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Part 3 From Reading to Writing

11.1 The Case for Critical Writers

From Abrams:

In a 2012 article published by The Washington Post’s “Answer Sheet” section, curated by Valerie Strauss, John G. Maguire decries the failure of college writing students and their instructors. The article, “Why So Many College Students Are Lousy at Writing— And How Mr. Miyagi Can Help,” explains that many students “enter college as lousy writers—and … graduate without seeming to make much, if any, improvement.”1 The problem? College writing classes don’t teach good writing. The article scorns those writing courses which cover “rhetorical strategies, research, awareness of audience, youth civic activism—everything except the production of clear sentences.”2

Maguire’s article advocates for a return to old-school instructional methods— specifically, teaching style and mechanics so that college grads can produce clear, readable sentences. Maguire concludes with a reference to a 1984 film, The Karate Kid. (If you haven’t seen it, the film is an underdog story about an outcast teenager learning martial arts from a caring but mysterious karate master, Mr. Miyagi.) Maguire asserts, “I’m a teacher, and I know what Mr. Miyagi did — he tricked the kid into learning. He got him to do important behaviors first, and didn’t reveal where they fit into the overall skill until later.” He continues,

[Colleges] should offer new writing courses that assume students know nothing about sentences and train new sentence behaviors from the ground up. Be repetitive and tricky—fool the kids into doing the right thing. Create muscle memory. Think “wax on, wax off.” The kid’s goal was to win the karate contest. The student writer’s goal should be mastery of the readable style.3

So, according to Maguire, more teachers should “trick” students into learning grammar and style, only to reveal to the students at some faraway time that they knew how to write all along.

In case you can’t already tell, I am very resistant to this article. I introduce it not because I have an axe to grind, but rather because I find it demonstrates essential misconceptions about writing that many people share. I have taken to teaching this text on the first day of class to show my students what they’re up against: teachers, readers, parents, The Washington Post reporters, and many, many others who assume that (a) there is one “correct” kind of writing, and (b) today’s students have no idea how to execute it.

I refer to the perspective in the Strauss and Maguire text as the complaint tradition, and it’s probably something you’ve encountered plenty of times. With every generation, some older folks can’t wrap their minds around how terrible the following generation is. Those kids can’t write, they spend too much time on their phones, back in my day we used to play outside and movies only cost a nickel. It’s easy to write Maguire off right away here, but let’s unpack a couple of key quotes to better understand what we’re working against.

“[Colleges] should offer new writing courses that assume students know nothing about sentences and train new sentence behaviors from the ground up. Be repetitive and tricky—fool the kids into doing the right thing.”5

Beyond the fact that such an assumption is simply rude, it also overlooks the fact that students actually already know a lot about using rhetoric—they do so on a daily basis, just not necessarily in the same register, style, or medium that Maguire wants.

Designing a course and basing a teaching style on the assumption that “students know nothing” would be a toxic and oppressive practice. As a student, you have dedicated yourself to learning, meaning you acknowledge that you don’t know everything. But this is a far cry from “knowing nothing,” and what you do know is not inherently less valuable than what Maguire knows.

Furthermore, I do not believe in “repetitive and tricky” teaching that pretends to know what’s best for students. Don’t get me wrong, I love The Karate Kid, but teaching grounded in deceit reinforces the toxic power dynamic mentioned above. It assumes that teachers know best, and that their students deserve no power in their learning environment. Teachers are not “better than” or “above” students: we have had certain experiences that position us to offer help, but that doesn’t give us license to lie to you.

Most importantly, though, I believe that pedagogy should aim to be transparent. In order for you to claim the knowledge and skills you gain in a learning community, you need to see how you’re building it, be invested in why you’re doing certain work, and respond to feedback on your thinking and writing processes.

So Maguire and I have our differences on teaching philosophy; we disagree on the nature of the teacher-student relationship. If it ended there, we might ‘agree to disagree.’ But Maguire also drastically misunderstands the characteristics of good writing.

“The student writer’s goal should be mastery of the readable style.”6

Not unrelated to his beliefs on teaching and learning, Maguire’s belief in a monolithic goal of“readable style” is loaded with problematic assumptions about:

  1. what the student writer’s goals are, academically, personally, and professionally,
  2. whether “mastery” is a reasonable goal for a foundational college course, and
  3. what “readable” style is.
  • Your learning community—you and the people around you—have drastically different futures ahead of you, both in school and beyond. To assume that you all want the same thing out of your writing class is myopic.
  • You will learn plenty about writing in this book or in your class. But let’s be realistic: even professional writers rarely consider themselves masters. Writing, like any art or skill, requires ongoing, lifelong practice and refinement. You will not be a master after 10, 14, or even 28 weeks—but you can always grow and improve.

What counts as “clarity” or “quality writing” is never static: it is always shifting as you enter new rhetorical situations. In short, “good writing” depends on who’s reading, who’s writing, why they’re writing, when and where they’re writing, and what they’re writing about. “Good writing” has different meanings among different people in different places and different times.7

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Expression and Inquiry by Chris Manning, Sally Pierce, and Melissa Lucken is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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