Disrupting the learning of writing

Posted by @ 5:43 pm on February 7th, 2012

I am going to write some numbered paragraphs and then I am going to ask for your input. The numbers are there to create the illusion of motion and clarity of purpose. I am thinking out loud.

1. I was homeschooled. There are many ways to do this. I lived in Indiana, where you don’t even have to register your children with the state as being homeschooled (so that the school system first discovered I existed when I signed up for the draft). Some parents hire tutors for their children. Other parents send them to school for some courses (usually the technical ones they aren’t qualified to teach, and those with lab components) and keep them home for others. Some of them use this opportunity to control all cultural consumption by the child so that the child will have no choice to be religious and clean-mouthed and good, as well as probably emotionally crippled and totally incapable of making friends or otherwise enjoying life.

2. For my part, I was allowed to study pretty much whatever I wanted in pretty much whatever way I wanted, meaning that my math is poor but I did spend quite a lot of time reading and writing. I am used to teaching myself by following the examples of the things and people I respect and admire. (As to the questions of my emotional health and facility with personal interactions, well, I’ll let you be the judge.)

3. Recently, I have been really excited about using online tools to better educate myself. There is Udacity, where I will teach myself programming, there is Khan Academy, where I am teaching myself math from square one. The typical strategy for online education in technical subjects is 1) let the students watch brief, friendly YouTubes and 2) quiz the students on what they’ve learned from the YouTubes.

4. I am wondering, often, if there are any lessons here for teaching and learning writing.

5.¬†The genius of the Khan Academy in particular is its ability to help me assess myself: after every video explaining how to solve linear equations or etc., it provides me with an apparently infinite pool of problems to practice my new skill. If I solve several problems in a row, it concludes that I understand the material and encourages me to proceed to the next video. If I struggle, it keeps me working on the problems until either A) I straighten up and fly right, or B) finally it concludes that I’m a dunce and suggests, politely, gently, that I watch the video again.

6. Technical subjects lend themselves to unambiguous assessments. Writing does not. While we could probably agree on some core common measures of excellence in certain genres, the mark of a truly skilled writer is the ability to change the rules to match his or her goals — to use style, form, and content to persuade the reader to accept a new approach. We will never automate the assessment of writing.

7. Without assessments, certification is impossible. (And insofar as we care about helping our theoretical students, certification is important.) But learning is also more difficult: we need ways to measure our learning and growth, so that we can better know what to do next, and where to focus our energy.

8. If technical instruction can be automated and language instruction cannot, it is easy to imagine how this might lead to a situation wherein technical disciplines and employment are available to a wide variety of classes, while linguistic disciplines and employment are primarily available to the upper class. We might argue that this is already happening.

9. And yet writers and readers benefit when participation is both broad and deep.

10. The MFA is designed to serve two purposes: to improve students as writers (or, in lesser programs, to improve them as a particular kind of writer) and to certify students as potential college instructors, thus potentially allowing them to make a living.

11. Sometimes the latter works out. Most of the time it doesn’t. The number of new MFAs per year produced by one MFA holder with a full-time job is instructive.

12. You don’t have to teach for your MFA to have professional benefits. My MFA has benefitted me, my wife’s has benefitted her; writing, and experience in teaching writing, are legitimate skills with real uses.

13. If you can find a school that will you to get your MFA, then it doesn’t really matter. But most people won’t find full funding, and those who do so have that opportunity in part because others do not. Those with funding are subsidized by those without.

14. (Giving money to those who are ostensibly more likely to succeed as teachers and writers from the pockets of those ostensibly less likely to succeed as teachers and writers is perverse.)

15. Not everyone at an MFA wants to be a teacher. In fact, not everyone at an MFA really wants to be a writer in the sense of publishing words that other people read, enjoy, and purchase. As far as I can tell, most of them don’t — not really. What they want to do is spend a little time in school, reading, writing, and thinking about books. This is fine. But there’s no particular reason it needs to happen at an MFA.

16. As a practiced autodidact, I did most of my learning about writing on my own, by reading. If I didn’t get full funding at an MFA, I would have continued to do this very happily. Getting the MFA sped this process because it gave me time and incentives to do nothing else. But I do suspect speed is the main benefit of the MFA, on average — not because writing cannot be taught, but because the teaching of writing, especially creative writing, is so poorly understood that very few programs deliver any kind of consistently useful instruction.

17. For instance — at the risk of saying something rude about one of this page’s sponsors — I was exposed to an exceedingly wide range of quality in the instruction in my program. Some teachers helped me tremendously. Others were actively counterproductive. If the teaching of writing were better understood, then even a relatively poor teacher would probably be, on average, a little helpful. This is decidedly not the current state of affairs.

18. So what I am slowly getting around to saying, here, is that there should be a systematic means of studying writing outside the university.

19. And not only or even primarily for MFAs, but for people who would benefit from training in language generally. There are many people with no idea how to prepare a resume or a cover letter. Many of these people will spend their entire lives consigned to the economic underclass, doing unappealing labor for insulting pay. It is widely appreciated that these people would have more and better opportunities with technical education. It is not widely appreciated that linguistic education is likewise important.

20. You might ask why I am trying to serve these two populations — those who might otherwise get MFAs in creative writing, and those who need to know how to write a cover letter — at the same time. This question is precisely what I mean when I say that the teaching of writing is poorly understood. If we look at writing as a means of achieving an effect in a reader — one where different genres and styles are appropriate to different contexts, audiences, and ends — then we will see that the would-be author, the dabbler, and the person who simply wants a job are all studying the same thing.

21. Our desire to treat them as different cases is about class as much as anything. It is about the illusion that creativity is a special thing given to special people.

22. We might look to the Khan Academy as one model of how to teach writers, but as I have said, assessment is difficult. Say you watch a YouTube video I made about how to write a short story or a cover letter. Say you write the short story or the cover letter. How do you know you did it right?

23. You don’t know, and I can’t tell you. I could tell you what I personally think of the short story or the cover letter, but I haven’t got the time, because

24. The time of readers is rarer and more valuable than the time of writers. We can see this in the number of people willing to pay submission fees, or tuition for writing programs.

25. (The time of skillful writers is more valuable than the time of readers. This is why we pay for books we love. But early writers are not skillful writers.)

26. Most literary writers have historically been skilled autodidacts. They had to be, because there weren’t writing programs. To the extent that non-literary writing was taught and is taught today, it was and is a means of enculturation and exclusion — people are not actually taught to write, they are taught to practice forms that mark them as part of a class. More advanced forms are taught in college, partly because it is easier to teach them there and partly in order to mark students as part of a class. But these are still only particular forms. They are not actually writing, mostly.

27. The genius of the MFA is that it forces other writers to become your readers even if you are not a skilled writer. This helps you to find out where you are strong and where you need to improve. You learn more, probably, from reading other people. Assessing them helps you learn to assess yourself.

28. Hypothesis: We can best teach writing by creating an environment conducive to writing and practicing assessment (self-assessment, other-assessment).

29. What we need is a way to 1) help writers of all kinds create time and space for writing in their lives, 2) coordinate sharing and readers among writers, and 3) incentivize skillful assessment (self-assessment, other-assessment).

30. A website could do this. Right? I think it could.

How do you think we can help more people learn to write and read? How can we make it more affordable? More accessible? How do we disrupt current models of education in writing? How do we build an alternative to the university model?

What do students of writing need, and how can we get it to as many of them as possible?