Professional Writing

affective dependency

Tomorrow is another Open House at Cortland, and it has me thinking again about the issue of marketing. I recognize the notion of marketing seems anathema to some academics, but to me it’s fundamentally a matter of simply getting the word out to students about who we are and what we do. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

Clearly Professional Writing is somewhat of an acquired taste for undergrads. As often as we hear the cry that students want a practical education that will lead to a job, we don’t get students coming in saying "I want to be a technical writer"  or even "I want to do public relations" or some "softer" professional/corporate writing job. Most of our students enter with an interest in creative writing. And as creative writers they are often ambivalent about technology. Professional aspirations (beyond novelist or screenwriter) tend toward editor or perhaps journalist.  There’s nothing wrong with these aspirations. However, I think they tend to stem from a couple conditions that limit imagination:

  1. Less than positive experiences with writing in institutional contexts, which is where students do the majority of their non "creative" writing.
  2. Lack of reading experience beyond literary genres and news media: it’s hard to imagine yourself writing something you’ve never read.
  3. Viewing writing as a romanticized, non-technical or even anti-technological activity: can’t imagine where they’d get that idea…
  4. Little contact with everyday professional writers, while the portrait of "the author" looms large in their experience with writing.

Of course we want to encourage our students’ creativity. We want to see it grow and support their writing goals. We also want to see their passion for "creative writing" spread to other genres. We want to help them develop a more sophisticated understanding of writing practices that will hopefully leave them less limited.

This results in a predictable student narrative. The student comes in interested in creative writing and takes a workshop or two. S/he takes our Intro course and has to deal with writing in a variety of genres, which is viewed more as a task than anything else. S/he is required to take our Writing in Cyberspace course and confronts the his/her issues with technology, which sometimes turns out well but sometimes is very difficult.

Then comes Junior year and the students take Technical Writing and Revising/Editing, which are more professionalizing type courses. They are being put on the spot about their looming internships. Seemingly overnight the perspective switches from one that says "I’m interested in creative writing and all this other stuff is a chore" to one that says "this major isn’t preparing me for a job."

So I tried this first-year learning community this semester where I designed my course, Writing in the Digital Age, to bring students right into the professional realm. I realized that it would be a bitter pill, so I tried to emphasize the idea of creativity by building very open assignments that would give them room to be creative and expressive. They are producing blogs and podcasts where they are free to discuss whatever interests them. Then we discuss their work in terms of audience and purpose so that they can start to think about directing and shaping their creativity in more strategic terms.

But you know they’re really not ready for that either. As much as the students value their creativity, I think they are just strongly conditioned to keep it separate from the classroom. I think there is a such a heavy investment in the classroom as a space of disinterest that even when they define their own projects they often cannot escape their own indifference. The answer to this has always seemingly been for the teacher to be passionate, to bring a passion that infects the students. However, I see this as a kind of affective dependency.

I don’t know.  Perhaps students just need to go through this process of maturation and encounter this crisis moment where they suddenly realize they need an education. Sure they realize it now, but right now the need for that education is externally located. Everyone tells them they need to go to college, and they believe it. At some point, they’ll need to recognize that the need an education for themselves, for their own goals.

That’s when our curriculum suddenly begins to make sense to them. I guess the bottom line is that there’s no way that you can learn to become a writer without a real strong self-motivation.  Carrying out the motions of the classroom, writing X number of pages for the assignment, and so on just won’t do it.

It’s just a hard thing to explain to a high school senior.

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