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All of Malaysia was agog

I'm teaching a course right now, a graduate seminar on genre theory and academic writing, which I haven't really blogged at all, partly for a lack of time and partly because Derek and Mike are doing a nice job of it as far as I'm concerned. Anyhow, about the course: in large part, it was offered in response to some concern on the parts of our students (and I'm paraphrasing roughly here) that they weren't receiving enough attention in our curriculum as writers, as emerging professionals who were expected to be writing publishable prose in a matter of a few years. I'm a big fan of programmatic support for writing at the graduate level (I'm also supervising a writers' group for our dissertators this summer), and so I offered to teach this course partly as a publication workshop.

But it's a graduate seminar as well, and let's just say that I have strong opinions about the importance of providing instruction in both declarative and procedural knowledge in our graduate courses. And so, I decided to start the course with some reading in genre theory. It's a solid mix of readings, I think, and we're making a turn from more theoretical perspectives to some of the work in our field that brings genre theory to bear upon academic writing. For tomorrow, the class is reading a chapter (and the postscript) from Berkenkotter and Huckin's Genre Knowledge in Disciplinary Communication, the book whose chapter on CCCC proposals I swear by. We're reading a different chapter, though, the one about "Nate," the first-year PhD student whom B&H followed through his first year at Carnegie Mellon, and whose essays are analyzed in no small detail over the course of the chapter.

Anyhow, this chapter has got me thinking. In their conclusions, B&H discuss Nate's tendency to do extracurricular writing, more informal writing alongside the academic assignments he completed:

In Nate's case, it appears that the kind of advanced literacy associated with learning a field of knowledge, or with entering a discipline or vocation, hinged on the learner's ability to integrate subject matter knowledge with a knowledge of situationally appropriate linguistic and rhetorical conventions. Nate appears to have developed the former from reading and coursework more readily than the latter. His use of informal writing as a learning tool seems to have served him well in the former respect, but it may have slowed his progress as an academic writer....Although informal expressive writing appears to help writers explore new ideas, it also may deter them from expressing these ideas in the highly explicit, cohesive, hierarchical style expected in formal expository prose (141-2).

This really sent my wheels spinning, because it's potentially the best argument I've heard, even though it's obviously not pointed in that direction, against encouraging graduate students to keep weblogs. There are certainly other reasons as well, I suppose, but they tend to be anecdotal (that person got fired! what if i do too?) rather than grounded in any sort of semi-objective evaluation.

And I'm fully aware that this isn't exactly an airtight argument, either. B&H have been critiqued from a range of positions, not the least of which is the fact that CMU faculty at the time probably defined things like register and formality in pretty strict fashion. And that suggests that formal academic prose and writing on a weblog need not be as diametrically opposed as B&H's presentation of Nate's two styles of writing.

The implication here is that Nate may have sacrificed some procedural facility (how to write appropriately) in the interests of his declarative knowledge (what he was writing about), and for me, that's a pretty important question, one that lies at the heart (or should, imho) of a graduate curriculum. It's interesting (to me, at least) to think about the sum total of degree requirements and to interrogate the ratio between declarative and procedural knowledges. I wouldn't want to overgeneralize, but I suspect, for example, that most programs list requirements in specific areas of declarative knowledge (composition pedagogy, classical rhetoric, e.g.) than they do procedural ones (how to build a webpage, e.g.). Research courses are one exception to this, but foreign language requirements? Not so much.

And this leads me to thinking about where blogging lies on that spectrum. Were someone to transpose B&H to blogging, they'd still have to grant the potential for blogging to assist a student with assimilating declarative knowledge. But I think I'd be tempted to make the case for blogging on procedural grounds as well. Rather than arguing (as I think we probably could) that academic register in our field has become more informal, I'd go in the other direction and argue something like what Jay Parini writes in his Chronicle piece "The Considerable Satisfaction of 2 Pages a Day."

It's something that I've harped on for a few years now: it's hard to write every day, but it's also the surest path to success as an academic writer, and I say that as someone who's only ever been capable of intermittent bursts of daily writing. The problem with most graduate curricula, from the standpoint of training our students as writers, is that they treat writing according to the thresholds of deadlines, and up until the dissertation, it's possible for students to wait and wait and read and wait, until a few days before something is due, and then crank it out. We even invest that strategy with higher stakes when it comes to comprehensive examinations. And then that strategy, reinforced and encouraged throughout 3-4 years of a program, fails utterly and completely when it comes to the capstone of the PhD, the dissertation.

I don't know that I'd go so far as to say that bloggers write better dissertations, but I do think that there's a case to be made that weblogs can provide an opportunity for daily writing, an opportunity that will serve a blogger well when it comes to a larger project. Keeping a weblog may help students develop the kind of procedural knowledge that receives so little attention in the formal venues of academia. I think of the last-ish paragraph of Parini's article:

Having a grand idea, and setting up to accomplish something in a grand way, has always been, for me, a hopeless notion. I once had a good friend, a poetry editor and teacher, who always hoped to write a novel. One day the first sentence of the novel swam into his head: "All of Malaysia was agog." He didn't know why Malaysians were agog, or even where on earth Malaysia was. But he applied for a grant, got it, and set himself up in a foreign country with a huge sheaf of paper and a typewriter. He typed with reverence the great first sentence. He waited. He waited for much of a year, but nothing ever came.

If he'd been blogging, he would have just saved it as a draft, and on day 2, started another post that was completely unrelated. Or not. It's harder to learn how to do that than people think, and so I wonder if B&H unfairly discount the "outside" writing that Nate ends up doing. Do I even need to add the parallel sentence here, about discounting blogging? Probably not.


"but I do think that there's a case to be made that weblogs can provide an opportunity for daily writing, an opportunity that will serve a blogger well when it comes to a larger project. Keeping a weblog may help students develop the kind of procedural knowledge that receives so little attention in the formal venues of academia."

Yes. But not just students. Teachers as well. Most people in this profession do not write. At all, not just for professional publication. The results are obvious: how can folks who don't, or who barely, write, teach writing? It's a paradox few show interest in discussing. The weblog, at least, provides a new kind of space for people to write (one which can connect outward rather than remain always inward - like the private journal).

The "two page a day" article in the Chronicle was delightful -- as are many examples which exhort regular writing. One of my favorites is the 1934 classic "Becoming a Writer" by Dorothea Brande.