Thursday, April 16, 2009

The revolution is not a tea party

I've talked with a number of colleagues and students about the frustration I expressed in this post a few days ago. And a couple of cogent thoughts -- okay, one metaphor and one cogent thought -- have emerged from those discussions.
  • The way my students use language in their everyday writing for me is natural, unstudied, instinctual. It's the language they learned at their mothers' breasts. So why does it become like material translated from English to Japanese to Swedish back to English when they write in the context of a formal paper? I think it's like social behavior. We all learn very early how to act at the dinner table. In a few years, we don't have to think about it anymore -- it comes naturally. But imagine that you get invited to a tea party with the Queen of England. In your anxiety over the alien formality of that occasion, it's not just the new points of etiquette that you don't know -- it's the stuff you adhere to purely by reflex in other situations. You don't just agonize over bowing and using proper address; you also stumble over taking a cake from the plate or stirring sugar into your teacup. The distance you perceive between the everyday manners that suffice in normal life, and the extreme and unknown points of behavior necessary for tea with the Queen, make you forget how to act according to those everyday manners. You also forget to treat the occasion as essential communal. Instead, you anxiously place it in the category of ritual. The focus becomes scrupulous behavior rather than making a connection with another human being. In the same way, faced with the formal academic essay, students become so paralyzed by the mysterious and exacting nature of the assignment -- as unconnected to the writing they do so naturally every day as the royal audience is to coffee with friends -- that they forget how to write a simple sentence. They also forget to treat the occasion as essentially communicative. Instead, they see it as a hurdle to be passed, a hole to be filled, a minefield of potential errors to be tiptoed through.

  • Why is it, then, that the twice-weekly journals I get from those same students contain such good writing? It occurs to me that the medium in which they are writing may provide a clue. When they write journals to me, they go to an online community and start a new thread. The entire apparatus of the technology is geared toward conversation. No one posts on such a system without wanting to be read, expecting to be read. The structural orientation of the medium is toward communication; the reader is inevitably anticipated in the writing process. What about the medium of the word processor? I contend that the message of this technology is entirely different. For the novice writer, the reader is not felt to be present. The blank page invites monologue, not dialogue. I know that seasoned writers don't experience it this way, but I'm not talking about seasoned writers. I'm talking about young people who write constantly, but almost always in those media of dialogue and conversation. How would such a person respond to the blank page and the blinking cursor? Would they intuitively write to communicate? Does the technology invite such an approach -- does it structurally encourage it? Or does it create the hole to be filled, the echo chamber of one's own voice, the absence of anyone else -- of an audience -- whose comprehension needs to be taken into account?

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