A week or so ago, I got an email message from a former student who had been in one of my classes at Ohio State some 25 years ago. That was enough of a treat in and of itself. But the message went on to describe how much this former student now writes in his position as a city planner, and also to remark on what he most remembered about our class.
He wrote: “I remember what I think was our second day of class. You came in and went straight to the white board and drew a thick black line from one end of it to the other. On one end you wrote, in big capital letters, WRITE. On the other end you wrote WRITTEN. Then you talked to us about the choices we were going to have to make to figure out whether we were going to WRITE, that is take action on our own and with some authority, or whether we were going to be WRITTEN by people outside of us. I remember writing those two words down in my notebook and looking at them every so often during the rest of that year. I wanted to WRITE. Looking back, I can see that I have often been able to WRITE but that I’ve also been WRITTEN, especially by my job and by some groups I belong to. I guess I’ve ended up somewhere in the middle of that line, but I hope just a little more toward WRITE.”
I’ve started many of my classes over the years with this same strategy and I’ve always found that students are very interested in this binary and how it applies to their lives. They don’t need to read Foucault (though that wouldn’t be a bad thing) to know they occupy various subject positions, nor do they need a lot of postructuralist theory to alert them to the fact that key elements in their lives—their families, their religious institutions, their schools, and more—are powerful shapers of their lives. In fact, these institutions are often set on writing them—making them into the ideal child, the ideal worshipper, the ideal student, and so on. They feel these pressures keenly. And while they may at first blush and claim that they have a lot of agency, not too far into our discussion they begin to see that what they thought were their own decisions were ones that had been made at least partially for them by others.
We often spend some time making similes or metaphors for what it feels like to write or be written. Usually we draw pictures as well, then use these materials to write what amount to brief essays on rhetorical agency and how available it is to us. This is of course a huge question today, when many feel at the mercy of huge economic and political forces it’s hard to understand, much less control. But for that very reason, it seems more important than ever to engage students in grappling with the subject agency and of looking for ways to enhance it in their everyday lives.
We often put ourselves somewhere along the continuum and then chart how we feel about that placement during the course of the term. Like all binaries, this one is over-simple, which students come to see. But it is a useful concept for them as they begin their college journeys. And for some—like my former student—it’s germane even 25 years later!
Andrea Lunsford and student Jelani Lynch talk about the power of writing in Write Yourself or Be Written, a video in the Macmillan Community.
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