Thursday, June 18, 2009

Considering (and reconsidering) writing as a scholar

This excerpt (pp. 198-201) from my book co-authored with Nita Schmidt (Furman University), 21st Century Literacy: If We are Scripted, Are We Literate? (Springer, 2009), addresses the outstanding work of Robert Nash, Liberating Scholarly Writing (TCP, 2004):

Composing and Writing as a Researcher

Nash (2004) argues for liberating scholarly writing; his position addresses perfectly a key dilemma we face in literacy instruction inside schools. While I have suggested that we need to address writing more authentically—thus more as writers compose in the real world—I have also acknowledged that writing in school simply is not the same as writing professionally. School writing has more and more narrow purposes than writing in the real world, and, possibly more importantly, only a few of our students are interested in writing professionally after their lives as writing as students ends. Nash provides us with a compromise that helps us move beyond scripts while maintaining our obligation to address the writing that is unique to scholarship, to being a student. School writing and writing instruction inside school have an obligation to both fostering students who write as part of the scholarship and fostering authentic portrayals of all genres and purposes for writing inside and outside the context of school. Nash explains that scholars do not write as narrowly as we claim when we teach students to write academic assignments; this parallels the assignment replicated by Landrum (2007). Thus, Nash suggests that we offer students more authentic parameters for scholarly writing, parameters that liberate scholarly writing but also reinforces, instead of contradicts, the context-driven conventions of all writing we find in the world outside of schooling. Nash offers ten guidelines—which he labels “tentative,” emphasizing the need to move away from a rules mentality—that value the integrity of scholarship, the authenticity of writing, and the empowerment of students:

• Nash (2004) offers his first guideline as a more authentic alternative to the scripted thesis emphasis we use in traditional approaches to essay writing: “Establish clear constructs, hooks, and questions” (p. 57). Nash recognizes that all writers establish a clear focus somehow, including scholarly writers. Our students in school must learn to establish a clear focus, but the scripted thesis is neither effective nor authentic. Related to this is how writers come to their focus. In school, the scripted approach is requiring student to establish a thesis before they draft; in the real world, writers often draft as a process to discover the focus of their writing. Again, we must allow students to discover that focus instead of requiring that all academic writing follow a sequential and linear process that is simply an arbitrary requirement of the teacher instead of an empowering process.

• “Move from the particular to the general and back again. . .often,” suggests Nash (204, p. 59). Here, Nash addresses a deep problem scripted writing instruction creates, but could be easily avoided. We have traditionally instructed students to write introductions that are general and follow them with bodies that are specific. My experience has been that students practice that script by writing opening paragraphs that are vague and following that with a smattering of more vague, some general, and far too few specific support. The traditional script prompts vague writing by students; Nash offers a guideline that shows that both generalizations and particulars (specifics) are valuable along with noting that scholarly writers need to maintain the relationship between the particular and the general. While I balk at offering students guidelines that easily turn into scripts, here we should note that students can benefit from being warned that being vague, especially being vague without purpose, almost always damages the effectiveness of any writing.

• Confronting the traditional script that academic writing must be objective, thus impersonal (“Do not use ‘I’”), Nash (2004) suggests: “Try to draw larger implications from your personal stories” (p. 60). All writing benefits from the concrete, notably animating any genre with people and action—thus personal narrative. Particularly with young writers, personal narrative is an effective strategy since it involves content with which the writer is familiar (the student’s own life), relieving student writers from adding any additional new material for them to manage as they attempt to write a sophisticated essay.

• “Draw from your vast store of formal background knowledge,” adds Nash (2004, p. 61). Here, Nash acknowledges the unique quality of scholarly writing—the use of expert scholars to support the writing and ideas of an emerging scholar. In school, making an academic point requires more than the personal stories of students, in other words; students must show that they are working within a field, that they are students of the significant experts in the field.

• Skirting on redundancy, Nash (2004) presents his fifth guideline: “Always try to tell a good story” (p. 62). The techniques of narrative are powerful; in the traditional script of academic writing, students are allowed to analyze those techniques in the works of others, but are rarely allowed and almost never encouraged to implement those techniques themselves in their own original works. Nash adds a key observation: “Thus, narratives are instruments that help us know about ourselves and others, and to solve problems; they are also tools for us to tell others about our experiences” (p.62). In other words, narrative techniques are ideal for the work of students as writers—characterization, plot, details, figurative language, etc.

• The sixth guideline, “Show some passion,” challenges the objective script that dominates how we teach students to write (Nash, 2004, p. 63). This guideline acknowledges a postmodern shift in academics that is still in process. Traditionally, scholars and researchers have adopted detached voices for writing; however, in the past few decades, scholarly writing has included first-person constructions and more open subjectivity as equally rigorous as writing adopting an objective tone.

• When Nash (2004) suggests, “Tell your story in an open-ended way,” he is acknowledging academic conventions within his call for narrative technique (p. 63). In scholarly settings, ideological badgering is, or at least should be, rejected by the field. Scholarship relies on the weight of evidence and the expertise of the writer to analyze that evidence and draw conclusions and questions from that evidence in fair ways that are free of agendas outside the realm of scholarship (such as financial gain or political manipulation).

• Although he offers this as his guideline eight, “Remember that writing is both a craft and an art” is a central guideline for the classroom (Nash, 2004, p. 64). “The craft of writing also requires the writer to be disciplined and motivated, and even a little obsessive-compulsive,” he adds, characterizing perfectly the qualities we must require of students in our classes (p. 65). Yes, our students need craft as they negotiate documentation style sheets, surface feature conventions, and final document formatting. Within academia, such details matter; the professional writer in the real world must face these standards, as well.

• Guideline nine follows perfectly: “Use citations whenever appropriate” (Nash, 2004, p. 65). All writing is more vibrant with the specific and the concrete; many genres achieve the specific and concrete through evidence. In scholarly writing, in much of the writing we need in our classrooms, evidence comes in the form of quotes and paraphrasing taken from primary and secondary sources. The caveat I will offer here is that we tend to reduce citation and documentation instruction to scripts that ruin many students’ ability to understand fully the concepts of citation and documentation. With our focus on the details of a single style sheet (MLA or APA, for example) students believe they are supposed to memorize that style sheet as if it is sacred, instead of becoming expert at citing and documenting more broadly and becoming adept at working within any style sheet needed for a particular context.

• Nash (2004) offers a powerful final guideline: “Love and respect eloquent (i. e., clear) language” (p. 67). Regardless of the message or content of a student’s writing, that content is always housed in language. One of the most flawed lessons students learn from the scripts we use to teach writing is that good writing is obscure and complex, both in the style and the diction. Reality reveals, however, that clarity and simplicity are actually the hallmarks of effective and eloquent writing. Scholars use precise and technically accurate language.

Landrum, J. E. (2007). Students: Do experts follow the rules you’re taught? Journal of Teaching Writing, 23(1), 1-16.
Nash, R. J. (2004). Liberating scholarly writing: The power of personal narrative. New York: Teachers College Press.
Weaver, C. (1996). Teaching grammar in context. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

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