Invention, Creativity, and the Teaching of Writing
Abstract and Keywords
The conclusion returns to the issue of the teaching of writing raised in chapter 2, and advocates for an expanded understanding of what it means to help students think about themselves as writers. Too often we talk about the teaching of writing as a matter of encouraging students to embrace their ability to respond to a variety of rhetorical situations in personal, civic, and professional life. Since writing is the emblematic activity of contemporary knowledge work, the composition classroom is an ideal place to address changing attitudes towards work, creativity, and invention. More broadly, as writing becomes a model for a host of professional activities like programming, we should use these classes to help students to find a balance between the individual and the corporate, between the shared and the new, and between the professional and the personal.
I hope that I have shown in this book that writing is a crucial model for our thinking about computing culture broadly, and especially for helping us understand the nature of our individual and creative activities in relationship to a larger professional and corporate context. I have shown that appeals to writing depend on two very different models: the professional work of the researcher drawing on shared materials for pragmatic purposes and the literary writer creating individually using mundane tools located within everyday life. It is this mundane quality of writing that makes it a particularly powerful model for thinking about our relationship to computers and the activities that they support. At the outset of this book I argued that the tensions within our understanding of writing were particularly relevant and visible in the way that we teach writing. In chapter 2 we saw that the way that students struggle with online resources and the patch-writing strategies that they adopt in response could both be seen as reflecting the problems of thinking about their own work in the archive. Is the work of writing a paper creative or inventive? Is their “trail” through the archive merely an experience of information already there, or have they created something new when they collect, summarize, and respond to these research materials? The common model of writing as a conversation, I argued, provides student writers with little guidance on these crucial topics.
By way of conclusion, I would like to push this observation further and argue that the teaching of writing must be in part about the investigation of our understanding of writing as a cultural act intimately connected, but not reducible, to work and profession. When writing teachers talk about “becoming a writer” it is often with an evangelical air of helping students see (p.151) themselves as capable of an activity that may intimidate them. The ubiquitous focus on writing as a process that emerged in the U.S. academy in the late 1960s emphasizes the need to see writing as an ongoing activity, and to adopt personal strategies that will help the writer be effective. Viewed in this context, the writing classroom must help the student to see him-or herself as a writer capable of responding to a wide variety of rhetorical situations, with habits that are flexible and effective both in the university and in life after school.1 Becoming a writer, in this regard, means becoming capable of using writing in a wide variety of professional, personal, and civic contexts.2 As a 2007 CCCC position statement asserts, “To restrict students’ engagement with writing to only academic contexts and forms is to risk narrowing what we as a nation can remember, understand, and create. As the world grows smaller, we will live by words as never before, and it will take many words framed in many ways to transform that closeness into the mutuality needed to pursue peace and prosperity for our generation and those to come.”3
In this book I have shown, however, that writing carries with it much broader and often contradictory implications that we must begin to address in the composition classroom. To be a writer is in part to become a knowledge worker. When we talk about writing in the classroom, we often exhort our students to think about their real-world usage: the letter to the editor, the professional memo sent out to coworkers, the report hoping to win a business contract. We rarely ask students to imagine themselves sitting in a cubicle all day, interacting with coworkers though e-mail. Nor do we usually talk with students about the blurring of the line between work and leisure that Liu describes—even though the ubiquity of writing (especially through e-mail and social media) is one of the ways in which our work and private lives mix. Normally when we talk about the ubiquity of writing it is a way to emphasize its importance, and to help students care about what might seem like a boring academic subject. Liu’s cultural critique and the way that it informs my analysis of computing culture suggest that writing can become a site where we talk about what it means to work today.
Likewise, the composition classroom rarely investigates the difference between invention and creativity, or helps students to develop a nuanced understanding of how work is owned beyond exhortations against plagiarism. Kenneth Goldsmith describes a class that he teaches at the University of Pennsylvania called “uncreative writing”: “In it, students are penalized for showing any shred of originality and creativity. Instead, they are rewarded for plagiarism, identity theft, repurposing papers, patchwriting, sampling, plundering, and stealing. Not surprisingly, they thrive. Suddenly, (p.152) what they have surreptitiously become expert at is brought out into the open and explored in a safe environment, reframed in terms of responsibility instead of recklessness.”4 Although Goldsmith’s method is designed to be intentionally provocative, the issue that he raises is central to writing in the age of computing: how can we develop a more nuanced understanding of the new amid so much material available for use? Is new even the best term for what students are expected to produce?
Finally, we should recognize that writing is not merely at skill in itself, or only a part of other professions in a broader “writing across the curriculum” initiative—as valuable as such programs can be. In addition, writing is a component of how we think about a host of professions themselves. If programmers think of themselves as writers, how can we begin to address those models when we teach first-year composition? Can we begin to frame the nature of work and creativity, as well as the tools for creating something, in terms sufficiently broad that those lessons carry over from the writing to the programming class? Can we begin to model traditional rhetorical techniques like “invention” in a way that transcends the writing situation and becomes a framework for making new things more broadly, or to conceptualize process and revision in a way that applies beyond traditional composition? Can we provide students with tools for thinking about the ownership of ideas and writing—be it a letter, a report, or a snippet of code? As writing becomes the model for a host of activities that are central to the culture of information, the writing classroom can become a place where we think about the nature of work, tools, habits, and creativity.
(1.) See the Conference on College Composition and Communication, “CCCC Position Statement on Teaching, Learning, and Assessing Writing in Digital Environments,” February 25, 2004, http://www.ncte.org/cccc/resources/positions/digitalenvironments. This statement focuses mostly on how our understanding of composition must expand to include new processes and textual features: “The focus of writing instruction is expanding: the curriculum of composition is widening to include not one but two literacies: a literacy of print and a literacy of the screen. In addition, work in one medium is used to enhance learning in the other.”
(p.173) (2.) There are, of course, many exceptions to this very broad generalization. In particular, research by Anthony Paré and others focusing on how student writers move from school to work attempts to analyze “writing in knowledge societies” broadly—to borrow the title of a recent collection. Despite valuable focus on concepts like the habitus and informal mentoring, emphasis in this research tends to focus, nonetheless, on how students adapt to particular genres or learn new techniques rather than on how they tend to conceptualize writing more generally.
(3.) The Conference on College Composition and Communication, “CCCC Statement on the Multiple Uses of Writing,” November 19, 2007, http://www.ncte.org/cccc/resources/positions/multipleuseswriting.
(4.) Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 8. (p.174)