Comp Theory Notes

Notes on:

“Teach Writing as a Process Not Product” by Donald M. Murray
“Writing as a Mode of Learning” by Janet Emig
“How to Make a Mulligan Stew: Process and Product Again” by Robert M. Gorrell

From: Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader NCTE 1997

Murray’s article reads like a political speech. It seems narrow and simplistic, part of a “chicken and egg” argument that proposes that the egg is far more important than the chicken. However, most students faced with horribly low marks on essays for other classes might take exception with the idea that “all writing is experimental” and that teachers should teach “unfinished writing, and glory in it’s unfinishedness.” On one level, the essay is hopelessly narrow: “The text of the writing course is the student’s own writing . . . The student finds his own subject . . . The student uses his own language.”

Not in any class I have been in, outside the Rhetoric curriculum anyway. All texts follow models, or codes, for communication. These are external constraints, not internal ones. To ignore these considerations is dangerous. However, his basic structural model for the writing process has some usefulness. Mechanics come last; unlimited drafts should be allowed; time is essential, but so are deadlines. Contrary to his final implication, there are rules and absolutes. A writer in the real world is not faced with “endless alternatives.”

Janet Emig suffers from a similar myopia. Emig records “The Sound and the Fury began as the image of a little girl’s muddy drawers as she sat in a tree watching her grandmother’s funeral” The actual scene reported by Faulkner was “The picture was of the muddy seat of a little girl’s drawers in a pear tree where she could see through a window where her grandmother’s funeral was taking place and report on what was happening to her brothers on the ground below.” Trying to explain this situation is what caused Faulkner to write the book; it was clearly a situation rather than a simple image. Focus on the complexity of the image that creates the drive to write seems to be in order, rather than the recognition that all writing begins with an image.

However, Emig’s delineation of the process of writing as an artificial process is quite useful. She stops short on several key points, such as the abstraction involved in separating the knower and the known Understanding the differences between written and oral communication is a key to her approach, and the relationship between written discourse and what we commonly call learning. I agree that writing is fundemental in developing skills in critical thought. However, I differ with both Emig and Murray in their sense that student writing should be the primary text in the writing classroom. Though consideration of audience is more distant in the writing process, the writing process is never really complete without a reader. To ignore the implications of this dangerous. When the egg hatches, it looks at other chickens to figure out how it should act. The lack of good models for writing is what I found really annoying in the Rhetoric department. Without models, or audience, writing is just nihilistic navel gazing.

Gorrell cuts right to the quick of most of my initial reactions. He argues against the sequential nature of the process alluded to by Murray and Emig. However, his linear model for the choices involved in writing echo strongly what Dr. Yoder told me about writing being a process of ever narrowing choices. Each time you place a word on a page, you restrict the choices of what word can follow and still make sense. Gorell argues that the analysis of product is essential, in order to determine the rules which govern these choices. All in all, he makes the most sense to me. If process is unique and flexible among individuals, how can a teacher really expect to teach it? They don’t of course, they are expected to act as facilitators of the process of discovery. I believe that it is possible to both examine the rules of expectation in discourse without stifling the creativity championed by process theory. Excessive focus on either the chicken or the egg doesn’t do much good. The best writing, as Coleridge argues, presents an organic unity of both aspects.

Perhaps what troubles me most about Emig is the animosity towards English departments expressed in a transcript from the Watson Conference on Oral History transcribed in another textbook: “I am very critical of English departments—which are departments of cultural theory in too many cases, in my opinion—because I deliberately chose to live elsewhere.” Process theory seems to move smoothly into social constructivism, which I personally find an abhorrent trend in Rhetoric departments. I’m confused by this, in both cases. Cultural theory can produce enlightened views of product, but process? I’m not so sure. It seems like she’s angry that English departments stole the cookie before Rhetoric had the chance.