Writing as Building

Yesterday I found myself in a metal shop, cutting and piecing together aluminum for a project underway. The work was satisfying, a sign of my having been considered competent to perform a certain level of work. While not asked to weld, my task did require a certain amount of precision, since my cuts would determine the quality of the overall assembly.

As I stood there measuring and cutting, I thought about my own qualified competence in the world of the metal shop and how it compared to what some of my students feel in the world of the university classroom. What do builders feel like among words?

There’s obviously a lot more that can be said here, but where I found my focus was on the question of how best to reach those builders, to make it possible for them to work with words with as much competence as they bend and weld metal into machines, piece together lumber into houses, or connect electrical lines into a lighting system. After all, a sentence is one word added to another added to another added to another. String sentences together to make paragraph. Stack paragraphs to make a story or an essay.

Is this possibly the beginning of a textbook?

Over the past few years, I think I’ve begun to figure out how to teach students how to approach texts. I’ve even described it as mechanical. My goal has been to make the steps as repeatable and reliable as possible. Such a system doesn’t guarantee a reader any great insight, but I’m not sure I would trust any system that claims to do so. I do feel that students who follow the procedures I’ve developed will know their text well enough to be in a position to have some insight into those possible meanings which they themselves find interesting.

I don’t know that I have developed a similar set of steps for getting students through the writing process. Not yet, not fully.