Here is what I believe: writing is an act of reconstruction as much as it is an act of creation. It’s for this reason that we have entire schemas of writing criticism devoted to the inverse. That meaning can be deconstructed is evidence that somewhere, there must be the reconciliatory act. If we step outside the postmodern for a moment, though, and consider writing as a form of building and rebuilding, I believe we find ourselves on ground aching for a model.
Peter Elbow and Donald Murray both championed the recursive writing process. This is a lovely way to conceptualize the ever-unfinished work: the paragraph, paper, piece, poem, or play that will never be completed. For students, recursion is a looming threat. It hovers over their free time, over the time reserved for other courses, for leisure, for anything but writing. Murray aptly captured this harbinger of text when describing all of the thoughts that masquerade as writer’s block. All of those thoughts, the thoughts that are inherent to recursive meaning making, are the shadow cast on students by process writing.
What is missing from the present construction of writing mastery is connective tissue. I assign an early research proposal and literature review/historical essay – a starting point, a single piece.
From what I have seen so far, students are able to create individual parts. Individual parts that function quite well, in fact. That next stage of construction, what seems like a simple enough extrapolation of one idea to the next, larger idea, is where I see students struggling. Here, students will undergo a more immediate form of research, completing an interview-based essay. They will help one another generate questions appropriate to their topics. This interview will serve as a guide to procuring new kinds of materials, and the responses, hopefully new patterns to follow. Instead of being told where to find connective tissue, students will work with and around raw content, collaborating on its dissection and re-presentation.
For many decades, the focus of writing instruction has changed. At first, it was spelling. If a student cannot spell, he cannot write. If he cannot write a well-formed sentence, he cannot write. If he cannot write a well-formed paragraph, he cannot write. In the present, there is a great deal of emphasis on research. It is my goal to help students understand secondary research is not infallible. That established scholarship is placed on such a pedestal for new writers is a supreme disservice. Only after procuring real-world information through interviews or surveys will my students turn to the scholarship for argument.
These assignments will be more than models. A carpenter who has mastered ten pieces of furniture may not ever build an eleventh. His creations to then are sufficient, but he is no master. He could argue like mad the qualities of his seven different styles of chair; illustrate every corner of his three shapes of table. This does not make him an accomplished carpenter, orator, or rhetor. We are failing our students if we teach them countless models without teaching them flexibility. We are teaching them to be limited, which is the exact opposite of what writing should be.
How we move beyond this point is less clear than the need to get there. I design assignments in the same modular ways most process-driven instructors do. I’m guilty of mandating prewriting because in the absence of something superior, it still serves an important function. The place I differ, however, is in the realization of the amalgamated assignment. Students have difficulty enough learning to integrate outside voices into their own writing. Piecing together their own words in ways that are cohesive, completely unguided, is a serious task. It’s for this reason that I encourage group synthesis of larger projects. Writers gather the materials, all jagged and rough, and together piece them together, puzzle-like, into a whole that is more impressive than any number of its pieces. Just as peer review helps students develop a more critical editorial eye, I believe these kinds of projects help them forge the tools they need to design, resource, construct, and remodel their own texts. I believe these are the skills writing instructors should teach.