In the course of a project I’ve been working on, a book for people about to take their first college writing course, I’ve been doing some reading to locate the personal experiences I’m drawing on in the continuing conversation among college writing professionals about what a college writing course or major ought to be and do. One source I’ve found usefully provocative is What is “College-Level” Writing?, edited by Patrick Sullivan and Howard Tinberg, both community college professors. High-school and college teachers, students and administrators have contributed.
No Definition for College Writing?
I wonder how surprised most readers would be to learn that the collection begins with the premise that there’s no agreed-upon definition for “college-level” writing. Contributors do seem to resist the idea that writing is de facto “college level” because it is written in college. But many also resist the idea that there should be some set of specific criteria that student writers have to meet if their writing is to be acceptable college work. The perceived danger is that locking college writing to “standards” will drive it the same way “standards” have driven high-school writing: toward shallow and reductive formulas that privilege being able to follow a set of steps over thoughtful analysis of a topic. (George Hillocks’ The Testing Trap: How State Writing Assessments Control Learning, is a lucid exploration of the effects of various rubrics and standards on how teachers teach and how students write.) The writers in this volume tend to agree that college writing should be more flexible, more responsive to the different writing situations students in college will encounter.
So What Is College Writing. . . . ?
And this view of the difference between college and high-school writing points to a consistent thread of consensus among the contributors (and among my colleagues, with whom I shared many discussions of our program and the kinds of writing it was producing). What made me want to insert this post into my narrative of my own struggles was an essay close to the end of the book. By Chris Kearns, then an assistant dean of student services at the University of Minnesota, this essay advocates for what I would consider an absolutely essential component of successful college writing, Kearns writes:
[C]ollege writing proper begins whenever an undergraduate takes the first consequential step from self to other on the grounds of care for one’s audience. This is best done by opening oneself to the fact that meaning does not belong to the writer; it unfolds in the shared space of acknowledgment between the reader and the writer. (350)
This is remarkably in tune with my favorite quotation about writing that I’ve published in these posts at least twice, the quote from the reading historian Alberto Manguel that “[a]ll writing depends on the generosity of the reader.” This idea, Kearns points out, runs counter to the romanticized view that the self-regarding individual is the font of expressive genius. Kearns contends, rightly I think, that we cannot imagine this unfolding of meaning between reader and writer as a linear process of following steps or using the right toolset, and, moreover, it is difficult to explain as a concrete process, which is a possible reason so many college students find that magic something that their college teachers “are looking for” so amorphous and elusive.
Kearns points out that this process requires writers to inhabit three consciousnesses: that of writer, reader, and a third “critical reader” who experiences both perspectives and engages with the tensioned interplay between them. Kearns calls this process “recursive,” by which I interpret him to mean that one begins with an idea or a point, which then blooms in the space in which it is offered, is molded by the critical reader, and then returns, changed. This process repeats as long as a piece of writing is still attached to us intellectually and emotionally, even if it has left our hands.
This is about college writing, but I think it is about all writing that means to do more than sit in a drawer. Readers are the most surprising people. They never give you back what you think you gave them. And when you get back their gift, you–even if you resist–are what has changed.