Higher Education Rhetoric/Composition Uncategorized

who wants to “own” writing?

There’s this old Steven Wright line that goes something like, “I used to say I wanted to own the world but then I wondered ‘where would I put it all?'”

That seems apropos here.

To clarify, in higher ed circles the idiom “to own writing” would appear to mean claiming sole disciplinary-intellectual authority and control over the writing activities of a college or university.


OK, maybe it isn’t quite that absurd. (One can always hope.) Maybe it is a declaration of being the site in which those who claim disciplinary expertise over the study of writing gather. That seems almost closer to reality, but it still doesn’t make sense.

Here’s the thing, at least as far as I can figure. No one who studies writing practices wants to go anywhere near the claim of “owning” writing. To the contrary, the whole point is to convince others to take ownership and responsibility for their writing practices:

  • for students to take responsibility for their own writing and commit to their individual development as writing;
  • for faculty and departments to recognize their roles and responsibilities in supporting the development of their students as writers and communicators in their disciplines and professions, whether those students are in their first-year or writing their dissertations;
  • for chairs, deans, and provosts to recognize their responsibility for providing leadership and material support to this end and their responsibility for supporting the development of faculty as writers;
  • for the university as a whole to recognize that students, faculty, and staff across the institution rely upon writing for the institution to work and that beyond the responsibilities I’ve already enumerated the university has an obligation to professional development in this area.

To be clear, few people really want to do this work. Writing is hard, and teaching writing is hard. One of my professional development workshop mantras is that it is not that experienced writers don’t struggle with writing. It’s just that they’ve developed better ways of dealing with those struggles. As such, we shouldn’t expect students not to struggle because they’ve taken a writing course or two, but we might hope they are a little better prepared to deal with the new challenges and struggles they will encounter.

With all this, it’s not surprising that I hear some faculty bemoan “The English department should take care of this.” In a similar move, some faculty might send their students to the writing center in hopes that the writing center will take care of it. It’s an understandable sentiment, but it’s also completely wrong-headed. Yes, it is the responsibility of a writing center and rhetoric faculty in admin positions to support the student writers and faculty teaching writing, but we can’t actually do the work for them.

I’ve been stepping in as WAC director at UB this year. It’s actually the first year the position has existed. We’ve had a robust WAC/WID gen ed curriculum for four years now, but there’s been a lack of leadership. As I hope I’ve been getting across here, the job isn’t about controlling or taking ownership of writing. Oddly, the main responsibility might be encouraging/helping others take responsibility.

So in all this, it’s also odd (though not surprising in the end), that part of the job is to work against those who want to take the responsibility for writing off other people’s shoulders. Sometimes this is about bringing a healthy skepticism to edTech vendors with their AI gizmos. Other times it means working against the contradictory institutional impulse to centralize writing across the curriculum. There are certainly a range of motivations informing those impulses. I won’t get into that here, and in the end it doesn’t really matter.

However, I am always left wondering “who would want to ‘own’ writing?”

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