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Monday, April 23, 2012

Ideas and Insights—Not Commas and Conjunctions



The consultation was not out of the ordinary. The client was a frustrated freshman in the throes of struggling through completing another English 104 assignment. She explained to me that she didn’t really understand the prompt and was concerned that the current draft of her paper was not “on the right track.”
I suggested that we look over her prompt together. While we were discussing what exactly the assignment was asking her to do, she put down her pencil for a moment and sighed.
“I don’t know why my professor is having us do this,” she said. “It seems pretty pointless.”
I know that these feelings and frustrations are, to say the least, not uncommon among college students. I have experienced students with similar points of view numerous times in consultations and in my work as a writing assistant in writing-intensive courses. Many seem to view writing as a type of “busy work” assigned by professors to have enough grades to average at the end of the course. Working with the students who attend the writing-intensive class I assist has provided several examples of another type of misplaced view of writing.  When students come to my office hours for advice, they are often extremely concerned about mechanics (where to put the comma, whether to capitalize the word), but are far less receptive to discussing the content and ideas in their papers.
While writing does involve grammar and does serve the purpose of grades in universities, it is a major part of our job as consultants to help students understand that writing is much, much more than that. As Bruffee notes in Peer Tutoring and the Conversation of Mankind, “Writing always has its roots deep in the acquired ability to carry on the social symbolic exchange we call conversation.” (91). Conversation is the contribution of messages, ideas, and thoughts to a discourse community, a community that shares a way of communicating. It is important to help students grasp the fact that they will be conversing in discourse communities their entire lives, for those communities can be a family, a fraternity, a band, a business, a doctor’s office, a devoted group of celebrity followers on Twitter, or yes, the learning environment of their classroom. The ability to clearly communicate within and contribute to a discourse community is necessary to succeed in life, no matter what path we choose to take. We need to provide students with examples of how the ability to understand and operate within specialized discourse communities will affect their lives. Professional and graduate schools, the business world, and truly any kind of specialized job all require a proficiency at understanding how their community communicates.
The exchange of thoughts and information that reading others’ written ideas and writing out our own ideas creates is the point of education itself. We learn by ingesting information and then reacting to it by generating our own responses to that information. Writing is both the generation of new ideas and the response to existing ones, and because of that, it is integral to learning.
Writing is important because it is a basic form of communication, and there is nothing students will do in life that does not involve communication. As peer consultants, writing assistants, and writing centers as a whole, our goal should be to help writers understand that the purpose of writing is to be able to clearly and effectively communicate ideas to a particular audience. All of the higher and lower order concerns that we teach are simply skills that aid the ability to effectively share thoughts and arguments with one or many discourse communities. It is about the ideas and insights; it is not about the commas and conjunctions.

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