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The Power of Transparency over Rhetorical Systems

posted: 5.10.13 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

Somewhere in the past of this blog, I’ve probably made a glancing reference to Clive Thompson’s concept of radical transparency, the tendency of modern America to confessional disclosure or exposure of information that by tradition has been kept secret. In this post I want to think at greater length about the role of radical transparency in writing instruction and, more particularly, its role in writing about writing.

I frequently write about WAW’s suitability for addressing misconceptions of writing and, especially, the double standards frequently imposed on student writers by teachers and administrators who make requirements for students’ writing that they would never follow in their own. For example, the research that WAW students do on writing process can expose ways that students’ writing is held to higher standards of proofreading than their teachers’ professional writing is (a point explored well in Joseph Williams’ classic “Phenomenology of Error” article, which we also reprint in Writing about Writing). Another kind of transparency happens in WAW classes when students explore their own writing environments, discovering, for example, what the architecture students on their campus write, versus the engineering students, law students, veterinary students, etc.

Here I want to think about a third kind of transparency, what I’ll call systems transparency. First, though, I need to do some thinking about rhetoric. We know that writers are usually at their strongest when they can clearly anticipate how readers will use their texts; that’s why writers who get to see readers try to use their writing revise it better than those who don’t. This is essentially another way of saying that writers who better understand their rhetorical situations, including who their readers are and how they’ll use the texts, have a greater chance of creating better writing for those situations.

Well, how do writers come to understand their rhetorical situations?

One way is through this radical systems transparency: have the people in power in the situation (or the people in charge of it) take as much “hiddenness” out of the rhetorical system in question as possible. Which, when you think about it, is a kind of power-sharing. And if the rhetorical system in question is an institution of higher education, then its writing teachers may be uniquely positioned, particularly in a writing-about-writing course, to demystify the institution for students.

An example I often use is a general-education course appeal. Suppose a student wants to substitute a course for a required gen-ed course, and this substitution requires a written appeal to a review committee. What does the student know about where their writing actually goes? What happens to it? Who reads it?  From what stance, in what mood? Why is a written appeal required to begin with? What values does that reflect? What values are faculty members who sit on a gen-ed appeals committee likely to share to begin with? All of which is to say, there’s a rhetorical system that a newcomer with a limited angle of vision can’t be expected to understand well, but needs to understand well in order to write effectively in it.

In a way, this is the premise underlying disciplinary writing instruction as well, and why such instruction  is vastly superior to general writing skills instruction. But there’s something even more at work here: in sharing knowledgeable perspectives about the workings of a rhetorical system, we go some way toward equalizing the power imbalance that “the system” gains by keeping itself opaque to its subjects.

In my last class meeting of the semester in my Intro to Writing Studies class, as we reflected on particularly effective learning moments in the class, what my students said they most appreciated were the days when we talked about how the school works. Its politics, its systems, its reasons and values. In other words, its rhetoric. One of the particular pleasures of teaching writing-about-writing is such truth-telling.

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When Faculty across the Disciplines Imagine Composition

posted: 4.29.13 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

I was recently asked by another university to give a series of workshops to faculty from across a variety of disciplines about how to teach for transfer and how to encourage transfer across contexts. In these workshops, we talked about common misconceptions about writing and writing transfer, including the misconception that writing is a basic skill that is easily transferable from one context to another. We also talked about more robust, research-based conceptions of writing and writing transfer. And we considered what these research-based conceptions of writing meant for these faculty members from disciplines as varied as nursing, history, nutrition, and engineering. 

What fascinated me about these workshops is the same thing that fascinates me every time I work with faculty from across the disciplines: that it took them all of about an hour to digest and accept research-based conceptions of writing, and then it took them about five additional minutes to start looking for research-based ways to improve student writing. They were quite interested in the model of writing across the curriculum that we have begun here at UCF.  This is, of course, what I always hope for—that faculty from across the university will take responsibility for helping their students learn to write effectively in their disciplines.

But what also interested me was that at one of these workshops (which included only one writing faculty member) the group somehow became interested in yet another question: Given what we know about writing, what is it that you would like to see first-year composition accomplish? The group of diverse faculty members came up with a quick list of goals for first-year composition that blew me away: teach students sound conceptions of writing, help them see that good writing requires revision, help them be willing to engage in writing as practice, teach them to reflect on writing and writing situations, and so on. In essence, this group of faculty members designed outcomes for a philosophically sound writing about writing class in about fifteen minutes.  They were able to do so, I think, because once they acknowledged their own responsibility in teaching students to write in their disciplines, they could quite realistically conceive of first-year composition as an entry point, a foundational experience that could teach students reflective habits of mind and flexible writing practices that these faculty members could build on afterwards.

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Getting Ready for WAW at the MSU Writing Program

posted: 4.11.13 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

Say you had been on the writing faculty in an English Department at a sci/tech/ag land-grant university for five years and had just earned tenure. Say, further, that in the coming summer you would be rotating into the department’s Director of Composition role, administering the first-year composition program. (It’s not terribly large – about 140 sections a year, taught by about 12 graduate teaching assistants from the English M.A. program and about 12 part-time, adjunct faculty.) Say that the tradition of your FYC courses is rather undisciplined, something to do with teaching extremely thoughtful, argument-based response to cultural-issues texts. (Such that many versions of the course are indistinguishable from the also-required first-year seminar.) The adjuncts have extreme seniority and a tradition of being left to themselves; the TAs are assigned a textbook and overall syllabus and prepped by the director of composition. And say, finally, that into this you were thinking, “What a great time to move to a writing-about-writing approach to first-year comp!”

What would you do to actually make the first moves?

This is where I find myself, coming into the end of Spring semester: designing a new TA orientation and workshop program plus a support system for interested adjunct faculty, and coming up with the framework of a WAW curriculum that I think will fit MSU first-year students and work well for new writing instructors in their first semester of graduate studies.

Of course, I’m not the first to do such a thing—Elizabeth and many others have walked this path, and re-reading our blog has been a fascinating reminder of how much we think about these things. I will probably access Elizabeth’s excellent online training resources (contact her at for access).

But in thinking about what, simply, will be some logistical challenges and places for my attention, I’m already starting to assemble this list regarding GTA prep:

  • Mapping our existing FYC outcomes to WAW courses, in order to help new instructors think about the purpose of FYC and the ways in which WAW can accomplish that purpose.
  • Planning an order of readings for new instructors to encounter, remembering that they need to learn the material before they’ll feel confident introducing students to it. I won’t have a six-week summer course (at least not this year), so this will be a challenge for flow.
  • Similar flow problem over a longer term: what I’ll put in the pre-semester orientation versus how I’ll spread material across the (new) semester-length “teaching comp” workshop this approach will necessitate.
  • Because incoming GTAs overwhelmingly lack teaching experience, I’ll also need a plan for integrating curricular background-building with typical teaching-prep work. In a pilot I ran a couple years ago, though, it became clear that the WAW approach didn’t make the difficulties GTAs already typically had any more severe.

So, I am simultaneously a bundle of energy and a bundle of nerves on walking this path that so many others already have.  This list is far from exhaustive, of course – I wonder what those of you who have already done this, or those who are also contemplating it, would add. Comments welcome!

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A Larger WAW Presence at CCCC

posted: 3.27.13 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

We’ve all returned from CCCC with minds full of ideas and phones full of new contacts. This year’s was an excellent conference, with thought-provoking panels, and I came home ready to begin work on some new projects with various colleagues.

One of the biggest surprises to me at this year’s Cs was the number of panels directly or indirectly related to writing about writing. Some were led by people I knew, but many were not. Many included students, which seems quite in line with the underlying philosophy of the approach—to value what students know and can do. I didn’t have the chance to attend most of these panels, but I’m told that several were concerned with issues of reading in a writing about writing class. Yes, reading the material in Writing about Writing is difficult.  Doug and I like to remind people in the many workshops we give that teaching these articles to first-year students is not like teaching them to graduate students. We have to teach reading strategies, definitely, but we also have to focus on the larger picture: why are we having first-year students read these materials? Not to analyze every nuance of the underlying theories or methodologies, but to begin to think about writing, and their own writing, differently, and to begin to ask and answer their own questions about writing.

This year at Cs we also began a conversation about whether we should pursue a journal or edited collection or a special journal issue devoted to writing about writing, and whether it is time to begin to plan semi-annual conferences. Many people argued that it is time to have a space to talk with one another and our students about pedagogies and research projects and strategies. We have been thinking about planning such initiatives in concert with people working on writing majors around the country. This might help us answer lingering questions, for example, about what threshold concepts should be taught in gen ed composition courses versus in upper-level courses for writing majors. If this is something you’re interested in, let me know; we’d like to start planning.

As usual, post-Cs is a busy time with a lot of catch up. But thinking about how to move forward with undergraduate writing research seems like a worthwhile use of time.

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It’s a Deep Subject

posted: 3.13.13 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

Your intrepid co-bloggers have, for about the past year, and especially the past couple months, been consumed with revising Writing about Writing for its second edition. This past week we finished its new material, and the 2e is much closer to our ideal book.

I thought I’d talk here about why that would be—what’s the difference between an ideal and what can actually be written? Why don’t the two simply correspond? Why don’t we “get it right the first time”? Or at least the second time? Several reasons:

1. We’re trying to hit a moving target. Every time we teach a WAW class, we learn more about how to do it well. Every new teacher using a WAW approach brings new considerations and ideas. We happen on approaches, readings, or ideas that make us happier. (For example, we’re learning now about threshold concepts, which the second edition is built to account for.)

2. We can only see so far. I am fond of the “driving with headlights” metaphor for how writing works. When you drive in the dark, your headlights won’t let you see all the way to your destination, but you can see a couple hundred yards ahead. So you drive as far as you can see (like, in a first draft or first edition), and it is that driving, writing that first take, that brings you to where you now see something different–the next 200 yards. And you drive that and now see what’s next. And so on.

3. Writing is almost always a compromise in response to constraints. For example, a book is shaped by length limitations and by the perennial writer’s problem of needing to be able to say five things at once, cramming a multi-dimensional subject into the one-dimensional (time) linearity of print. The book’s first edition is one compromise; we think we have a better compromise in the second edition.

4. We have to limit risk. Both your humble correspondents and their publisher have limited tolerance for abject failure. Writing about Writing, we think, breaks new ground as a textbook—it even bends genres between reader and rhetoric. Such a book creates real risks—what if we write something so wildly different it’s unrecognizable and no one can figure out how to use it? So we take a few risks at a time, and the risks that work out in one version give us a platform for taking more risks in the next one.

5. We’re studying a nearly infinite subject. Our WAW textbook-writing experience replicates our WAW teaching experience: there are a lot of good ways to do things and a vast range of ways to explain them. It’s the nature of the subject: there isn’t one right way to talk about it, or one correct set of ideas to study, or one ideal order to talk about them in. This is writing we’re talking about!

It will be several months before the new edition appears—it isn’t a light makeover, but, we think, a powerfully improved approach to a WAW textbook, both in terms of what readings are included and the ways they’re thematized and organized. It isn’t the sort of new edition that changes just enough to inconvenience users; it’s markedly more complete and more usable. And certainly for Elizabeth and me as writers, it has once again expanded our own sense of what it means to write.

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What I Learned During My Vacation from WAW

posted: 2.27.13 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

Today we welcome guest blogger Michael Michaud. Michael teaches courses in composition and rhetoric at Rhode Island College, where he is an assistant professor of English.

His current research investigates the history of Freshmen English at the University of New Hampshire. He’s also conducting a study to try to better understand the experiences of writing interns making the transition from writing-for-the-teacher to writing-for-the-boss. Mike has been experimenting with writing-about-writing pedagogies in composition courses since the fall of 2008. Michael also blogs for Bits here.

The process approach was always there waiting for us. It was what we should have been doing all along…

— James Moffett, “Coming Out Right”

Last semester, for the first time in several years, I did not teach a single course in which I implemented a WAW-based approach to the teaching of writing. For reasons that are inexplicable to me now, I somehow failed to imagine ways of integrating WAW into either of the courses that I did teach—a sophomore-level digital and multimedia writing course and a junior/senior-level course in rhetoric. By the mid-point of the term, I was desperately searching for some way to add a WAW component to either of these courses. By the end of the term, I was going through withdrawal, longing for the chance to assign, read, and discuss writing studies research with my students again.

This experience reminded me of something I have noticed since I started experimenting with WAW several years ago: once you teach the content of your own discipline in a writing course, regardless of the level, teaching other content (i.e., literature, current events, cultural studies) suddenly seems strange and maybe even sort of…wrong.

As interested as I am in what’s going on in the world around me, or in the movies I watch, or in the books I read, I pursued a Ph.D. in writing studies because I am fascinated by the research of this particularly wonderful field. Like my colleagues in biology or psychology or history, I want to share my passion and knowledge for my field with my students, and when I talk withthem about writing, even the English majors, I see how much my field and I have to offer them. Strangely, my commitment to WAW has caused me to think more like faculty members in other disciplines, and I think that in some important ways this is a good thing.

As I have experimented with transporting WAW out of FYW and into other curricular settings (e.g. upper-level electives for English majors, professional writing classes), I have found myself thinking more and more about WAW as a framework for organizing something larger than just first-year writing or a one-off elective. How long, I have begun to wonder, before folks begin to see WAW as a framework for organizing an entire program of study or major in writing studies? Or, are others already doing this? And what are the arguments for or against thisapproach? The outrageous question that I have found myself asking for some time now is this: How much longer before we all wake up and realize that WAW is writing studies? Or, to paraphrase James Moffett, how much longer before we realize that WAW is what we should have been doing all along?

Here’s the thing–for over forty years, composition instructors have looked elsewhere for the content of our courses. We’ve gone through a long list of content areas–literature, students’ personal experiences, current events, cultural texts and artifacts. One thing that makes WAW revolutionary and important is that it is an approach to the teaching of writing that argues that we should teach what we know–the content of our field.

Which content? Good question. Should we ask students to read research about composing processes? About academic writing across disciplines? About the process of participating in multiple discourse communities? About outside-of-school genres? About everyday literacy practices? Or, should we stop asking which one or two or even three of these areas we should teach in a single, given class and instead design an entire program of study that engages students in all or as many of these research areas as possible?

From discussions with colleagues in other fields, I have come to see that others don’t face this question that folks in writing studies seem to face–what should I teach? They teach what they know. They teach what they research. They don’t teach about current events if their degree is in psychology. And when they are asked to teach outside of their area of expertise (as in a recent initiative on our campus to promote first-year seminars), they get nervous. Why should scholars in the field of writing studies be any different? How much longer before we realize that over fifty years of research into writing has provided more than ample material for us to teach multiple courses in major sequences we have designed? On the flip side, what might be the costs of designing programs and teaching in ways that cause us to become more like our colleagues in other disciplines–colleagues who, I’ve found, tend to define themselves more along the lines of the content they teach than the students whose behavior they hope to influence? What traditions, values, or beliefs about teaching and learning would we have to give up if we were to begin to define ourselves as “content-delivery specialists”?

My vacation from WAW helped me see more clearly what I do and do not want to teach. I want to teach about writing while also teaching how to write, and I want to use what I teach about writing to teach how to write. . In short, I want to teach BOTH the how and the what, or, to draw on two key terms I once learned in an educational psychology course, I want to teach both procedural and declarative knowledge. WAW provides the opportunity to do just this, to synthesize these two approaches. Maybe that’s what we were supposed to be doing all along.

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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.

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Identity Kits, Emotional Labor, and WAW Instruction

posted: 1.30.13 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

Today’s guest blogger is Dan Martin, a full time Instructor in the Writing and Rhetoric Department who has been teaching composition courses at UCF since 2004. His research interests include writing studies, composition pedagogy and classroom instruction, writing across the curriculum, and writing about literature.

Reflecting on the completion of my eighth year teaching writing has brought three significant realities to my attention:

(1) How and why I write, how I teach writing, and how my writing knowledge grows are so closely woven together that it is virtually impossible to separate them anymore. This has drastically altered the way I think about myself as a writer and writing instructor.
(2) Teaching WAW requires a very specific identity kit that each instructor must adopt and shape to his or her personality and pedagogical strengths. The WAW identity kit is very different from the identity kits I’ve used in the past to teach writing.
(3) Teaching writing requires the mastering of emotional labor. Students are highly resistant to composition courses and dense scholarship about writing. They find unique ways to, as Liz puts it in a previous post, mutiny. Teaching writing requires a significant emotional investment that comes with massive highs and lows. Instructors must be willing to accept, understand and use emotional labor to their advantage.

How do we learn to think, act, speak, teach, and write like a WAW instructor? We get a new identity kit. James Paul Gee  describes an identity kit as the “appropriate costume and instructions on how to act, talk, [teach], and write” for particular audiences and contexts. The motivational approaches necessary to mitigate applicable connections between WAW knowledge and students are not like the approaches I’ve relied on in the past to teach writing. We have to know something about how our students see the world so we can help them connect to the material.

WAW can be difficult for first-year students. The readings require instructors to form sophisticated analogies and concise examples of application for the classroom. To make these writing concepts resonate with students, we need to develop a personal relationship with them. Without the ability to personalize writing studies and make applicable connections for students, instructors will not see learning gains because the material remains diffuse and inaccessible. Learning how to make WAW accessible is something I have had to improve upon as an instructor. It is a skill that requires a sophisticated knowledge of where and how writing exists in and outside of the university.

Sometimes the best way to personalize the material is to be transparent about the realities of writing and our struggles and triumphs with writing. Doug’s last post  mentions this idea about being honest about writing, and how we have to be what I call “transparent facilitators” for our students to get the most out of our writing courses. We have to show them where we get stuck and how we move on, how we interrogate research, and how we draft a first page and revise it a dozen times. This is an effective way to personalize the atmosphere in the classroom. Revealing our limitations and strengths with writing takes students off edge and repositions their attitude about writing.

To make all of this work, we are asked to accept a certain level of emotional labor. Arlie Hochschild defines emotional labor as the suppression of “feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.” Teaching WAW successfully requires an investment in the material, the students, and yourself that is highly rewarding if it works well and extremely painful if it doesn’t.  Writing and learning are highly emotional experiences. Students will complain, so we have to listen, be patient and avoid overreacting. Once the material settles in, students express their dissatisfaction less, eventually realizing that WAW is valuable despite the difficulty level. But this realization takes time and is anxiety laden.

Yes, students require more help with WAW; they need their drafts read more often, they need to discuss their ideas and the articles more often, and they need time to digest the complexity of the material. This last issue can be the most cumbersome. We want to see our students make steady gains together, as a class, but that does not always happen. WAW gives students dozens of paradigm shifting moments about writing, but not all students have them at the same time. This can make it difficult to scaffold the course. We sometimes need to adjust our syllabi, assignments, or discussions on the fly. We may even need to change the pace of the course, but that’s why I like it.

WAW has shaped me, but I have shaped WAW. It has been a unique experience to reflect on how WAW has molded my pedagogy, writing, and writing knowledge together. The relationship between these three components forces me to grow as an instructor and a writer, and it is the reason I did not need to address, directly, the first point in the intro.



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What It’s Really Like to Be a Writer

posted: 1.16.13 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs


One of the epic struggles fought in first-year composition over the years has been whether the people who take the course will be treated as students or as writers. With notable exceptions, such as the height of the expressivist movement, the weight of the pendulum has swung toward “students.” And there are things we just don’t tell students (but maybe we should).

We should be telling more about how projects lead to projects. Like many other opportunities, the first project is among the hardest to get; good work on it leads to further invitations. People who write well are never short of things to do, because one project leads to the next. This is not really an effect students will see in a classroom.

We should be telling more about how writing turns into other writing by recirculating and recycling. Writing, like the ideas it represents, is organic and grows in strange directions, but it rarely starts over or starts from a blank page, any more than our minds and cultures and the ideas they generate ever work without a sense of “what just happened.” Students might not recognize this in their everyday work.

We’re used to talking with students about writing as making choices, but we don’t talk enough about how writers choose which available projects to work on and which not to take up. When given a project by a teacher, students rarely if ever have the choice to say, “I’m not interested in this one, I’ll look for another one.” Even when they can choose to decline a project, as relatively new writers, being given a publishing opportunity isn’t something one says no to. Eventually, though, writers start to choose. Though students may not have occasion to see that firsthand, we should tell them about it.

We should be saying much, much more about collaboration, co-writing, and editing, where so much writing really happens without a name. We should interrogate the copyright pages of books and the preface with its acknowledgments, and put real images and stories to what the names there represent. We should read blogs to track the network of other people’s ideas they engage. Students are so caught up in a world that insists that their work is their own and that they own their work. Things are so much less clear to publishing writers who really owns what.

We should talk more about the mystery of time—how invention and drafting telescopes, contracts, what happens at the last minute, what takes months. How writing happens when it happens, and not before, but also how writing must be made to happen despite its “not wanting to.”  Though students are certainly busy writers managing multiple writing projects simultaneously, there’s something that’s harder to tell them about how it works with more projects, more riding on them, or bigger-idea projects than they’re used to.

I say all this because I’m thinking about writing-about-writing and its twin ethics of radical transparency and respect for students. There’s a principle here, something like, don’t fail to tell a student a thing that’s true for you (as the instructor and as a writer) or for other writers, just because it might not currently be true for the student. Students are in a weird space, one that frankly is unrepresentative of much of the writing that goes on in the world, and much that they’ll be doing very soon possibly already). One of the things I love about writing-about-writing is the way that it lets us be frank and thoughtful with our students not only about what they need to know tomorrow, but where they’ll be four years from now.


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The Desks in My Mind

posted: 1.2.13 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs


A rickety white computer desk sat in the kitchen of my studio apartment in Old Louisville, looking out over beautiful tree-lined Third Street. I wrote a nice paper about Langston Hughes at that desk, and turned the paper in to my teacher with a tape of Hughes reading his poetry to the sounds of jazz. The high ceilings and big windows were a motivating setting for writing, although I can’t say the same for the mice that lived in the stove and sometimes skittered out at night to be pounced on by the cats. Tumbleweeds of cat hair rolled across the floor, and the owners’ new baby cried from her crib on the other side of my closet door. I wrote happily, and quickly, without angst or writer’s block of any kind.

In Ames, my first writing space was a tiny office I shared with my new husband. Two desks were neatly lined up against the walls. He stayed up all night learning Unix, while I wrote about Bourdieu and Lave and Wenger. One of about 50 drafts of “Identity, Authority, and Learning to Write in New Workplaces” came to be in that tiny room.  I wrote quickly and efficiently in this tiny, dark, and cramped space in Schilletter Village, with the smell of Chines dumplings drifting from across the hall.

Until this point, there was nothing neurotic or memorable about my writing processes and rituals. If something needed to be written, I just sat down and wrote it. But when dissertation time came, I acquired rituals and writing needs that have reappeared intermittently since.

We moved to a drafty old bungalow on Burnett Avenue, where I started out writing on a big old oak desk acquired from an auction and placed carefully in the back sunroom overlooking a beautiful expanse of green grass (or snow, depending on the season). But as my neurosis about the dissertation grew, it demonstrated itself in my need for more space, and a different kind of space. I couldn’t write a word unless the house was spotless, with magazines stacked in perfect rows on the coffee table. My eye twitched and I survived on a diet of Milk Duds, popping them one after the other at the big dining room table where I had moved all of my books and notes. I cleaned furiously and then took long naps where I dreamed about the data, as the bats in the attic and defunct coal cellar fluttered and prepared to fly out for the night.  I stood in the kitchen doorway, gazing at the table of notes and half-formed ideas, weeping at my inability to do this thing, feeling doubt about my writing for the first time in my life. The more I doubted, the more I cleaned; the cleaner the house was, the more orderly my thoughts were. And finally, the dissertation was done.

My first office in Dayton was all mine, on the second floor of a duplex in Belmont, while my husband worked a world away in his basement office. The big oak desk sat bathed in sunlight from the east-facing window, and the neurosis was gone. I made my first attempts at gardening in the tiny, chain-link fence enclosed backyard. In between drafts of articles culled from my dissertation, I would wander outside and check on the tomatoes, listening to the boys next door splash in their above ground pool, while their father listened to NASCAR on his radio. A lot got written at that desk, with very little effort or worry. The second office in Dayton was similarly easy, a built in desk tucked away in the attic, overlooking the street, far from the clutter of everyday living in the rest of the house. Words came out and articles were finished, while our neighbor drained her pool under the fence into my new garden attempt.

But writing in Florida has not been so painless. A one-story house without a basement has no hidden writing space. The office my husband and I share again is dark and cluttered, and I long ago abandoned the possibility of writing at the big oak desk that has now made its third move with us. I wrote the first edition of Writing about Writing in fits and starts, uncomfortably, at a high bar table over looking the back yard. I wouldn’t even consider that experience “writing,” because “real” writing—the kind I’m proud of and excited about—is long stretches of words pouring out in extended ideas that reveal themselves as they appear. Recently, I have returned to the dissertation dining room table, which sits in the sunniest part of the house, with uncovered windows that face east and south. The work of our favorite Dayton artist hangs on the other side, and I find that I can write here. I still need a clean house before words will appear, and the cork floors oblige with their easy sense of order. I still need a nap when the ideas are flowing, waking up with a good clear sense of what needs to be said next. And the garden has become a central part of the writing ritual. Clean a little, write a lot, nap some, write more, and wander around the raised beds to see what tomatoes or green beans are ready to be harvested today. Then I can write again.

Why is it that the desk and the space and the ritual matter so much to the writing? What I see and feel in the house and out the window make all the difference to what I can write, or whether I can write at all. I don’t always need the same thing to write, but there is something that has to happen before writing can be done. Some sort of peace and extended time in a space where I don’t see ten other things that need fixing or doing. I am not a person who can write every day for an hour no matter what. My mind needs the same preparing that my space does. And when my mind is finally prepared, I keep going in long stretches, hours of time where the words pour out. When the words stop coming and I am distracted by teaching or emailing or daily duties, sometimes I can’t write again for days or weeks or months.

I’m a writing teacher, and I teach all the possibilities that help a person get words on the page. But at the end of the day, I do know that there is some aspect of writing that goes beyond all of that and is a little like magic—a magic that you can work at for a lifetime and never completely understand or perfect or even repeat.  You can only be mindful and present, and ready.

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