Can Writing Be Taught In College?

The Department of English in any university is predicated on the idea that writing is a skill that can be studied, learned, taught, and to some degree, mastered (at the undergraduate level, at least).  We have innumerable theories on how to teach writing, and each teacher does his or her variation on some of these approaches, funneling their ideas into at least two core classes, Freshman Composition 1 and 2.  The goal of these courses is that students leave with a knowledge of writing critical essays using sources, and are able to understand how to write for various audiences by employing different rhetorical strategies to make his or her argument coherent and, perhaps, persuasive.  Sounds simple enough, but it’s a pretty tall order considering students have a very tenuous relationship with writing.  Sure, most have a passing acquaintance with the basics of writing an essay, and if pressed, some will admit that they have at least heard of MLA documentation.  A few even know the difference between primary and secondary sources (but only a few).  However, the idea of making an argument and responding to other ideas and conversations out in the world is completely foreign to most students for one simple reason: the vast majority of students don’t like to read.  They didn’t read as high school students, and they don’t magically read once they come to college.  Sure, they (usually) dutifully read assigned pages in a textbook or a novel assigned for class, but reading is seen as an artificial activity, something remote and academic.  It’s not something “real” that occurs in an organic form out in the world...and if it does, it primarily takes the form of Harry Potter or something they would consider “fun reading.”  

The disconnect between the world of ideas that circulates through books, newspapers, magazines, and more critically informed internet articles/sites and the writing students produce in college is absolute.  Writing is a “no outlet” activity for them, a dead end that necessitates a U-Turn to get back to civilization.  They don’t realize that every piece of writing is a response, in a conscious or subconscious way, to something else that has been written.  I’ve never read an article in a magazine that didn’t allude to a book, author, poem, or song in some explicit way.  A few weeks ago in class, we read an essay entitled “Excuse Us While We Kiss the Sky.”  None of the students caught the reference.  Now, knowing or not knowing the Jimi Hendrix song didn’t negate the essay’s meaning, but it did enhance it.  It also proved that the writer was responding to an idea, or even an emotion that came from another source—it provided a launching-off point for the writer’s thesis.  The less students read, and by “read” I mean read widely in all possible forms and genres, the less capable they are of meaningful writing.  Writing always begins as a response, not as self-invention or self-congratulation.  It doesn’t spring magically from the writer’s head, but is planted there by a series of ideas by a series of writers.  Indeed, the whole point of writing in college is to prepare students to enter into the intellectual world of ideas, which demands knowledge of multiple conversations so you can respond critically and intelligently (rather than simply saying “that sounds stupid,” or “I just don’t believe that”!).  We see this in the world of literature, where most writers begin by emulating his or her favorite writers, sometimes to the point that we dismiss someone for sounding too much like Poe, or someone else for mimicking Joyce.  Imagine a writer who set out to write poetry with no knowledge of poetry from Chaucer to Heaney.  Imagine a poet who had never read a single poem.  What kind of poetry would he or she write?  The poet’s knowledge would come only through half-remembered lines of poetry heard in school, maybe a limerick, perhaps The Star Spangled Banner.  Would we want to read such poetry?  And more importantly, would it have any meaning for lovers of poetry?  

In the mid 1990’s, a classical label released a series of works by a young Chinese-American composer who had autism.  He had grown up listening to the great canonical classical composers of the 18th/19th centuries—Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, but nothing since.  He had never heard or listened to Stravinsky, Schoenberg, or Cage, not to mention jazz, blues, rock, metal, rap, etc.  He had an uncanny ability to mimic the works he had learned by heart, so his music sounded like a crib from Mozart here, a passage from Brahms, there, etc.  Yet it also sounded like a museum piece, as nothing, not a single phrase, sounded like it had been composed in the 20th century, much less the near-21st.  While many composers often write in a neo-classical mode, as Prokofiev did in his famous Classical Symphony of 1917, it remains recognizably “modern.”  You can tell in every bar that this is a 20th century mind/voice re-appropriating classical models.  The Chinese composer was denied this heritage.  He knew nothing of the music of his own time, much less the nearest generations before him; he composed in a “dead end” of music, responding to ideas as if they were merely abstractions, like dandelion seeds blown into the ocean.  Needless to say, he didn’t join the ranks of great composers, nor did these CDs sell particularly well, that I can remember.  They were a curiosity, and a somewhat tragic one at that, since he was billed as a prodigy.  The difference being that a true musical prodigy, someone like Mozart, or Mendelssohn, or even Korngold, read widely in the music of the past and the present, and were immediately able to write in a “modern” style. 

This is how I see many of our students writing essays, through no fault of their own: they know a few old ideas (often not old enough), and are continually writing and re-writing in this antique style without any awareness of what has happened in the previous century.  This sounds strange, since our students are so plugged into the virtual world, and are about the “now,” and not the “then.”  And yet, so little of their virtual time is spent reading in any meaningful way; it’s spent skimming or dancing over images and sounds rather than the “deep reading” that a true conversation demands.  The internet in many ways is the worst teacher imaginable, since it relies on sound bites and tweets which are all about surface glitter.  The hard, gray matter beneath any story has to be sought, and seeking takes time—it can’t be absorbed in a news feed.  So this compounds the difficulty of teaching writing to students, since we also have to teach them to read.  This might sound condescending, but it’s not meant to: rather, we have to train students to read against the grain of their culture, to find time and space to find the ideas that matter to our world.  These ideas can only be found in the words of those who spend their lives pursuing them—the writers, artists, musicians, etc. who add to the living conversation of humanity.  Their works have to be read, not skimmed, not seen in a 3- minute clip, but thoroughly and patiently understood.  To me, that is the essence of writing: to learn to be a reader of culture.  Otherwise, what would you write?  What would you say?  What would you think?  Sure, everyone has an opinion, but an opinion isn’t a reflex—it’s a response.  It needs to be informed. 

So to return to my original question, can writing be taught in college?  In a certain sense, no, I don’t think it can.  That is, you can’t teach writing mechanically, abstractly, without connecting it to the world of ideas.  Otherwise, it’s just information and it just dies on the page.  I  know a lot of writing professors believe that the class should produce the “reading” of class and that a writing class should be about writing, not books.  I would support that if students were better read, or if were teaching a class of professors.  However, given the reality of most college students, who through no fault of their own are conditioned by their culture, this would be like teaching a film class without watching a single film (and more importantly, films made before the students were born).  A writing class has to be a cultural conversation, and the core of that class has to be a response to writing that is ongoing in our world, from the past and the present.  We can’t assume that technology has made these students any more savvy than we were at their age (I wasn’t, by the way).  We have to assume they need to be initiated in the great ideas of our civilization, the ones people are still writing about in The Odyssey and Rolling Stone.  Otherwise, writing is just keystrokes for a grade.  And that kind of writing doesn’t need to be taught—they’ve already learned all about that in high school, along with all the tricks necessary to get the grade.  They think you can write it the night before (or the hour before!) and simply throw in quotes and requirements--since it's not a conversation, or a response, but just an "assignment."  But you can’t bluff your way through a response to living ideas: you either know them (and can respond to them) or you can’t. I don’t want to teach students tricks or tips or engage them in endless workshops; I want to teach them where ideas come from and how to respond to them.  In short, I want to teach them why writing matters, and erase the useless distinction between writing and literature, words and ideas, or school and life. 

In closing, I took an eye-opening creative writing course in my undergraduate studies where we read an entire anthology of short stories.  Many of my fellow students were pissed, since they thought this was going to be a creative writing workshop, not another literature class!  The professor, a widely published author of acclaimed novels and stories, brusquely swept this aside: if you don’t know the tradition of writing you won’t write anything new.  And she couldn’t stand writing that existed in a vacuum.  If you wanted to write short stories you had to read Chekhov, Maupassant, Tolstoy, James, Wharton, Carver (among others).  She particularly (and I think, unfairly) hated genre fiction since she thought it allowed the students an easy “out” to reading in a tradition (and it often did—students would say “I’m writing about an imaginary world so no one has written about it before”).  But all writing has precedents, and all writing responds to another writer or series of ideas.  I know many Creative Writing teachers are uneasy making their classes seminars in literature, and prefer the workshop approach, with the students’ writing being the ‘reading’ in question.  Yet what I learned in this class is how little my fellow students had read, as well as how much more I had yet to read.  There were students writing short stories in this class who had never read a single short story.  They had read a few novels, so guess what, they wrote condensed novels in short-story form (of what they imagined that looked like).  Few even knew how to position dialogue on the page, and even fewer knew how to write it (that’s the most elusive skill of all).  I think writers need to learn from one another, and to read each other’s writing; but more importantly they need to read, and I worry about the metaphor of the blind leading the blind.  To write you first need to see, so why not start with those who helped us see the clearest, and whose works continue to point the way forward for other writers, thinkers, and simple human beings? 

As a confession, this post is a response to grading 50+ papers over Spring Break.  There’s a lot of work yet to be done...