Beyond Pen and Paper
Writing. Writing what? For whom? In what context? Through what medium? What exactly does the word “writing” encompass? As a discipline, it implies much more than formal compositions or school assignments, and by no means is it limited to a specific context or audience. Whether we realize it or not, we write to communicate constantly. Any type of writing allows us to formulate our ideas, structure them, and express them in a way that is permanent.
Let’s expand our notion of writing even further. The final “product” of writing does not have to end with typed words and sentences. Writing can also be the backbone for audio and visual productions, as well as speeches and presentations. You could, for example, be writing a script that you’ll produce as a video. You could be organizing points that you want to highlight when presenting your research poster. You could be writing interview questions that you’ll use to create a podcast.
One of Texas A&M’s core-curriculum requirements states that students take two writing intensive courses, or W-courses, in their major field of study. The purpose of these courses is to teach students how to write appropriately in their discipline. Additionally, some departments have begun offering oral communications-focused courses, or C-courses, which may substitute for one of the W-courses. C-courses give students the option to produce videos, podcasts, webcasts, and/or give oral presentations. Personally, I eagerly support this change. The opportunity to create multi-media productions encourages creativity and stretches students to learn new communication technologies. (Talk about highly versatile skills that will be an asset in the workplace!) And furthermore, even though communications-focused courses no longer have “W” in their title, they still play an integral role in teaching students about writing.
So how do communications-related assignments impact us as writing consultants? The new challenge is guiding students, who are now coming into the writing center with their presentation slides, scripts, and posters, to write (and speak) in a way that is appropriate to the channel of communication they’re using. Initially this may cause a bit of apprehension. We may wonder whether we have the ability to help students in these areas, and question whether we need to invest our time into learning new communication software programs.
The answer to the first concern is a definite ”yes” – we’re more than equipped to handle consultations involving media and public speaking. As consultants, we’ve been trained to determine what constitutes good writing by a variety of contextual factors – audience, genre, academic field, and whether or not the content will be read or heard by the audience. We know that complex ideas have to be broken down and reiterated during an oral presentation. We know that the style of writing is more informal in a podcast than a formal composition. Yet we also know that the writing process itself applies just as readily to a bulleted list in a presentation slide as it does to an extended paragraph. We know the similarities and differences between “writing” and “writing for speaking”; we just need to explain these to students. In short, the large majority of our skills and approaches as writing consultants are easily transferable.
As far as whether or not we need to learn the technical skills of video-editing, podcasting, and webcasting, it is important to remember the balance between expanding our talents and sticking to the core of our work. If consultants can be involved in writing center media-productions such as promotional or training videos, then great! This provides an opportunity to learn about the nature of media publications while still providing a service to the Writing Center. It also encourages more consultant involvement and leadership. Yet I don’t think acquiring technical knowledge should necessarily be a priority for consultants. Our focus is on clients’ content – their actual writing. This writing may be in the context of a formal composition, business letter, or lab report, or it may be the precursor to a conference presentation or media production. As writing consultants, we’re more than equipped to handle any of these situations, even those that go beyond pen and paper.