Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Can you write well without reading? 

I doubt it, and so does this report from the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. I remember someone telling me long ago that to write well I had to read good writers. I often wonder who the writers I like on the web -- Lileks or Steyn, for instance -- like to read? I like the blogs that list what books their authors are currently reading. Apparently this is NOT how our students are taught writing, however.
Across the country, thousands of English faculty teach composition. But the typical instructor is a graduate student or part-time instructor who meets with twenty or more students two or three times a week for a quarter or semester. The students write short papers, sometimes to be revised and resubmitted. On occasion, usually toward the end of the course, they compose longer essays. They are usually expected to consult a grammar handbook and a rhetoric that combines brief readings and assignments. Ordinarily, they must also buy a novel or anthology of essays to supply ideas about which to write. There is almost no pattern in these selections. In our surveys, the most popular whole works were Woman Warrior and Frankenstein, but these titles appeared in only 3% of the sample.

Readings that serve as models for writing are usually brief illustrations of rhetorical strategies. Class time is typically devoted to discussions of self-expression, structure, style, audience, and purpose as they relate to student papers, or to debates about contemporary issues. The grade is based on immediate measures of how well the student writes. Skill in writing, and the techniques to train and exercise that skill, are the subject matter that determines the content of the course. Reading takes on a subordinate, often incidental role. Students are ?writers.? They are almost never referred to as readers.

...Accomplished writings ? those that have been most worth saving and rereading ? are neglected. Approaches that combine literature and composition, which for generations have presented composition students with practical, inspiring, and challenging literary models, have fallen into disuse.


UPDATE: John Bruce did, and finds the report poorly written.