Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Writing for Yourself

The other day, when I should have been doing something else, I Googled myself.  One of the pages I found was on Writing Skills for a site called Paper Due.  At first, I was flattered, thinking someone was actually using something I had written to aid others in developing their prose style.

Then I was, well, "horrified" would be too strong a word.  "Bemused," perhaps too weak.  Anyway, I realized that the site is selling papers on the topic of "writing skills."  Potential writing teachers can buy them, using them to satisfy their own teachers that they know a little about what they might, one day, be doing.

Except, of course, they won't.

An old article of mine is cited in the sample paper provided, above the caption "This essay and over 100,000 other essays and term papers are available just for you."  The paper fragment shown talks about the first article I wrote when I was beginning to dabble with teaching again after a long lay-off.  I wrote it ten years ago for an e-journal on basic writing, a publication that, while still available, is pretty much forgotten.

Though I don't think there's anything particularly wrong with the paper, my own ideas on teaching writing have progressed a great deal in the decade since I wrote it--and I was a little surprised to see anyone citing it.  There's much better stuff out there now.  Whoever put together that paper for sale, clearly, is not a specialist in writing pedagogy, but simply a paid hack with skill enough to find appropriate (though not the best) articles on a topic and cobble together an essay for sale.  All that seems done with my essay is a summary, not an analysis or use of my ideas to make some greater point.  That's not scholarship, not even on an undergraduate level.

One of the topics, recently, on a listserv I follow was whether or not it is possible to teach writing without being a writer.  I don't know the answer to that, though my inclination is to believe that writing helps.  Certainly, though, you can't teach writing without learning about writing--and you can't do that without writing.  So, the fact of a paper on writing skills being offered for sale is doubly ironic.  Whoever buys one will be cheating themselves, any future employers, and certainly any potential students.  Not only will they have gained nothing themselves (except a grade), but will be kicking failure onto another generation.

In the Civil War, it wasn't uncommon for young men of means to pay others to serve for them in the Union army.  Understandably, they didn't really want to get into harm's way.  Though they might have been morally reprehensible, they caused little harm--except, of course, possibly to the person who went in their stead--and that person knew perfectly well what he was getting into.

In this case, there can be real harm... to students who will be judged, one day, on the quality of instruction that just wasn't up to par.  Perhaps teachers of writing don't really have to be writers, but they certainly do need to know something about their subject--and they cannot learn that through purchased papers.

[The above was written for ePluribus Media.]

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