Make the words work

Students’ pleasure in writing is often knocked out of them by formal schooling. Blogging may become their only outlet of expression and, with a little encouragement, it is possible to reignite their love for the written word, suggests Tara Brabazon

July 24, 2008

The past few weeks of the summer term were filled with the university equivalent of washing up that last difficult dish from dinner – the one with the oven-charred cheese that has to be chipped off as much as dissolved. We let it soak for a while, but at some point a few fingernails have to be broken to scratch off the residue. So we signed off mark sheets, calmed students too frightened to open their result letters, conducted that urgent PhD viva before the summer holidays and gathered new materials for the coming semester.

Through this academic dish washing, I tried to find a moment to reflect on the year that was – or the assessment that was – and how it could be improved. Those of us who teach occasionally receive an imaginative flash to modernise our curriculum. Sometimes it can survive validation committees looking for learning outcomes rather than learning, and benchmarks rather than excellence. But unfortunately so many of our ideas never fulfil their promise in execution. Very rarely in my teaching career have I devised “the special one”, a remarkable assignment that changed me as much as my students.

While there is much talk about retention rates and widening participation, there is little discussion of a more basic realisation: a motivated student will commit to scholarship through both the rewarding and frustrating experiences. If students feel safe to fail, try again, succeed and still know that teaching staff will support them through the process, then more students would stay at our universities.

Our audit culture reduces the intricate relationships between staff and students – curriculum and students – into an overstuffed phrase, “the student experience”. Because of a desire for “measurable outcomes”, rarely do we focus on motivation and the complexity of aligning our hopes for education with our students’ expectations.

My guiding principle in constructing curriculum is to start where the students are, rather than where I want them to be. The difficulty is always that first step – determining where they are. Talk of “the Google Generation” and University 2.0 is built on a series of assumptions about students’ technological competency and research skills. But the rationale and history of their writing experiences – rather than their surfing and social networking – receive far fewer tabloid headlines and research grants. It is easier to measure il/literacy through standardised tests than to situate student reading and writing in the social and emotional patterns of their earlier lives.

During the years of formal education before entry into a university, the motivation and pleasure of writing is weathered through examinations, tests and generic coursework. Because of this history, announcing an essay as a university assessment is immediately followed by student groans rather than enthusiasm. I wanted to find a way in my first-year course, “Thinking Pop”, to return passion and enthusiasm for writing to my students. It is tough work. We know many of the scholars in our care rush the completion of assignments, write them the day before they are due, run a rapid spellcheck through the document and then stampede into the departmental office to submit their efforts. It almost seems that students disconnect writing from living. My task was to motivate them to realise that their words are important, not only to gain a mark or grade for an assignment, but also because they are continuing a distinguished legacy of commentary, critique and criticism.

The task was to reconnect my students with a history of writing beyond formal education. In my first attempt this year, I used the powerful and expansive writer on writing, George Orwell.

Why I write

Due Date: 8am Friday, March 14 2008

Weighting: 40%

Length: 2,000 words

You are being asked to offer your contemporary version of George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay “Why I write”. Please observe the following instructions.

1. Read Orwell’s “Why I write”, along with the other supplied materials about reading, writing and publishing.

2. Write your own version of “Why I write”. Ensure that module materials are referenced in your piece.

Evaluative criteria

* Capacity to read Orwell’s “Why I write” and use it as a model.

* Exhibition of reading from the module, demonstrating correct referencing.

* Calibre of writing and drafting, with attention to paragraphing and the development of ideas.

* Level of innovation and credibility.

In his essay, Orwell explores his childhood connection with books and complicated bond with the written word. Even more importantly for our current generation of students enmeshed in celebrity culture, he probes the vanity of writing and fame. His piece starts with a powerful prediction: “From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer.” For first-year students completing my assignment, such a statement asks that they return to their childhood to think through their memory of words and assumptions about their future.

Orwell’s essay was an ideal choice. Obviously, the students recognised his name through school-based readings of Animal Farm and 1984. But to meet the man – a writer – disclosing the process of writing was a different experience. Also, his words were not being quoted in an essay “on” Orwell. Instead, they were using Orwell as a model – a thinking space – to probe their relationship with writing. He makes such a reflection easier to understand by arching from his own time to ours by confirming that a writer’s subject “will be determined by the age he lives in – at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own”. From the threats of the Second World War through to the shadows of the second Iraq War, there are powerful connections to be made between past and present – famous writer and current university student – scaffolded through a discussion of writing.

The resultant assignments were beyond surprising. As a marker, it was the darkness of the papers that was upsetting and troubling, as students presented their childhood exposure to words. Opening the first few scripts, I assumed that I had stumbled on the emotionally traumatised minority. But the desolate and painful papers kept tumbling from my pile. For a third of the students, they remembered their father reading to them as children, but turned to writing a diary when divorce severed this father from them. Others discussed eating disorders, self-harm and suicidal thoughts, detailing how writing had allowed them to express emotion early in their lives, emotions that had no place or function in a shredding family unit.

The tragedy was that almost all students explained how this personal outlet was destroyed by formal schooling. Essays, tests and exams turned them away from a love of writing. This feeling space created through words was only returned when students started to keep blogs and send Facebook posts to their friends. It was not – they justified/apologised to me – “great writing” like Orwell’s, but they were able to reconnect words and emotion.

It was a stunning success as an assignment, beyond what I could have imagined. Students became motivated by the question of why they write and realised – through Orwell – that it can be a profession along with the emotional release they required. Their future was not about blogs and posts on Facebook walls. They could move to other platforms, genres and expressive opportunities. The rest of the semester built on this renewed commitment to words. It was as if a group of 60 students suddenly awakened, connecting reading and writing, the thoughts of others and their own thinking.

By the end of the academic year, it became even more important to remember the gift these students gave me through explaining why they write. It became personal. In the last week of June, one of my former PhD students, having constructed a balanced and careful article of the world food crisis for an online political forum, was called a “skanky third-rate writer” by a blogger named Colonel Rouge.

Certainly all writers face critique. Orwell’s battles with his enemies scaled the heights of Stalinism, totalitarianism, poverty and redistribution of wealth. But Orwell’s children, inspired by his political courage and analytical clarity, live in a time that requires more reading and less chat, more thought and less comment, more considered reflection and less sexist, racist, xenophobic or homophobic flaming.

The problem is not in the blog as a platform. The difficulty is sourced from the pseudo-democratic assumption that “everyone” – or, more accurately, the online population with time on their hands – has both the right and expertise to comment. The consequence of this “decision” is that when the commentator lacks the detailed knowledge to discuss content and ideas in an article, they revert to attacks on a person they often do not know. I have never understood why, if a reader was so agitated by an online article, that they did not simply click away from the site. Why fill the web with skank? Click the mouse and read something else.

Blogging culture naturalises and justifies prejudice, ridicule and personal attacks through such words and phrases as “freedom of speech” and “democracy”. While defended as being “the wisdom of the crowd”, many of these commentators express the discrimination of a very few. These flamers are not a crowd and are not wise.

There were two complaints made about the comment to my former doctoral student – one from me and another from one of her colleagues – and it was removed. It is significant that by the policy of this website, if no complaint is made then the offensive statement remains. “The crowd” decides if a woman should or should not be described as skanky. But does anyone have the right to describe someone in this way? Such a label does not further either democracy or freedom of speech.

Certainly, there are some wise and insightful men and women who sharpen and improve the scope and scale of original ideas through blogs. My first-year students use them to convey emotion when formal education closed off expressive opportunities.

The genre or platform is not a problem, but the confusion over the right to comment about a topic and the right to personally attack a writer will always hamper the readability of the form. So often these days, I simply click away from a site in disgust, having enjoyed an article on information literacy, sport or education only to find the comments under the piece lathered in personal abuse. This is not a war over ideas. This is not a scholarly debate. This is playground bullying, using blogs rather than fists.

It is easy for those of us established in our writing careers to ignore bloggers. There are so many remarkable books and articles to read that there is no need to waste a minute on blogger bluster. But when one of my brilliant former students was hammered through misogynist labelling rather than a rational expression of views, it is important to return again to the question of “Why I write” or, more precisely, why we teach others to write.

It is difficult to write effectively, efficiently and expressively. Technical aspects may be mastered, but it is a constant challenge to match clean prose and direct language with an incisive connection to our time. Or – to use Orwell again as a model – we remember that “good prose is like a window pane”. What we see through the glass depends on the respect we hold for those who craft words into a shape and style. From the inspiration of my soon-to-be second-year students, the future will be filled with those who write with purpose, feeling and compassion. Let us hope that there are very few Colonel Rouges waiting to smash their window.

Tara Brabazon is professor of media studies, University of Brighton.

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