We don’t measure by oscilloscope!

19 Sep

One of the great benefits of making your way through the world with writing is the view it affords of a range of disciplines – I have often commented that writing, editing, and the teaching and mentoring of writing have provided me a rich life and no money!

However, one of the dirty secrets of the professional world is the fact that even the most quantitatively based fields, math and science, deliver funding for research through prose. Data is important across disciplines and domains – literature is a modeled human experience, after all, a qualitative exposure to a mapped understanding of contradictory experience – but it is insufficient to the task of its own interpretation. We live in a world in which the polymer chemist cannot understand what the atmospheric chemist is doing without what we would call narrative and description (and all the analyses that underlie them!).

A great portion of our work at this year’s Transitioning to College Writing will be on the topic of Writing Across the Curriculum. I was one of those 80’s era grad students in literature – re-entry even then from work with scientists and engineers – who travelled campuses and canvassed departments with the now obvious, “Please provide us with an excellent, an average, and a poor paper from one of your classes.” What amazed me was not that the historian did not agree with the linguist, but that the physicist did not agree with the physicist!

Some of us are generalists, some have specialized in an area of expertise, some of us are still finding our way as novice writers, teachers, and writing teachers. We bring to our work a command of prose, an understanding of grammar, analytical skills, and approaches that work today and not tomorrow, that work in the 8 o’clock class, but not the 9 o’clock one. We stare at some extraordinary phrase, couched amidst a clutter of almost unreadable magnitude. We read it, and go back to the phrase to see where to tease out the potential to transform. We don’t always find it, but it is always there, and if we work together, one of us can find it.

The words function and dynamic have become banal from overuse – but the concepts they signal are vital in composition. Does it work? Does it work with who we are as teachers? Does it generate engagement and collaboration? How do students model its impact? How do our peers model its impact? That is the test of every writing assignment .

We don’t measure by oscilloscope. We don’t need that sort of measurement for our work with peers. We read, analyze, write. That latterly artifact changes lives other than our own, and ours among them. Hold your head up high in those collaborative groups – when they start waving their hands, you’ll have the word on your side.

-Jo Anne Fordham

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