Academic Writing and Self-Development

Delivered at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, March 2004.

Academic Writing and Self-Development


Nick Tingle

When students enter the university they are enjoined in a development move.  I say “enjoined” because this is not a biological move, like learning to walk.  Rather the structures of the university, the way knowledge is assorted, arranged and presented, enjoin a move at the cognitive level.  This isn’t a move students have to take and many students don’t.  Still, they feel it—and its potentials.

            But it’s a hard move to make because any development move entails growing pains, no less so for cognitive development. As the educator, Robert Kegan, puts it students must undergo significant alterations in their selves.  The movement is not just purely a cognitive movement, a matter of somehow getting it, but a psychological movement as well.  Students may learn to mimic academic writing for example, but they won’t truly get it until they have also made the psychological move.  And if students can get it at the psychological level, they are positioned to reap the rewards of their labors; they may experience their education as a kind of victory, of one might say, trauma redeemed.

            Most specially, using the work of Heinz Kohut on self psychology and Winnicott on object relations, I argue that students as they attempt the developmental move can undergo various degrees of self destabilization and fragmentation at the cognitive level.   They can and do become confused.  This is not a pleasant state—and tied to other things, such as getting a good grade, or wanting to make one’s parents proud, can produce anxiety, anger, rage, and at the worst forms of depression.

            This theory has led me to a different way of looking at student work.  When they write poorly I do no necessarily see inattention, or too much TV and not enough reading, or laziness (students love to condemn themselves for laziness), but other things happening at a deeper level.  I have had for example to stop reading papers midway through because it appeared to me that in the disorganization, in the suddenly broken sentences, that the student was simply having a terrible experience, an experience of pulling the teeth and was breaking down in panic.

            Sure, inattention may play a part; laziness may play a part—failure to read, that too may play a part.  Sure, too, students today seem just to want to pile up credits and get through the whole thing as soon as possible; and just getting through it, maybe esp. true of the required writing courses I teach.  I am wholly convinced that students today are entirely consumerist in their orientation, that all they want from their college education is a degree.  This may seem incredibly idealistic.  But I do believe they want something more.  I believe they want to develop.  I believe they would like to take advantage of the new ways of thinking offered them by the university, not just for a grade, but for the help such ways of thinking might provided in understanding an increasingly incomprehensible world.

            The university, however, does a very poor job responding to students developmental needs.  It enjoins a move but it does nothing to support students in that move.  It throws knowledge at students, in a positivistic form, as Henry Giroux, has argued, a historicized, a personalized, a subjectivised, as if it emanated from an implacable machine, and students are left to do their best with it.  How for example must students feel when in the first, the intro course to environmental studies, they are asked to read a text that details seven ways the world will end through ecological disaster by the end of this century?  I think minimally a person might be upset, might feel all sorts of things that might lead him or her to be inattentive.

            I am something of an Hegelian—I believe development entails a labor of the negative.  One must be shook up, disoriented.  One must swim against the river and cut against one’s own grain.  Much of what the university teaches is counter-intuitive.  A direct and indirect assault on common sense, on that shared interpersonal reality that is everyday reality, the reality that makes action possible.  As such, university knowledge must cast students’ beliefs into doubt; or more precisely it asks of the student that he or she understand his or her beliefs, not as direct avenues to the real, but as their beliefs, as things shaped by their personal histories and backgrounds.  As asserted relations to the real, but not as the real itself.

            As Winnicott says, no one human being has direct access to the real.  What a person has are his or her relations to it.  These are the things–the relations–that one might come to know and in knowing them to see how they put things in and leave things out.  But to see this, to come to this reflective position, means losing contact with one’s beliefs, as things that come to one externally, like the voice of God or the Ten Commandments, as directions for how one is to act or to be.  At this point, instead, if one is to get it, one must experience one’s self as the creator of the world, as a potential shaper of knowledge in one’s own right, as evidence gatherers, as arguers, who may like all arguers be either right or wrong.  And this—a kind of new found autonomy—is itself dangerous and rife with potentials for grandiosity and arrogance.

            I believe then that the university offers the student something of developmental value.  Roughly and philosophically, the values it offers are enlightenment values.  The values of objectivity, for example, or autonomy, or skepticism, or enlightenment critique.  But it does a lousy job of teaching them.  The writing class, as a place within the university, also participates in enjoining of students a developmental move.  Who hasn’t in the introductory writing class struggled with the business of academic writing?  And what does this form of writing imply but a certain ideology of self itself part and parcel of the overall move enjoined by the university.
But the writing class is a different sort of place.  At its heart, as Mark Bracker argues, is an exchange in discussion and in writing between teacher and student.  Given the potentials of the situation, I envision the writing class as the one place—for the present—where the developmental move that students undergo may be directly addressed, as the place where the educational value of the university may be, if not fulfilled, at least indicated.  I think of the writing class as a transitional space, one that might acknowledge and support students in their developmental move.

            When I say transitional space, I have specifically in mind Winnicott’s definition of transitional space; this is an area and a time when something very important happens between mother and child.  At first the child does not know or recognize objects as independent.  In the transitional environment the mother and the child play and this play occurs under the injunction, Winnicott says, never to ask, is this thing real or not, imaginary or not.  But through this play, the child comes gradually to establish what is real, what is out there and what is imagined.

            The transitional space is, I would argue, the place of learning or true education, a place where what is learned becomes integrated with the self and marks a step in development.  Our students of course know about internal and external objects. But knowing what is out there or in here in the invisible world of ideas, concepts, theories, and notions is another matter entirely.  If students have trouble with a text or an idea, this is most likely the result of their having “merged” with the text or the idea (and this merger may take the form of negative judgment), in such a way that they are not able to see the text as something that might be saying, indicating, arguing something other than what they think it does.

            In the writing class as transitional environment, one may teach extrospection.  Epistemologically, this is objectivity.  Psychologically, this is a task and a labor that involves the capacity of the individual to assert a relation to a thing—a person, an event, a text—as possibly meaning something other than what one takes it to mean.  But this is not easy because it opens up the possibility for becoming confused, or uncertain, or wondering if the thing is saying or indicating anything at all.  This is the sort of thing that can happen in the writing classroom; and in the back and forth of teacher and student in talk and writing, the student may come to abide with confusion, to see it as a challenge, rather than a quick step to chaos.  The may happen as long as one attempts in one’s pedagogy never to ask is this true or false, or is this right or wrong?

            But this is damn hard to do.  The teacher is taken by students as the one who knows; and the university is the place where the most up to date information on all manner of issues is given to students.  Of course, it is all true.  This perhaps explains students’ amazing ability to latch onto any clear bit of opinion that a teacher offers and put it in their next paper.  The only way I have found to confront this difficult is to tell myself and occasionally students, that what I am teaching really is my self.  This sounds, I suppose, sort of mystical.  But what I am saying to myself—and not my students—is that I have in my development moved into the value system of the university.  In fact, to the extent that I understand postmodernism, I have moved two steps away from where my students are.

            This is a funny thing.  Some of the child’s greatest developmental steps occur during the period when the child has as Freud puts its infantile amnesia.  All developmental steps may be like that; we forget that we have made them.  It’s as if we take a step up and then discard the ladder.  All of us in this room have made the step into the ways of thinking typical of the university; but we have mostly forgotten how we did it or that we ever thought another way.  Further, we want to share with our students the fruits of our labors, to tell them directly what we know.  But because we have forgotten our own development we tend to project upon our students our own state of knowledge.  We become frustrated when they don’t get it.  But we will be frustrated as long as we project the very thing that needs to be supported: the developmental move into the ways of thinking that shape our knowledge.

            This step, the step of remembering and theorizing about what one remembers, I call the self-restoration of the writing instructor.