Good writers are made, not born (essay)

Bad Ideas About Writing

The author-god, according to mid-20th-century language theorist Roland Barthes, embodies the Romantic notion of the artist to whom brilliant epiphanies come to be written down. In fact, at times throughout history, the best authors were believed to have been chosen and directly inspired by God himself.

Because of this cultural paradigm, many of us are deeply psychologically invested in the idea of individual genius authorship, and it manifests negatively in students’ approaches to their classes and other rhetorical situations that require critical reading and writing skills. How often do instructors hear students say, “I’m just not a good writer”? The idea of the genius author perpetuates the bad idea that some people are just born good writers while others are not.

Many institutional reasons exist for holding on to an untroubled concept of genius authorship: degrees, jobs, grades, salary, promotions, tenure and awards often depend on it. And writing is hard work; we feel a sense of pride at what we have accomplished and having our name attached to it. However, Bruce Horner writes in “Students, Authorship, and the Work of Composition” that the genius idea is also “linked to the removal of writing from the social material world, redefining it from a socially located activity to an aestheticized, idealized art object -- from writing as an activity engaged in to writing as an object produced for the sake of ‘art.’” When struggling writers consider writing a piece of art, they become frustrated because they cannot force their writing to look like what they expect art to be, and they have no clue where to begin to make themselves the genius writer they believe teachers and readers expect.

While culturally and professionally we are all quite attached to the idea of individual author genius, it has been complicated by the technological shifts of the last several decades -- notably the personal computer, word processors, the internet and all its present manifestations -- which facilitate the conflation of author, reader and editor. Writing is more collaborative and socially situated than it has ever been.

More than 20 years ago in Electric Language, Michael Heim wrote that a new understanding of the relationship between language and knowledge has resulted from personal computers. Because computer-based composition is quicker than pen to paper and because the internet allows us to share what we have written so quickly, our composition happens quickly, often as a reaction to what someone else has written or posted. Heim also reminds his readers that one of the effects of word processing and subsequently web publishing is that authors are not just authors; they are also editors and publishers, broadening the individual's daily interaction with language. In other words, while the idea of the individual author genius is theoretically problematic, it is also practically problematic, because our everyday authorship practices are socially situated, collaborative and interactive.

Unfortunately, however, discussions of authorship with students tend to ignore those interesting aspects of language and focus on what they should not do: don’t plagiarize, don’t say “I,” don’t use Wikipedia as research. Such conversations are led by a misplaced fear that students will try to pass themselves off as “real” writers and criminalize their novice attempts at writing, which are messy by nature. Even the term “student writer” insinuates a power differential between capital “A” Author (who gets held up on a pedestal) and lowercase “s” student writer (who gets complained about or is assumed to be unable to write).

In this line of thinking, student writers cannot be “real” writers because what they produced is not finished, not art. They are often punished for being students. Sometimes when I hear colleagues complain about student writing, my response is “But isn’t that why we’re here? Is it not our job to teach them?”

But this power differential between student writers and Authors perpetuates the idea of students as children in order to keep ourselves in a position of authority and that we bring them “into publication (but not into authorship) for someone else's purposes -- for teachers' purposes,” says Amy Robillard, an essayist and professor of English at Illinois State University. To do this, we paint narratives of students negatively, we refer to them by first name only in our publications rather than last names as we would “real” authors (in other words, “Julie writes,” as compared to “Faulkner writes”), we construct students as passive rather than active, and we negatively compare students to professional writers. In doing this, as Robillard asks, “How can students not come up lacking?” -- particularly in their own minds.

To alleviate this disconnect between what culture believes writing is and what the activity of writing involves, many writing studies professionals agree that we should emphasize the contextual aspects that shape writing. We should emphasize writing as a “socially located activity” and reject it as “idealized art object.” They are not student authors, for example, but authors. Authors. With a voice and ideas and opinions about things they have read or have seen.

One potential way to do this is to take writing out of the sole context of the classroom. Traditional essays that are only seen by the professor (or perhaps the professor and a peer reviewer) do not build the students’ concepts of themselves as authors, because they can see those assignments as acontextual hoops to jump through. Assignments that broaden their audience or provide real contexts such as blog posts or service learning placements in the community can help them see themselves as real authors with real audiences and the act of writing as a “socially located activity.”

I will not deny, however, that certainly some authors are naturally more comfortable, experienced or confident than others, or that some may have more practiced facility with certain writing situations. Natural talent exists. Sometimes I compare writing to sports: I am not a naturally talented athlete, but I have trained for and run dozens of races, from 5-Ks to half marathons. I am a runner. A person may not be naturally strong, but how could they gain strength? Lift weights. Need more flexibility and balance? Practice yoga. Likewise it is with writing. We are all authors, and all authors can become better authors.

Indeed, research in writing studies shows that improved writing can be taught to writers at all levels. But we must first debunk the deeply held idea in the collective psyche that only some lucky people are good writers in order to increase openness to learning how to write better. If a person thinks their writing ability is stuck in place, improvement is incredibly difficult, further solidifying as a self-fulfilling prophecy a belief that they are a hopeless cause.

This idea that some people are good writers while others are just not can be truly crippling to a writer. Good writing instruction -- either in a classroom setting, a tutoring session or informally -- can only occur if a student believes that they can become a good writer with practice and focused feedback. And that can only happen if they have debunked the myth of the genius author.

To help them do that, I tell my writing students that writing is fun -- to which they groan and roll their eyes. I push harder. For me, writing is like playing a game or solving a puzzle, because I must figure out certain challenges. In the end, I get a feeling of satisfaction -- of fun, even -- because I have created something that did not exist before, that only my work could have accomplished in exactly that way. And I work with them to help them get that feeling of satisfaction and fun, as well. This is how we must challenge the idea that some people are just born good writers: by fostering the habits of mind that value the reward of working through challenges.

Simultaneously, however, we must acknowledge that writing is a social activity enhanced by reading, research, remixing, peer review and collaboration. We are able to exchange information and build on one another’s ideas at speeds never imagined only a few decades ago. While the idea of an individual author is problematic, instructors must also understand we are interacting with students who experience the world as individuals and who perceive of themselves as individuals. Our perception of authorship is intricately linked to experiences, through which they have often “learned” that some people are just born good writers. In fact, in my experience teaching, I have heard many students tell me they’re just not good writers because a previous teacher has told them that. Luckily, we can give them tools and experiences that help build their confidence and experience as we simultaneously help them reconceptualize what an author is. For example, if they perceive writing as a socially situated activity rather than as a product of a genius, students who once saw revisions or writing center consultations as punishment for “bad” writing might be more open to learning from those opportunities.

Key to improving novice writers’ experiences is improving how they think about their work, a process called metacognition. Opening up cognitive space that allows for metacognition and reflection is essential to experiential and practical improvement. One particularly powerful concept is persistence: persistence emphasizes that experience is more powerful than unchangeable ability and that challenges help move writers forward rather than delaying their progress.

David Shenk’s recent book The Genius in All of Us speaks to this. He persuasively argues that intelligence is not fixed or set in stone. Rather, people who are ultimately successful at learning are not discouraged by failure but use it as an opportunity to persist. They are motivated, at least in part, because they have come to appreciate the feeling of satisfaction they get once they have worked through a challenge.

Good writers build these habits of mind. A successful writing student -- whether someone working alone, as a professional or technical writer, with a community group, as a university student, or any other way -- is not necessarily one who writes more but one who persists and reflects on the work done as a means of improvement. Instructors exist not to reward the talented genius and punish the unlucky but to provide opportunities for writing, feedback, reflection, remixing and revision of that work as socially located activities with rhetorical awareness. When a previously “bad” writer sees improvement, sees the value of persistence and feels the satisfaction of the metacognitive recognition that they have gotten better, they will know that good writers are not born but come to fruition in the social act of writing itself.

Jeff Goins’s blog post “The Difference Between Good Writers and Bad Writers” aptly gets to the crux of my argument here for helping inexperienced or unconfident writers expand their experiences and confidence: it’s mostly practice. Further, much of the idea that a person is a bad writer comes from anxiety about being unable to produce that art-product text as some kind of genius, so some simple exercises that combat writing anxiety can help students break through to get the practice they need to open up that space for metacognition. The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina, for example, has an excellent webpage on practically approaching writing anxiety.

The takeaway for all writers is that we can improve, and we are not bound by an inborn, set level of writing talent. Good writers are not born. They are learned.

Jill Parrott (@DrParrottEKU) is an associate professor in the department of English and theater at Eastern Kentucky University, where she also coordinates of the first-year writing program. She teaches all kinds of writing classes, from first-year courses to advanced composition to grammar and modern composition and rhetorical theory. This is part of an occasional series of essays, “Bad Ideas About Writing,” adapted from a collection of pieces edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe for an open-access book by the Digital Publishing Institute at West Virginia University Libraries.

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Fordham's English department adds grants for job search expenses for those finishing doctorates

Fordham’s English department is giving those finishing doctorates $4,500 each to help with the many costs associated with finding a position.

Exempting tuition waivers for graduate students helps all of society (essay)

Many graduate student employees receive tuition waivers as part of their compensation package. As my fellow University of Illinois Ph.D. student Emily Rodriguez noted, these waivers are like coupons, providing a discount on graduate education in exchange for labor provided at below-market value. Although I was shocked to learn that the new GOP tax plans proposed to tax our waivers, I learned that this is not the first time such measures have been introduced.

In 1987, because of changes in the 1986 tax bill, graduate employees were unsuspectingly taxed. Luckily, colleges and universities were able to successfully lobby on graduate students’ behalf. This time around, there have been a few stories from Inside Higher Ed and other publications, including even Forbes, that position graduate students as unfortunate victims of a dispassionate Congress. Although the human cost of this regressive reform is important, this is ultimately a condemnation of education.

Like other graduate students, I was devastated when I heard the news about the tax bill. I began tweeting and talking to colleagues so that we could start organizing a response. Unfortunately, I heard skepticism from people that anyone outside academe should care about graduate student tuition waivers. Such skepticism is misguided and relies on the notion that universities are disconnected from or do not serve the public. It improperly values universities and both graduate and undergraduate education.

Land-grant universities, created in 1862 by the Morrill Act, serve the public by providing the education necessary for creating an informed citizenry and propelling economic growth. Despite the importance of higher education, universities have been hit by significant budget cuts. According to a study in Minnesota, such cuts do not save money in the long run. Researchers found that reducing subsidies for higher education would result in fewer completed degrees and lower wages for workers, as well as fewer benefits from research. The value of the individual and societal benefits of universities was estimated to be much more than the cost of subsidies. Likewise, the meager gains from taxing 145,000 tuition waivers would not outweigh the cost to our democracy and economy.

Treating graduate students like disconnected eggheads is a dismissal of the skills obtained in graduate school and of the benefits all Americans gain from a more educated society. Graduate employees perform a variety of types of work on campuses. They teach classes, in either stand-alone sections or by assisting professors; they grade papers and exams; they hold office hours; they engage in their own research and research with colleagues; they hold administrative positions; they train for their professional careers. Although this work is often thought of as necessary training for future professors, not all graduate students become faculty members.

In fact, a study of biomedical departments found that graduate students who have research assistantships go on to research and development jobs in both academia and the private sector. The same skill sets that are useful in academic research, such as strong analytical and problem-solving skills, are valuable outside academe. Furthermore, teaching, in particular lab sections of science courses, can help graduate students develop their own research skills, which may be used to develop innovations in science or technology within or outside academe.

At the University of Illinois, there is a “What Do I Do with a Ph.D. in the Humanities?” group that specializes in helping students navigate careers outside higher education. The group demonstrates that humanities graduate students have a lot to offer the public and private sectors -- including excellent writing skills, the ability to lead meetings or trainings, and the capacity to research and analyze complex ideas. It is a choice to apply the skills gained from graduate education, teaching and research in the public or private sector.

Graduate research and teaching experience are not only important for graduate students but are also formative for undergraduate students. Some of the critiques of the tax bill have focused on the deleterious effect it might have on STEM education, but the impact on the social sciences, humanities and arts is equally important. A 2012 survey reported that written and oral communication are two skills employers seek most in employees. Teaching assistants in English, communications and other departments spend hours grading papers and talking to students about how to write and present their research coherently. At the University of Illinois, many students are required to take public speaking, a course taught by graduate students within the Department of Communication. Those are skills that students can take with them in the private sphere in many fields.

Between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries, the United States invested in improving access to higher education because of the importance to individuals and society. But today, by proposing to tax graduate tuition waivers, Congress is signaling that higher education is not important to the economy. They are wrong. Education increases the lifetime earning of those with degrees and can raise the wages of those they work with. Individuals with college education and advanced degrees are more likely to vote, volunteer and give charitably.

Finally, research universities can help solve societal problems in a variety of areas. Engineering researchers at the University of Illinois recently developed a camera that could lower the cost of cancer detection. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation recently awarded a grant to the Education Justice Project, which serves prison populations by providing education, which can improve quality of life and lower recidivism rates.

Unfortunately, there are still obstacles to access, including in graduate education. By taxing tuition waivers, Congress will create further barriers to graduate education, particularly among students from poor or minority backgrounds who may already feel isolated in higher education.

Instead of taxing tuition waivers for research and teaching assistants, Congress should be moving in the opposite direction. Exempting tuition waivers from taxation is not only fair, but it is also a continuing commitment to the economic and societal benefits of accessible higher education.

Mary Grace B. Hébert is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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Survey: Instructors support technology, but institutions lack implementation plans

That's one of the main takeaways from a newly released survey of chief academic officers. Another big one: OER will be major source of content for courses within five years.

National online learning database launched

As reported by Inside Higher Ed, Oregon State University Ecampus has created a database compiling research on the efficacy of online learning.

Supporting Undergraduate Teaching Improvement

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences this week released the fourth and final paper from its Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education, called “Policies and Practices to Support Undergraduate Teaching Improvement.” The paper says that institutions are increasingly under social, economic and political pressure — just not pressure to improve undergraduate teaching. Even public accountability systems, in the form outcomes-based accreditation processes, ignore the educational processes underlying those outcomes, it says. Good college teaching means subject-matter knowledge, general pedagogical knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge, but especially the latter, according to the report. It describes examples of teaching improvement initiatives, including teaching centers, mentoring programs, guided reflection programs and the Science Education Initiative, a recent effort to systematically improve the teaching of science at two North American research universities. While teaching centers

and faculty mentoring programs tend to be rooted in general pedagogical knowledge, the latter two programs focus — particularly helpfully — on teaching within a specific discipline, the commission found. To improve teaching across an institution, the paper concludes, leaders must share an idea of what good undergraduate teaching looks like and value to role of discipline-specific pedagogical knowledge. The commission also found that whether teaching improvement initiatives are on campus or off, improvement of teaching is most likely when there is “coordinated activity at multiple levels of the academic enterprise.” The report includes numerous policy recommendations, such as that campus ands system leaders analyze and realign the formal faculty incentive system and fund and fill tenure-track faculty positions that emphasize undergraduate teaching. 

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U of Memphis Investigating Professor's Tweet

The University of Memphis is reportedly investigating Judy Cole, a professor of nursing, for comments she made on Twitter about Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House press secretary, according to WMC Action News 5. On Saturday, Cole responded to a tweet by Huckabee’s father, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, saying that a U.S. Army pilot had given his daughter a jacket to wear during her recent visit to the Demilitarized Zone between North Korea and South Korea. “@realDonaldTrump should promote him! Of course libs go nuts about it,” Mike Huckabee, a Republican, wrote in reference to the gesture. In response, Cole reportedly tweeted, “If she froze to death, she wouldn’t be missed.” A number of people criticized Cole on Twitter as uncaring before Huckabee responded.

Source: Twitter

Memphis later said in a statement that it was “aware of personal comments made on social media by a current faculty member of the Loewenberg College of Nursing. These statements do not represent the values of the [university] or the values of the Loewenberg College of Nursing. This matter is being fully investigated in accordance with [university] policies.” Cole’s Twitter account has since been deleted.

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Fordham Non-Tenure-Track Professors and Postdocs Vote to Form Union

Non-tenure-track faculty members — adjuncts, full-timers and postdoctoral fellows — at Fordham University voted 16-to-1 to form a union affiliated with Service Employees International Union, they announced Tuesday. The news comes weeks after administrators and faculty organizers signed a neutrality agreement allowing for a free and fair election at the Roman Catholic campus. Fordham in a statement called the election process “full and fair” and said it’s looking forward to “working with SEIU on behalf of our employees.”

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Digital learning leaders stress importance of building faculty support for online initiatives

Digital learning leaders diagnose the challenges of seeking faculty support -- and possible solutions to obtaining it.

Administrators and sports experts weigh in on how many online courses college athletes should take

Iowa imposed limit on distance education by its athletes, only to back away. Does online ed help athletes learn, or just make it easier for them to miss classes?


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