Writing at the End of the World: Academic Writing and the Struggle to Define the Humanities

Delivered at the 11th International Conference of the EARLI

Special Interest Group on Writing, 11th to the 13th of June, 2008

Lund, Sweden*

Richard E. Miller in Writing at the End of the World (Pittsburgh, 2005) asserts that, “We live in the Information Age and all the information is telling us that whatever we have done, whatever we are doing, and whatever we plan to do will never have any lasting significance”. This is how our students and many teachers feel, bringing us back to the debate that began in the 1990’s about the nature and purpose of academic writing. On the one hand, we’ve had the school of thought that follows Michel Foucault’sThe Order of Discourse,”* most notably lead by David Bartholomae’s “Inventing the University,” suggesting that the very syntax of college writers is defined by cultural and discursive commonplaces, and Kurt Spellmeyer’s “Self-Fashioning in Discourse: Foucault and the Freshman Writer,” where we are told that Foucault’s work “reminds us that learning is the process through which we deliberately fashion our lives—and that the outcome of the fashioning, this ‘assaying’ of ourselves, is always an open question”. And on the other hand, we find Nancy Sommers’s “Between the Drafts” where she realizes that only by getting out from beneath Foucault’s influence, and by implication the demands of academic conventions, can she begin to gain authority. In Sommers’s camp is also Nancy Welch and her often cited “Resisting the Faith”: only by returning to “University A,” after being repulsed by the learning process in “University B” where Foucault is required reading, to where “freewriting and stargazing” are encouraged because “we write and learn in an environment that is safe and supportive” is she able to compose.

A writer determines the ways culture is actually present in the very act of experiencing the writing process. Writers therefore come to understand how and why the academy needs them, says Miller, “constructing a more humane and hospitable life-world by providing the very thing the academy is most in need of at this time: a technology for producing and sustaining the hope that tomorrow will be better than today and that it is worth the effect to see to it that such hopes aren’t unfounded.”

Our job is to provoke—to enable ways to move between worlds and balance the incongruities we experience. The postmodern mission of academic writing is nothing less than to define the practice of the humanities.

In The Art of Teaching Writing, Lucy Calkins writes, “James Dickey’s definition of a writer—‘someone who is enormously taken by things anyone else would walk by’—is an important reminder to those of us who assume that we begin to write by brainstorming ideas, listing topics, and outlining possible directions for a piece. Writing does not begin with deskwork but with lifework.” Lifework begins with awareness. Awareness leads to knowledge. To think and see like a writer, someone who is sensitive about things around her, we have to slow down and realize we are part of a living web of interactions. Life is there, in the in-betweens, the tiny yet powerful transitions that spring from moment-to-moment, thought-to-thought, whether we’re stepping off a curve, ordering a pizza, or waiting in a theatre to see a movie. A writer captures the significance of these moments; she takes note of the vast world, its significance. Writing is discovery, unfolding. It is a way of giving life meaning. Nothing today is more essential than writing well. Writing helps us see, understand and realize ourselves.

Disorder and uncertainty are the guiding principles of our world today. It is the writer that sets our lands in order, giving us a vocabulary to define our condition. Perhaps at no other time in history, has the writer been so critical. Working towards achieving the writer’s sense of awareness is therefore a worthy cause and a useful discipline, whether we end up as professional writers or we write for ourselves in private journals. Writing assists our quest to find ourselves in the windstorm that life sometimes seems to be.

In sociology we learn to read, write and speak as sociologists—a process that studies the origin, development and structure of human societies and the behavior of individuals and groups; in mathematics we examine the world through the relationships among numbers, shapes and quantities using signs, proofs and symbols; in history we record and analyze past events, the development of people, and create accounts related to phenomena based on observation and investigation. Writing is no different; it too requires a particular approach—a discipline. Writing is an activity beyond merely setting down letters, words and symbols. Like sociology, mathematics and history, writing has aesthetic principles by which it adheres. The first is awareness. It is followed by exploration—that is, delving into inquiry. And finally there is voice, the determining of style, a way to speak what one uncovers and experiences in the act of setting down letters, words and symbols; it is the sound that comes from our inner most recesses. It takes time—and experience—to achieve voice. In between awareness, exploration, voice and style, a writer will create a routine to help her along—reading, studying, writing and revising. A writer knows how serious it is to set letters and words down for others to read because, in the act of writing, we see ourselves, we create an identity and uncover ourselves. Writing requires that we speak about what excites us, though, as Dickey says, others may walk by these same things. A writer notices—but we need courage to do so because, as we observe and consider, we are vulnerable. A writer learns that vulnerability is strength; it is where truth lives. Writing is a dialog with the world; it’s deeply personal and passionate.

Awareness—consciousness, responsiveness and attentiveness—activates inquiry, a formal investigation to determine the facts that exist in our struggle between sense and reason. Awareness is the first step to truth. And writing is a way to find a crossing towards truth, only that. Writing, we see ourselves. We imagine; we notice how we breathe—deeply, slowly so as not to miss a single thought; how our hands move gracefully about the keyboard, like Chopin at the piano. First, just letters, then entire words, and eventually a world emerges. We move forward and backwards across this world—deleting, revising, adding, scrutinizing. Trying to make something whole out of thin air, this is what we do. Stopping to think about how awesome this really is becomes so daunting that it’s easier to just keep going. We press on. We write on.

It is difficult to think like a writer and to see like one too when our experiences are defined by disunity. For those who work with writing, who teach how to read and write, as Richard E. Miller says in Writing at the End of the World, “there’s no escaping the sense that your labor is increasingly irrelevant”. This is because, Miller tells us, “so much of the critical and literary theory that has come to dominate the humanities over the past two decades is to see this writing as the defensive response of those who have recognized but cannot yet admit that the rise of technology and the emergence of the globalized economy have diminished the academy’s cultural significance”. If the cultural significance of the academy has indeed been reduced, then more so than ever, the academy needs writers—not the other way around. This is a great challenge: finding the relevance of writing means we are finding our bearing in the world. To write is to live.

To extend this a bit further, to help out a bit and perhaps to stimulate writing, thinking and dialog, Lucy Calkins is once again useful. She says that, “Writing allows us to hold our life in our hands and make something of it. We grow a piece of writing not only by jotting notes and writing rough drafts, but also by noticing, wondering, remembering, questioning, yearning”.

What a wonderful word, yearning—to yearn: to want something or somebody very much; to feel affection, tenderness, or compassion; to desire, long, crave, hanker, even ache.

What is the relationship between lifework and yearning? Or for that matter, what is the relationship between lifework and noticing, wondering, remembering and questioning?

Lifework is consciousness, a realization that collective intelligence exists in the multifaceted networks of historical ideas, in human and cyber systems, and in the symbolic expressions—the arts—that try to explain our condition. Writing is voicing an awareness based on what we glean from what we experience, what we read and study, what we fantasize. When our texts come together—collective intelligence—we see before us life itself, the pulse that binds us through symbols. This is the primary reason for going to school—to realize ourselves in a community of thinkers. Consciousness is also the understanding that creating a figurative language to give meaning to the connections between material reality and ideas is hard work, but it is essential, particularly today. This is where lifework begins—the state of being aware of what’s going on around us, sensitivity to issues, ideas and thoughts, feelings and the environment.

The seed for all patterns or systems of interconnecting lifelines is language. Language is subtle, powerful and yet vulnerable. There are of course different language types—music, painting, graphic arts and digital media, movies and film and photography, dance and theater, and so on. Nevertheless, lifework demands that we first become more closely associated with the critical language used in writing. A reasonable—and personal—understanding of this language is how we come to see ourselves in the continuum of writing, and ideas. Again, such as we do in other disciplines—sociology, mathematics, and history—we must establish a common language, a way to understand ourselves, a way to speak to one another. Understanding through our interpretation of a common language brings us together; it lets us know that we are all in this.

The figurative nature of language, and its relationships to material reality enable our imaginations to develop with it, breathe. It’s one of the most natural things to do, write.

One of my students, Amanda, wrote that, “the following words jump out at me: ingredients, combining (mixing) and creation. To me these words can be used to summarize what life is, because in effect life is a creation comprised of a great combination (mixture) of different intricately connected ingredients. Life is the most beautiful composition there is and depending on what one believes one is a story (creation) either written out before it began by some higher entity or written out as we as human beings live it. Life is in effect a composition and compositions are life.”

We can’t help but notice how this writer is immediately associating the notion of composition with “what life is.” We can also see how she is interested in the bind between “what one believes is … a story (creation) either written out before it began by some higher entity or written out as we … live it.” Already we see how writing works: it helps us discover ourselves, the way we think. In our harried lives, only when writing can we begin to understand how we see our world. Our instinct—as we see in this writer—is to find ourselves in what we read. We will recognize what we know; we will twist and tweak what we gather so that it fits our view of the world. Writing is a way to capitalize on our vision, order it.

Following this thinking, another student, Christy, writes:

It seems to me that composition has to do with the process of building something (writing, art, etc…) and its result(s) as a whole. Not only does it matter where the beginning, middle, and end steps in the creation come from, but it is important to think of where they are going as well. It is, as one of the definitions states, an “arrangement,” but not a random arrangement, one that has a pattern, or is organized in a certain matter where it is somehow evident that it has been mulled over in someone’s mind. This is to say that the “arrangement” is purposefully done a certain way because of the importance and significance of the composition to its creator. This, in my mind, relates to how to live life meaningfully, and is parallel to how to create a composition that is “successful”(in whatever way a person chooses to rate “success”).

In this case, Christy sees composition as a “process of building something” and “[t]his … relates to how to live life meaningfully, and is parallel to how to create a composition that is ‘successful.’” Here, again, the student sees composition as composing a life—as does Calkins. This is quite an assertion, a commitment the student writer is making to herself, to learning. She is going to define her education—not the other way around. We need this for a healthy and safe teaching and learning environment. Students like Amanda and Christy strengthen our institutions of higher education; they’re on their way to being citizens of the world.

In both cases, though the writing is not polished—it’s purposefully meant not to be so as to ensure that we are writing freely, unconstrained by the usual assessment-success paradigm that hovers over students when they write—we can see these students’ devotion, their sense of obligation.

The same writer as before, Amanda, in a reflection after her writing, tells us quite a bit:

This exercise has helped me see myself for who I am, a perfectionist. This is however not in every sense of the word. I do after all have a very messy room. I desire perfection in my personality. As impossible as it is I want everyone to like me so I try to be perfect for everyone. I have discovered that I am quite expressive in my writing, but I do think I need more help organizing my thoughts around certain issues. I have discovered also that I need to repeat things constantly in order to understand them well enough to write about them well. I need time to think, contemplate and formulate ideas, but I also need to be on a strict deadline in order to finish and minimize dabbling with ideas in the quest for perfection in my opening lines or paragraphs.

Quite extraordinary—from “composition” to “composing a life.” Without any prior knowledge of what she would put out for her colleagues in the class, though I’m sure she has had this conversation with herself before, Amanda discloses a lot about herself, suggesting to us what she needs to learn and, more importantly, reflects so as to know she is learning—“I need time to think, contemplate and formulate ideas,” she says. She is a typical student—a writer. She is like all of us, negotiating our needs versus our demands. Amanda then surveys the landscape: “In examining my writing now I seemed more focused now than I did earlier. I got straight to the point of what I wanted to say. Whether that is better writing I am not sure.” The uncertainty of the last line is, of course, the novice writer wondering about how to be in a world dictated by expectations determined by institutional forces; she has to perform, this we know by the rather terse rendering of her “need to be on a strict deadline to finish.” This is what makes writing—and all learning—in the academy difficult: semesters privilege the product over the process, giving students the sense that they’re being processed through an assembly line. In education, we are always working against time, an irony, of course, since learning takes time. Momentarily, while writing, we can provide a respite, a way to begin to learn how we learn, how we see ourselves. This only happens when we have time to think. The semester, and the course schedule that comprises the semester, work against true, meaningful exercises that enable learning about one’s place in our complex world. Writing, we create ways to combat this disabling constraint.

Finally, Amanda says, “Though we may struggle with language as a way of determining our identities, writing allows us to voice our opinions and express our views. Writing is important because it drives us to be the best that we can be. It transports us to places hidden in our minds. It allows us to go beyond reality and to conjure up endless possibilities.” It’s the idea of “endless possibilities” that will remain in Amanda’s mind—as it will in other students’. These are her last two words in an exercise that began by noticing what she could about “composition,” extracting from definitions that meant something to her about how the world is constructed.

Citing Michele Foucault’s “The Order of Discourse” and David Bartholomae’s often cited essay, “Inventing the University,” Richard E. Miller says “that the problem basic writers face when they sit down to write in the academy is that the very syntax of their thoughts is defined by cultural and discursive commonplaces”. That is, writers face the daunting task of untangling themselves from the cultural-institutional binds that regulate identity—the structure of the semester is but only one.

We note this in Amanda, for instance: her insistence on needing a “strict deadline” is in conflict with her understanding about herself, that she needs “time to think, contemplate and formulate ideas.” And she realizes perhaps a greater bind, that writing “transports us to places hidden in our minds. It allows us to go beyond reality and to conjure up endless possibilities.” The “cultural and discursive commonplaces” Amanda defines place her in a quandary—and this will define much of her academic career, as it will for other students. In fact, we can arguably say that higher education is where one learns to negotiate the emotional and physical constraints placed on one’s body and on one’s desire.

This is lifework—the emotional and intellectual labor that defines discovery. The discipline of writing, we all realize, is about life itself; it is about making sense of how and what we see. It is natural to investigate ourselves; it is likewise impossible not to want to ponder the complexities that affect us.

In A Writer’s Reality, the Peruvian novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa says, “The process of writing is something in which a writer’s whole personality plays a part. A writer writes not only with his ideas but also with his instincts, with his intuition. The dark side of a personality also plays a very important role in the process of writing a book. The rational factor is something of which the writer is not totally aware”.

This is how we come to know the relationships that exists between our ideas and our instincts; where we come to find what is truly our own and what is culturally constructed. As we work with every word, every sentence, we recognize the significance of our syntax, the ordering of and relationship between the words and other structural elements in phrases and sentences. We see the sets of rules that belong to the English language, as well as the rules that belong to our culture, what informs us. We inhabit syntax to expose ourselves. We find logic to our being.

In French, the word for essay is essai—an attempt; one who writes essays is therefore an essayiste, one who attempts. To attempt is essayer. This is what Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) did in becoming perhaps the greatest essayiste we know. Montaigne popularized the essay; his effortless ability merges serious intellectual speculation with casual anecdotes and autobiography. His massive volume Essais (literally “Attempts”) contains some of the most widely influential essays ever written. Montaigne’s goal is to describe man, and especially himself, with utter frankness. This is our model. When we write what some consider the dreaded college essay, we are in fact entering a historically situated occasion for writing. It is, as Montaigne realized, simply an “attempt” to make something understandable; any changes that have been brought forth to the form—and that may have sucked the lifeblood out of it—have been instituted by education’s need to adhere to a corporate structure.

I bring up the notion of the essai and the essayiste to reinforce the notion of attempt. Too often in writing courses we emphasize the finished product, the end. And too often students see writing in much the same way—to prove themselves against arbitrary benchmarks, to get done, finish, and move on to the next stage where they begin again with the same routine. The joy of discovery is taken out of the process. Predictably, we assign writing at the end of a reading, for instance; at the end of a particular section of a course; as a final exam; a final research project, complete with stale and fabricated topics. This takes spontaneity and instinct completely out of the attempt, of the essayiste’s heart and soul. In effect, we eliminate learning. Seldom do we assign writing to reinforce the need for meditation, to think about the ideas floating about our minds. We also seldom create writing situations where a writer can sit with the germ of an idea and grow it slowly, enabling her to see—take notice—how a singular idea may be the way into an entire semester’s work, even the curriculum itself and, I dare say, life. This is, of course, effort fraught with challenge; we are endeavoring, taking stabs at something or other.

Sharing our thoughts—as I have here, exploring, dwelling, inquiring—we realize that we are all immersed in our writing; that writing, whether we’ve been aware of it or not, has been and will continue to be an integral part of our journeys. We write emails, IM, notes in school; we write shopping lists, to do lists, and notes to friends; we write applications for jobs, grants, advancement of one sort or another. We are continuously writing. We are essayistes forever wanting to connect with another. It’s one of the most natural things we do, turn to writing in its varied forms and thus bond with others through our deepest, richest thoughts.

Examining our writing practice, we compose stills—images of our writing selves filled with life. The implications bring us closer to the significance of our thinking lives. We are naturally invited to explore and expand. Writing becomes a personal view from which a philosophy can emerge.

A teacher that writes, that understands how her writing emerges, will be forced to assess her teaching practice—it’s inevitable. Lucy Calkins suggests that, “when we teachers have known the power of writing for ourselves, when we’ve fashioned our own poems and stories and letters and memoirs, then we can look at the resistance in our students’ faces and clenched hands and know it is there not because writing is inherently a dreaded activity, but because writing has been taught in ways that make it so”(emphasis in original). This is true, particularly at the college level where writing is a performance, presumably a ticket towards upward mobility. Too often this methodology has nothing to do with the investigative, inquiry-based qualities of writing to find truth. Many of us focus on mistakes, what’s not said—and never look for and celebrate the uniqueness in the writer’s struggle to find voice. In fact, we never teach writing so as to help a student move closer to her voice. We do the opposite—move the student away from herself and towards our subjective reading of academic discourse, the rhetoric assumed in the disciplines and the business of schooling. In other words, rather then teaching writing as a vehicle for examining our interconnectedness, we teach writing in a way that departmentalizes students, bifurcates them, disperses them into the nooks and crannies of academia to fend for themselves. We are therefore working against the promises of a liberal arts education, teaching skills rather than thinking.

If writing doesn’t open us up, what’s the point?

Beginning with the stilted “academic essay,” the usual argument essay constructed for a teacher’s assigned topic, which pedagogically already suggests to students that what’s expected is an arbitrary understanding of excellence, not an educational term, but a business idea, guarantees that writers will not be committed to what we know to be the wonderful rewards that come from writing, what we glean from, say, Montaigne. As teachers of writing, it’s also deceitful to begin—and hammer away—at the academic essay. From Montaigne and Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf to Harold Bloom, writers write because they’re looking for answers because they don’t know, because they need to see themselves think. This search dictates style, voice and an intimacy with grammar that stems from the writer’s deepest desires.

Writers write because they need to understand themselves amidst complexities. We are vulnerable beings—emotionally and psychologically. Writing helps us come to grips with our vulnerabilities and become stronger.

12 thoughts on “Writing at the End of the World: Academic Writing and the Struggle to Define the Humanities

  1. I agreed with the points brought up in this essay because although in our education we read great works of writing and are then expected to write about those great works, we are not allowed to write in the manner that these great authors do. While authors observe life and then write about what they see because they want to, students are given a topic to write about, which they may or may not like, and are expected to write about it whether they want to or not. How can a student be expected to create a great piece of writing without writing about something they care about? The way in which writing is taught these days is completely contradictory. Writing is forced upon us and not only that but a certain style of writing is forced. Students as writers usually have no choice in their writing which makes it very difficult to care about the writing, except for the grade that will be inevitably placed at the end of the writing. How are students graded in the first place? Most of these great works that we read would not be given a good grade by a teacher since the writing is not conventional. In many cases, non-conventionality creates a great piece of writing yet in the classroom that does not hold true. Teachers need to give their students more room in their writing and start to give at least some assignments where students can write just to write, not for an assessment at the end of a semester.

  2. I think there is a lot of truth in the end of the article where the author discusses the counterintutitveness of college education.
    Constantly having something due tomorrow makes it really difficult to do assignments with true thought put into each one. I have realized that in the beginning of each semester when I have less work, I get much more out of each assignment because I am not stressed and rushed to comlete my work. When I am able to take my time without a due date, my ideas tend to formulate much easier especially in my writing assignments. When I have a constricting time schedule and I am writing a paper, my focus subconciously turns to productivity. That is I feel like I am doing well if I am writing pages, when in reality my best papers are always my slowest. So far, my college experience has been as the author puts it learning skills not thinking.

  3. Pingback: The Chicago Teacher’s Strike: Solutions for a New World in Education « The Uncanny

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