Letter to the Editor: The value of writing

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As director of writing across the curriculum, I promote and support writing and writing instruction for Lehigh students across the academic disciplines. That’s my job. The assumption behind this effort is that more writing is always better, but lately I’ve been wondering, more than usual, if working toward that goal without thoughtful attention to other important considerations might do more harm than good.  

I’m not suggesting that students should do less writing, but I do think it’s helpful when faculty, in designing writing assignments for their courses, are mindful of the student experience and the fundamental value of writing.

For example, I hope our students learn that writing, at its best, is both humanizing and empowering. As social beings, all of us — students, faculty, staff, administration, alumni, trustees — whether we admit it or not, want more than anything else to have a voice, to be heard, to connect with other people. Beneath our driving ambition and affected nonchalance, down deep, we are all yearning for our thoughts, ideas, assertions and idiosyncratic viewpoints to be acknowledged, respected and valued.

Indeed, we are all in some way desperately pleading, “I’m here. Please listen to me!” It’s the distinctively human cry to belong. We write to connect with others and therefore to be more fully human.

Okay, but this is a university, so what does that have to do with learning?

Everything, in my view.

When engaged in meaningful writing projects, students develop the skills necessary to make worthwhile contributions to conversations that matter to other people. Through the hard work of diving into a topic and unpacking complex concepts, examining multiple, differing and sometimes opposing perspectives, weighing one compelling assertion or data point against another that seems — initially, at least — equally or even more compelling, students develop their analytical and critical thinking skills.

These skills are taken to an even higher level when writing makes an argument, when students appeal to an audience of readers who disagree with them on some consequential issue. This work involves an essential next step, beyond learning about a topic, to learning about themselves.

In crafting arguments, writers sometimes encounter other views that challenge their own in compelling ways. How do they proceed when confronted in this way? Sometimes they have no choice but to pause and examine the assumptions and beliefs that undergird their own arguments. And these can be the very assumptions and beliefs that have helped them make their way in the world and feel safe in it, that help them sleep at night. Sometimes they are solid and enabling, but at other times they are flimsy and limiting. Learning how to tell the difference can be arduous, even painful, but it is also an opportunity for growth and a form of empowerment.

This is the empowerment of human connection, and it requires empathy. When we argue in good faith—to solve problems and not just to “win”— we recognize that those who oppose us just might have something worthwhile to contribute, and that our own ideas, now seen more clearly, might not be all we had once thought they were.  Though we may still disagree on a host of other matters, we have an opportunity to join with our erstwhile adversary to unite in solving a common problem. In the process, we inch our humanity forward.

This process is why I love teaching our English 002 course whenever I can: it is, by design, the essence of this effort.

To those in the sciences and other “hard” disciplines, my argument may sound “soft,” typical of the humanities, which are by nature concerned with our common human struggles. All academic disciplines, however, no matter how “hard,” dwell only within ongoing conversations among people, and in the “soft,” wondrous complexities of human minds. Knowledge is the goal, yes, but it is always — inescapably — a human construct. Does one become a better research chemist by ignoring that fact, or by owning it and helping students to do likewise?

Difficult, yes, but it has never been more important.

When students don’t write at all, they miss rich opportunities for learning. When writing is merely assigned and graded, without attention to process and the humanizing, empowering student experience, the result is just another test in disguise, oppressive and alienating, doing more harm than good. When writing assignments are invitations to engage in a rich and meaningful process, the potential benefits are enormous for everyone. 

Greg Skutches

Director of Writing Across the Curriculum

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1 Comment

  1. Robert F Davenport Jr on

    English composition, bringer of depression to students. “When writing is merely assigned and graded, without attention to process and the humanizing, empowering student experience, the result is just another test in disguise, oppressive and alienating, doing more harm than good.” To that quote I say Amen. Lets hope that writing consists of more than twitter or cheap shots in blogs. Seemingly that is the future direction of information transfer.

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