Writing

Wesleyan switches graduation speakers amid controversy over author's comments on women

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Daniel Handler, the children's author known as Lemony Snicket, will no longer speak at Wesleyan commencement, amid furor over his comments about women.

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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Colleges should hire writing instructors with the right experience and expertise and give them the support they need (essay)

Every time I hear somebody complain about the poor writing ability of today’s college graduates and students, I can’t help but wonder what people would think if they knew more about the circumstances of many college writing instructors, who go by the titles “adjunct,” “contingent,” “term” or “non-tenure-track” faculty. (I’ll use the word “adjunct” to stand in for all of those possibilities.) In 2013, the Coalition on the Academic Workforce found that adjunct faculty were teaching a significant majority of general education writing courses (English 101, so to speak) in the United States, reinforcing results from the Association of Departments of English in 2007.

Who is “Anybody”?

Unlike the stereotype of a college professor -- a giant office stuffed with books, an antique desk, expensive shabby-chic clothes, you know the image -- adjunct faculty often face difficult working conditions that rest on the myth that anybody can teach writing. The average salary for adjuncts is $2,700 per section, so teaching 10 courses a year (which is a huge load) would gross only $27,000. And many campuses won’t offer full-time work as a result of the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employers provide health insurance to anybody working more than 30 hours per week.

Because the pay is so low, it’s not unusual for adjuncts to become “freeway fliers” (teaching courses on multiple campuses) in order to cobble together enough money to live. Most adjuncts get no insurance or retirement benefits. It’s not unusual for adjunct teaching loads to change semester by semester (so that somebody might have two courses, then four, then one, then three, etc.). Often, the professor doesn’t know until a semester is about to begin, when it’s too late to find replacement work anywhere else, it’s too late to prepare for any new assignments and it’s too late to update materials from prior semesters.

Adjuncts, almost by definition, have no job security or protection against being fired at will. On many campuses, they share incredibly cramped office space if they have offices at all; it’s not unusual for adjuncts to discover that the safest place to store books, laptops, phones and so on during classes is in their cars. Imagine the challenge of needing to have a confidential discussion with a student about a grade, or something sensitive somebody wrote about in a paper, and not even having a semiprivate place to do it. Under those conditions, the truth of the matter is that nobody can teach writing -- at least not well.

If you’ve never thought about specialized training for people who teach writing, that’s no surprise -- the idea itself hasn’t been around for long. Because of its low level (101 is about the lowest number a credit-bearing college course could have) and its content (traditionally, low-level grammar concerns, citation formats for research papers and similar remediations that most people think students should have learned in high school), it’s not so surprising that decision makers would conclude that anybody can do it.

Unfortunately, high-ranking administrators (deans, provosts, presidents, chancellors) on our campuses often use that conclusion to justify hiring, and offering poor working conditions to, adjunct faculty. If anybody can teach writing, the argument goes, then why pay experts well to do it? For whatever reason, even though it’s common to hear people complain about the poor writing skills of kids these days, it’s just as common to hear the assertion that teaching them to do better shouldn’t be hard. We hear these two arguments surprisingly often, and unfortunately, they reinforce each other. If the people who teach writing don’t need real professional training, then why treat them professionally? And if we’re not offering to treat them professionally, then why would anybody pursue the training necessary to do it well?

Poorly Treated and Trained Faculty Can’t Teach Writing Well

I wish it were obvious that people better trained to do something would do it better than people who aren’t trained as well. That feels like such a truism that it’s hard to even know what evidence to offer to support it. Here’s what we know: people without advanced training in writing pedagogy tend to rely on outdated ideas about writing, particularly that mastery of sentence-level skills like punctuation and word choice lead to mastery of more complex writing tasks.

As early as the mid-1970s, researchers had established that this assumption (sentence-level skills lead to more complex skills) was incorrect. Mina Shaughnessy, a professor at the City University of New York during the period when the system became open admissions (so that anybody with a high school diploma or equivalent could be admitted), published an influential book called Errors and Expectations in 1979 (Oxford University Press). One of her key findings was that students struggle with sentence-level problems for any number of reasons that often have little to do with their mastery of mechanics. Simply (re-)teaching them mechanical skills doesn’t solve those problems. Likewise, compositionist Patrick Hartwell reported in a well-regarded 1985 article titled “Grammar, Grammars and the Teaching of Grammar” that students are much more likely to care about mechanical issues if they consider those issues in the context of their own writing purposes instead of worksheets and handouts.

Another outdated but still common practice among nonspecialist writing teachers is teaching the modes of writing: narration, description, analysis and argument. Teaching the modes suffers from the same basic problem as starting from the sentence level: the assumption that writers move neatly through these stages of complexity simply doesn’t hold.

And Hartwell’s argument that students learn more when they work on writing they care about also applies just as well here. A course built on a series of tasks students must do even if they have nothing to say that motivates or interests them is a course with, let’s just say, limited potential. But too many writing teachers are either required to teach such courses in programs designed by nonspecialists, or they design courses this way because their models are the courses they took themselves.

I could keep listing practices that writing programs heavily dependent on adjunct faculty often use, but I hope the connection is clear: poorly treated instructors often work in programs without much regard for professional knowledge of the field, which both disempowers the instructors and reinforces the sense that what they do isn’t important. The system at too many colleges is stuck in a cycle of insisting that some work is lower value than other work, then using the fact that it abuses the people who do it as proof of its low value.

Exploring Alternatives

In its simplest form: “Anybody who is trained and supported well and treated like a professional can teach writing.” The key word is “professional.” The people teaching college writing courses would have graduate degrees (most already do, of course, often more than one), and many would have spent years on the job (many already have). Many (more) would have conducted research into effective teaching or other kinds of research that help them teach writing. Their training, experience and expertise would have earned them the support they need in order to do their work well. That support would come in many forms: resources like office space, computer access, photocopying and library privileges; engagement in their departments by being invited to participate in department meetings and curriculum development; job stability instead of constantly fluctuating schedules that may change suddenly and without explanation; and better compensation than most writing instructors currently receive.

Finally, treating professionals as professionals would mean paying people more than many of them earn now. The Modern Language Association, which is one professional organization that represents faculty in English and writing studies, recommends a minimum salary of $10,700 per course. The National Council of Teachers of English, MLA and many other organizations also recommend that faculty teaching at least half of a full-time load receive benefits (health insurance, retirement contributions) in proportion to their teaching load.

Research supports such efforts: most recently, Amanda Griffith of Wake Forest University and Kevin Rask of Colorado College have found strong correlations between the instructional budgets of institutions and the earning power of graduates from those institutions.

The fact is that investing wisely gets better results. And, ultimately, while it’s fair to demand better for students, it’s not to demand magic from a system that’s currently built on a bad premise that anybody can teach writing.

Seth Kahn is an English professor at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. He serves on the board of the New Faculty Majority Foundation and co-chairs or has co-chaired labor/contingent faculty committees in several professional organizations. This is the second in an occasional series of essays on 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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Author discusses her new book on writing advice for academics

Author discusses her new book of writing advice for academics.

 

University of Michigan prepares to test automated text-analysis tool

University of Michigan adds an automated text-analysis tool to a growing program intended to give more students a chance to learn through writing.

Books on race, social justice issues dominate selections for summer reading for freshmen

Books on social and racial issues get spotlight among freshman reading assignments. This year, one showing up on campus lists focuses on low-income and rural white people, J. D. Vance’s 2016 sociopolitical breakout, Hillbilly Elegy.

Anti-Turnitin manifesto calls for resistance to some technology in digital age

Essay argues the age of big data is the time for professors to reconsider their reliance on the anti-plagiarism business.

First-year writing classes can teach students how to make fact-based arguments (essay)

Perhaps the greatest challenge to academe in the current political environment is the ascendancy of a “post-truth,” “alternative fact,” “fake news” culture, in which claims are detached from evidence and words do not necessarily bear any relation to reality. In the culture of post-truth, social institutions formerly seen as mainstays of objective information -- the judiciary, news media and, not least, the university -- are widely regarded with skepticism, if not hostility, and their adherence to fact-based argument dismissed as elitism. Indeed, the very concept of a fact may have already become a casualty of the post-truth era.

“There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts,” Trump supporter Scottie Nell Hughes declared on Diane Rehm’s NPR show in December. “And so Mr. Trump’s tweets amongst a certain crowd,” Hughes continued, “…are truth.” Hughes was widely reviled for her assertion, but she appears to have correctly assessed the temperature of the times.

How should those of us in academe respond? How do we prepare our students to respond?

I offer here a modest suggestion: support your local first-year writing program.

For much of its history, the first-year writing class has been an arena for teaching values and virtues like honesty, accountability, fair-mindedness and intellectual courage that serve as the foundations, indeed, the essence of academic argument. Moreover, the first-year writing class promotes those values in thousands of institutions across the nation, serving tens of thousands of students each semester by introducing them to principles of ethical argumentation. In so doing, the first-year writing class offers a robust defense against the post-truth culture and provides a model for constructive, fact-based public discourse.

Consider, for example, the teaching of argument in the first-year writing class. While by no means uniform in their approaches, first-year writing courses commonly teach argument as a social practice, a discursive relationship between reader and writer. For that relationship to thrive -- or to borrow Aristotle’s term, to flourish -- readers and writers must be confident in making certain assumptions about one another.

The first of these is mutual honesty. Readers must be confident that claims made by the writer are not intended to deceive or manipulate; you will not read much further in this essay if you conclude I am lying to you. The author, in turn, writes in the expectation, or at least the hope, that readers will not willfully distort the writer’s message but will offer a fair hearing of the argument.

Reader and writer may be skeptical of one another’s claims, and they may disagree vehemently about given policies. Yet if each enters the argument trusting in the basic honesty of the other, there is the possibility of dialogue between them. In the first year-writing class, accordingly, students are taught that successful arguments begin with relationships of trust grounded in expectations of honest exchange.

The honesty of claims, however, takes us only so far. Students in the first-year writing class learn that assertions made in an academic argument are but one part of a pairing, the first line of a couplet. When writers make an assertion, first-year writing students are told, they must supply evidence to support that claim. They must be accountable for the things they say and the language they use in saying it. “Accountability,” the philosopher Margaret Urban Walker has written, “means a presumption that someone can be called to answer, to stand before others for an examination of and judgment upon his or her behavior.” When students in the first-year writing course are taught to provide evidence appropriate to their claims, they are learning they will be called upon to answer, to stand before others, to provide the proofs by which their claims may be judged. They are learning something of the commitments that accountable writers make to their readers and themselves.

Nor do such commitments end with providing evidence. While the culture of post-truth seeks to quash competing truths, students in the first-year writing class learn that successful arguments include a healthy consideration of other views. To be credible in an academic argument, students learn in first-year writing courses, writers must attend to evidence and opinions that contradict their own.

What's more, they must do so equitably, generously and fearlessly -- always willing to be one of those, like Socrates in Plato’s Gorgias, “quite as ready to be refuted as to refute.” To acknowledge the views of other people in an essay -- the practice first-year writing teachers typically call the counterargument -- is more than simply a convention. Rather, it is the rhetorical expression of the virtues of fair-mindedness, respectfulness and intellectual courage -- the qualities so conspicuously absent in the culture of post-truth.

Finally, argument in the first-year writing class teaches practices of intellectual humility. Many people have noted how academics represent argument in the language of conflict and war. We attack others’ ideas. We gain and lose territory. We are victorious, or we are decisively defeated. This is the language of intellectual domination.

But argument can equally be understood as a practice of radical humility, in the sense that to argue is to submit ourselves to the judgment of others, offering up our ideas for scrutiny, criticism and rejection. Moreover, while argument in the first-year writing class is frequently taught as the practice of persuasion, it is just as often represented as a process of inquiry, exploration and the reconciliation of diverse views. Understood this way, argument functions not as a truncheon for dominating others but rather as an invitation to collaborate, to reason together and, perhaps, to find and inhabit common ground.

If the next four years of the current administration are anything like the first months -- and the president has provided no reason to think otherwise -- we can look forward to a rising tide of alternative facts. As those in the academic community -- including college presidents, provosts, trustees and deans -- consider how best to meet such challenges, one site that may stand as a model of principled resistance is the first-year writing class, where post-truth finds no purchase and the commitment to fact-based discourse is unwavering.

John Duffy is an associate professor of English and the O’Malley Director of the University Writing Program at the University of Notre Dame.

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We should stop distinguishing between 'creative' and other forms of writing (essay)

Bad Ideas About Writing

To many people, if not most, the phrase “creative writing” marks a genre. A man writes in a garret, his pages lit by the faint glow of a lamp. Ideas are spilling madly from his cerebral cortex to the page. He probably has a cup of coffee next to him. Or a dog. And he is writing a story -- perhaps about a road trip.

I know that is the image in most people’s brains because it is the one I’ve read or heard described hundreds of times by the news media, in popular culture, by writers themselves, in books written by writers on writing, by my students and by friends. It is also the image most strangers (or distant family members) produce when I tell them my field is writing studies, a discipline dedicated to the academic study of writing of all kinds: college writing, digital writing and workplace writing, just to name a few examples.

Upon hearing that, a man I met in a hostel over breakfast asked me to listen to his poem to see if it was publishable, even though, not being a poet, I have no credentials for evaluating his text. My distant cousin, after years of asking at Thanksgiving dinners, still can’t understand why I don’t want to edit his novel. Most of us learn to laugh off the glaze that comes over people’s faces as we academics in writing studies explain what we, in fact, do write. 


The problem is that one image of writing dominates the popular imagination and is weighted with value more heavily than all others: writing as “creative writing,” which is treated as if it’s interchangeable with fiction and poetry. Over the years, I’ve come to understand a few pervasive problems that stem from the view of creativity as tied to fiction and poetry, from the public’s lack of awareness of what academics and other workplace writers do, from problematic attitudes held within the so-called field of creative writing itself about what types of writing are creative, and from the ways we as writing studies/English scholars reinforce problematic ideas about creativity. Those attitudes include:

  • One sphere of writing is marked off as “creative” while others are devalued.
  • People who write everything except poetry and fiction -- those who contribute the vast majority of writing to the world, in the form of lists, essays, emails, blog posts, texts, instruction manuals and so on -- see their work as less creative and important.
  • This mass of unrecognized writing and labor is virtually unrepresented in popular culture, and academics and other workplace writers are not part of the cultural narrative around creativity (save for some exceptional examples, such as the way writing is represented in the TV show The West Wing, often a powerful meditation on the importance of collaboration and revision in workplace writing, and in Her, a movie that celebrates the ghostwriting of love letters, not generally a celebrated writing genre).

I first took note of the emotional weight and impact of this phenomenon when conducting interviews for my dissertation on the impact of materials of all kinds on the writing process. I interviewed four dozen people and, in countless interviews, they expressed the heartbreaking sentiment that there once was a time when they wrote creatively (i.e., they wrote poems and stories), but now they are just academics or workplace writers. Even more troubling was that when asked if they considered themselves writers, they resoundingly answered no. Even for people who write daily for their trade, writing has become synonymous with poetry and fiction writing, which has become synonymous with “creative writing.”

I began asking more people whose livelihoods depend on the written word and who write daily if they see themselves as writers. I also began asking graduate students who came to see me at various writing centers where I worked whether they considered themselves writers. And again most said no. There was something in the identity label of “writer” that people have attached to a particular kind of writing. Deborah Brandt voiced this powerfully when she pointed out that while the identity label of “reader” is available to most people -- meaning that most readers could confidently say “I’m a reader” -- the identity label of “writer” is not.

In her book, Brandt demonstrates how cultural narratives around the importance of reading enable families to understand the value of this act and to support reading as a family value and practice. This practice, of course, has a long history -- reading was not a solitary or silent activity until relatively recently. (Scholars debate exact dates, but some point to silent reading as a late-19th-century or even 20th-century phenomenon.) Writing, in contrast, has often been associated with privacy, secrecy and solitude, as Brandt asserts.

Writing is also associated not with workplace forms but with poetry and fiction. A question that comes to mind is that if a persistent narrative around writing is that the only creative writing is fiction and poetry, and if families do not see themselves as skilled in this way, how can they encourage writing in all of its forms as a family value? Brandt notes that in her hundreds of interviews with families, people rarely remembered writing around parents. For many families, being a writer is not seen as a valuable trade -- it’s the stuff of fiction.

What persists are damaging stereotypes about writing and creativity that continue to reinforce troubling dichotomies about the nature of creativity. Consider the famous joke that “those who can’t do teach,” which parodies the work of people dedicated to fostering creative thinking in others, which requires them, also, to be constantly creating. Or consider that teachers and professors are almost always depicted in popular culture as practitioners, not talent.

For instance, in the 2015 film Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, Nick Offerman plays a bumbling sociology professor whose intellectual contribution to his field is portrayed solely via his penchant for wearing “tribal” clothing from around the world. His son characterizes him as a person who basically sits around a lot. When faculty members aren’t being ridiculed in popular culture, all sorts of other problematic stereotypes are propagated, such as the effectiveness of white teachers or teacher figures inspiring at-risk or inner-city students and/or students of color to be “creative” by writing fiction or poetry. (See, for example, Dangerous Minds, Finding Forrester, Freedom Writers, Up the Down Staircase.) Try to imagine those movies teaching writing skills that would actually potentially be valuable in today’s marketplace.

In Dead Poets Society, we even see the symbolic gesture of a teacher tearing up the syllabus, perhaps imagined to be the dullest of literary genres. But as a material representation of a 16-week experience, it is, I would argue, one of the most creative and rewarding of writing forms. Indeed, if creative writing is about world creation, as many people contend it is (although that, too, is debatable), what is closer to this than the creation of a new experience?

How did the field of creative writing, and the public’s idea about this type of writing, emerge? In The Elephants Teach, D. G. Myers traces the origins of this term, the genre and the workshop that has become the standard in English departments across America. Myers presents ample evidence that the institutionalized field of creative writing barely resembles the ideals and movement that produced it in the 1920s, when it exploded in popularity largely due to the writings of educator William Hughes Mearns. Mearns developed and popularized what’s considered to be the first creative writing workshop for junior high school students. He was tired of English courses that used literature as a means of drilling students on vocabulary or grammar or as some other means to an end.

Mearns proposed the practice of writing literary texts for self-expression, so that kids would enjoy literature, and for promoting an understanding of literature by writing it. His description of his creative workshop spread quickly and was rapidly adopted across the United States, largely because he traveled throughout the country presenting the model to teachers and schools and then published student work in various texts that were also publicly devoured.

However, according to Myers, in contrast with current conceptions of writing that treat fiction and poetry as more cultured than genres such as workplace writing, emails, lists or even theses, Mearns would not have abided by a view of creative writing as somehow more cultured or valuable. Neither would the prominent progressive educator John Dewey, Mearns’s influencer.

In fact, both Dewey and Mearns were highly critical of the notion of “culture,” which seemed to be a means of discriminating against the masses for abilities that people held due to various privileges and advantages (such as speaking “proper” English). Myers demonstrates how the rise of creative writing paralleled the rise of post-World War II college enrollments due to the GI Bill, as well as the rise of federal student aid. The growth of creative writing programs also divorced creative writing from its study of literary texts, and the field emerged as one that -- rather than training future writers -- trained future teachers of fiction and poetry. He notes that “Creative writing was devised as an explicit solution to an explicit problem. It was an effort to integrate literary knowledge with literary practice,” but that “what had begun as an alternative to the schismatizing of literary study had ended as merely another schism.” Now, English departments are divided, with the study of fiction and poetry quite divorced from other parts of the program.

An effect of popular attitudes about writing is that much public, popular and workplace writing is devalued, despite its ubiquity, importance, creativity and potency. The division impacts so-called nonfiction, too (a genre defined by a lack). As Barbara Tuchman articulates, “I see no reason why the word ‘literature’ should always be confined to writers of fiction and poetry while the rest of us are lumped together under that despicable term ‘nonfiction’ -- as if we were some sort of remainder.”

Too often, binaries are leaned on in order to praise one thing and devalue another. This is the case with the phrase “creative writing” and just about every form of writing that is set apart from it. And also too often, what’s placed on the other side of the binary is work that is “critical” in nature. Consider an article by scholar and literature professor Graeme Harper, who, in championing the creative writing workshop, repeatedly utters sentences like these: “[My students] are required to write both creatively and critically.” When the critical is opposed to the creative, it’s easy to understand why public attitudes, and even those of academics and other writers who produce critical work, are so pervasively seen as uncreative.

Over the years, the students with whom I have worked, and particularly those who see me in the writing center, have reported that after I talk with them about some of these ideas, and after they begin thinking of themselves as writers, their positive feelings about writing intensify. No one wants to feel that the daily work they do is valueless, dull, uncreative. And everyone should be able to access an identity that they are proud of related to their trade.

I am concerned that narratives about what it means to be creative and a creative writer are to blame for much of what I’ve described. I’ve seen this in the various departments in which I’ve worked, where certain faculty members spurn the fields of professional writing and writing studies and reinforce the idea that teaching poetry, fiction and even literary analysis are somehow more desirable.

I would love to see English and related departments banish the use of “creative writing” in titling disciplines, tracks and departments. Instead, bring us all together under the banner of Writing Studies, Writing or Writing Arts. In my courses, I tell my students at the beginning of the term that they will not hear me use the phrase, and I tell them why. Most of my students are not going to be fiction writers and poets; they are going to be journalists, technical writers, emailers, texters, medical record writers, memo writers, proposal writers and list writers. And I want them to understand that if they enjoy this work, it is as valuable to them as fiction and poetry.

It’s time we banish the idea that certain writing forms are creative and certain aren’t. And that academic writing is dull. Let’s challenge ourselves to stop using the pernicious phrase “creative writing.” To produce more public texts that depict the creativity involved with forms besides fiction and poetry. And to expand our fundamental ideas about what it means to be creative.

Cydney Alexis is an assistant professor of English and writing center director at Kansas State University. You can find her on Twitter at @cydneyalexis. This is the first in a series of essays on Bad Ideas About Writing -- adapted from a collection of pieces edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe. The essays are being published this spring as an open-access book by the Digital Publishing Institute at West Virginia University Libraries -- in which scholars and writing instructors identify bad ideas and suggest more productive, inclusive and useful ones.

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Teaching students how to write with soul (essay)

Teaching Today

Irina Eremia Bragin describes why and how she encourages student to write essays that entertain, engage and elevate.

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