Sommers on Novice and Experienced Writers

One of the things we know most firmly about students is that, left to their own devices, they often don’t revise their writing very much–or only do so when they find an extrinsic (prompting, threatening) or intrinsic (desire, curiosity) motivation. That doesn’t at all mean that college students are uninformed or ignorant!

Rather the opposite, in fact. If learning is in part a response to stimuli, we should inquire into some of the reasons students might choose not to revise or not to learn how to revise better/more. Or some of the pedagogical, curricular, and personal structures that keep students stuck in one mode of revision. In other words, what is it about school, schooling, the teaching of writing, or grading systems that might work against a robust process of revision?

I hope we’ll get to some of this with our first reading group! Beginning today groups will share their approaches to leading discussion of one of our readings. Each group has 20-25 minutes to have us do something in line with the reading, less a lecture than an activity, and engage us in some conversations relevant to our focus on tutoring and workshopping writing. Groups should also link our reading to at least one other source: a sample of student writing, assignment sheet, article, or web source that helps contextualize our work. Give these students your attention and follow their directions–and I’m sure they will accord you the same courtesy! (We should also give them props for agreeing to go first, which can be tough.)

When they’re done, we’ll continue where they left off. One thing we COULD do is look at these pictures I’ve collected over the years of students’ impressions of their writing process:

When you look these over, what connections do you make to Sommers?

One thing I see is her early argument that we’re set up historically and ideologically to think of the writing process as linear. What rules for writing did you follow that were aligned with linear models of writing? What teacher comments have you received that might disable healthy revising practices? Do you see these process pictures as linear processes? Is YOUR writing process linear like Sommers claims?

If so–and this seems key–what was the thing, person, event, or idea that convinced you that writing wasn’t linear but recursive? AND that you got better results–communicated more, got higher grades, whatever–when you used revision to DISRUPT the linearity of writing?

And finally: when Sommers says

The students have strategies for handling words and phrases and their strategies helped them on a word or sentence level. What they lack, however, is a set of strategies to help them identify the “something larger” that they sensed was wrong and work from there. The students do not have strategies for handling the whole essay. They lack procedures or heuristics to help them reorder lines of reasoning or ask questions about their purposes and readers. The students view their compositions in a linear way as a series of parts. Even such potentially useful concepts as “unity” or “form” are reduced to the rule that a composition, if it is to have form, must have an introduction, a body, and a conclusion, or the sum total of the necessary parts. 

Do you agree? If so, what do you think tutors and workshop leaders could do to help students think more ecologically about their essays?

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Hey! I'm a professor of Rhetoric and Writing in the English dept. at Chico State. Also disc golf player, indie music listener, and vanilla Marxist.

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