It’s the beginning of a new semester, and I’m working in a course that requires all students to blog in public, including for assessment. Sorting out what equivalence and quality means in this different environment has been a administrative headache, but an interesting one.
But there’s a conflict that I’m trying to figure out, as I’m reading some weary comments from students reviving their course blogs. For me, learning very cautiously to write in public in a way that isn’t tangled up with the endless quantification of academic productivity has been really liberating. It’s created a space for me to think for myself, to write directly for an audience of people whose opinion I value (no offense, academic journal readers), and it’s preserved a quiet space away from the hustle of my obligation to others. I think I’ve become a better writer through doing it in public, without the safety net of a reviewer or editor: the stuff on the page is owned by me.
So I’m in favour of supporting students to develop this same sense of public personal confidence. The students I work with are good writers, whose writing is mostly wasted if it’s just produced for one marker, and traded for a grade. The writing itself is first the hostage, then the casualty. When it’s gone, who remembers it? who delights in it?
I believe students deserve to learn how capable they are as writers before they graduate and have to face the challenges of professional self-management. I also know from personal experience the career benefit of being able to string a sentence together, and I know this isn’t some kind of talent: it’s the result of graft, error, and practice. So I think writing is a way of getting better at writing, whatever your starting position. And freefall writing is a solid way to learn about the risks and responsibilities of self-expression, particularly if you are identifiable in relation to your employer.
But something else happens when a practice of personal agency and creative autonomy is made compulsory. Specifically, do you still own both your voice and your relationship to your audience if you’re doing it for assessment? What if you don’t want to write what you’re asked to write? What if you want to write something else, or nothing at all? What if doing it makes you feel resentful and disempowered?
I’m a notorious Facebook avoider. I also avoid all sorts of other things: graduation ceremonies, weddings, The Blues Brothers, Game of Thrones, team sports, planning days, and anything involving audience participation. All of these small practices of refusal make me feel like I know who I am. I’m worried that we’re curtailing this for students, and I’d like to think of some practical ways to address this.
UPDATE: Thanks to Gretel and Bec for permission to link to their weary comments, which got me thinking about all this in the first place.