By Rob McAlear
Rob McAlear is an Assistant Professor of English at The University of Tulsa, where he also directs the Writing Program. He is a former Assistant Director of the Writing Resource Center at Case Western Reserve University and UW-Madison Writing Center consultant.
“The aspects of things which are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something –because it is always before one’s eyes.)” -Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
Writing may be an endlessly recursive process, but writing tasks are not. My grocery list is finished, not abandoned. My writing, like my students’, has deadlines. In fact, from what I can see, lots of writing gets done every day. Yet teachers of writing are reluctant to talk about stopping writing, and this reluctance is often coupled with the idea that writing is never really finished—a conception observably untrue and discouragingly Sisyphean for our students.
There is an important difference between writing never being finished and our learning to write never being finished—especially for our teaching of students. Here I think recognition of our orientation is important. Teachers of writing usually enjoy writing (or think they should), and they value writing and written works. So talking about stopping writing can carry a symbolic charge, the equivalent of discussing stopping thinking critically. But this is not the situation that many of the writers that come to see us in the writing center find themselves in. The writers we see have writing tasks that they want to finish, and we should teach them how to finish well.
After all, despite our focus on writing processes, much of what we actually are trying to teach writing students is when to stop writing. When we tell a student that they need to further revise a draft, aren’t we also telling them that they have stopped too soon? Don’t students leave our writing consultations with revision plans because we want them to do at least “these things” before stopping? Isn’t the warrant behind the disparagement of merely spellchecking and turning in that this person does not know the sufficient conditions for stopping? Once you start to look for it, when and how to stop hovers all around our teaching of writing.
Our students are aware of this on some level too, but most of them also know talking about it is taboo. They have learned that. Instead, they come to the writing center or our office and ask questions around it: about projected grades, and whether this is “what we want” from them. They become frustrated when they feel that they have answered all of our comments and are told to revise yet again. Can we really blame them? Imagine being given a task and not being given clear criteria for finishing, or being told that you will never be finished, not really, or that you will be finished when you have met your purpose in some abstract way that you don’t understand. That sounds pretty frustrating!
I think writing teachers’ inability to talk about doneness well, and our reticence to discuss it with students is actually a significant pedagogical hurdle to teaching writers. We need to talk openly about how and why to stop writing with our students. My time in writing centers has convinced me that they are an ideal place to encourage students to think about stopping writing. In this post, after laying out some thoughts that have come from my research on stopping, I want to put forward why and how writing centers can help students talk about finishing their writing tasks.
Talking about Stopping
My own interest in doneness is not just an inversion of the process mantra, but an attempt at Kenneth Burke’s “perspective by incongruity.” That is, thinking about how to talk to students about doneness can provide insight into to my own pedagogical blind spots. It is tempting to see an emphasis on stopping as a reversal of Donald Murray’s well-known dictum, to say instead “product, not process.” However, I don’t believe that talking about doneness with students is a return to a product oriented pedagogy unless the discussion is procedural, taking the form of a prescriptive list of steps. In fact, since students will always respond differently to writing prompts, doneness means multiplicity, endless variation in response and writing processes. After all, however similar starting points to writing might be, endings are almost always different. A solid pedagogy of doneness would recognize this diversity and encourage it.
I make this point to dispel the idea that talking about ending is prescriptive or limiting. On the contrary, I think doneness pushes at the limits of our vocabulary as instructors. Teachers, we feel, should know where they want their students to go and help them get there. In the classroom, teachers construct syllabi backwards, scaffolding assignments to build skills toward learning outcomes. Writing tutors plan conferences with the goal of having students arrive somewhere at the end of the session. Even as we acknowledge that students have different ways of getting to the destination (and that not all arrive), we aspire to have our pupils arrive in more or less the same place. In short, we are accustomed to having a clear idea of purpose. We are guides, and guides should have an idea of where they are going. What else would be the point of teaching? So it is understandable that many of us are uncomfortable with not being able to fully articulate for students what a finished piece of writing would look like. We feel it is an area to be “passed over in silence.”
In the Gorgias, Socrates says that rhetoric is a knack, like cooking, something learned from experience rather than built upon truth or causes. All these centuries later, when we tell students that their writing is “not quite done,” we still feel a bit like cooks— or judges in a baking contest. But, so what? People need to learn to cook too. We shouldn’t be cowed by the dominance of positivism. As long as people form societies, rhetorical sensibilities are here to stay. In fact, the longer I teach, the more I believe that teaching writing is about helping students to develop a rhetorical sensibility based on experience, to transfer a kind of judgment that they already have in their everyday life to their writing and to help them to develop it further. In our daily life, part of a developed rhetorical sensibility is not only knowing your purpose, but also when you have met it or should stop trying. Likewise, stopping well when writing requires an understanding of the rhetorical situation that is sophisticated and not easily reducible to skills—though skills are clearly constitutive. Stopping well involves, at a minimum, a thorough understanding of purpose, criteria, audience, reasons, persuasion, and evidence, and the ability to integrate these into a coherent piece of writing.
Why and How Writing Centers
One reason I find writing center work so rewarding is that it allows me to “just teach.” To put this another way, in Peter Elbow’s gatekeeper/ally dichotomy model of institutional instruction, the writing center consultant is all ally. Writing center consultants are able to talk to students about writing in a non-oppositional and supportive way. For students who may be struggling with understanding how their writing fits into their evolving schema, talking about doneness with their instructor feels risky. It requires admitting that they are not sure they have (and indeed may not have) an understanding of an assignment, and it feels dangerously close to discussing grades—something savvier students know to avoid with their teachers. In contrast, writing centers have as their mission “teaching the writer,” and a strong center makes the student feel supported and safe, structurally safe, in a way that the type of evaluation inherent to a classroom can make difficult.
Not only does the type of relationship that centers have with students make them so valuable, the type of training and practice writing center consultants have makes them ideal for teaching students to consider doneness. Through training and practice, a good consultant will work to figure out purpose and the rhetorical situation by combining an understanding of writing across the institution with her and the student’s understanding of an assignment. The experience that consultants have inhabiting the positions and purposes of other teachers across the university, often from disciplines quite different from their own, can make them particularly astute at arriving at a writing assignment’s purpose—and purpose implies the criteria to end.
Despite this seemingly ideal positioning, consultants often inadvertently hide or suppress their work to discover telos from their students. Consultants may ask a few questions and read the prompt, but they seldom take the time to verbalize their own understanding of the assignment and what it is that informs that understanding. Yet this is a teaching moment for doneness, purpose, and rhetorical judgment that arguably outweighs any help offered to the particulars on the page; it speaks directly to modeling an understanding of the rhetorical situation for our student. Adopting an attitude of joint discovery of purpose and criteria for finishing can lead to a type of collaborative rhetorical teaching that can happen especially well in a writing center appointment.
While verbalizing our thought process when consulting can be a great first step, we can also just make doneness part of the discussions about writing that we have with our students. Making doneness something that is explicit can be empowering to students, who then leave our consultations having externalized some completion benchmarks to guide their revisions. I would encourage other consultants to try making a discussion of stopping part of student revision plans. Since stopping is so entangled in the types of conversations that many of us already have with writers, this is usually a matter of emphasis rather than wholesale change, but I have seen it powerfully transform the understanding of students as they move from purpose to end and in between.
Finally, consultants can talk explicitly with writers about what types of strategies they use for deciding to stop, and suggest some additional ones. In a forthcoming study of how beginning college writers decide to stop writing, my colleague and I discovered that many new college writers use a narrow range of strategies when deciding doneness. For example, many students rely only on affective criteria such as whether the paper makes them “proud” or seems “clear.” By working with students to offer additional strategies for deciding to finish, such as considering external criteria and process steps, writing centers can help develop in students this important part of rhetorical judgment.
Our ability to fully articulate criteria for doneness seems likely to always fall short for most types of academic writing. The rhetorical situation is just much too complex. Yet writing, good writing, gets finished every day, and we need to do our best to give our students the rhetorical sensibility to finish well even while acknowledging that such a sensibility is non-exhaustive. In fact, in the field between our ability to articulate ending and ending itself, lies the writer’s voice. Our jobs as teachers of writing should be to bring students up to the edge of that field and set them loose. And if, as Socrates would have it, rhetoric is indeed similar to cookery, then we should remember that no one has ever learned to cook by being told to leave the pot forever on the stove.