Why They Can’t Write

Why They Can’t Write

I picked up John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write : Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities after hearing good things about it from colleagues, and following John himself on twitter.  I quite frankly longed to be told why my students found writing challenging.  (There is much I can intuit about my students’ habits, and still more I suspect, but there are limits to both.)  I thought the book would be a brief accounting of someone’s faults (students, faculty, administrators – I was open to anyone, including myself) before moving into prescriptive solutions.

Turns out it’s so much more than that.

Fully two thirds of the book is about the many ways in which our education system is not set up to make students into writers, much less whole, thriving human beings.  I expected that K-12 standardized assessment would get a good dressing down in this book, and that Zuckerberg, Gates, and DeVos would be (rightly) taken to task for their off-the-wall perceptions of the challenges facing education.  What I didn’t expect, however, were the wonderful chapters on the problems faced by precariously employed college-level writing instructors, for example, or the chapter on the connections between writing and the wellness of our student body.  It was profoundly liberating to see compassion foregrounded as such an important part of the work we do, and to acknowledge that yes, pretty much everyone chafes under the system we presently have.

Cover of Why They Can't Write by John Warner

As I read the section on grading and learning, something Jesse Stommel once said about providing “real” or authentic audiences for student work make greater sense to me.  Students, John argues, need intrinsic – rather than external – motivation to do well, and one way to do that is to make the stakes real; to have a real audience in mind for an essay, for example, rather than an artificially convened audience of ‘the professor.’  Jesse’s said this before, too, and it finally clicked for me that I can have my students write for a friend, or a newspaper, or . . . anything, really, that constitutes an actual audience and not the artificial one that’s me.

I wanted direction on how to better teach writing, and I got it – sample assignments that I can tweak to fit my classroom and discipline in marvelous ways.  But I got so much more.  I closed the book feeling energized and motivated to go back to the classroom and make changes.  In fact my first reaction, as I finished, was “I have to go write about this!”  Which so perfectly encapsulates so much of what John would like to see us do as learners that I couldn’t help but laugh.

But what I absolutely did not anticipate getting from this book was the opportunity for my frustrations around the way I’ve been taught to write to crystalize.  As I read about the artificiality of so many classroom activities and writing assignments, and about the demands of disciplines across time, I realized how hemmed in I have always felt by the established format of history writing.  I love to write – genuinely love it – but with every project I struggle to convey the story I have to tell within the boundaries of historical scholarship.  It’s not that I reject the rule of evidence, or the idea that I should persuade.  It’s simply that I feel bound by expectations that do not allow my words to breathe.  I have a lot to ponder there, both about the difficulty of the work I’m undertaking and the liberatory process I feel might be within reach, but I’m pleased to have been pushed to do that work.  I don’t know what’s at the other end of it, but I want to authentically engage with the past, and I have a hunch there are better ways to do it than the ones I usually employ.

This is a tremendously energizing and motivating book.  Can’t wait to get back to work tomorrow to put so many of these ideas into practice!

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