Intersections and Disjunctures: Scholars, Teachers, and Writers

Discussing scholars as writers, Michael C. Munger explains, “We train people in methods, and theory, but we don’t tell them that writing is something you have to practice.”

And that practice, Munger argues, must be “like you exercise: at least a little bit, most days….Furthermore, writing makes you a more focused and attentive reader of other works. When you are writing, you read to interrogate that author about a particular point.”

This interview about the intersection of scholars (academics, professors) and writing wades into a fascinating and troubling phenomenon that I expose first-year writing students to in their seminar midterm. I ask them to choose a professor on campus in a discipline they are considering for their major, and then to interview that professor about writing as a necessary aspect of being a scholar.

My students discover, and are surprised to discover, that most of the professors openly share that they dislike writing, struggle with writing, and/or simply tolerate having to write in order to have their research published.

A parallel reality exists in K-12 education. During my current graduate course in literacy, I asked how many of the eleven students had ever been participants in a writing workshop; none of them raised a hand.

Taken together, we are faced with a important hurdle in the teaching writing: at all levels of formal education, writing is taught by scholars/academics and teachers who themselves are not writers, who have had no or very little direct instruction in being writers (as noted by Munger above).

Some of the questions we must investigate, then, include the following:

  • Must anyone who teaches writing be a writer?
  • What are the most effective ways to foster the teaching of writing among those who are not writers, who struggle as writers, and who see writing as a necessary evil?
  • How can and should we support those who write by necessity but never feel compelled as writers (a reality that comprises most students and many scholars and teachers)?

Having been a writer and a teacher for about the same amount of time—37 years writing and 33 years teaching—and since my primary focus as a teacher has been the teaching of writing, I often wrestle with the questions above, but during the last decade while I have been teaching first-year writing at the university level and also providing faculty development for professors teaching writing, I have come to understand better that there are more disjunctures than intersections among scholars, teachers, and writers.

As a high school English teacher for 18 years, I had to fight for time to write; my life as a writer, in fact, intruded on my work as a teacher in direct and indirect ways (about the latter, I suffered subtle and not-so-subtle antagonism from some colleagues for publishing). When I moved to higher education, writing became something valued as part of my work, my schedule allowed ample time for me to do as Munger suggests and write daily, and the expectations for being a professor (teaching, scholarship, and service) included explicitly scholarly publication.

However, lest you believe higher ed to be some sort of writer’s Shangri-la, being a productive writer and writing for the public have also created tensions for me in academia, where a very narrow expectation for being a writer persists (being prolific viewed with skepticism, hints that one cannot write that much without sacrificing something such as teaching; public writing viewed as frivolous use of a scholar’s time and too political).

As noted above, though, what links my K-12 and higher ed experiences is that most teachers/professors charged with teaching writing are not themselves writers—although most professors are more likely than K-12 teachers to write by necessity.

Here is a lesson I now see more clearly: We have failed, mostly, to confront directly that writing is typically taught by those who aren’t writers, but we have implicitly addressed that disjuncture by attempting to make the teaching of writing teacher-proof.

To teacher-proof writing instruction, we have chosen, as Johns examines, genre acquisition over genre awareness [1].

Briefly, that means in-school writing instruction tends to assign writing in template form (five-paragraph essay and its cousins) and to reduce all writing to that artificial form (in terms of what “essay” means to students as both writers and readers).

In effect, teacher-proofing writing instruction removes most of the instructional decisions from teachers and almost all of the writing decisions from the students-as-writers. As well, both writing instructors and students-as-writers are primarily complying with directives that are artificial (or as Johns notes, “‘staged'”).

To foster the most effective writing teachers—and thus to foster students-as-writers—a few key approaches are warranted:

  • Couch calls for writing instructors to be writers in the acknowledgement that most are not, and may not feel compelled to be writers.
  • Be aware of and avoid shaming writing instructors who are not writers or who see writing as merely functional to other pursuits.
  • Provide all writing instructors with authentic experiences in direct writing instruction themselves; teachers of writing need to have had experiences as writers and students in the instructional practices they should use with their students.
  • Reject the traditional efforts to teacher-proof writing instruction and begin to build for teachers and students a broad range of experiences with genre awareness grounded in the disciplines and so-called real-world writing.
  • Revitalize reading and text experiences in formal schooling from K-12 to college so that students experience powerful models for the ways in which writing occurs, both within and against a manageable toolbox of conventions linked to the disciplines and published writing.
  • Include for all teachers/professors, K-12 and college, expectations for writing, professional rewards for writing, and then the sort of time and administrative support needed to fulfill writing obligations without impinging on primary obligations to teach.

The irony, I believe, is that the road to effective and empowered writing teachers is as nuanced and complex as the sorts of lessons we need to teach about writing, a many-headed beast that is often hard to wrangle, much less understand.

We can and must admit that more disjunctures than intersections exist among scholars, teachers, and writers. Bridging those gaps is a daunting challenge, but traditional teacher-proof approaches fail both teachers and their students.

Both writing instruction and how writing is viewed by teachers/professors and students require that we step away from many reductive and ineffective assumptions so that we can start again for the first time more honestly and newly committed to teaching and writing as valuable but complex endeavors.


The Age of the Essay, Paul Graham

[1] From Johns:

GENRE ACQUISITION, a goal that focuses upon the students’ ability to reproduce a text type, often from a template, that is organized, or ‘staged’ in a predictable way….

GENRE AWARENESS…is realized in a course designed to assist students in developing the rhetorical flexibility necessary for adapting their socio-cognitive genre knowledge to ever-evolving contexts.

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