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?

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