Can you teach thoughtful writing?

by David Alm on February 14, 2011

I’ve been teaching writing for about eight years now. I’ve taught rhetoric, freshman composition, magazine writing, newspaper reporting, and cultural criticism. Here’s the thing: I’ve never taken a writing course, or at least not since high school, when I took only what was required to graduate. In college and grad school, I studied literature, art history, philosophy, cinema studies… Content courses. I figured I could teach myself how to write cogently enough for the media, and I believe that I’ve done so.

But having such a background presents a real quandary: how to convey my process to others, and whether or not that’s even useful. Each course I’ve taught has presented unique challenges. In a reporting course, you need to make sure students are learning the basics of newspaper conventions: the inverted pyramid, proper attribution, the importance of sourcing your information. In magazine writing, you can be a little more flexible, considering the great variety in magazine-style writing out there, but it’s still about the packaging of information. In cultural criticism, a field far less defined than basic journalism, classroom discussions often turn into debates on ideas, not their articulation.

And that’ s where I struggle the most. Not because I shy away from nebulous areas of inquiry or lively discussions, but because I don’t know the best way of bridging the study of ideas with how to express them. Why should this be the case? I have studied ideas in earnest, and I have devoted years of my life to relating them to large audiences via magazine articles, blog posts, and even a couple of books about Web design — a subject I learned about as I ghostwrote those books, in a process I’d be hard-pressed to recreate, let alone explain to others now, these many years later.

Is it because writing, unlike a philosophical concept or piece of literature, cannot be studied as an object of scrutiny? It does not exist outside of us. We can’t sit around and analyze how a given essay came to be; we can only analyze what exists in that essay. Or maybe we can. Or maybe all we can do is try, and that is where learning occurs — in the effort to understand a process as personal, indefinable, and unteachable as how to create any piece of writing that conveys not facts, but ideas.

I write this just two days before beginning another course on cultural criticism. If past attempts are any indication, this one will take on a life of its own, determined as much by the players involved as by my own shifting ideas in how to engage them. And that’s a thrilling position to be in. A bit nerve-racking, but thrilling nonetheless. And maybe that’s the whole point.

[Photo: My notebook]

Frank Scalise February 14, 2011 at 5:59 pm

Thoughtful writing may be unteachable, but the mechanics behind said ideas can (and should) be learned by all.

Jeff McMahon February 15, 2011 at 9:05 am

David, one of the lines on one of my business cards says Writing Advisor, but occasionally I tell people that I’m actually the Preparing-to-Write-and-Revising Advisor, because while we may not be able to teach that mysterious thing that happens when humans write, we can teach humans to prepare to write, and we can teach them to revise.

We can prepare humans to write cultural criticism by studying its practitioners, discerning its forms (which almost always include argument, analysis, exposition, description, rhetorical tropes, sometimes narrative), and considering its ethics. At Contrary we publish book reviews, which belong, at their best, to a specific branch of cultural criticism, and we make sure to equip new reviewers with Contrary’s Rules for Reviewers to orient them fairly toward their objects. Fairness is a good topic for teaching cultural criticism, I think—a way to bring thoughtfulness to writing through preparation and revision.

We can teach them revision by making sure they achieve the aims of their preparation. We can test their claims and evidence, anticipate objections, marshall sentences toward clarity, develop or expunge any rhetorical devices that sprouted in the mysterious process of writing. We could still have those debates about ideas, but have them in workshops of student writing, not for their own sake but to gauge the strength of the writing before us. We can restrict our scrutiny of the professionals to analysis, to the same aim.

What do you think?

David Alm February 17, 2011 at 6:45 pm

That makes a lot of sense, Jeff, and thanks for sharing some of your approaches to teaching people to write. I particularly like the “teaching people to prepare to write and revise” idea. I also agree that sometimes the best we can do is study the pros and try to understand the elements in play in their work.

Last night, in my class at NYU, we did just that, analyzing a film review by A.O. Scott. It proved to be a challenging review, in some ways, because he seemed to be apologizing for loving a film that shouldn’t necessarily be loved. So the review was at once equivocal and glowing, full of qualifications. Understanding how he kept so many balls in the air — exposition, description, review, and explanation for his appreciation — was like picking apart an intricate mosaic.

I think that critics like A.O. Scott are also valuable because they often eschew formulas, writing on their own terms and in their own voices. I am reluctant to prescribe formulas when I teach criticism for precisely this reason.

Jeff McMahon February 17, 2011 at 8:42 pm

Yes, and I don’t know if there are formulas for criticism. Have you encountered some? I’m a big fan of Roger Ebert’s movie reviews (and have been since before it was sexy). He treats every one as a new occasion for thought. His review of “The Longest Yard,” is a favorite, because it digresses from the movie to become a reflection on the craft of reviewing. Just the fact that such a seasoned critic can pause so late in his career to consider such a fundamental thought about what he does seems to show how amorphous criticism can be. And I love his conclusion.

In a related vein, I’m fond of Martin Amis’ review of “The Lost World,” the Michael Chrichton sequel to “Jurassic Park” (Sunday Times, Oct. 1, 1995). Amis’ whole premise is that writing should be a war against cliché and that a reviewer can proceed by evaluating a work’s originality. He has a jolly good time making fun of the cavalcade of clichés that Chrichton strings together to make this book. But then he has to conclude not only that that’s exactly what Chrichton set out to do, but it’s exactly what Chrichton’s readers want, and moviegoers want, etc.

The craft of criticism is always subject to review.

Maria February 22, 2011 at 8:28 am

Hi David. I finally sat down for a couple of minutes and decided to comment on what you wrote. It made me think a lot about our class and how, in many moments of our lives, we are in between two roles. That of a teacher and a student. I think it’s impossible to just “provide information”, especially in writing about ideas. You need to be engaged in them, whatever your view may be. And there has to be something interesting in the way you tell your “story”, that’s probably one of the most important things I learnt while in NYC and it was from Cultural Criticism. Good luck this term. I hope we all keep learning.

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