Doing up the buttons

Students who have to write online for assessment face a real conflict, it seems to me, in terms of finding the value in their own voice.  Advocates for “voice” can also build the slightly false hope that once you’ve found it, you’re set for life, like a stand-up comic with shtick. But so many people this week mourning the death of Seamus Heaney have written about the importance to them of the sound of his voice.  I was really moved by Catherine Cronin: “I hear Seamus’s voice in my head and my heart when I look at this photograph.”

Online writers don’t have sound, so they have something else: the shapes they make with words themselves, silently. But I think those who have heard Seamus Heaney and still hear in their hearts are saying something the same: part of the craft of reading is that we come to recognise the writing voice of one person as different to another, even without hearing them with our ears.

Elan Morgan has been keeping a blog for ten years, and in a lovely post this week reflecting on that history (and a few other things), she has this to say about coming to terms with voice as a bodily gesture, that changes and ages just as you do :

I was not always comfortable with my voice, style, and point of view, and I’m not always comfortable with them now, because life is change, and I’m always changing. When I started blogging, I don’t think I had much of a voice or style. Anything I did was accidental at best, and I had no real sense of what I sounded like.

The more you write, though, the more you start to cultivate voice and style, and the more you are able to hear yourself come through. Your voice will become as another limb, one that you employ as naturally as you do your fingers when you do up a button.

The point for all of us to write online is that none of us do up buttons in the same way that we did as children, or even in the same way we did five years ago. We don’t even do up buttons in the same way as people around us. Just watch.

The shifting nature of our own skill is measured in the tiniest of increments, as the buttons require less conscious attention. But we’re still using hands we recognise as our own, and by repeating this simple gesture over and over and over without thinking, we keep extending our capacity to do something very delicate, unselfconsciously.


This is me with my aunt, and her beautiful hands.

The way to think this through is to look at the hands and fingers of children around you, and then look at the oldest living hand you can see. At the end of her life, my aunt no longer clearly knew that the hands that tugged at her sheets were her own; they became strangers to her. This happens.

So, hand and voice, we do need to use them for craft and expression while we can, in ways that are authentic to us.

The highlight of my week was reading from a new student writer that the blogging process was turning out to be enjoyable because it introduced him to others with different points of view.  And then I realised that this is the exact opposite of writing to a grading rubric.

I think we need to talk more about how every reader reacts differently in their heart to the voice of another human struggling for expression. Grading can’t turn this into an exact science, it just can’t.

Writing for the real world

Yesterday I was asked about the tone and rules of blogging for assessment, and I was really interested that this was “as opposed to blogging in the real world”.

This is a problem we’ve made for ourselves, but it’s not triggered by blogging itself. There’s an expanding inventory of post-conventional assessment activities that pride themselves on “real world” applicability, and yet we insist on applying the one tool you don’t find in the real world—grades—in response.  In fact, there’s a pretty strong case that the gap between the real world and the university world is forced by grading as a practice. Grades tether higher education to K-12, and make it really hard to convince students that university work is aligned to professional practices.

The thing is that in most professional settings, someone who doesn’t like your last piece of writing is at best going to give you feedback and support to have another go; and at worst is simply going to overlook you next time. Sometimes people who love your work will say nothing at all until you express self-doubt. You’ll struggle for an afternoon over a two-page paper and it will come back from the executive office cut to a paragraph. Some days you’ll write with a skater’s elegance, and everyone will overlook the writing but adopt the idea that you proposed. You’ll submit things for publication that get rejected, and other things that aren’t so good that get published. And so on.

Grading is a really poor preparation for all this.

But here we are, and understandably students want to know which side of our mouths we speak from when we say “authentic”.  If they write in the accessible tone of blogs they like and follow, will we then grade them according to the conventions that  are responsible for so much awful academic writing?

I think we can push ourselves a bit harder here, to accept that students writing on public platforms like WordPress are already in the real world. If we have to grade this, we should try to draft statements of competency and achievement on the basis of what we know about real world writing, not on some effort to force equivalence to term papers, exams, or university essays.

But what I really wanted to mention was this lovely post by Pat Thomson, on writing “I” as an academic.

Pat writes an excellent blog for academic writers. Her post is on one of the most tired assumptions in academic writing, that if you write “I” in a paper, the floor will open up beneath you and you will be hurled into a pit of crocodiles. The result is contorted writing, and no sense of who thinks what. I love this post because it’s practical, and focused on writing in public.

A question for student bloggers

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 BrothersGame 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.