(Not) a Defense of Academic Writing

This writing came as a challenge more so than many of the other prompts we’ve come across in this class. As I began to think of why teaching academic writing is important or what about it we may want to carry forward as our technology surrounding communication changes, I realized I needed to be careful about the possible pitfalls this time of explanation may turn into. For one, this post could turn into a type of defense of academic writing. I realize I have to be careful to avoid a defensive tone since well, this—in terms of rhetorical strategies— is a turn off. At the same time I can’t sound nonchalant about the significance of academic writing. In a world increasingly turning every space intended to foster critical thought into a series of forms and assemble line-like procedures, we need to know how to clearly articulate not only what we do as writing instructors, but the possible consequences of it—especially since those consequences cannot be proven or supported with a simple chart, or graph, or series of numbers.

In an earlier post, I wrote about several of the values I believe academic writing carries and fosters in me and my students. For one, dedicating time and space away from one’s inner subject through attending to a voice not of our own contributes to creating a more empathetic and understanding subjectivity less likely to take on a single-minded or quick to judge way of seeing the world. In other words, knowing how others contextualize their worlds makes me less likely to make evaluative judgements of them. As we know from our limited concept of history, it is these types of evaluative good versus evil judgements that incites fear and violence in our society. As I consider other forms of communication our technology is now allowing, I’m fairly certain that texting, film, images, chatting “off the cuff,” or multimodal communication can not complete the same level of thoughtful contextualization of ideas that writing offers. Of course, one could use writing as a process to later communicate ideas through this alternative technology, but the consideration that goes into careful writing must become a part of the process in order to foster a patient and reflexive subject accountable for his/her actions.

As wonderful and informative as multi-voiced narration can become in online discourse, it also resist nuance, tending to paint people as either “good” or “bad” and “black” or “white” or “I agree with you” or “I don’t.” This all doesn’t mean that thoughtful communication doesn’t take place online, I’ve seen evidence of it, especially in close-knit online communities, but there are far too many online spaces where a complex person or event is whittled into a hashtag or meme. I’m reminded now of one of our first readings The Gutenberg Galaxy by McLuhan who discussed how the ability to mechanically reproduce text marked an evolution in society from communal beings with without an individual sense of a subject, to an individual in a body and with a mind separate from everyone elses. Unless we somehow revert back to a communal world with a shared sense of identity, there is always going to be a need to communicate what this separate identity is to another person and to understand another’s. If we chose to give up understanding complex thought, which at this point is best expressed in writing or thinking through writing—or what Benjamin describes as “paper work” that considers writing the very realization of thinking—we also give up on understanding individuals as complex subjects. As soon as we give up “knowing the other” or even “knowing an idea or event,” we create a breeding ground for apathetic and violent subjects.

Although these ideas, I admit, are still incomplete and even fragmented, this is my working attempt to define why writing begins to matter to me.