Angela K. Bodino
Professor of English, Raritan Valley Community College, Somerville, NJ
Writing Creativity and Innovation in a Transdisciplinary Curriculum: A Community College Challenge in a Global Century
The Neglected ‘R’ and a Neglected Niche in Higher Education
Writing today is not a frill for the few, but an essential skill for the many.
--The National Commission on Writing, 2003
Several contradictions prompted the writing of this paper:
Writing is The Neglected ‘R’
even though reforms in reading and math abound as well as
opportunities for professional development in these disciplines;
Writing is The Neglected ‘R’
in spite of its unique power as a heuristic and at a time
when creativity and innovation are key values, in economic and civic contexts;
It is neglected even though its trans-disciplinary character can help bring coherence to
a fragmented contemporary curriculum, and particularly forge connections with the current
and richly relevant findings of the neurosciences.
In this paper we consider five possible barriers:
The assumption that thought is mostly conscious and rational, rather than unconscious and emotive, and academic writing most significantly expository rather than creative;
The general absence of a distinct academic department to house the trans-disciplinary scholarship of composition studies;
The need for professional development for teachers in all grades and disciplines, in the indispensable and enactive processes of writing and reflection;
The dominance of the university as a source of professional development in the teaching of writing
A cultural bias in federal models favoring quantifiable assessments that look only at standardized outcomes and not also at qualitative formative processes.
Prospective and Retrospective on a Revolution in the Teaching of Writing
In 2003, the College Board’s National Commission on Writing in America’s Families, Schools and Colleges entitled its first report The Neglected ‘R’ and in its subtitle defined “The Need for a Writing Revolution.” It has maintained that emphasis in each of its subsequent reports, Writing: A Ticket to Work…Or a Ticket Out, 2004; Writing: A Powerful Message from State Government, 2005; Writing and Whole School Reform, 2006, and most recently in Writing, Teens, and Technology in 2008.
The motivation for the establishment of the Commission was a “growing concern within the education, business, and policy-making communities that the quality of writing in the United States was not what it should be” (2003, p. 3). Again in the 2008 Commission report we read of “A growing concern that the level of writing in the United States is not what it should be” (p. 39). In 2009, the concern is ever more compelling given the financial climate, the challenge of global competition, and the crucial role of education in general, and writing in particular, to cultivate the resources of creativity and innovation that can help us compete and collaborate, within and beyond national boundaries of self-interest.
What is also repeated in every Report is that we do know how to make a difference. In the 2003 Report we read, “Good practices exist. They rest on a solid research base. We know what to do” (12), and similarly in 2008, “There is a strong body of research on best practices in the teaching and learning of writing that can guide individual and institutional reform efforts” (51). However, conversations about best practices in the field of composition studies must begin with teachers writing and reflecting, given the tacit knowing that is not only inherent in writing, but also - as George Hillocks, Jr. demonstrates - in teaching as well (1999, 1995). Models for workshopping and channels for disseminating such best practices are abundant, ranging from professional organizations like the National Council of Teachers of English and the Conference on College Composition and Communication, to graduate programs and Summer Institutes like the National Writing Project and Bard Institute for Writing and Thinking.
New findings from the neurosciences reinforce the foundational work of theorists and reformers in the teaching of writing that have held for over 25 years. In 1983, Janet Emig recommended the study of “the blind, deaf, and brain damaged” to help us come to a better understanding of the effect on the brain of the synchronization of eye and hand in the process of writing (111). In 2007, in The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, Norman Doidge does just that. He begins his study by chronicling ways in which the brain can heal itself and compensate for a loss of function due to strokes, cerebral palsy, blindness or deafness, and concludes with a focus on the plasticity of the brain and on the ways that the Information Age is changing the brain. “Reading, writing, computer literacy and using electronic media,” he writes, serve as “signature activities,” which “require training and cultural experience and lead to the development of a new, specially wired brain” ( 291).
The Embodied Mind
One of the barriers to nurturing the neglected ‘R’ may be a cultural blind spot in the academy that George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1999) discuss in Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. They suggest that the notion of human rationality familiar in Western thought is an illusion; specifically, its faith in “reason” as the foundation of our humanity, and the possibility of certainty as we think, question, decide, act, and attempt to “reach an understanding of ourselves, other people, and the world” (3-4). Instead, on the first page of Chapter I they posit three core principles reflected in the disciplines of the cognitive sciences about the nature of human nature and thought:
The mind is inherently embodied.
Thought is mostly unconscious.
Abstract concepts are mostly metaphorical.
Recent research reinforces the significance of understanding the mind as a reflection of the functions of the brain, not only unconscious and metaphorical, but also plastic and changeable. In The Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Doidge (2007) summarizes recent research into the “culturally modified brain.” He writes:
What is the relationship between the brain and culture? The conventional answer of scientists has been that the human brain, from which all thought and action emanate, produces culture. Based on what we have learned about neuroplasticity, this answer is no longer adequate. Culture is not just produced by the brain, it is also by definition a series of activities that shape the mind. (287)
While a belief in absolute objectivity brings with it a reassuring sense of clarity it might also suggest an implacable ethnocentrism in a time of cultural clashes. On the other hand, while a belief in the plasticity of the brain might promise the potential of individual perfectibility and a rescripting of ethnocentric values, Doidge warns of mixed outcomes:
Plasticity is far too subtle a phenomenon to unambiguously support a more constrained or unconstrained view of human nature, because in fact it contributes to both human rigidity and flexibility, depending on how it is cultivated. (318)
Given the power of writing as a premier “signature” activity we need to explore more fully the ways that it uniquely helps us come to know and understand something. An analysis of the work of writing and its effects on the brain can help us better understand both the spurs and inhibitors of creativity and flexibility.
The Tacit Tradition: The Multi-Disciplinary Lens of Composition Studies
In 1983, more than 25 years earlier, Janet Emig introduced the same core principles posed by Lakoff and Johnson, yet they still complicate reform in the teaching of writing: specifically, the role of the unconscious in the construction of meaning, and thus the scope of scholarship that is needed to address it. Her seminal work, The Web of Meaning, includes a chapter that attempts to define a unique multi-disciplinary scholarship of composition studies. In “The Tacit Tradition,” she unpacks three paradoxical and foundational principles that echo Lakoff and Johnson: In the webbed process of making meaning, the personal and the objective become fused, the unconscious becomes conscious, and the work of mind is seen to be embodied and biological.
The disciplines she references include rhetoric and linguistics, literature and philosophy, psychology and the neurosciences. The scholars and writers she cites are as numerous and diverse as they are compelling. Perhaps most central are those she cites in “The Tacit Tradition:” John Dewey, Silvano Arieti, Lev Vygotsky, Michael Polanyi, I.A. Richards, James Britton, Donald Graves. Jerome Bruner, Susanne Langer, Howard Gardner, Karl Popper, George Kelly, Louise Rosenblatt, Eric Lennenberg, A.R. Luria, Peter Elbow.
What they have in common is an interest in the complexities of “creative individual thought, for individuals writing” (148). But it is chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi (1962) whose work from a quarter of a century earlier gives her the foundation for the emergent scholarship of composition studies. In “Writing as a Mode of Learning,” she cites his assertion that “the ideal of strict objectivism” is absurd,” and adds her own emphasis in parenthesis, “How many courses and curricula in English, science, and all else does that one sentence reduce to rubble? (127).
In her chapter on the unique character of composition studies, she finds her title, “The Tacit Tradition” in Polanyi’s distinction between tacit and explicit knowing. All knowledge, as Polanyi explains is inevitably personal knowledge:
Things of which we are focally aware can be explicitly identified; but
no knowledge can be made wholly explicit. For one thing, the meaning
of language, when in use, lies in its tacit component; for another, to use
language involves actions of our body of which we have only a subsidiary
awareness. Hence tacit knowing is more fundamental than explicit
knowing; we can know more than we can tell and we can tell nothing
without relying on awareness of things we may not be able to tell. (1962, x)
Both Polanyi and Emig question the traditional privileging of rationality and explicit knowing echoed in the work of recent studies in the neurosciences, including the findings of Doidge and Lakoff and Johnson.
The emphasis on rationality and control in the academy privileges the markers of effective writing when all is explicitly known to the writer and designed to control the response of the reader, with clear thesis, logical development, and convincing evidence. Other forms of discourse, however, equally important, emphasize an openness to interpretation, a more fluid sense of meaning on the part of both writer and reader. In the field of composition studies, theorists have long defined these complementary uses of language that impact writers and readers differently.
Emig references these in The Tacit Tradition. Writing that is evocative, that contextualizes meaning in the emotions and imaginations of readers and writers, Emig defines as “Reflexive,” Louise Rosenblatt as “aesthetic,” and James Britton as poetic.” Each of these draws on language that evokes an experience and that is essentially sensory. Writing that contextualizes meaning in frames outside of the text itself, in disciplinary frames of reference, for example, Emig defines as “Extensive,” Rosenblatt as “efferent,” and Britton as “transactional.” Here the meanings of language must be fixed rather than fluid, with the responses of the reader controlled rather than interpretive (150).
In some forms of writing – stories, plays, and poems on the one hand and scientific writing on the other, these forms may be mutually exclusive. However, in practice – in journalism, ethnographic studies in the social sciences, in satire, for example; the uses evocation and exposition may well blend. What is essential, in the teaching of both reading and writing, however, is an appreciation for the ways in which these uses of language affect strategies both for developing and decoding meaning in both reading and writing.
In “Life Is a Narrative,” E.O. Wilson (2001) describes these two uses of language in science writing, and argues for the one most neglected in the field – the narrative of scientific discovery. He begins with two short sentences, “Let me tell you a story. It is about two ants.” And then he goes on to explain the significance of the evolution of ants, why it is mysterious, and why “vexing” (p. 746). He uses his case study of the finding of a key fossil as an argument for the importance of narrative in science writing as a way of bringing meaning to “a chaotic and unforgiving world” and insight into the excitement of scientific discovery:
By narrative, we take the best stock we can of the world and our predicament in it. What we see and recreate is seldom the blinding literal truth… The narrative genius of Home Sapiens is an accommodation to the inherent ability of the three pounds of our sensory system and brain to process more than a minute fraction of the information the environment pours into them. (p. 748)
He concludes with two pseudo descriptions of a search for life in the depths of an unexplored cave, the first using the language of scientific precision and caution to situate a finding in an appropriate disciplinary methodology convincing to informed readers; and the other the language of “letters” that invites readers to participate in the experience of the writer - the riskiness of the rappelling into a dark unknown and then the thrill of finding a species of beetles, new to science. Wilson is arguing for the importance of developing styles of writing that can bridge the sciences and the humanities, calling it “the central challenge of education in the twenty-first century” (p. 752) It is as rare as it is refreshing to hear this call for the teaching of narrative writing in the disciplines of the sciences!
Grounding Professional Development of Teachers in the Process of Writing
In order to understand the power of writing in helping to make the tacit explicit, teachers themselves must write, and then reflect on the experience in collaborative writing groups as the best way grounding for the teaching of writing in any discipline and grade. In professional development courses for teachers just as in classes K-18, writers write for diverse reasons - sometimes to respond to a reading, to reflect on a question or issue important to them, to prepare an expository essay or a case study, to explore a research question. They write frequently and in a variety of modes – description, narration, poetry, satire, argument, reporting, journaling, research - to understand the ways language functions in different rhetorical contexts. In this model, not all writing has to be graded or necessarily read by the teacher; sometimes their students will write for themselves as the sole audience. To develop a polished paper, teachers as writers will follow a path that is more recursive than linear – including free writing, drafting, collaborating in peer review, revising, reflecting, editing – and for diverse rhetorical purposes.
Community College and Reform in the Teaching of Writing
When we look at the channels that offer professional development for teachers we see that they are often provided by outside vendors who present their packaged models and leave. Or they are located in university sites with outreach to teachers K-12 from different schools who lose contact once a graduate course or workshop is over. What is lost is a context of continuous contact to allow for the kind ongoing conversation and collaboration that is so crucial to rooting reform in reflection and practice.
John Mayher (1990) cites one of the difficulties of sustaining reform after summer writing institutes; specifically, the eventual “domestication” of teaching practice:
This domestication …involves slipping back to using teacher-chosen writing assignments done for a grade. An even more severe distortion is the grading of such things as journals, learning logs, and other writing experiences whose only raison d’etre is that they are exploratory and therefore by definition, not able to be evaluated in the same ways as commonsense writing exercises are thought to be. (231)
A new factor that reinforces this return to practices Mayher calls “commonsense schooling” is No Child Left Behind (NCLB), with standardized assessments and rubrics tied to a finished product.
Dorothy Strickland (2001) offers a case study of the discouraging entrenched “commonsense” approach to teaching writing fostered by standardized assessments, as though a half-century of important research had never taken place. She writes:
In the beginning of the year, I give each of my sixth graders a copy of the state assessment rubric. I read it through with them and explain what each part means. Then, I give them a writing assignment. After they write, they score their papers according to the rubric. Sometimes they exchange papers and score each others writing. They know that they must justify the scores they give. I hold individual conferences with as many students as I can. Occasionally, I show one or two papers on the overhead projector so that the class can discuss them as a group. After revising and editing, students place their final drafts in writing portfolios.
Over the year’s time, we go through all the different types of writing they are likely to meet on the statewide test: explanatory, persuasive, analytic, and so on. This is basically my writing program. Actually, I think my students may be doing more writing than in the past, but now virtually all of it is geared to passing the state’s proficiency test. One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that as their papers begin to conform to the rubric, the writing becomes more uniform and much less interesting. I’m concerned about this, but I haven’t figured out how to deal with it and still keep them focused on the rubric. Unfortunately, better scores don’t necessarily mean better writing. It seems like a contradiction. (pp. 385-386)
What the teacher cites as different forms of writing are actually the same. “Explanatory, persuasive, analytic” writing are all forms of exposition, which emphasize language as a means of control on the part of both the writer and the reader. The markers of excellence are all explicit – the naming of a thesis, the signals for logical sequence, the incorporation of evidence explicitly tied to that thesis, and a clinching conclusion.
The “contradiction” should come as no surprise, since this familiar “commonsense” approach bypasses the motivation of the writer, the rooting of meaning in the unconscious, and different modalities for connecting language and meaning. In the earliest years of reform, teachers have defined the results as “dummy runs,” in the words of John Dixon, 1975) most characteristically lacking resonance and range and on every grade level.
The community college can provide a unique context for professional development in the teaching of writing, given its grassroots context and bridging role in higher education. Three goals at Raritan Valley Community College from its Writing Agenda program are concurrent enrollment courses in senior-level composition classes in county secondary schools, networks of support for students in College Education degree program placed in area schools, and professional development opportunities in the teaching of writing for area teachers.
And again, that understanding doesn’t emerge without the performative components of writing and reflection on the part of teachers and students, and on every level of literacy, from drawing to writing, from K – 18 and beyond.
We are long overdue for a “Writing Revolution!”