Doug Hesse provocatively asked the question, Who Owns Writing?, during his 2005 chair's address at the Conference on College Composition and Communication. Hesse revisited the question of ownership in 2008 as the keynote speaker at a conference hosted by Hofstra University, assembled to address the future of composition and rhetoric. This time he re-framed the question into "Who Speaks for Writing?" The conference co-chairs, Rich and Lay, later edited a book that pulled together many of the ideas at the conference, Who Speaks for Writing: Stewardship in Writing Studies in the 21st Century (2012).
I believe I can safely say that members of the English Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage are not jealous of the turf on which we work. We embrace the notion that all faculty at UAA are writing teachers to the extent that they exchange ideas with their students. And when it comes to areas of expertise, faculty on the inside of a discipline are often in a better position to guide their students in particular ways of making and communicating knowledge than we are.
At the start of the Fall 2014 semester, we gathered to hear from Lisa Ede, co-author of our new textbook, Everyone's an Author. She spoke about what it means to teach writing in a profoundly digital age. Writing teachers from across campus and from the local school district attended.
While we don't believe that we own writing, we feel a great deal of responsibility for helping our students develop as effective writers and for advocating on their behalf. Responding to a recent assessment of writing in our own department, which revealed that students' use of source materials was not at the level we would like, a few of us pursued collaborations with librarians to create library guides that will help students learn to synthesize the ideas of others and integrate them into their own thinking.
For the same reasons we think it's important to assess student writing, we think it's equally important to assess our writing assignments, to analyze what and how we are asking our students to respond. (I will soon be updating our web page to share more recent versions of writing assignments). Starting this term, several of us will be analyzing writing assignments in English and in the department of history to look for ways that we can help students build bridges as they use writing in different contexts.
So how does Hesse answer the questions about who owns or speaks for writing? In sum, he recommends that we step aside from the first question and to turn our expertise toward the second by thinking of ourselves as stewards. He invites writing teachers to concentrate on how we might create conditions that support literacy development and provide opportunities for students to connect their experiences in and out of school and to build a diverse repertoire of writing strategies. To adopt a stewardship orientation is to foreground how ‘outsiders,’ students most of all, understand writing. It will be no easy task given popular misunderstandings of writing and the inherent complexity of it all.
More specifically, Hesse makes three recommendations that I call upon my colleagues to accept:
- Our first task is to work harder to explain writing and writers to stakeholders outside English departments, using language that is compelling and understandable.
- Second, let’s expect all writing teachers to know the fields’ history, research, practices, and internal disagreements and be able to justify our teaching within that knowledge.
- Finally, let’s connect our professional interests with those of our students. Our students are always more than students. They are citizens, workers, friends, and family too. They have pasts and futures that may be nothing like ours. Ignoring how students experience language and textuality risks making students cynical about in-school writing and letting them miss important connections to the writing they do outside of school.
We've got important work ahead of us, and it's good to be starting a new school year.