Monthly Archives: March 2018

For Normal Writing, part 3

Update March 14: This series of posts is dedicated to the memory of Stephen Hawking.

All grief, once made known to the mind, can be cured by the mind, the manuscript proclaimed; the human brain, once it is fully functioning, as in the making of a poem, is outside time and place and immune from sorrow. (Cyril Connolly)

In “Writing Against Normal”, Jay Dolmage presents his own writing pedagogy as an extension of the “post-process” trend in composition instruction. This trend, I note, intersects with Brian Street’s proposal to replace the “autonomous model” of literacy with an “ideological” one. Following Lennard Davis, however, Jay also believes that the writing process is subject to “a regime of bodily normalcy”. Bringing all this together, he seeks a

pedagogy that represents literacy as an ideological and embodied arena, and composing as a cultural
and material activity by which writers position and reposition themselves in relation to their own and others’ subjectivities, discourses, practices, institutions, and bodies.

To this end, he proposes to use wikis to track the revision process, rendering it visible. This includes both the archiving of past versions of papers and the documentation of the feedback students have given each other. He does this to foreground the messiness of the revision process and what Patricia Dunn has called “the drama about power” that editing performs.

Indeed, Jay participates in this drama himself, engaging with the drafts that students produce as they produce them, spurring them on and suggesting changes. The idea is to get students to appreciate the process of writing and editing without focusing on the final product. Jay believes that this also brings the students’ bodies into play, though I’m not exactly clear how this is the case. It seems obvious, however, that it intensifies their social embeddedness, their political situation, if you will, since every move they make in the text, no matter how experimental it is, will now be subject to scrutiny. Both by their fellow students and their teacher.

I am not sure that this explicit dramatization of the power dynamic of writers and readers, students and teachers, is advisable. Tracking (and ultimately grading) the messiness of the revision is likely to lead to them to think that there is some right way to struggle with their texts, and even that finding writing easy is somehow “wrong”. While this approach may well move the student’s focus (and anxieties) away from the errors of the final product, it will also bring the rightness or wrongness of their intuitions, their impulses, to the fore.

In an important sense, it involves an invasion of privacy, and one that is only made possible by the latest in technology. The next logical step, it seems to me, suggests a dyspotian nightmare. Here, students are asked to screen capture all their work with texts, even to film themselves sitting in front their machines working. The technology exists to track their eye movements and, indeed, their vital signs. All this could be justified in the name of “embodiment”, they will now be held responsible for the mere attempt to do things with words, and for their rate of perspiration as they do so. No longer will our pedagogies favor the straight, white, male “normate subject”, no longer will writing instruction “privilege those who can most easily ignore their bodies.” With the process this tightly under surveillance, the body will become mandatory. It will become as legitimate to demand that students show their teachers how their bodies write as it is to ask hockey players to show their coach how their bodies skate. After all, “writing is a physical activity.”

If ever there was a risk of constituting “a regime of bodily normalcy” surely this is it. Except, in Jay’s classroom, students might might feel pressure to appear abnormal. They will feel a pressure, not to conform to some set of norms and standards, but to deviate from them in some “unique” way, expressive of their individual embodiment. That’s the tricky thing with norms; you almost can’t help but enforce some, even as you suspend others. In any case, surely it would force students to establish some other space of privacy, someplace off-camera, off-line and off-the-record, a place to live out their freedom to think, even for a moment, anything they like. This is the freedom they enjoy inside their own skulls.

I use that image advisedly. It is how George Orwell described the only sense in which the party members in 1984 were free. Technology had put every outward act (even of reading and writing) under surveillance. Every “draft” of their thoughts in principle expressed their loyalty or disloyalty to the party. Even the act of picking up a pen and putting it to paper was suspect.

It is my view that teaching students to write means teaching them to make use of a particular kind of freedom. Indeed, the craft of writing has the power to liberate them from the limitations of their bodies. I try to show them how they can coordinate a “here and now” for their knowledge, a moment that is liberated from time and space. It is where the process and the product meet. It is where their material embodiment and their social embeddedness intersect, so that they can be played off against each other, transcending both. In the moment of writing, they are no longer black or white, blind or sighted, male or female. They are, indeed, not even students subject to the “policing” of their teachers. They are free to do anything they like to the end of producing a paragraph of prose that opens something they know to the criticism of their peers.

Jay ends his essay by anticipating my objections:

It might seem that the goal of such an embodied consciousness is counter-productive: that the teacher would reward progressively more “error”-filled work, and that the student would learn skills that would only “Other” them from the world of standard discourse. But the goal I am focused on here is not just better writing—whether this is measured through cleaner products, or through more smoothly incorporated practices. The goal of such pedagogy is a critical and reflexive thinking, the sort of thinking that perhaps writing can best allow when it is neither clean nor smooth.

I have tried to express my uneasiness with this program. (I suspect I’ve only been partly successful.) By insistently implicating the thought in the product, the product in the process, and the process in the body, I worry that we risk destroying the private interiority of the student’s mind. Indeed, Susan Blum has suggested that today’s students already think of themselves (and each other) more in terms of performance than authenticity. (I suspect that performance is to ideology as authenticity is to autonomy.) Do we not risk driving this attitude to an extreme if we never let the students make up their minds in private, never let them finish a thought before speaking it? Indeed, how can they make up their minds at all if the “criticality” of their thinking must always be expressed through the rough and dirty bodies they inhabit, the messiness of their lives.

The “drama of revision” in Jay’s classroom is (explicitly) a revision of the solitude of the student. Indeed, since he will not allow his students to ignore their bodies–neither their own nor each other’s–it is almost an elision of solitude. But how would this have worked for Jean-Dominique Bauby (see also part 2), who spent a week carefully working out the prose of each chapter of his memoir “locked” inside his own skull, and blinking it out in its finished form, one letter at a time? To extend his metaphor, I fear we will touch the wings of the mind’s butterfly in the diving bell of the body.

For Normal Writing, an interlude

So far, my critique of Jay Dolmage’s “Writing Against Normal” has been mainly theoretical. I have tried to question the idea that the “normate subject [of writing] is white, male, straight, [and] upper-middle class,” that his (!) body is “profoundly and impossibly unmarked and ‘able'” and that his prose, therefore, must be “error-free, straight, [and] logical.” In part 3, I want to address the practical implications of this theory. But I have been finding it difficult–which is to say, challenging and rewarding–to decide what I think of the pedagogy that Jay derives from his critique of our academic norms. It’s going to take me a few more days to sort it out well enough to write about it. (Being a “normal” guy, I like to arrive at something reasonably “straight” and logical before I publish.) In lieu of a discussion of pedagogy, then, let me suggest an analogy to prime your own thinking. Perhaps you’ll arrive at my conclusions before I do this weekend.

Jay and I agree on an important point: writing is a physical activity. Where we disagree, I think, is over the purpose of this activity. We might say that I believe writing is the activity of quite literally disembodying our thoughts, while Jay seems to think that the meaning of our texts depends on keeping them connected to our bodies. Needless to say, this has profound practical implications for our pedagogies.

Consider the statement, “Hockey is a physical activity.” It seems somehow more trivial to say this than to insist that writing is one, doesn’t it? But from the point of view of pedagogy, it helps us to see something very important: learning to play hockey is matter of training the body to do something. But the hockey coach does not teach the players to play hockey in its entirety at all times. Hockey practice does not consist only of playing the game. The ability to play hockey is a composite of competences, each of which the individual can excel at or not, and different players have different natural endowments and develop them in different directions. As they train, they grow in strength, speed, agility, and precision, but not all players grow in the same way or at the same rate. Some are hard to catch some are hard to push around. Some players you can’t get anything past, some players can skate circles around you. Whatever their skills, they develop them through practice, through physical activity.

Crucially, the coach breaks down the various competences that make up the ability to play hockey into simpler activities that can be studied and drilled. Moreover, this drilling is done in full view of the other players. They learn from each other and compare themselves to each other. There’s even a “drama of power” as the players compete for the coach’s recognition and a place in the starting lineup for the next game. There’s not much in the way of privacy for hockey players, even though many very good ones of course have to spend many solitary hours working on their skating skills and shooting pucks into goals. (I grew up with the romantic image of a young boy standing in the early morning on a frozen lake on the prairie dreaming of the “big league”.) Once you show up for practice you do as you’re told and you get told whether or not you are doing it right.

Like Jay, I hold to the idea that good writing emerges from the writer’s attempt to say what they mean. I try to create a space and time (a moment) in which they can carry out the activity of writing down what they know. I want to help them to become better at this activity. I’m sure a good hockey coach is also trying to help the players to become better at the game–indeed, the best hockey players they can be. Like writers, the players will become good each in their own way. Indeed, they will develop recognizably different styles, not just different levels of competence. And yet, we feel there is some important difference here, don’t we? Suppose someone said, “Hockey is an intellectual activity.” Well, that’s true too, isn’t it?