As writing instructors, we spend a lot of time thinking and talking about genre conventions. We imagine that our students are struggling to understand what is expected of them when they do their assignments. We imagine, I suppose, that they are perfectly capable of communicating with their friends and family but are unsure of how to present their ideas in an “academic” setting. Sometimes we approach the problem in terms of a “cultural divide”, either imagining that there is some distinct barrier between youth culture and the culture of the university, or, more literally, by supposing that “elite Western education” constitutes some special obstacle for foreign students or marginalized groups. In all cases, we imagine that the solution is to teach them what the genre requires, which is to say, to give them knowledge they are presumably lacking.
I have long been skeptical of this approach. Even to imagine that the students know how to communicate personally with each other is, I think, a bit optimistic. I don’t remember being particularly confident as a young man communicating my hopes and desires to other people my age. Certainly, I don’t remember doing very much of this in writing. (It should be said that we didn’t have social media back then and it wasn’t until I graduated from university that I moved away and began communicating by letters and email. I think it would be a stretch to think of these communications as compositions. But it’s not my impression that communication on social media today displays any particular “writtenness”. It seems very wedded to oral conventions.) I suspect that the idea that the difficulty lies mainly in the genre, not in the use of written language itself, has been misleading us for some time. (The historical roots of this will be the subject of another post.)
Let us think about this by way of two of my favorite analogies. (I am aware that these aren’t everyone’s favorites.) Suppose we were not teaching our students to write but how to box or dance. A boxing match certainly has rules and conventions that are worth knowing, just as the tango is a particular art with teachable elements. But does it make sense to think of competence here mainly as a kind of knowledge? I would argue that what is much more important is the physical training that boxers and dancers subject themselves to. This both improves their general fitness and their specific ability to make the moves that are required of them. Good boxers and good dancers are not demonstrating an understanding of rules and conventions but the product of years and years of experience, many hours of deliberate practice.
In fact, a boxing coach or dance instructor who suspects that the aspirant isn’t practicing between classes is not going to make up for this by presenting them with ever more theory. Under some conditions, the instructor will simply terminate the relationship, considering it to be a waste of everyone’s time. I think we need to apply a similar approach to writing. Whatever we do teach our students about writing, we must insist that they train it if they are to have any hope of actually doing it well. The ability to write confident prose is grounded in deep dispositions that must be strengthened through discipline. We cannot assume that our students just need to be given instructions that their hands can then easily carry out on the page.
My suspicion is that we are neglecting 90% of the problem by not being very explicit about the need to practice. When we see bad student writing, we should not assume that they misunderstood the genre (and certainly not the assignment), we should suspect that they haven’t been practicing. Politely explaining what was expected of them doesn’t do them any favors. Our first line of feedback should not be to correct their mistakes but to make them try again. Indeed, the very first thing we should do is have them read their work out loud to each other. The things they are not able to do well will here be as apparent to them as their inability to dance or fight would be on the floor or in the ring. We can then assign them the simple things to do that, through repeated practice, will make them better writers.