Information Sheet #3

October 13, 1987

TALKING TO STRANGERS

Elaine P. Maimon

[Since the middle 1970s, the small liberal arts college with the strongest national reputation for its writing-across-the-curriculum program has been Beaver College in Glenside, Pennsylvania. Elaine P, Maimon was the guiding force in the original design and administration of their program. The following abridged version of an essay from College Composition and Communication* offers some of her suggestions for understanding the situation of the novice writer in college.]


 

Psychologists tell the story of a child who baffled his parents by not learning to speak, even though he showed other signs of intelligence. Close observation disclosed that the mother was so readily interpreting the child's gestures that he had no motivation to learn to talk. Mommy was always there, so the child had no need to talk to strangers. The child learned to speak only when the mother learned to role-play, to make some of the communicative demands that strangers might make.

Most children must learn to use a more elaborate code, vastly different from their natural speech, when they have to communicate with an audience other than Mommy and Daddy. E.D. Hirsch, Jr. says that talking to strangers is functionally closer to written discourse than it is to oral speech. Strangers tend not to understand or even listen unless the speaker first provides explicit context, syntax, and diction. Jean Piaget has explained that very young children find it nearly impossible to imagine the stranger's point of view. And Hirsch suggests that the child's problems in communicating with strangers are extreme manifestations of the difficulties that writers have at every stage.

Certainly, our composition students are still struggling with the problem of egocentrism, in Piaget's sense of the word. These novice writers have trouble taking the reader's view into account. Their papers display an innocent lack of consideration for what their readers know and do not know and for what they are and are not interested in. "He," "she," "this," and "that" lack identifiable referents. Cause and effect are disjointed. Essential pieces of information are nowhere to be found. The readers' needs are so flagrantly disregarded that no one but a teacher or friend would struggle through to understand the ideas.

The egocentrism exhibited in out students' writing has nothing to do with selfishness. Our students would gladly behave courteously and considerably as writers, if they knew how to do so. But academic writing is a new way of using language for most freshmen. As Mina Shaughnessy explains, our students are beginners who are confronting "a language that has been developed over several centuries by writers who were discovering and exploiting the analytical powers of written English."

Most of us find it much easier to write a letter to a friend about the article we want to write than to write the article itself. Friends, unlike editors, will tolerate puzzling sentences and will even imagine connections that are not explicitly made. But editors refuse to guess at our meanings and accept only readable prose that provides its own sufficient explanation. When we, as professional academics, write for these strangers, we at least know the rules of the game. We have learned what is tactful and what is not within the journals of our own disciplines. When we write within our own fields, we are not really talking to total strangers but talking to colleagues who share assumptions and standards with us. We are members of a club.

As Shaughnessy says, "The beginning writer does not know how writers behave." Even those students who have succeeded in secondary school have learnedometimes cynically, sometimes for self-preservationto behave like pupils rather than like writers. These pupils consult the grapevine to determine whether this teacher likes "I" or whether that teacher will tolerate subheadings. These successful pupils are strangers to the idea that writers generally follow certain conventions and then feel free to make some choices. Some of the conventionsthose concerning usage, punctuation, and spellingare those that most writers use when they write any example of public prosefrom newspaper articles to scholarly treatises. Other conventions and many choices are determined by a particular traditionscholarly, journalistic, or literarythat an individual writer has adopted.

Academic disciplines have their own traditions. Yet our freshman students are uninitiated into the rites of any discipline. These special conventions of different disciplines are rarely explained to students. For too long we have depended on the idea that the right people would find out what to do, as we did, by a mystical osmosis. On the other hand, many of us have over-explained the conventional surface features of Standard Written English. Too often, talking about commas becomes a safe substitute for teaching and demonstrating how writers behave. According to the Carnegie-Mellon studies of the composing process, for most writers the tendency to edit takes precedence over all other writing activities. Teachers who base their instruction on warnings about the numerous booby-traps hidden in Standard Written English may exacerbate their students' worry over error.

 Many freshman writers search with a sense of desperation for ways to avoid the errors that will evoke their professors' displeasure. Like strangers in a foreign culture, they try to draw as little attention to themselves as possible, sitting near the back of the classroom, writing essays filled with "safe" cliches, which they hope are spelled accurately. If their instructors continue to emphasize an avoidance of error, then students will finally learn to avoid as many errors as possible by not writing at all.

As Mina Shaughnessy says, writing academic discourse is a situation "locked peculiarly into timedistanced from the present by the absence of a listener and linked to the past by a tradition of discourse that has in large measure determined what topics and terms and styles of thought are appropriate to the subject." Freshman writers must deal with many difficulties at once: loneliness, the need to "fictionalize an audience," and bewilderment about the various choices and conventions involved in writing about their subjects. These competing demands are too much for most beginners to handle. Many students cannot pay attention to all the elements of writing without some degeneration even of those skills which they have already mastered.

What can we do to help our students overcome their apprehensions about academic discourse and at the same time help them cope with the exigencies of such discourse? First of all, we cannot make the mistake of the mother who anticipated her child's needs so well that the child did not learn to talk. When instructors evaluate papers, they own it to their students to play the role of anonymous readers.

But not every act of writing should be evaluated. In fact, most often the instructor's role is that of sympathetic reader who helps the student work toward a finished product ready for a stranger's eyes. Teachers can do their most effective teaching as they coach their students through successive drafts and revisions. One way to help students deal with problems of cognitive over-load is to show them that they can concentrate on different demands on successive drafts, rather than all at once. On early drafts, for example, students can be encouraged to explain their ideas mainly to themselves, without worrying immediately about the needs of an anonymous reading. Then students can be taught, as Linda Flower of Carnegie-Mellon tells us, to reshape this "writer-based prose" to meet the reading needs of strangers. Finally, students can be advised to reactivate their internal editor to check semi-final drafts for spelling problems and infelicities of usage.

Providing models of the drafting process in all its natural messiness will help out students to withhold closure in their own process of composition. But we have to play fair by withholding out final assessment until a finished product is submitted. When we assign a grade and then ask a student to rewrite, we are reinforcing the elementary-school notion of rewriting as a punishment for not getting it right the first time. We will not change this deeply ingrained attitude if we use the powerful mechanism of the grade to work against our purpose. We need to teach students to recognize for themselves when a paper is nearly finished and to polish that paper before the due date for the final draft.

In practical classroom terms, we need to grade fewer papers, which we encourage students to do more writing. If we require students to write every week, either on revisions or on new projects, and then require only one finished paper per month, we are not lowering standards but raising them. As professional academics, we are able to choose when articles are ready to be sent out for evaluation by journal editors, and we then take these consequences of those evaluations. If we want students to learn how writers behave when they write for strangers, we must give students at least limited practice in deciding when a project is finished and ready for strangers' eyes. When students understand that their teachers can be helpful friends while a paper is in process, students may also learn to withhold closure on a project until it is worthy of a grade. Students may thereby learn that a piece of writing may not be a poor but only unfinished, and there beckons a universe of infinite hope and motivation.

With fewer assignments to grade, teachers can spend more time responding to preliminary drafts. And by establishing the principle of friendly preliminary advice rather than that of premature assessment, the teacher can better use the students' own resources for peer responses. The classroom can become a workshop where students read and respond to the writing of their classmates: in pairs and in small groups, with or without the teacher. Beyond the walls of a single classroom, institutions can set up centers for collaborative learning. These learning centers can be based on principles of consultation, rather than remediation [e.g., the Coe Writing Center].

By helping students to unlock the mysteries of academic discourse, we are making a liberal education available to a much larger number. If we can help our students to acquire better control over the written code used by educated people, our students will be able to reduce their isolation by talking to strangers inside and outside the academy.

*Copyright (c) 1979 by the National Council of Teachers of English. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.


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