Guest Blogger: sara heaser is a Lecturer of English at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse, where she specializes in basic/co-requisite and first-year writing curriculum, pedagogy, and program development. She is an alum of the Dartmouth Summer Seminar for Studies in Composition Research and is currently in the midst of a qualitative study to explore first-year writing as a space for retention. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have a four-year-old son who understands the world in basic binaries: good vs evil, happy vs sad, big vs small, and such. So when he asks his big questions—lots and lots of them—about really abstract things, I resort to the most simple, applicable analogy I can think of.
Here’s an example. We were reading a book about the human body and he asked about the “weird-looking lines” (veins) inside us. We live in the Midwest on the Mississippi River, so I said that those lines were like little rivers of blood, and that the blood rivers have barges on them, and the barges carry things he needs around his body to where his body needs them. There’s obviously not microscopic chunks of bananas and fruit snacks floating from his stomach to his toes via his veins, but it’s a close enough explanation to appease his curiosity and to reach a level of understanding that he gets, for now.
This is a hard part of parenting, negotiating mutual understanding of an unfamiliar concept. The same goes for teaching. As teachers, we collectively live in the same world as our students, sometimes quite literally in the same communities. But this doesn’t mean we share or value common experiences. This is especially true when it comes to writing.
The students in my FYW courses are well beyond understanding the world dualistically like my son does, but when it comes to writing, I see them rely on old tropes. I often find their understanding of writing and its processes is limited to playing it safe—they rely on archaic rules that someone told them to follow somewhere along the way in their writing education. And as we know, FYW can sometimes be a student’s first foray into writing for purposes and audiences instead of writing to follow rules--a very unfamiliar concept, indeed.
Rules are inflexible; metaphors are interpretative. Introducing metaphors in FYW that imply writing is flexible, unsteady, confusing, messy, frustrating, and such might suggest not only a difference in kind but a difference in understanding of what writing is, as a verb. Some I rely on often:
- A wacky genius effortlessly producing prose is a mythological trope seen in fictional films.
- Writing is like cooking. Gather the ingredients as you prepare, adjust them as needed to your purpose and audience. (And this one reminds me of my own role: I’m not the one cooking. The students are. So back off.)
- Engaging in research is like having a conversation. Sometimes you might not know what the conversation is about, and that’s ok. Just listen for a while.
- Learning to write well is like learning a sport. It requires repetitive, deliberate practice. Just like you might stretch or lift weights to train for a big race, you might practice combining sentences to train for revising a big draft.
The five-paragraph essay, sad and useless, is a particularly fun target on which to apply metaphor. Even entire rhetorics for FYW invoke metaphor, like Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing, which uses “hosts” (the authors) that guide students through a journey of learning about writing.
I don’t have extensive data on student response to metaphor or the effectiveness of metaphorical language in composition pedagogy, but I have a teacherly sense that the use of metaphor in FYW plays a special role beyond just explaining what writing is and can be.
If shared language is a symbol of intimacy, metaphor is essentially the foundation on which we can build a sense of community. (A metaphor to explain a metaphor—I couldn’t resist.) When I overhear students drop our metaphors in conversations or read them in a reflective essay, I can literally see and hear metaphor functioning to humanize writing and to establish a relationship between writer and audience, between student and teacher, and between the most important relationship of them all, between the novice writer and writing itself.
What metaphors do you use to talk about writing with your students?