Quinnipiac University College of Arts and Sciences

Writing Outside the Curriculum

In Students, Teaching on December 10, 2013 at 5:51 pm


By Ken Cormier, Assistant Professor of English

A journalism student recently asked me if I thought the internet and all of its digital-communications spin-offs were having a positive or negative effect on young people’s reading and writing skills. She was working on a class project, and I felt compelled to complicate her question. I showed her a short column entitled “The Phonograph” from the Nov 7, 1877, edition of the New York Times in which an anonymous author speculates that “if the phonograph proves to be what its inventor claims that it is, both book-making and reading will fall into disuse.” The author goes on to envision a future in which students “will never have to learn [their] letters or to wrestle with the spelling book.” To me, this alarmist thinking about the phonograph demonstrates that the question of how emerging technologies will impact literacy is not a question of any one historical moment; it is a perennial question. Furthermore, the assumption that we will become either more or less literate tends to ignore the more plausible, and certainly more complex, inevitability that new technologies will continue to make us differently literate. Since the beginning of the written word, the development of newer, faster, and “better” communications platforms (printing press, typewriter, photocopier, online discussion board, instant message, blog, live tweet, etc.) has allowed more and more participants to enter into a larger discourse that is increasingly accessible and progressively diverse. The monolithic and largely subjective issue of “literacy” begins to show its limitations in such a fluid and dynamic communications environment. After all, no one is “literate” in any single, overarching way. The best communicators are those who know how and when to adopt the most appropriate and effective discourse for any given interaction. It seems we are much better served, then, by considering and examining the plethora of “literacies” that advance and recede as our communications technologies continue to evolve.

This issue of “literacies” can be introduced into the writing classroom to help students see that the specific genre or rhetorical approach that a class calls for them to practice is merely one of an almost infinite number of discourses at work in the world around them. I find that it is crucial to contextualize our various literacies in this way—we communicate one way with our professors, another in our critical papers, another with our friends, another in our poems, another when we text, and so on. When students grasp this concept, they can begin to move past the faulty expectation that any one class will teach them the “proper” way to write and communicate. I want my students to see that when they practice a formal, scholarly voice in their analyses of key passages from their reading, they are simply adding another tool to their ever-growing toolkit—a tool that will serve them well as they move into their professional lives. The same holds for students who work at developing multi-layered characters in their fiction, or creating specific, concrete images in their poems. If I can impress upon my students that they do not need to see the products of their writing as part of a hierarchy—with critical essays at the top and text messages at the bottom—but rather as an assembly of equally valid modes of discourse that they effectively employ when most appropriate, then they can begin to enjoy the acquisition of new skill sets in the writing classroom rather than feel judged for a perceived “lack” of literacy in any one area.

The goal of all writing courses is to bring students to a place where they feel ownership of their work. Writing instructors have all experienced that moment when a student becomes passionate about a research project or decides to read a poem or short story to an audience at a local Open Mic event. This is the moment when the student has learned enough to finally turn away from the structures and models of the writing classroom and to begin work in an area I like to call “Writing Outside the Curriculum,” or WOC. Having spent more than a decade applying Writing-Across-the-Curriculum (WAC) principles and strategies in all of my courses—including writing-to-learn prompts, discipline-specific approaches, portfolios, small-group workshops—I have also begun to see the value of WOC—this other, oft-neglected, yet absolutely crucial stage of development. As a Coordinator of Creative Writing I spend a good deal of time organizing and hosting literary events on campus, including a bi-weekly Student Writer’s Series. It has recently struck me that these events provide a compelling opportunity for assessing the kinds of writing and presenting that students do when they move beyond the boundaries of any particular curriculum. In this space, I regularly see students taking risks in their writing, moving outside of their comfort zones, calculating and addressing (or intentionally resisting) the perceived expectations of their audience, and communicating their ideas in sophisticated, dynamic, and highly expressive ways. In other words, I see students actually doing what I so often implore them to do in the classroom. This leads me to ponder at least two things: 1) the classroom, no matter how open and democratic, is tied so explicitly to the institutional apparatus (curriculum, grades, etc.) that its boundaries (perceived or real) are all but impossible for students to transcend; and 2) the “results” we seek in the writing classroom may not necessarily appear in the progress a student makes from Week One to Week Fifteen, but may, in fact, manifest themselves in parallel or subsequent expressions and utterances as the student moves into new and different spheres.

This is one reason why I consider the “extracurricular” literary events that happen on my campus to be an integral part of a more holistic “curriculum” that writing students can access and learn from during their undergraduate years. This is where they find a community of active thinkers and writers, and this community will ultimately give back as much, if not more than it got from the institution that formed its original, rough outlines. It is a community where “student writers” become writers, and where such writers can feel the power of the various “literacies” at their command.


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