Reflections on training I’ve had in writing

19 Sep

So, in my 5531 Composition Pedagogy class, I was given the following prompt: “[P]lease write a short version of your experiences with writing instruction in your schooling. In narrating your experiences, consider how your experiences were a product, to some degree, of what we have been reading about in Berlin [1987].”

I’ve viewed this question broadly. I’ll ID anecdotes from applicable contexts:

  • My earliest memory of being trained how to write was a sixth-grade teacher (Mr. Pethoud), who insisted that students know how to spell words well beyond the sixth-grade level and also insisted on good penmanship. The former was no big deal. The latter required that we all learn how to write cursive in a uniform fashion way. I conformed as well as I could during the class (getting my lowest grade in grade school) but promptly rebelled when I moved on to junior high. (My hand-writing now is appalling.)
  • My only memory of writing education in high school is from Marilyn Hare’s class in composition for college-bound students. We focused on very convention-bound genres: writing instructions for a common daily activity (like tying shoes or brushing teeth) for someone with no knowledge of the tools required; the five-paragraph theme; the expository ‘term paper.’
  • I took no writing classes, specifically, in college, but I had some writing-learning experiences.
  • My undergraduate thesis was the translation of a novel from Swedish to English. (I’ve looked at the results recently – I did a horrible job.) I remember sitting in my adviser’s office one day, trying to figure out how to translate the Swedish word “sköte,” which refers to the general area of the female genitals. The word appeared four times in a single paragraph; it appears in the Swedish version of the Bible; but there was no English word with the right nuance. (My adviser, a Swedish woman of perhaps 50 years of age, well-known for her thoughtful translations of poetry into English, suggested a four-letter word beginning with “c” – at the look of shock on my face, she said, “But it’s a very old word!”)
  • I continued with the translation theme in undergrad. I took a graduate seminar in translation as a complement to my thesis project. This course deeply sensitized me to the difficulties of translating nuance and subtlety. I remember particularly having to translate a section of James Joyce’s beautiful short story The Dead into my working language (Swedish). The way that Swedish works, saying where someone was born indicates whether the speaker believes the subject to be dead or alive – in this case, that would have given away an important fact about the story before Joyce intended the reader to know it.
  • In law school, I had two courses devoted to writing. The year-long sequence of first-year legal writing focused on very convention-bound genres (office memo, client predictive memo, brief in support of court motion, brief in support of appeal). It focused heavily on technical details, including grammar and especially citation. Citation in the law is done according to the “Blue Book” – which is a monstrous creation of Ivy League law students with nothing better to do. It was not until the second course, a semester-long one in persuasive legal writing, that the focus of the training turned to two issues that still interest me today (a) audience analysis and (b) argumentation theory.

I would say, generally, that the courses intended explicitly to train me in writing were heavily current-traditional in their approach. Berlin would say they were “objective” in epistemology. The courses and projects related to translation were perhaps a combination of expressive and rhetorical in their approach, exhibiting characteristics both of “subjective” and “transactional” epistemologies from Berlin’s perspective. The advanced persuasive writing course in law school was mostly current-traditional in its focus, but the attention to argumentation theory was rhetorical (though not in name) and thus probably a little “transactional” from Berlin’s perspective.

-Brian

Berlin, P. J. A. (1987). Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900 – 1985 (1st ed.). Southern Illinois University Press.

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