Just a few weeks into the fall semester of college, a first year student of mine revealed her exasperation about the inordinate amount of time and energy she had spent in high school “learning MLA” because her teachers claimed “everyone in college uses MLA.”
This moment in class captures perfectly the great divide that exists between the mostly rote and significantly flawed approaches to teaching writing in K-12 settings governed by high-stakes accountability and the disciplinary writing that students must demonstrate in college and then (possibly) as writers or scholars themselves.
In my writing intensive first year seminars, we seek to unpack what students have been taught about writing before college, and then begin a journey in which we read authentic texts (both popular and disciplinary essays) like writers and scholars. I have adopted over my 30+ years as a writer and writing teacher a philosophy that begins with the broad (literary essays by writers) and then couches the narrow (disciplinary essays by scholars) within that.
Below, I walk through Barbara Kingsolver’s “Making Peace,” from High Tide in Tucson, as an example of how reading like a writer (scholar)—asking what a writer is doing, how (style, literary/rhetorical technique, grammar, and mechanics) the writer is accomplishing it, and why it works or doesn’t—repeated often and throughout a semester, and even an entire college career, can instill genre awareness so that students can cast off their roles as students to become writers and scholars.
From Literary Essays to Disciplinary Writing
“When I left downtown Tucson to make my home in the desert,” Kingsolver confesses in her opening sentence, “I went, like Thoreau, ‘to live deliberately'” (p. 23).
When my students and I explore this essay by Kingsolver, we have already done an activity on openings—in which we look at just the first paragraphs of several of her essays in order to begin to challenge the introduction/thesis paradigm and move toward a wide range of strategies for engaging and focusing the reader.
Again the purpose here is to pull back to the broad conventions of essays (literary essays for a mostly lay audience) in order to nest disciplinary writing in those conventions (acknowledging that many disciplines do conform to a functional [but not aesthetic] template: introduction with overt thesis, body, and conclusion).
In that first sentence—and then throughout the essay with references to Preston Adams, Joseph Campbell, Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Lewis Henry Morgan, and Kafka—Kingsolver reveals both her awareness of and her speaking to a targeted audience, well educated and literate readers . As well, the entire opening paragraph is highly detailed (images) and humorous, and thus, engaging and interesting.
For literary essays, then, we note that instead of offering an overt thesis, reader engagement is primary. In fact, while Kingsolver has a very clear focus (thesis), it isn’t revealed until several pages in: “Ownership is an entirely human construct” (p. 26).
Kingsolver’s confrontation of ownership becomes much more direct and even scholarly toward the end when she notes: “Life is easier since I abdicated the throne. What a relief, to relinquish ownership of unownable things”—which is reinforced by quoting Engels (p. 33).
Throughout, our reading this essay like writers (scholars), we begin to note the conventional differences between a literary essay and disciplinary writing, highlighting Kingsolver’s own direct and subtle nods to the disciplines (literature, economics, anthropology, religion, botany, and biology). And so we begin to frame this essay against disciplinary conventions:
- While Kingsolver highlights narrative and literary constructions, disciplinary writing tends toward exposition.
- Kingsolver’s citations are sparse—names, quotes—but disciplinary writing has a much more stringent threshold for identifying references and quotations.
- Organization and structure are more aesthetic, including Kingsolver’s use of graphic breaks to show transitions (the publisher uses a wave image), but disciplinary writing tends toward subheads and more overt structural devices as well as more direct statements of claims.
- In both Kingsolver’s essay and disciplinary writing, however, diction, style, grammar, and mechanics must match the purpose of the essay as well as the targeted audience; in other words, these matters are about appropriateness and purpose, not correctness. There are no universally right words, there are no rules of grammar.
Just as I focus on openings, I also highlight endings. Kingsolver’s “Making Peace” builds to a two-sentence final paragraph: “So what, they all declare with glittering eyes. This is their party, and I wasn’t exactly invited” (p. 34).
Here, I emphasize that just as Kingsolver eschews the mechanical introduction/thesis, she also avoids the conclusion as restatement of the introduction. Instead, literary essays often frame the body paragraphs; in this essay, Kingsolver returns to the party/not invited motif from the end of the first paragraph.
Framing is an aesthetic approach that many disciplines ignore, especially if the disciplinary writing is primarily functional, such as transmitting new or synthesized information.
For students as emerging writers and scholars, the lessons of reading like a writer (scholar) are about appropriateness in the context of conventions and purposefulness within the writer’s/scholar’s awareness of her/his audience.
From Reading like a Writer (Scholar) to Drafting to Conferencing
My goals and process for first year seminar students in a writing intensive course include exploring What is an essay? and then What is a disciplinary essay? In those explorations, I am seeking ways in which students can become autonomous, ways in which students can rise above being students in order to embrace their autonomy as writers and/or scholars.
Reading like a writer (scholar) is foundational to that so that students begin to ask what writers are doing, how writers are achieving their purposes, and in what genres and conventions writers (scholars) are working.
The walk-through above is within a process that asks students to craft and submit a personal narrative followed by an on-line essay (using hyperlinks for citation) and then a disciplinary essay using a discipline-specific citation style sheet. Students also submit a fourth essay, but that is determined by their needs after completing the first three.
Vital to that process and anchored by reading like a writer are professor/student conferences after the initial submission of each essay.
Reading like a writer practices help inform what students need to consider, but also provide concrete references during the conferences.
For example, I begin conferences by asking who the primary/intended audience is as well as what the purpose of the essay is: to inform that audience or to call that audience to some action or behavior.
From there, we begin to investigate the essay draft against what we have discussed with authentic essays and reading like a writer (scholar): we consider the effectiveness of the opening, the scope and amount of claims, the authority of the student in the context of those claims and the topic(s), the use (or lack) of evidence, and the framing of the essay.
These investigations of the first draft become revision strategies for the student, with a premium placed on the agency of the student as a writer (scholar).
Just as reading like a writer replaces the narrow high school focus on literary analysis (the literary technique hunt and parroting back to the teacher what she/he said about the text), we replace the mechanical essay template of high school with a developing genre awareness of students as becoming-writers (scholars) who write with an awareness of audience and conventions (both popular and disciplinary) that demonstrates purposefulness, and not mere rote compliance.
My exasperated student shaking her head about the misguided focus on MLA prompted many other students to express the same sort of frustration. But more troubling is that very bright students with outstanding potential are often nearly frozen with uncertainty when faced with authentic expectations of essay writing.
The essay, however, is a vibrant and beautiful thing, rendered like students into a lifeless state by formal schooling.
Reading like a writer (scholar) helps breath life back into reading as well as writing, opening the door for students to become the writers (scholars) they can be.
 In Kingsolver’s “Creation Stories,” for example, she begins with “June is the cruelest month in Tucson,” as allusion aimed at a literate audience indeed.