Writing Matrix Extension

I used the nine-cell matrix in the previous post in conversations with colleagues and in my “Teaching Writing” seminar. After these discussions, I decided that the matrix needed some extensions, which I have represented here:

WritingCourseMatrix-color-extended

These extensions are closely related to the cells they are above or below. Writing in a home dialect such as Black English, Spanglish, or Hawaiian Creole is clearly related to self-expression and also to audience awareness. Composition instructors need to be aware of the ideological, ethical, and rhetorical implications of insisting that students always write in Standard English. I sometimes have my graduate students look at the websites of Jamaican newspapers, where the articles are written in a prestige Jamaican dialect that has similarities with British English but is not quite the same as either British or American English. However, when the Jamaican reporter interviews a witness to an event, the responses are written in Jamaican Creole.

In the adjacent cell to the right I have introduced the skill of storytelling. Narrative is often neglected in writing courses, but in our culture today, a good story is often more convincing than facts and arguments. I explore this further in the post, “A Narrative with a Point.”

Finally, the cell in the bottom right is a counterpart to the one above it. A good writer knows the conventions and knows how and when to break them, especially in creative writing. I explore this a bit in “The Alternate Style” and in “What Makes Punctuation So Confusing?

The matrix is not so neat and tidy anymore, but the apparent tidiness of the first version was misleading. This one is not designed to be definitive either. What I hope to do is inspire conversations about writing courses that will help teachers and outsiders see how complex they really are.

 

What Do Writing Courses Do?

When we design and teach writing courses (which of course are also reading courses) we often start by looking at the outcomes for the course or by creating our own list of outcomes. Then we start listing writing assignments, often based on texts we find interesting to teach. We imagine how long it will take to present the assignment, for students to write and revise the various sub-components and drafts, how long we need to grade it and return it, and we set a due date. We create a sequence of reading/writing units, probably of increasing difficulty and length. Ideally, each assignment with its various tasks and drafts addresses at least some of the listed outcomes. Realistically however, the connections to some of the outcomes may be tangential at best. In addition, some students started out weaker or stronger than others. They are unlikely to end up at the same place.

And what happens after your course ends? Do students go on to another course? Do they write in their disciplines? Have you prepared them to do that? What is it all for? Where are we going?

In order to think about this a little differently, I created the following chart:

WritingCourseMatrix-color-1

I intend this as a big picture map of what a writing program needs to do. The course you happen to be teaching might be focusing on a few of the cells in the chart more than others, but as you design your course, you should be aware of the big picture. These cells are not discrete items in a list. There are complex relationships between them.

Fluency

Fluency is based on a lack of fear. The fear is usually caused by the concern about “Standard Written Conventions” in the opposite corner of the chart. Students given an assignment will sometimes spend 30 minutes writing and rewriting the first sentence before they have even decided what to write about. No real writing can occur in the face of anxiety about making a grammatical error. We have to work on that.

Self-Expression

“Self-expression” is important to beginning writers. It is a powerful purpose. It shouldn’t be denied absolutely. It is a purpose to build on. How does a student grow beyond self-expression? “Intertextuality” is one direction. What do other people say? Can you quote them to support what you are saying too? “Inquiry” is another. Can you find out more? Do you still think the same thing after knowing more? Both of these types of activities help build audience awareness too.

Interdisciplinarity

“Interdisciplinarity” is the connection of the writing course to the rest of the academic world. The student in your class is not likely to be an English major. When they write in science or in engineering, will they have to unlearn some of your stylistic recommendations? Do you have to know how to write like an engineer in order to teach them? No, but you can help them ask questions and analyze documents to see how it is done. Also, rhetorical strategies such as thinking about audience, arguments, and evidence tend to be universal. It is stylistic preferences and organizational patterns that change.

Making Things Happen

“Making Things Happen” is really the true purpose of all writing, but it is more obviously true of academic and workplace writing. Students should be aware of the connections your course has to writing in other environments for other purposes. It makes your class more meaningful to them and they are more likely to be engaged.

And in fact, thinking about how your course fits into the big picture might help you become more engaged too!