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Forgetting the Basics

posted: 2.13.13 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs


I had a sort of dumb week with writing about writing.

In an Introduction to Writing Studies class, which is the gateway course to our writing major, I’d assigned David Russell’s piece “Writing in Multiple Contexts: Vygotskian CHAT Meets the Phenomenology of Genre.” It’s pretty complex, as Russell brings together cultural-historical activity theory and genre theory to explain how context mediates a given writing task. It’s actually not in the Writing about Writing textbook because it’s a little too much for a first-year audience. I’ve used it before with sophomore writing majors, though, and done okay.

But not last Tuesday. Prior to class, students’ blog posts on the piece were quite good, once I waded past the six or seven Inspired Artistic Writers who called Russell, among other things, pretentious, a fraud, and a hack. His language can be pretty tough, for sure, especially on the first page:  “My particular contribution has been to analyze the ways writing is deployed and learned across contexts by seeing genre systems operating in both the socio-psychological (subjective and intersubjective ) plane and the sociological (objective and institutional) plane.” Even I don’t entirely know what to make of that on first glance, and any undergraduate who dwells on it would likely just get frustrated.

Still, many students, using my prompt about how comfortable Russell’s explanation of writing as a tool is, were able to converse well on the class blog about the value of tool metaphors versus other metaphors for writing. I walked into Tuesday’s class jazzed and impressed with their work.

So I asked them to write briefly about why they thought I would assign this particular reading in this course. And they wrote. Then I asked them to talk with each other in groups about what they wrote, and they were very clearly off-topic within about 18 seconds. So I gave it a couple minutes and brought them into whole-group discussion and asked what they’d written.



I asked what they’d rather talk about. Long silence. Finally, greatly timid, a student raised her hand. “Could you just … explain more about what activity theory and genre actually are?”

Well, that explained the silence. And the unusually high number of readers complaining that Russell was stupidly saying stupid stuff. (That very human reaction of assuming that when a reader doesn’t understand something, it’s the writer’s problem.)

We stepped back and I walked them through the basics of the theory, which immediately started helping them make connections with what Russell was explaining. And I realized that I was the stupid one:

  • I needed to have prepared students far better than I did for Russell’s piece, by giving them background on the theories he would be talking about. Always preview the pieces and supply necessary background that the piece itself may not.
  • I needed to have given students clearer permission to skim and skip rather than to fight for the meaning of every word. When experienced readers have trouble making sense of a text, they tend to speed up, reading in larger chunks to try to get the big picture and then making sense of individual lines from that. Inexperienced readers tend to slow down and try to make sense of individual words. Always explain that it’s okay and even desirable to skim in order to find the parts of the piece that DO make sense rather than getting bogged down in those that don’t.
  • I needed to have talked more with students about how to read academic articles to begin with. My students were lost in the piece in part because they didn’t understand how academic writing works, broadly. Never forget that students don’t know how academic articles are structured and why they’re built that waythese are things I have to teach them so they understand what they’re looking at.

I know these principles, know them like the back of my hand. But I simply forgot to do them this semester. The lesson, I suppose, is clear: check your fundamentals. That is what I (re)learned this week.

Categories: Douglas Downs
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