"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

The Subject is Discourse

March 13th, 2017 by

I don’t know if anyone still talks about discourse theory in composition. But that is what I want to talk about. Discourse theory.

I have been teaching a new writing class. I have been feeling okay about this class except for one aspect of it. The course is a writing about writing course, one in which students do just that, write about writing, discovering writing as a subject, instead of using writing to explore other topics and only learning about writing as a tangent.

I like this focus. I think it gets my students to focus on writing, to, as Michael Carter puts it, “make writing the subject of the writing course.”

However, one question does arise. I have taught so many writing classes where we also read a great deal. This has been especially true of creative writing classes. A large part of the learning happens with reading in the genres we are studying. In teaching fiction, my students read short stories. With creative nonfiction, we read essays. My question in this new writing about writing course has come up because I am uncertain. Are we reading enough in this course? Does reading matter? I do think that reading matters a great deal in a writing course.

But what should we be reading?

To Read the Right Stuff
The answer in the other first-year writing courses has been to have students read arguments and narratives, and then practice writing these themselves. In my class, we are reading essays about writing, about various aspects of it, and this has merit.

Read what we are writing.

I should add that this is not a question my students are asking. For them, they are used to how things worked in high school courses, where they read literature, and then they wrote five paragraph themes and research papers, school genres as far removed from literature as one can get. This never made sense to me. It doesn’t seem to make a great deal of sense to have students reading what they will never be asked to write.

Lately, there have been changes through what has been called the Common Core. If this new curriculum is about reading nonfiction essays, then perhaps that is what students should be writing. They should be writing what they are reading.

Genre Figures
This is not the same problem I face in my first-year writing course, though the high school approach I’ve just described is what my students are used to. They are used to this dichotomy, what has become a breakdown in discourse, a breakdown in what students read and what they write. Again, creative writing solves the discourse problem by having students read in the genres they are writing in. But in composition, there is this break, this divide, which seems to persist between the invention process and organization—or questions about what should be read.

What should they study for their own writing?

A good answer might be to focus on creative nonfiction, to have students study the essay. This is what they will be writing.

But there will always be people who complain that this is too much oriented to the humanities, or to English.

With a course like first-year writing, there are not easy answers.

What are some possible ways to resolve the divide between invention and organization? I have some answers to explore next month, but for now, I would love to entertain any suggestions others might have.

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