Why I Read What You Write

I have been thinking lately about something that one of our Writing Across the Curriculum Coordinators, Professor Marianna Bonanome, said in our WAC Faculty Workshop on designing effective writing assignments. As she shared an assignment that asks students to use low-stakes writing as they perform a mathematical experiment, she explained that one of the benefits of this sort of assignment is that it “brings a life to the material.” There is a tendency, I think, to disregard the ‘life’ in academic writing—we tell our students, as we were told ourselves, to take the ‘you’ and the ‘I’ out of their writing, to formalize it, to make it abstract, to make it scholarly. In the WAC program, we emphasize ‘low-stakes’ informal writing assignments as a way to build up to a larger, formal writing assignment, like a final research paper. But how do we help students make the leap from informal to formal, from low-stakes to high-stakes, from life-writing to academic-writing? Is there a way to “bring life” into the formal writing assignment?

In attempting to answer this question, I am reminded of Joan Didion’s essay “Why I Write.” For Didion, writing is “the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind” (1). Didion’s writing is about the relationship between the writer and the reader—the act of writing links the two together. How, then, does this act get reflected or refracted in the writer/reader relationship between the student and the professor? How can we define the terms of “why you write” and “why I read” in our classrooms in a way that makes writing real rather than abstract, ‘real life’ and not just homework?

We ask students to write for more than just a grade—they write to learn new material, to gain confidence in their professional field, to practice persuasive rhetorical techniques, to share information, to do the myriad things that we believe writing can do. But the figure of the professor as a reader usually remains indistinct. At best, we tell our students about our personal bugbears and expectations of grammar. At worst, we hide behind a generic ‘reader,’ assuming the role of impartial judge. But what if instead of students writing for their professor, they are given the guise of a concrete audience—a figure in their profession, a colleague or scholarly peer, the readership of a journal, or some other real-life person that turns the abstract act of turning a paper into the abyss of the professor’s inbox into that “act of saying I”? Sometimes the conventions of our field mean that we must ask our students to erase the “I” from their final product—but we can fill this void by bringing life back to the material in the form of our readership. As we think about the kind of formal writing we expect from our students, we can use the expectations of an audience not only to guide students in the style of their writing, but also to give them the tools to apply their education to their career.

 

For more ideas and research about writing for an audience, see John Bean’s Engaging Ideas chapter 3, “Helping Writers Think Rhetorically”