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WAW as the WikiLeaks of Writing Pedagogies

posted: 12.16.10 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

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In my comp classes, students read John Dawkins’s 1995 CCC article “Teaching Punctuation as a Rhetorical Tool.” Dawkins argues, contrary to every handbook you’ve ever read, even the good ones, that punctuation is based more on “tendencies” than rules (533). He also argues—in case that’s not sufficiently revolutionary—that “it is a mistake to assume that the sentence is the basic element in prose; it is also confusing, for it is the wrong basis for analyzing written language” (535). Dawkins prefers the independent clause for that, and works from the principle that “sentences . . . are but one way of punctuating independent clauses” (535).

I’ve come to summarize the crux of Dawkins’s article as, “Punctuation is optional.”

Having gotten students’ attention with semihyperbolic double entendre (I say it so that they can’t), we then examine how Dawkins’s work deliberately undermines the consensus established by People Who Make Rules, showing (arguably accurately) an important disjunct between how the “rule makers” want us to believe writing works, and how writing actually does work.

It’s hard to miss similar shifts happening beyond our classrooms, such as the WikiLeaks phenomenon. Wikileaks’s founding purpose was to publicize private information in order to undermine illegitimate authority—in much the same way that work like Dawkins’s does. And as WAW teachers, we do something similar to both of those examples: ensure that students have access to ideas that are often inconvenient to the authorities (classroom, campus, business, and cultural) who would prefer them silenced.

It’s fair to say that “punctuation is optional” exposes some of the risks of radical transparency in the same way that WikiLeaks does: the risk of misuse and misreading of nuanced material; the risk that these texts will read, and mean, differently and wrongly outside their original context; the risk of severe disruption to life as we know it when unintended audiences encounter hidden information. There’s a reasonable argument that putting scholarly sources in the hands of our students—unintended and relatively unskilled audiences—exposes nuanced argument to naïve misuse.

In The Dark Knight, Batman wonders what motivates the Joker; the wise Alfred offers, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Such might be WikiLeaks’s motivation at the moment. Is it possible anyone would argue this about the kind of teacher/joker who would tell students “Punctuation is optional”; “Writers often fail to make deadlines”; “Error is in the mind of the beholder”; “Texts mean what readers say they do”; “All writing is autobiography”; or my favorite, the answer to almost every question that can be asked about writing is, “It depends”?

WAW pedagogy speaks truth to power. We help students learn ways of questioning the Rule makers and the sources of their rules. To pat, trite homilies like “You have to learn the rules before you can break them,” we can say, “Those famous writers did not start breaking rules after they were famous; they became famous by breaking rules.” These are truths that we owe our students, and that WAW wonderfully enables us to help students encounter. But how do we keep radically transparent WAW instruction from simply becoming an exercise in watching the world burn? What do we do to teach safe handling as we “leak” this information?

There are some good, and perhaps not so good, answers; I’m curious what some of you readers would say.  Have your discussion here, in the comments!

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Categories: Punctuation & Mechanics
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2 Responses to “WAW as the WikiLeaks of Writing Pedagogies”

  1. Nick D. Says:

    A really great posting about the rules of writing. One that raises the questions of right and wrong, and whether or not those terms matter if brilliance is had. The interesting idea is to present this information to those who will no doubt seek it out as an act of rebellion or creativity. There no doubt needs to be a framework for the creative process, but there will always be those who ignore or even eradicate it with spellbinding results.

  2. Elizabeth Wardle, UCF Says:

    This was an interesting post, Doug. You’ve helpfully thought through some issues that I have seen more than one teacher struggle with when we introduced WAW, and particularly the Dawkins’ aspect of WAW. I’ve come to think there seem to be the teachers who are comfortable saying, “That’s not how writing really works,” and then there are teachers who are most definitely *not* comfortable with that. In fact, for many teachers, taking away those rules undermines the most basic tenets of their teaching. I’m sure there is a case to be made for not saying anything too revolutionary to impressionable young people who might misuse that information. On the other hand, I’d rather have these students thinking hard and sometimes misunderstanding than simply being the passive recipients of rigid rules passed down by the Authorities.