Claudia Hemphill Pine wrote:
> Hi all,
A writing course syllabus is no problem
U.S. education is in some ways grounded in the assumptions (seldom
stated) that (a) writing is a fundamental human skill, (b) that writing
is a measure of intelligence (this held even by people who have read and
accepted Gould's critique of IQ), and therefore (3) it is legitimate and
useful to make competence in writing a pre-requisite for for admission
to and graduation from higher education.
I taught writing for 40 years, and have continued to think about it for
another ten years, and I doubt all these assumptions.
There has been endless research on "how to teach writing," but so far as
I know there has been _no_ research testing th assumption that writing
is or should be a general human skill RATHER THAN, like (say) singing, a
skill which no one would expect to be universal.
I'm not prepared to develop this, but I am attaching here a partial
record of a discussion that occurred on ehe e-list of the ISU Department
of English a decade ago, a discussion I initiated at the time. It gives
_some_ slight idea of the issues that may be involved in making skill in
writing a requirement for education.
The following argument reflects my personal experience as I find it
confirmed in Patricia A. Dunn, _Learning Re-Abled: The Learning
Disability Controversy and Composition Studies_ (Portsmouth, NH, 1995),
a work which summarizes a good deal of research and which gives bite to
my personal experience.
[The next 3 paragraphs are copied slightly edited from a post I wrote on
the ISU English Dept. list back in February 1998. I quote more from that
whole thread further on in this post.]
The personal experience began with an odd student I had back in the
early '60s for three courses, two of composition and the third an intro
to lit. He was a delight to have in the classroom, willing to speak, and
always speaking intelligently. In the comp courses I gave him a C for
this reason and out of general charity, but in those two courses I don't
believe he ever submitted a paper with a single complete sentence.
Then in the lit class, one day he was in my office discussing the novel
we were reading, _Rabbit Run_. At that time I possessed a fairly sharp
ability to memorize an oral statement of several sentences and project
it on a screen in my mind, and I did so with what he said to me at one
What I saw on that screen was as well "written" a passage as any I ever
received from an ISU student. The syntax was complex, flexible, and
correct; the observation on Updike's novel intelligent and striking.
Examining his papers from that perspective, it was quite clear that all
those sentence fragments were just that, broken pieces of sentences that
in themselves were quite unexceptionable. He had no trouble with
grammar, with sentence rhythms, with the articulation of his ideas.
There was simply some horrid glitch between brain and fingers, but not
between brain and vocal cords.
Here was this illiterate who (1) had read a reasonably complex novel
with no difficulty and (2) had intelligent things to say about it in
complex and well structured language, but he COULD NOT WRITE. I doubt
that he could _ever_ have learned to write by any means of instruction
now available. But what his illiteracy tells us is that our defintion of
literacy is terribly screwed up. (Since he could read quite well, he
doesn't fit the more well-known pattern of dyslexia, inability to read.)
I would tentatively suggest that _writing_ ability (as opposed to
ability to speak and listen) is rather like perfect pitch or the ability
to wiggle one's ears, sort of freakish.
"Writing Ability": I'm not referring just to syntax or even style. I
include all the "higher" forms of thought: organization, coherence,
relevance, overall decorum, ability to recognize a paragraph, substance
even. My student who could speak so well about _Rabbit_ could not have
written anything intelligent about it. Many people, I suspect a rather
large majority of the human species, simply cannot think on paper. BUT
THAT DOES NOT MEAN THAT THEY CANNOT THINK, OR CANNOT THINK ABOUT COMPLEX
SUBJECTS. Moreover, just because most Americans are not, at present,
applying that capacity to the topics _we_ think they should does not
mean that they are not, even now, exercising that capacity on other
And incidentally -- it is as difficult for someone who can write to
write badly as it is for a bad writer to write well. In other words, it
is seriously in error to account for "bad grammar" etc. in terms of
laziness. I've known only one person in my life who could, in speech or
writing, shift back and forth between "literate" and "illiterate" speech
easily. [Reasonably competent writers can produce really bad prose, of
course, when they strain to he humorous under the widespread impression
that without something called a "sense of humor" one is not fully
My post on this "illiterate student" generated a lengthy thread. I had
not met (or heard of) Patricia Dunn, a newer member of the department,
but she responded with the following post:
Date: Thu, 12 Feb 1998 16:27:34 -0600 To:
[log in to unmask] From: "Patrica A. Dunn" Subject: Re:
Carrol, I wish more teachers/professors recognized the phenomenon you
For too long, good WRITING, interpreted narrowly, has been correlated
with intelligence. What's worse, people with the kind of glitch you
described--they can speak in syntactically complex sentences but can't
get them on a page or screen--have been told, explicitly or implicitly,
that they are NOT intelligent.
Those of us who are good "writers" (and I would venture to guess most of
us on this listserv are decent writers or we wouldn't be doing what
we're doing) can only imagine what society's assumed and often false
association between writing and intelligence does to people with the
kind of horrid glitch you describe.
Susan Vogel and others have done research that confirms what you say
about some students having highly complex and sophisticated sentence
patterns that for some reason they can't get down in writing. At the
risk of sounding like a show-off, I must here put in a plug for my book
(LEARNING REABLED: THE LEARNING DISABILITY CONTROVERSY AND COMPOSITION
STUDIES - Boynton/Cook Heinemann), in which I summarize and analyze this
and other related research.
Also, now that voice activated computer systems are getting much more
sophisticated,(i.e. Dragon Naturally Speaking), perhaps the academic
playing field, with its over-emphasis on the written word, will begin to
become more equitable for people who must deal with this frustrating
glitch. -Patty Dunn
[This may be too optimistic in regard to voice activated composition; I
don't know - cbc]
- - - - -
Then the following post appeared, after a post of mine quoted in the
response. Writer's name suppressed, but he is a good teacher and an
intelligent scholar. Yet he _completely_ misunderstood the points that
Patricia and I had made.
Date: Fri, 20 Feb 1998 10:42:36 -0600 From: R Subject: Re: "mistakes" //
Speech vs. Writing, an issue ignored.
As a teacher and practitioner of even so allegedly nonhumanistic a thing
as technical communication, I do not spend time on first and second
drafts of student papers, reports, etc. identifying the minutiae of
grammar and usage. "But," one might ask, "aren't these things important
in business and industry, from whence most of our students either come
or to which most of them plan to go? Sure they are. They are like the
nails and fasteners that fill your house. But whatever "compositionm
teachers for the past 100 years" are alleged to have done, any technical
writer will tell you that no one builds papers and reports out of
grammar and usage any more than a contractor builds houses solely out of
nails and fasteners.
"Do you mean no grammar and usage at all?" one might ask? Of course not.
I often recall the novelist Thackeray: "The priniciples of grammar are
like trousers: no one talks about either of them, but good society is
dismayed if one appears without either." I agree with the folks who
descanted on the problem of killing humanistic studies by focusing on
grammar and usage, but who's doing it? Even so base a subject as
technical communication has long been rid of the notion that you can
build your intellectual house with nails and fasteners. Let's not debate
the evils of times past. R-
Carrol wrote: ****I am surprised that no one chose to respond earlier to
Patricia Dunn's post on writing, speaking, and intelligence, or to
recall her post in connection with the present thread on "mistakes."
After all, if the research she refers to in her post is even partially
correct, it calls into question the very existence of humanities
studies, which presuppose that "humanist" values and the comprehension
of them can be measured by the student's competence in writing.****
My point was that when we talk about usage, we aren't speaking of
competence or correctness but of social assumptions about the ways that
people use language. Of course, these assumptions are not either right
or fair (most things in society are not right and fair). We can't,
however, do anything about changing the assumptions unless we know they
exist and unless we know the kinds of damage these assumptions can do
both consciously and unconsciously to both to the person holding them
and the person judged by them.
****The case I described in my original post is perhaps the extreme, but
if Patricia is correct, then one would expect less dramatic but
important instances to be widespread, in which case "composition
teachers" for over 100 years have been engaged in an unintentional but
still systematic assault on the intellectual well-being of their
students and on the intellectual needs of the society as a whole.****
This assault explains why we don't copyedit students' first, or even
second drafts, and why we work with them on argument, rhetoric, and
style before we begin to engage a final draft on issues of copyediting.
We don't assault them with red pens any more.
****It would in fact seem to follow that the appearance of media that
deemphasize writing constitutes a potential "unleashing" as it were of
intellectual capacities suppressed by 20th-c educational practice.****
You're confusing writing and brutal copyediting. Writing is that very
pleasurable stuff we are doing right now. I wouldn't feel the least bit
"unleashed" if I couldn't race my fingers over a keyboard several hours
of the day. And oh the joy (as Norton Crowell used to say) of seeing
one's name in print--nothing brutal about writing then, just pure
***Moreover, it would be arguable that teachers of writing and those who
place writing at the center of their teaching of other subjexts are
engaged in a practice analogous to Bruno Bettelheim's blaming autism on
lack of maternal love.***
Only if you can't tell writing from proofreading.
***Do classes in theory of composition consider the research Patricia
All the time. R-
Few things are impossible to diligence and skill. --Samuel Johnson
[Note -- Neither Johnson nor R above seems really curious as to the
sources of either diligence or skill. And a questioning of those
sources, I think, is a fundamental lack in many or most discussions of
Date: Fri, 20 Feb 1998 11:42:57 -0600 From: Patrica A. Dunn Subject: Re:
"mistakes" // Speech vs. Writing, an issue ignored.
R wrote: "Do classes in theory of composition consider the research
Patricia points to?" and answered "All the time."
I agree that the field of Composition Studies regularly considers and
discusses instructor response to student writing and generally rejects
the copyediting "correcting" approaches of the past.
However, I must disagree that Composition, as a field, regulary
considers the kind of research I was describing. Much research in
educational psychology, reading, speech acquisition, learning
disabilities, and neuroscience has been done on students--many of them
with average or above average IQs--who have language learning
difficulties those of us on this listserv would have trouble imagining.
(Carrol is right that most of us ENJOY writing.)
Some of this research has been rightly critiqued by Gerald Coles, Barry
Franklin, and others as being methodologically unsound. However, the
best work in these areas may have important implications for Composition
theory and pedagogy: recent studies in brain plasicity, in dictation and
writing, and in syntactical patterns in the writing of learning disabled
and non-LD students.
Very occasionally there will be an essay summarily dismissing this kind
of research (Paul Hunter, College English, 1990 Vol 52), but mostly it
is completely ignored. A small group (8 - 10?) of people show up at the
rare CCCC panel that addresses this work, but most of us have learned to
look elsewhere for the kinds of studies we're looking for.
Why does all this matter? In an earlier post, Carrol raised the
possibility that "'composition teachers' for over 100 years have been
engaged in an "unintentional but still systematic assault on the
intellectual well-being of their students and on the intellectual needs
of the society as a whole."
I think he may be right. The assumed link between "good writing" and
intelligence is so strong--not just in the academy but in American
society--that no one needs to even mention it. Smart people who write
poorly have also internalized this unproven link and may dismiss their
own ability to contribute intellectually to the world. (There are a lot
of bright people/poor writers in jail, for example.) The assumptions we
make about people's intelligence based on their ease with writing is
unspoken but palpable. Assumptions dictate expectations. We can only
guess the harm this is doing. - P Dunn
Date: Fri, 20 Feb 1998 13:00 From: Carrol Cox Subject: Re: "mistakes" //
Speech vs. Writing, an issue ignored.
M wrote: *** If the definition of "good" writing implies getting into
print, informing or influencing readers, or getting paid for one's work,
you can disprove the IQ/writing equation by walking to the Alamo and
skimming the magazine rack.***
Yes. But I believe the _serious_ issue revolves not around whether "good
writing" is an index of intelligence (as Gould and others have
demonstrated, "general intelligence" does not exist, but that is another
issue), but over whether _inability_ to write is an index to _lack_ of
intelligence. My suggestion is that it is _not_ such an index, and that
by grounding the whole educational structure in writing (_not_ just the
teaching of composition) the intellectual resources of the whole social
order are being damaged and/or not tapped.
And I am _not_ talking about mistakes. I imagine there have always been
writing teachers who ignored mistakes (copyediting), but have there been
writing instructors who ignored organization, coherence, minimal clarity
of statement, logic, responsiveness to assignment, awareness of
audience, tone, etc. etc. etc. The argument is that there at least _may_
be not just a few but _many_ people capable of serious intellectual work
who could not meet _these_ criteria.
I could never think on a typewriter but used 5x8 cards or legal pads. I
can think on a computer. Some of those reading this probably still
prefer a legal pad or even a typewriter for composing. (X. J. Kennedy
did all his writing [prose and verse] directly on a portable typewriter,
or at least that was his practice when he had the cubicle next to mine
at Michigan in 1958-59.) We provide "signers" for our deaf students and
braille or cassettes for our blind students. Perhaps we should provide
stenographers for this as yet unnamed class of students. For some of
them we might even need to provide a responsive audience of two or three
_and_ a stenographer.
But to go back to R's point above, of _course_ good writing is measured
by getting into print, or by receiving some other response translatable
into cash. There is no other measure of merit available in a capitalist
mode of production. Professors who can't accept this should also
repudiate the merit system, for it is based ultimately on the ability to
write. (No dissertation: no appointment.) And to go back to the "trout
in the milk can" with which I started this thread, that student was the
best _judge_ of writing in the class but the _worst_ writer. It was only
by accident that I discovered this conjunction. -Carrol
[There was more to the thread but I lost some of the discussion in a
disk failure some years ago.]