Writing is Social

August 28, 2009 by
Filed under: postprocess 

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.

Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form

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?


2 Comments on Writing is Social

  1. Jim Pangborn on Mon, 31st Aug 2009 7:49 pm
  2. I’m delighted to see your homage to my hero, Kenneth Burke. This is why I like to teach a Service Learning version of freshman comp: it reinforces the idea that one writes FOR others, not so much for oneself. I lay the position out in great detail, so that if the students decline to agree with me, at least they know where I stand.

    One thing that gets heads nodding is my little spiel based on Fr. Ong’s “The Writer’s Audience is Always a Fiction.” If we must use our imaginations to picture an readership to ourselves (since we can’t really know who might eventually read us) why not imagine the audience that will get us to do our best? If we write for children, for the uninformed, for the totally clueless, we fail to challenge ourselves at all. I say write for (not to, but for) people who know the basics already. Write for a mature, intelligent audience that includes the best of your peers plus people like me. I explicitly grant that our culture preaches extreme individualism; I sing a few bars of “have it your way . . .” and mock a Mountain Dew commercial or two, so it doesn’t sound as though I’m attacking them personally for their understandable egocentricity.

    Blaming popular culture seems to offend these students very little, by the way–they already know that the television lies like a rug. I point out the fact that the media depiction of the world of professional-level work is pretty much writing-free, then I contrast it with real-world testimony to the contrary and invite them to ask around. I make an essay assignment out of it, at the 4-yr school (used to here, too, but not this semester): interview someone doing professional-level work on the role writing plays in that profession.

  3. bower on Thu, 3rd Sep 2009 10:41 am
  4. Burke does allow people to envision writing socially. I also like your use of Ong, for when I read him, he depresses me a little. He reminds me that while many of us teaching writing may want to believe writing is about connectivity, interaction, and deliberation, writing may also divide people. Writing may be used to dominate and manage people: “Here! Do this. You need to because it’s in writing. The ink has dried.” Additionally, I hadn’t thought about how professions are presented as writing-free; in my opinion this is more of the “you can write or you can’t” attitude–discussion closed.

    Since you’ve been working with service learning where students write “for” a community not simple “to” an audience, you may be interested in Linda Flower’s latest work in intercultural rhetoric where she proposes that people write “with” a community. We may not have the resources for such a project, but in case you didn’t know, Meg Osborne ext. 2222 does provide assistance for service learning at Cayuga. Professors who have done it comment that it’s one of the most worthwhile courses they’ve taught.

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