By Mary E. Fiorenza –
The night before I turned in my dissertation was a kind of waking dream, and not a good one. Perhaps you have experienced a similar dream or night. Looking back, I see now that I might have rescheduled the appointment. I still had two days of a grace period left. But I remember feeling now or never. The dissertation had been defended; it needed to be gone. I worked through the night with periodic naps. I had corrections to finalize, paragraphs to rework, sources to check, citations to format, proofreading. And I still needed to write my acknowledgments.
I had been thinking about those acknowledgments for a while. I drafted and revised them in my head more than once. Writing those acknowledgments would be a culminating ritual on a leisurely final dissertation-day. It would be sunny, and I would work at home with the windows open. There would be a warm breeze. The dog would not nag me to take her for a walk. My acknowledgments would be eloquent, exemplary, a small masterpiece of gratitude. I wanted them to resonate with the people who had helped me, but I also wanted resonance with an inner something, alignment with a writing place I’m going to call my center.
In the end, too close to dawn and jittery with a caffeine hangover, I settled for writing less than I had planned. I actually included the phrase “you know who you are,” that great catch-all category for everyone I knew I was neglecting. Reading over those pages now, I am relieved to note the names of my committee members all appear. I am happy, too, to see the names of fellow travelers through my graduate years, though this list is shorter than I would have it be now. If I were writing it now, I would include many more names, my list of acknowledgments growing longer as the years pass, my recognition of connections and webs of relations etching deeper into both my academic and personal history.
Acknowledging the Social
Those connections point to the social nature of writing, the way we are always writing in relation to real or imagined people, the way power relations and ideology cannot be separated out, the way texts implicate other texts, and writing is all part of “the conversation of [hu]mankind.” I have been trained to look for the way my ideas rest on other people’s ideas, and to see how my ability to write in certain ways (and to write at all) developed from the sponsorship of teachers, mentors, institutions, family, and friends. I’m deeply grateful for that training — I want to acknowledge that again, here. At the same time, the residue of that training can trouble me.
“Writing is a social and rhetorical activity.” I can almost leave off the quotation marks. Except the quotation marks make a connection to a text and a writer; this is one thing I’m trying to show here. Quotation marks or not, the concept is general knowledge in the field of composition and rhetoric. It’s not surprising, then, to see it listed as the first “threshold concept” in the edited collection Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies (17). It’s called a threshold concept because it’s “central to participation in the discipline of writing studies,” but it’s also a tool that’s seen as useful to writers and teachers outside the discipline, an opening into practical knowledge that can be applied to get things done (3).
This notion of writing as inherently social was revolutionary when I first encountered it. At the time, I was trying to figure out how to make the transition from working as an editor/writer to working as a writing teacher. Without going too far into the territory of memoir, let’s just say I did not expect my ideas about writing to change when Professor Deborah Brandt (now emeriti) welcomed me into her “Perspectives on Literacy” seminar. I didn’t know enough to see how it would shake my assumptions to treat, as it said in the syllabus, “writing and reading as pluralistic cultural practices whose forms, functions, and influences take shape as part of larger contexts — social, political, historical, material, and, always, ideological.” I saw myself then as a writer who wanted to teach writing. And I wanted to understand it, too — how writing works in life and in the world. Graduate school became the path.
Aligning with My Center
Working in a university as a member of an academic field reinforces the social view of writing, especially when the field is writing studies. And yet, I find it hard to understand my deepest relationship to writing in a way that aligns neatly with a social view. I see how my writing practices and purposes are embedded in larger contexts. I see the webs of relations etched deep into both my academic and personal history. I know what I do is rhetorical. If I did a better job keeping up with the literature, maybe I could deploy arguments to make a stronger case to myself. Certainly language and literacy would not exist on their own. I know all the basics.
What I’m trying to point toward is the experience where I am waiting for the next word and the next.* Listening. Sometimes transcribing, more usually moving toward an ever receding puddle of light surrounded by darkness, reaching for the sounds and shapes of words that align with intention or hope, possibility or discouragement. Those first steps that can be thwarted by “blocks” or inner critics or helped by whoever or whatever might be an angel to you. Revision comes later and with a more necessary relationship to audience. This experience I’m trying to evoke is — yes, agreed — recursive, complex, a process, material, cultural, cognitive and most definitely influenced by cultural and social forces. But I wonder if it might also be configured uniquely in each person, as each person’s life might share characteristics and categories with other lives, but the breath in your lungs serves only the blood in your own veins.
Maybe center is not exactly the right word, but it appeals to me because it can be said that everything has a center — real or metaphorical or both. And having a center means having something around the center, too.
(*In this experience, there are connections to felt sense in writing, as described by Sondra Perl, but also “rendering,” as Peter Elbow talks about it, and following Elbow, Anne J. Herrington. See works cited, below.)
My sincere appreciation for everyone who has helped me as I wrote this attempt at a blog, especially Brad Hughes and Michael Edmonds. I am almost certain that most of the rest of you do not realize who you are or how your presence helps me. But once again, a large, blanket “thank you.” I would like to add that my enthusiasm for teaching writing and writing studies, not to mention my daily work, is fed by the people who (past and present) share my work life in Helen C. White Hall, among them the graduate students who teach and do WPA work in our writing programs; and the comp-rhet and Writing Center colleagues whose research, teaching, and mentoring of emerging scholars creates an ongoing culture of inquiry and professionalism. Meanwhile, also thanks to the creative writers down the hall who feed me stories and poems as well as companionship, particularly on Wednesdays at lunch.
Works Consulted and Cited
Adler-Kassner, Linda and Elizabeth Wardle, eds., Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies (Logan: Utah State Univ. Press, 2015).
Bishop, Wendy. “You Can Take the Girl Out of the Writing Center, But You Can’t Take the Writing Center Out of the Girl” in Teaching Lives: Essays and Stories (Logan: Utah State Univ. Press, 1997), 155-66.
Brandt, Deborah. English 702 Syllabus, “Perspectives on Literacy,” Fall 2001.
Brandt, Deborah. Literacy in American Lives (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001).
Bruffee, Kenneth A. “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind,’” College English 46.7 (November 1984) 635-52.
Elbow, Peter. Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1981).
Herrington, Anne J. “Gone Fishin’: Rendering and the Use of Personal Experience in Writing” in Writing with Elbow, Pat Belanoff, Marcia Dickson, et al., eds. (Logan: Utah State Univ. Press, 2002), pp. 223-38.
Perl, Sondra. Felt Sense: Writing with the Body (Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2005).