Information Sheet # 33

November 14, 1989

WHEN THE WORDS SEEM TO BE INEVITABLE

by Bob Marrs

As the director of a college writing center, much of my time is spent working with students as they confront writing assignments created by other teachers. During one week last year I read an honors thesis in economics, a set of art gallery reviews, a literature review on a new medicine for arthritis, two book critiques for a sociology class, some note cards struggling to become a music history paper on Wagner, and an essay discussing Japanese attitudes toward madness.

The variety in assignments and topics is intriguing and suggestive. To do well as a writer in college, a student must often demonstrate remarkable flexibility in writing strategies and styles. The techniques that work well for analyzing a Shakespeare play may prove inapplicable for the chemistry lab notebook. A student must constantly be making quick judgments about the "rhetorical situation": who is the audience for the paper? how much does the audience know? what does the audience need to know? what does the typical discourse sound like in this discipline? what criteria will be used for evaluating the composition?

Concerning the rhetorical situations created by college faculty, one aspect has particularly intrigued me for several years. What is the instructor's purpose for giving the assignment? Why are the students doing this particular assignment? In an attempt to answer that question, I have assembled a list of possible justifications. Perhaps I am doing nothing more than cataloguing the reasons why I assign papers in my classes, but I enjoy the self-deception that perhaps these reasons apply to other faculty as well.

Since this list has continued to grow steadily during the two years I've been feeding it, I will not yet make a claim for its completeness. I would hope, however, the list would suggest some reasons why written compositions have become such an integral dimension to any first-rate college curriculum. The list may also explain why students often need so much practice before they can successfully deal with such diverse academic disciplines and assignments. But enough introduction; here is my current inventory of 17 possible reasons why instructors introduce writing assignments into their courses.

1. Stimulate the discovery of ideas. A (the?) major reason why people write is to discover what they want to say. The process is similar to speech: we don't know what we are going to say until we say it. We carry on conversations with others to explain those ideas to ourselves. A fundamental axiom of a good writing program: the pen leads the mind.

2. Clarify ideas. Writing enables us to define precisely what and how we think. As James Van Allen has stated, "I am never as clear about any matter as when I have just finished writing about it."

3. Promote learning as a process of learning. Knowledge is a process of knowing rather than a storehouse of the known. Although faculty are often forced, by circumstances, to be judges of students' final products, a faculty is paid to teach processes.

4. Promote deep learning. Writing encourages burrowing, digging, unveiling, stripping, exploring, pressing beyond first impressions. In "Of Studies," Francis Bacon wrote: "Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man." Exactness inevitably requires depth.

5. Introduce students into communities of writers. Within a college's liberal arts environment, students need dozens (alas!) of opportunities to hear themselves write and speak for a literate audience. The situation is complicated by the existence within academic disciplines of separate discourse communities, each with its own tribal customs concerning language etiquette. Chemistry students practice writing like chemists; psychology students yearn to sound like Skinner or Erickson.

6. Uphold the conventions of Standard English. Despite the multiplicity of American dialects and the differences among academic disciplines, successful written communication often depends on the power, dignity, and convenience of Standard English. One responsibility of a college faculty is to ensure that graduates are familiar with the important rules of this language and know how to use them in the appropriate situations.

7. Teach the power of communication. It is seldom sufficient just knowing something. Real power comes from being able to communicate what you know to others.

8. Teach the power of persuasion. At special times in our lives we all must go beyond simply investigating and reporting: we will need to convince other people to respond, to take action, to modify their ideas or behaviors. Aristotle called it Rhetoric.

9. Ensure memory. We write because if we do not write, we forget. Examples of such memory insurance include those family notes magnetized to refrigerator doors and the stacks of any library.

10. Turn passive students into active students. There is a natural inclination for students in the classroom to be passive readers and listeners, waiting for something to be done to them. Writing assignments invite students to change the "locus of control" and see themselves as "meaning-makers." They determine what meanings exist in their texts, and consequently in their lives.

11. Introduce the sweat and joy of writing. Writing well is very hard work. But on those occasions when the language lives, there are few joys more satisfying and enduring.

12. Measure students' learning. Instructors need to test students' understanding of material presented in class or in texts. Written compositions provide a useful window for viewing the progress of that learning.

13. Increase students' participation in class. Writing assignments increase the probability of students attending class and being prepared when they arrive. Several faculty at Coe require occasional journal writing, five-minute sprints before, during, or after a class period. The assignments increase student preparation, help everyone focus on the course's important issues, and serve as an excellent launching point for class discussion.

14. Improve reading skills. As students struggle with their own writing--and learn how to read their own writing--they become better readers of other writers' texts.

15. Ensure fairness in grades. When faculty rely too intensely on "objective" exams, they often do not obtain a fair portrait of the student's knowledge or ability to work with the course material. The inclusion of one or more written papers increases the likelihood that the instructor will have an accurate perception of each student's relative success.

16. Prepare students for post-graduate occupations. The ability to write well has become an essential skill for many occupations. A recent study done at Miami University in Ohio revealed that for graduates in the sciences, approximately 40% of them spend over two hours per work day in writing documents. Of the 841 alumni in the study, 58% rated the importance of writing in their work as "great" or "critical."

17. Enlighten the faculty. Students' papers are frequently useful, entertaining, insightful, original, intriguing, and informative. In my most recent readings, I have learned about Wagner's music, Alcoholics Anonymous, contemporary Iowa art, feminism in 19th century America, unemployment policies in West Germany, and Japanese attitudes toward madness. Each year I read over 1,000 compositions by college students. What keeps me reading is the anticipation that when I open a paper, I will encounter some telling insight, a beautiful twist in the language, a special moment when, as W. B. Yeats once said, the "words . . . seem to be inevitable." It does not always happen, but thank God it happens often enough.


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Email Dr. Bob Marrs with any questions, comments or suggestions.