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Words without Desire

posted: 6.26.13 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

It’s possible I don’t really feel like writing this blog post, that I’d rather be reading and playing music and mountain biking. But the writing needs doing, so here I am. Our students, of course, are so often in the same place. I at least have a meaningful exigence for this writing, more I think than our students often experience with their assignments.
No matter how open and intelligent our writing course designs are, no matter how legitimate the exigencies for which our students write, the one slight problem we can never get around is that, most often, given their choice, our students would not be writing at all.

This challenge of exigence is of particular meaning to me at the moment since I just launched my 6-week summer writing course yesterday, with a small group of College Writing I students who (and who can blame them) seemed like they might have liked to have been elsewhere. So, working to frame the course as investigation rather than mere practice—one of the best hallmarks of WAW—I found my main challenge to be meeting their skepticism with some actually meaningful exigence. This course will be a lot of work (another hallmark of WAW), and to what end? Investigating, exploring writing, studying how to write with authority (the course theme)—these are worthy pursuits, unless you hadn’t really wanted to do that (or anything) to begin with.

No, this post will not reveal the Great Answer to the conundra of exigence, relevance, and urgency—why this now? “Because you have to” just isn’t the ideal motivational answer, but sometimes it’s the answer that there is, and the rest is contrived. Quite well contrived, possibly, but still.

When it comes to writing-about-writing, we’re often telling students that the work of the course is to un-do prior knowledge, to re-write misconceptions, to overwrite earlier teaching and learning experiences. It’s an interesting motivational statement: “You’ve been taught wrong, we’re here to fix it.” I usually try to contrive better ways to say it than that, though it’s what I think. One of the more positive ways to put it is, “You’re thinking about writing as this one small thing, and you actually know how to do that pretty well, and that lets us look at writing as this much larger thing that will raise a lot of questions for you, and then we’ll use the course to address some of those questions.”

For my class yesterday, this meant, specifically, picking apart the terms “proficiency” and “creative.”  As in, “I want to increase my writing proficiency” and “I want to write more creatively,” which were two of the learning goals students suggested. It didn’t take us long to realize that “writing proficiency” is a vague expression that doesn’t really have much concrete meaning for most people, and that “creative” means, well, “creative.” Whatever that means.

So I offered a new exigence: a search for concrete meaning in the writing course, to try to get away from things everybody just says because that’s what one says around writing, and instead to push for something tangible that stands up to some interrogation. They seemed interested, I’m interested, and that’s a good start.

Categories: Douglas Downs
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