effectively as possible. With this said, we do need to get things “done” but I do not encourage an emphasis solely on quantity qua final product, but also place an emphasis on the importance of quality. Teachers should not avoid teaching the process model of writing. I encourage others to think about creating their own dialectic models with their students depending on the climate and culture of their current classroom.
- Ball, Cheryl and Drew M. Loewe, editors. Bad Ideas About Writing. West Virginia University Libraries, Digital Publishing Institute, 2017. https://textbooks.lib.wvu.edu/badideas/badideasaboutwriting-book.pdf
- Spivak, Guyatri C. Other Asias. 2007. New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell. Web.
- Butts, Jimmy. “The More Writing Process, The Better.” Bad Ideas About Writing, edited by Cheryl Ball and Drew M. Loewe, West Virginia University Libraries Digital Publishing Institute, 2017, 109-113.