teaching invention

Invention strikes me as the central pedagogical challenge of writing instruction. I could offer a long, academic backdrop for that claim, but instead I will just gesticulate wildly. There's a deep, historical view that looks at the truncation of rhetoric's canons following the Classical period, with Invention dropping off with the emergence of scientific method, and hence an allegedly arhetorical mode of discovery, and a long, disciplinary view which looks at how artistic creativity is approached in literary studies and rhet/comp's decision to articulate invention in particular mechanical-heuristic ways (as Jeff Rice, Byron Hawk, and Geoffrey Sirc among others have explored). There's also the view that looks at the institutional pedagogies our students encounter where, despite some gestures toward brainstorming and planning before one writes, rhet/comp education is fundamentally focused on arrangement and style. That is, in such environments, invention becomes a subset of arrangement: a Mad-libs-esque fill in the blank heuristic.

In higher ed, we encounter a related problem, which I mentioned in a recent post. In the humanities, and especially in English Studies where most writing is taught, we tend to view invention as a hermeneutic process, as a product of a reading methodology. That is, how does one know what to write? One reads a text (or texts), applies a critical methodology, and arrives at an interpretive claim, which then becomes the thesis of one's essay. This is not solely the method of literary studies. It is also the method of cultural studies and the post-process compositions it informs.

The upshot is that writing instruction equals teaching one or more reading methods plus instruction that models the disciplinary, discursive expectations for the arrangement and style of a humanistic essay.

But what if invention was not solely a reading process?

Typical concerns about student papers identify the lack of a strong thesis (or any thesis), paragraphs that are unrelated to the thesis, paragraphs that lack internal coherence, and then stylistic concerns (e.g., introductions, conclusions, transitions, introduction of quotations, etc.). And typically we might attempt to remedy these conditions through (in)direct modeling:

  • What is a good thesis?
  • Writing a paragraph-by-paragraph outline
  • Paragraph topic sentences and structure
  • Learn to write the introduction last
  • In-class workshops on writing transitions or introducing quotes

But what if all of these observed phenomena were really problems of invention? If I don't have something I want to say, then how can I articulate an argument? How do I arrange my composition around an absent purpose? What is the response to a problem of invention? To read more? To develop more facility with a reading method?

This is not just a problem for FYC writers. Graduate students face a related problem in writing dissertations: if invention means reading, how do I know when I have read enough to invent? Perhaps faculty face this as well. Of course, FYC students tend to have the opposite problem. They are afraid of reading too much and discovering that their ideas are not "original." They tend to avoid the possibility of their ideas being influenced or complicated by what they read. It is perhaps a result of what our public discourse has become: a place where no one ever changes their mind through dialogue. Despite the fact that FYC students avoid reading and look for ideas to appear ex nihlo and graduate students spend years reading in order to feel authorized to have an idea, there is a shared view of invention as a hermeneutic reading process. It's just that graduate students realize they need more complicated ideas so they know they have to read more, while FYC students believe reading more will only make the writing task more difficult. Both are true.

So what if invention was a networked, emergent phenomenon? Clearly that would involve reading. I certainly wouldn't want to argue that one cannot "get ideas" by reading. I get ideas from texts, videos, games, all kinds of media, all the time. But I wouldn't say that is often a hermeneutic process. That is, the inventions are rarely interpretations of a text but rather other ideas that might spring from a particular idea or statement or detail, off-hand comment, or footnote and link in similar ways with memories, other texts, and so on. I'm sure this is a common experience. But that process of invention is very different from the one that says, "Read this essay 'critically,' and then make a thesis/claim about it."

However, this process is not just "inspiration." It is not anti-methodological or arhetorical. There is a frame of mind, a state of awareness or attunement, that facilitates invention. Maybe it is looking at things with a "writer's eye," though it is clearly not just about writers. It is about subjectivity, but unlike more ideological, post-process composition pedagogies, it is not about asking students to inhabit in some permanent way a particular ideological/critical-theoretical subject position. It is instead an affective state into which one slips in and out, a state that one can learn to enter with increasing ease. And it is a non-deterministic subjective state in that it does not delimit by itself the results on invention in some hermeneutic-methodological way (as critical reading methods tend to do). Instead, as I stated above (and many times before), it recognizes invention as emerging from the particular assemblage to which oen is exposed. Or to quote Deleuze and Guattari, "you don't know what you can make a rhizome with, you don't know which subterranean stem is effectively going to make a rhizome, or enter a becoming, people your desert. So experiment."

It's not easy to teach students such invention practices. It requires them to set aside existing ideas of invention. It asks them to let go, at least provisionally, some of their attitudes and hostility toward writing. It's not any easier for writing instructors either, who may also have to rethink their own notions of invention. And in some ways it's harder for the instructors, who have had success with their methods and may have some significant subjective attachments to them.

But I honestly don't think that what I am describing is "just another way." This is how invention happens, through our exposure to assemblages/networks. And while we don't have to bring that theoretical discourse into the FYC classroom, we do have to figure out how to make that understanding operate there.


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