Writing is Social
Language is social, no matter how it is used. Writers may have trouble remembering this while alone at the keyboard. But sometimes, we need reminding because knowing it can help us write and help our writing. One of the more quoted passages in composition describes language as a social gathering in a parlor:
Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.
Language provides an ongoing conversation–unending even though it comes to an end for us individually. The point here is that writing, even without the speakers or listeners and their agendas before us, is shaped through social circumstances.
- We step into conversations (written or oral), and need to get our bearings.
- We “read” other people and their talk.
- When we sense where the talk is going and people’s purposes, we participate.
- We may argue points rigorously. We may choose to be silent sometimes. Both are expressions.
- We participate for as long as needed or desired.
- We stop contributing with the understanding that people may act differently because of us.
- And the words go on…
Recent textbooks such as They Say, I Say propose learning to write requires practicing one’s moves, much like a dancer, musician, or ballplayer. Templates are often taught as crutches in learning to write. Mechanics such as grammar and punctuation may be studied. These are part of the listening in Burke’s parlor. Learning conventions isn’t learning to write because it doesn’t directly practices one’s expressions, and writing follows the adage of learning best by doing. Examples are important but only useful if they help us engage with our goals and environment. Moving from dependent to independent student writers requires several mind frames, but the first is appreciating that writing is social, public, and involves persuasion.
Whether they admit that writing is social or not, writers know audiences project a powerful affect, and this can have negative consequences. For example, many students view their writing and expressions as personal–for their eyes only and not to be shared. This protectionism may be addressed by creating safety in the classroom for student expression by respecting them even where counterarguments can easily be pointed out. This can be difficult because healthy skepticism founds academics. Many working class and middle class students come to college having learned deference to authority. Successful students might have learned to follow directions or execute orders in accordance with teachers or bosses. This is not a bad lesson; however, writing only for teachers may discourage risk-taking and narrow their concept of audience while encouraging codependent writing decisions.
Grades are powerful socializers too, but these can also narrow how student writers learn to reach their audiences. So considering all this, I’ll end this post by asking for your input. How would you have students write for larger audiences? With what communities could students engage in order to enter them into a suitiable Burkean parlor?