Today I will take an early summer detour through the analogy of athletic training. This is familiar territory for rhetoric and composition, perhaps most famously in David Russell’s “Activity Theory and Its Implications for Writing Instruction:”
To try to teach students to improve their writing by taking a [general writing skills instruction] course is something like trying to teach people to improve their ping-pong, jacks, volleyball, basketball, field hockey, and so on by attending a course in general ball-using. Such a course would of necessity have a problem of content. What kinds of games (and therefore ball-use skills) should one teach? And how can one teach ball-using skills unless one also teaches students the games, since the skills have their motive and meaning only in terms of a particular game or games that use them?
I’ve written about this many times before. As Russell acknowledges in this essay though, there are general ball-using skills at some level. I think we know this. My son is very athletic. Soccer is his primary sport, but he’s what we’d typically call a “natural athlete.” We tend to be more willing to ascribe athletic talent to genetics than we are cognitive talent (although maybe at the upper limit we will say there are people who are geniuses, for 99%+ of us, we don’t think in those terms). We don’t look at a room of college students and say some are just naturally better writers in the way we might say it about soccer players or athletes in general.
So here’s my little anecdote. Over the weekend, I took my son to an athletic training facility by the university. Several of his teammates train there as do many athletes of all ages and sports. They begin with an extensive evaluation, which includes a video of you sprinting. As was explained, sometimes we might watch kids running and think they look strange and uncoordinated, but that’s not really the issue. Instead, the problem might be that tightness or weakness in certain parts of the body, but primarily in the hips and the core muscles, causes a runner to compensate through various gesticulations. The result is runners who tilt to one side, dip their heads, land on the wrong parts of their feet, and so on. Biomechanics indicates that there is really just one way to get the most efficient use of force out of your body to propel you forward. Fixing your mechanics isn’t going to make you the fastest person, but it will make you faster. More importantly, once you start using your muscles efficiently then you can get more benefit out of strength training. Or so the science goes, and I found it very convincing. In fact, I’d have to say I learned more over that 2-3 hours on Saturday than I’ve learned all year long.
In rhet/comp, folks would generally not be happy with making an analogy between athleticism and writing (primarily because we have an allergy to any explanation of writing that is not strictly cultural). Like all analogies, it has its limits. That said, I couldn’t help but think that it would be productive if we were able to construct some analogous understand of writing activity, if we could figure out the tightnesses and weaknesses that lead to writing that appears strained or uncoordinated. I suppose we tend to think of these writing problems as emerging at a more specific discursive level. And that’s true with athletes as well. It’s one thing to learn to move your body more efficiently. It’s another matter to dribble faster with a soccer ball or a basketball or to accelerate on hockey skates. Still, the underlying mechanics are there. Your body is your body; gravity is gravity. So it is possible to workout in a gym and perform activities that look very different from playing soccer but improve your soccer play. I don’t think this is a surprise. It’s also possible to workout in a gym in a way that won’t have an impact. In fact it’s probably more likely. It takes a great deal of precision to do these things right because we aren’t just talking about stupid muscles; we’re talking about changing the way your brain tells your body to run. We’re rewriting procedural memory.
Is this what we are doing with writing instruction as well? Shifting procedural memory? To some extent, this is what we meant by the writing process, right? A kind of underlying set of procedures. However, in practice, thinking about process never escaped the gravitational pull of product, and the relationship was never that close. To return to my athletics analogy, if I was a soccer coach and I had 100 hours to train my team during a season, I would focus on the technical and tactical aspects of soccer. Sure, we’d be running and building up our stamina as part of those practices. But we wouldn’t be spending time doing the kind of training my son is doing now. Why? Because it wouldn’t impact the short-term result of wins this season in the way that practicing soccer would. The same thing in a composition course. The instructor is trying to get every student to write a passable product, and students want A’s. So it makes much more sense to just focus on the particulars of the product because process is really a deep, ontological abstraction. Process is the knowledge we construct about the intersection of body, mind, and culture, the human and the nonhuman.
As a writer, I know there are obvious differences for me in the way I go about writing a blog post, an email to a student, a memo to colleagues, a book chapter or essay, and so on. However I also know there are a lot of similarities, beginning with me sitting in front of a laptop for most of these activities. I know I have to pause to construct my thoughts. I draw on memories of events and things I’ve read. I brainstorm different possibilities, different arguments, different word choices. The longer the text the more recursive the process becomes as I have to reorient myself as my purpose and sense of audience changes and develops. Of course the products are quite different, especially in terms of pace. An email takes a few minutes. A blog post like this might take an hour or so, but I almost always write them in one sitting. An essay is written over days or weeks. A book could take months or years. However, despite all these differences, I must admit in the middle of writing itself, there are some fundamental common processes that are not unlike those that tie together each step I take.
I think it is possible to have a course that explores process on this level. It’s not a course that will result in better products in the short-term, for as Russell argues (and I agree), there’s a big gap between this kind of generalized writing activity and participating in a particular genre/activity system. Most people, most high school athletes, won’t get the kind of athletic training my son is doing. He’s already the fastest kid on his team, the fastest kid in the school district in his grade. Similarly, most people probably don’t need to work on their writing process at this level. They will get by with the process they’ve developed organically through their interactions with school and other sites of writing. But still it’s worth thinking about when we teach writing that there is this underlying, elusive activity that we are tapping into.