Review: Writing as a Way of Being
Abstract illustration, multicolor flower pattern: Talitha May 2014

My approach to teaching writing was long characterized by an emphasis on the quality of the texts my students produced. But as Murray often reminded his students, it is the writing itself that teaches us—if we allow it. This idea of learning from writing rather than learning to write is an important one, but I really don’t think many people understand what Murray meant. (Yagelski, 2011, p. 145)


Robert Yagelski (2011) discussed a pedagogy that shifts the central importance from the writer’s text to the experience of the writer writing (p. 161). Mainstream writing instruction not only reduces writing to skills, but over-emphasizes the production of texts for a specific purpose. Furthermore, even the process of revision becomes a matter of techne insofar as the text becomes the locus of correctness and form. Yagelski invited readers to move beyond mainstream pedagogy and consider what students can learn “from writing rather than learn[ing] to write” (p. 145). Despite this progressive pedagogy, metaphysics could rear its head for the uncritical compositionist.

Yagelski (2011) initially directed his attention to one of his students named Chelsea in a short case study to demonstrate the transformative power of writing as collaborative inquiry and reflection. The story demonstrates that students can use writing as a way to inquire further into their experiences in the world rather than treat writing as a matter of technique. In the case of Chelsea who wrote a narrative about a personal experience, if Yagelski had pushed the agenda of mainstream writing pedagogy, rather than collaborative inquiry, then her lived experience would merely perpetuate “prevailing cultural values and myths” and be reduced to “technical expectations for narrative texts in general” (p. 152). Mainstream pedagogy embraces techne, which operates on an a priori basis, independent of experience. Experience and inquiry, however, exceed our limited and habituated obsession with correctness, form, and mere textual production. Yagelski explained, “teaching writing only as technique and rhetorical skill undermines the potentially powerful experience of writing for the writer—and, ultimately, for all of us, since the writer’s insights into herself and her experiences are not only shared with us but can also shape the way we live together in the sense that they become part of our shared inquiry into living together on earth” (p. 160). In short, an ontological approach to writing “allows us to see that the experience of writing has an effect on the writer exclusive of the use of the writer’s text” (p. 107). Writing is more than learning to write and sustaining the status quo—it is a matter of writing as a way of being. Ultimately, writing instruction “should be about creating a better world” (p. 139).

Reading Yagelski’s (2011) book has pushed me more in the direction of understanding the grim implications of reducing writing to techne. With this in mind, when my composition students conferenced with me last year, reminding them to revise their discourse community ethnographies for their final portfolio seemed irrelevant and even absurd. I was asking students to simply revisit a previously written text and revise it simply as matter of techne rather than inquiry. Although I wanted them to engage in critical academic skills to develop a better text, that was the key problem. These revisions were not going to “provoke genuine inquiry that can lead to insight into and understanding of the issues that emerge from the writing” (p. 152). Furthermore, my gaze was fixed on the text as a product of their experience rather than their experience of writing. In many ways, then, their ethnographies superseded the importance of revision because writing became inquiry about their lived experience, and not just an exercise in particular skills.

Something special emerged from some of the discourse community ethnographies of my students. The students were exceeding the limits of the assignment and were using writing as a way to inquire about their daily experiences. One student who began writing about a fraternity discourse community, for example, began to use his paper as a way to question what his goal was for being in college. This inquiry was not indicative of a lack of focus, but demonstrated his need to inquire into a complex problem that worried him. Still, another student turned a critical eye toward his online gaming community and uncovered how the community merely upheld hegemonic depictions of masculinity and reinforced elements of Cartesian thinking. These students began engaging with writing not as mere convention and form, but as inquiry and a way to make sense of the world. It is little wonder that the students found the ethnography unit to be the most compelling.

Unlike Yagelski’s (2011) experience with Chelsea, however, I never conversed with my students “about relationships in general, and about [themselves]” (p.150). In fact, when I tried, a couple of students did not want to talk about themselves. Did they sense my drive toward unifying excess? Although I too hoped my students’ texts “could serve as a gateway for [their] continued inquiry into [their] experience,” maybe they were not ready to move beyond “prevailing cultural values and myths” and may in fact need them for reasons beyond my limited scope (p. 152). Fitting for this situation, Friedrich Nietzsche (1887) explaied, “but perhaps this error was as necessary for you then, when you were still a different person—as are all your present ‘truths,’ being a skin, as it were, that concealed and covered a great deal that you were not permitted to see” (pp. 245–6). Although Yagelski himself does not demonstrate metaphysical tendencies toward being, it could be easy for instructors to become what Heidegger (1962) terms the “they” when they feel the urge to push students toward transformation. For Heidegger (1962), “the ‘they’ prescribes one’s state of mind and determine what and how one sees” (p. 213). Ontologically speaking, the potentiality of such metaphysical thinking could bring us back to Descartes, warming ourselves next to his fire. If we stop reducing writing to skill, however, and instead focus on writers writing, what would be the transformative effects on writers? What would be the transformative effects on us, together, in the world?