Finding The “Right” Word: a WAC Historical Perspective on Dealing With a Diverse Student Body

Finding what to write about for an essay topic, for a thesis statement or that catchy topic sentence which succeeds in condensing an profound idea as elegantly as possibly, can often come down to knowing that one right word. Mark Twain once remarked that: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning”. As a WAC fellow, and a writing instructor, I’m familiar with this axiom in as far as regarding writing as not being an absolute science which can easily be condensed down to either a right or wrong approach. Using the right word requires a certain level of understanding of a certain “je ne sais quoi”; i.e., which word, which statement, which thesis, which semi-colon is right for the occasion one is writing about. It denotes this constant dance between being an exact science and that of being a philosophy where the final word rests on what constitutes good writing. Additionally, this level of discernment, between almost right  and right is not easily arrived at, and the origins of this difficulty can be historically traced back to the earlier pedagogical philosophies of the early 20th century.

In his seminal essay entitled “Writing across the Curriculum in Historical Perspective: Toward a Social Interpretation,” David R. Russel illustrates this difficulty by asserting that for a long time, “Writing thus came to be seen as a ding an sich, a separate and independent technique, something that should have been learned elsewhere, taught by someone else-in high school or in freshman service courses. Hence the almost universal complaints about students’ writing and the equally ubiquitous denials of responsibility for teaching it” (55).  As writing instructors, we are trained to take up this mantel of responsibility and have the experience in knowing just how hard it is for students to tread this fine line of what is good writing and what is not; between the right word and the wrong word. As a WAC fellow I’ve always put an emphasis on the fact that to arrive at a definitive answer to this question is to help students find their own voice, whilst still being able to write within an MLA, WAC and WID framework. We as instructors therefore share the responsibility of helping students to define, through their own negotiations, what constitutes good writing. Additionally, it demands more engagement and understanding from the instructors’ side to acknowledge the diverse background of the student body, and as such to take up the task to facilitate the students’ journey towards finding the “right” words, which isn’t always as straightforward as it may seem.

As WAC fellows we’re aware that the initiative has an obligation towards recognizing diversity when it comes to writing instruction. This fact has been stressed by Russel in his seminal essay, wherein he excoriates the academy when he remarks that: “concerted efforts to promote writing in the whole curriculum are at cross-purposes with the modern university’s compartmentalized, bureaucratic structure, its diverse missions, and its heterogeneous clientele” (62). Therefore, a deep understanding is required of how the practice of writing instruction is influenced by these complex, but essential, considerations, which prove to be creating a schism between the curriculum of the Anglosphere and the background of the student body. Moreover, instructors who are applying WAC pedagogy have to be susceptible to the ongoing issues regarding exclusion when being faced with an English language-based curriculum, and the role WAC pedagogy plays in mending this schism.

When further regarding the origins of this divide between the diverse student body and the curriculum Russel illustrates the historical background that provides the origin of this problem, when he claims that:

“From its beginnings, the university adopted Harvard’s current-traditional rhetoric, an ‘inner-directed’ pedagogy [ . . . ] which assumes that writing is a single universally applicable skill, largely unrelated to ‘content’; it ignored the ‘socialized’ rhetoric [ . . .  ], with its ‘outer-directed’ view of pedagogy, which assumes that thinking and language use can never occur free of the social context which conditions them. Writing thus came to be seen as a ding an sich, a separate and independent technique, something that should have been learned elsewhere, taught by someone else in high school or in freshman service courses. Hence the almost universal complaints about students’ writing and the equally ubiquitous denials of responsibility for teaching it.”(55).

This “elsewhere” where students should have a priori acquired an English language-based writing toolbox in order to find the “right” words when writing their college papers is therefore seen as a great misconception. One which we as instructors find ourselves attempting to help bridge the divide between the pre-acquired English language jargon of academic North American English, to that of one which considers a student’s individual habitus. This should all preferably be achieved in a holistic manner as mentioned previously, to help students find their own voice and to guide them on their individual journeys to fine their right words. Moreover, as instructors it becomes our duty to avoid becoming a “writing police”. Historically this became a prevalent pedagogical strategy, in so far as it required as Russel argues:

“faculty in all courses to hand delinquent students over to the English department for correction in a ‘writing hospital’ as it was called, or ‘lab’ as we call it today [ . . . ] Today, many universities carry on the tradition of writing police and remedial lab; faculty prescribe treatment (often high-tech), administered by a staff member or tutor-but rarely by a tenure-line faculty member. Responsibility remains outside the community, drop-out rates are high, and the status quo is preserved.” (64).

The most important thing to realize is that WAC is more than a means of improving pedagogy: it is and always has been part of a complex dialectic which forms curricular, institutional and, ultimately, social policy. The desire end goal of having WAC philosophy dialectically influence social policy would be considered a utopian goal. However, by starting to acknowledge and to bridge the gap between the diverse background of the student body and that of the anglosphere of the curriculum, one can make a start in fostering student learning, and this would lead them to eventually becoming better writers in finding their own “right” words.

Russell, David R. Writing across the Curriculum in Historical Perspective: Toward a Social Interpretation. College English, Vol. 52, No. 1 (Jan. 1990), pp. 52-73.