My view is that if you know something “for academic purposes” then you are able to compose a coherent prose paragraph about it in half an hour. As an academic writing instructor, that is what I teach; my core “learning objective” is the ability to support, elaborate, or defend a clearly stated proposition using at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words in twenty-seven minutes. I believe this is a valuable skill and that students do well to direct a significant portion of their energies while at university toward developing it. The ability to write about things you know at a rate of two paragraphs an hour is one you want to have. It will help you, not just get through university, but make a useful contribution to professional and civic life. It’s something I know how to help you get good at.

It’s also something I can show you how good you are at. (I say “show you” advisedly because I normally refuse to tell you. If you’re following my instructions you don’t need me to decide whether or not you’re improving, just as you don’t need your personal trainer to tell you that you’re getting into shape. You can feel the improvement yourself.) Take a moment at the end of each day to prepare a moment at the beginning of the next in which to write a paragraph that you will then seek feedback on from a peer. My ideal student will write 80 paragraphs in 16 weeks this way and receive (and give) 720 minutes of peer feedback. Every two weeks, they will submit a five-paragraph essay, and receive a grade that suggests how well they’re writing relative to their cohort. At the end, they will sit for a 3-hour exam, writing yet another five-paragraph essay, which they will then discuss with me for 20 minutes (ideally, on the same day they wrote it). Their grade counts for half their course grade.

Let me say at once that none of my students are ideal and I have never been given a chance to try to examine them under these conditions.

At this point, however, I am sometimes accused of “ableism”. Or maybe I have this time succeeded in presenting what I do in such a way that the charge doesn’t seem as natural? After all, I am tying the test directly to the competence that I am trying to teach, to help the students develop. If I were teaching them how to calculate bond prices I would not be accused of ableism if I asked students to do a bond price calculation. Since I am trying to teach them how to write paragraphs and essays, getting them to write one for me to show me what they have learned should also, I hope, seem entirely reasonable. It is only my suggestion that being able to write a paragraph is a reasonable test of whether or not you know something that might still cause alarm bells to go off for some disability scholars. And not just disability scholars, actually. My view is sometimes also considered “classist” — indeed, even sexist and racist. The idea is that conventional prose is the “privileged” domain of “normal” people, where they have an unfair advantage over various groups who are marginalized, socially or materially, by birth or by accident. “The normate subject is white, male, straight, upper middle class,” Jay Dolmage tells us; “the normal body is his, profoundly and impossibly unmarked and ‘able.'”

The criticism that is sometimes levelled at my approach to writing is that I privilege this subject. I have tried to address the underlying idea that conventional (or “normate”) prose is exclusionary in a previous series of posts that respond directly to Dolmage’s arguments “against normal writing”. In the rest of this post, I want to acknowledge the undeniable practical problems that my approach poses for some students and scholars and, once again, defend the radically inclusionary nature of prose as a means of communicating ideas. In my view, requiring students to express themselves in prose is the best means we have for levelling the playing field for a socially and materially, mentally and physically, diverse student body.

The idea of a level playing field was recently invoked by Jennie Young, the director of the first-year writing program at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay in her piece in Inside Higher Ed on the “boon” that artificial intelligence will be for writing instruction. “It’s going to help level the playing field,” she argued: 

Here’s the truth about the “achievement gap” in writing skills: students who have professional parents and who went through K-12 in higher socioeconomic school districts tend to graduate knowing how to structure an essay and write grammatically correct sentences (for the most part); first-generation students who went through K-12 in underresourced and lower socioeconomic school districts do not graduate with these skills nearly as often. Here’s the very important takeaway from this disparity: the disparity is environmental, not biological. In other words: the students who know how to structure an essay and write grammatical sentences are not more intelligent than those who don’t.

My immediate reaction to this idea was: Yes, good writers are not necessarily more intelligent than bad writers, but they are better writers. And, as a writing instructor, I see my job as helping students become better writers, not to diminish the value of good writing so that those who don’t “know how to structure an essay and write grammatical sentences” can still be recognized as the capable thinkers they may yet be. In fact, I explicitly tell students that one reason to learn how to write is to make sure that they are recognized for their (brilliant) ideas, not their (struggling) style.

Also, I don’t like the idea of crediting writing ability merely to a certain kind of upbringing. I think students who can write well should be able to take pride in that ability, not have it dismissed as the unearned wealth of “privilege”. After all, many working-class students succeed at university, and, later, in academic careers, precisely because, through hard work, they master the conventions of academic prose and outperform their wealthier rivals. And, while it is true that good writing runs in certain families, it is by no means easy for all wealthy students to write well and, surely, parents who “raise their children right” (in my personal opinion), to compose themselves in coherent prose paragraphs, should not be told by first-year writing instructors that it’s a wasted effort. It may be true, as Young seems to believe, that good writing isn’t any kind of proxy for other kinds of learning, but, even if that were true (and I’m not entirely ready to grant this), it is still an indication of writing ability, which has value in its own right. Or, that, anyway, is what I’ve been telling myself all these years working as a writing instructor.

In short, I’m not willing to abandon my ideal of a timed, on-site, invigilated written exam in the name of “universal design”, because I believe that the ability to write a coherent essay under formal constraints is one that is worth having. If a student is completely prevented from doing this by a particular disability they are, unfortunately, prevented from succeeding academically, or at least severely limited in this regard. I think we need to be honest about this. Fortunately, prose, by its very nature, accommodates pretty much any disability.

To demonstrate this, by way of conclusion, let me recall the example of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the French magazine editor who suffered from “locked-in syndrome” after a stroke. He constitutes an almost pure example of someone whose in-ability to write (he couldn’t even lift a pen) cannot be interpreted as a lack of learning or intelligence. We know this because he was able to dictate an entire book by blinking his eyes.

On my approach, someone like this would of course need special accommodations. But I think I would take a somewhat hard line on the process. If he had indeed followed my class, I would also have expected him, like my other students, to compose a paragraph a day, albeit in his head, and to have “dictated” it (again, by blinking his eyes) to the stenographer, who, I expect, would have been provided to him under the terms of his accommodations. For the exam, he would be given three hours, also like everyone else, but to this would be added the time it would take for him to communicate his compositions to the stenographer.

That is, he would still be required to compose a 1000-word essay in three hours. It’s just that the physical process of getting it down on the page would take a little longer and require some additional means. The best way to do this would probably be simply to stop the clock for him every time he was ready to dictate something (I think it would be unfair to require him to hold an entire essay in his mind and then dictate it all of a piece, although, as I understand it, this was in fact Bauby’s approach, composing and dictating the book one chapter at a time.) But I think it would be unfair to the rest of his cohort to just let him write the essay in his own way at his own pace. That would simply be abandoning the principle of composition in moments that my class had been teaching.

Maybe you can think of a better way to accommodate Bauby or a disability that would be more difficult to accommodate? To my mind, the ability to accommodate such an extreme disability demonstrates that requiring prose composition under formal constraints is not an ableist pedagogy. Indeed, it is the most “universal” design for education that can be imagined. Knowledge-able people are both able-to-know things and en-abled by their knowledge to do things. One of the things they can do is to write.

2 thoughts on “Knowledge-able-(ism?)

  1. It would seem that the body becomes less important the better the technology is. So a disabled persons would be a better writer with more advanced technology. For example, I am dictating this comment on my Mac. I don’t need hands to write. An emphasis on “embodied” writing is more, not less “ableist,” from this perspective. Henry James dictated his late novels, he did not have to “write” physically. I’m sure Borges did too, after he became blind.

    All the same, to the extent that writing is a physical, embodied process, it would be useful to emphasize those skills–penmanship. In other words, if writing is physically possible, let us do it physically in a conscious way. [The voice is also physical, of course.].

    1. Yes, my view is that when we make prose the form of the relevant performance (of knowledge, learning, thinking, etc.) we make it relatively easy to access. One of the first things technological progress does is to make our prose more accessible.

      Think of the Internet. It provided access to communication by *text* first.

      Also, having to perform your ideas in prose sets high bar intellectually, but it is physically the easiest way to do it. As I put it in my response to Dolmage, the whole point of writing is to radically dis-embody our ideas. This doesn’t just make them more accessible, it makes criticism of them much less personal. That is the whole point of academic writing.

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