Writing With Substance: You Can Haz it! SRSLY!


In a textbook I adopted in my most recent writing courses, students are encouraged to craft their own writing in response to something somebody else said about a topic. This book, called They Say / I Say, has some real virtues. For instance, the book is constructed around the concept of discourse (a word that invokes conversation, dialogue, and debate), because its authors want to ensure that you see the stakes of participating in a civic society. They remind us that knowledge is something that we circulate socially--that is, with other people. What we say has ramifications for others; what those people say should matter to us and we should have an opportunity to respond, because we are all here together and need to talk to one another about what we're seeing and experiencing.   

I like the way that the textbook is transparent about the fact that there are "moves that matter"--that is, that there constructions that are characteristic of academic discourse that scholars sometimes assume students would simply intuit. Rather than allow these "moves" to be made by the professionals alone, they provided for students a series of formulas, common ways of organizing claims that writers use to respond to one another. 

They provided many "moves," I think, but the students who read the book (or refused to read it) often concluded from it that there were several different ways to agree and disagree with an author, and they simply needed to adapt the formulas to suit their own views.  

On one hand, yes. Learning the structures that academics employ to make statements of all sorts will enable you to ability to express your ideas in college assignments. But putting these constructions to work in your own prose won't do much more than ensure you've got a formula down. And simply agreeing or disagreeing with somebody else is not enough. Even if you can articulate good reasons for your disagreement or agreement, can you honestly say that laying out those arguments has increased your knowledge and made you more curious intellectually about a topic? I suspect being able to make such claims often allows us to feel satisfied rather than learned, knowledgeable or fulfilled. Supporting your agreement or disagreement has an end point, whereas genuine learning does not.
It is very important to be engaged in conversation with others, of course. We are social animals and even the most scholarly, solitary monks needed to share their thoughts with their peers. Dialogue is useful for all the reasons that Socrates noted in his famous philosophical works. He may indeed have supplied us with the single best method for thinking critically. Yet such dialogue is most useful (and most substantive) when the parties are sufficiently informed or have something to bring beyond an initial opinion--which is to say, when both parties can contribute to the knowledge they produce together through dialogue with knowledge they have sought and thought about on their own.  

Here I want to distinguish between experience and knowledge. We all have experiences that inform our thoughts and responses to what we see, hear, and read. But experience alone does not constitute knowledge. And you're in college to gain something you didn't have before or already. Much of what you gain will come from reading and the experiences you gain concurrently in the classrooms you inhabit daily. Neither one nor the other is complete on its own. Still, if I had to choose which one will improve your writing more quickly, I'd come down on the side of reading on your own. Reading, of course, is a great way to gain knowledge about something you haven't experienced; the best articles, books, plays, and poems are powerful precisely because they encourage understanding and empathy and allow you to experience vicariously what others have suffered, endured, or enjoyed. Reading widely and with focus can also help you convert something you experienced yourself into knowledge, if only because what you read can broaden your own subjective sense of what you experienced with other perspectives that complicate or support yours.

Reading is necessary in academic work in particular because we can't know everything just by what we've lived through or what we've read by a certain age. Reading is also necessary because it allows us to see how other people articulate knowledge, and, therein, it gives us a sense of how we, too, can formulate our own ideas. To say so is not to say we all plagiarize from one another, but rather, to admit that we learn what constitutes good prose by reading it and imitating the style, structure, and diction we've seen elsewhere. I owe the strength of my own writing to reading for precisely this reason. I'm certainly not telling to you to copy the sentences of published writers and submit them as your own work. I am telling you, though, that the more you read, the more ideas you will have about how to express your knowledge in written form.

This last point is, I think, is akin to the "moves" that the authors of They Say / I Say were hoping to provide for students. Rather than seeing them written out as formulas, and rather than reading them exclusively in essays by people who write for The New York Times and other mainstream news sources, we will (most often) examine them in writing produced for the people to whom you will likewise be submitting your writing: scholars. Scholars articulate claims in ways that are not all that different from the kinds of claims you see in twenty-first century journalism. In fact, some of the people who write for papers like The New York Times and The Washington Post have advanced degrees and work for universities like the one you attend. But academic work, when it's in its purest state, is not really involved in the business of selling papers or advertisements. In the ideal formulation of academic enterprise, those who produce it are free to pursue ideas for the sake of ideas. 

This is not to say, of course, that academic writers live in an "ivory tower" and that their work is not useful for the so-called "real world." Academic writers are indeed invested in their work because of its relationship to "the real world"––since they are not actually special enough to get their own not-real world––and because of the knowledge that this only-one-world requires. It is to say, however, that we often define "useful" in ways that aren't only, or even centrally, concerned with profiting in a narrow, economic sense. This book and the platform that hosts it are a good example of the sort of utility I mean. (I will add here and elsewhere that the university's place in relation to the world is complex, as is the scholar's relationship to capitalism. Even monks have to eat, you see. In fact, two of the subjects we will consider in the first half of this class, the "Ed Tech" industry and the use of student data, and labor in the academy, will give you a glimpse into the business of learning that is instructive on both of these points.)   

Next up: An assignment to help you think about the relationship between reading and writing.

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