Habits of Mind: John Warner on Teaching Writing

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From Public Books:

For over 20 years, John Warner has been a college teacher, a writer in multiple genres, a renowned blogger (at Inside Higher Ed’s “Just Visiting”), and an editor at a range of publications, including McSweeney’s. His polemic Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018) is a contemporary classic in writing studies, while The Writer’s Practice (Penguin, 2019) emphasizes and unpacks the implications of what writing teachers have long emphasized in their classes: that writing is not a magic act, but a recursive intellectual labor, a practice—not pure inspiration. His most recent book, Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Higher Public Education (Belt, 2020), mounts a powerful argument for free college as democratic “infrastructure” in a system wracked by student debt and reliant on exploited adjuncts.

In November 2021, as Congress and the Biden administration scrapped ambitious legislation that would have increased funding to public colleges and universities, Warner sat down with writer and professor Ryan Boyd to talk about teaching, writing, academic labor, and the vast complex of institutions and people that we call Higher Education.

Ryan Boyd (RB): Why is there this widespread, seemingly historically durable perception that college students can’t write? Does someone benefit from this narrative?

John Warner (JW): A lot of this is wrapped up in a notion that when students arrive at school, be it college or high school, they are defective. They are somehow falling short of what we wish them to be, and the role of the school is to turn them into whatever is not defective.

When we say college students can’t write, it usually means they are unfamiliar with academic writing. That students are judged lacking is not surprising, because these formal genres are something students haven’t done before. If I asked a highly proficient academic to write something they have never done before, we would probably look at the results and say, wow, that person really can’t write. Lack of familiarity and lack of practice are confused for lack of ability.

RB: In terms of students’ intellectual development, is there a special role for writing classes, or are we just thinking this because you and I are writing teachers?

JW: Writing courses are an opportunity to ask students to do the type of critical thinking that will serve them well regardless of their major or what they go on to do. I want to introduce them to a way of processing the world through what I call the writer’s practice: the skills, knowledge, attitudes, and habits-of-mind of writers.

In a lot of places, the resources dedicated to something like first-year composition are incredibly limited; sometimes we have the least experienced instructors teaching it, or the lowest paid instructors. That is absolutely upside down. First-year writing is a fundamental class that should be treated as one of the most important classes. First-year composition should be a gateway to what comes next.

RB: I love how you frame this as a question of resources. And as you point out, writing classes are fundamental. We teach pretty much everyone who comes through the door of a university or a college, and yet within the political economy of the university system, we are often considered the least important relative to things like science labs, the business school, or the engineering program.

JW: If institutions were dedicated to things like reducing student attrition and increasing mental health and well-being, they would put a ton of resources into common first-year courses. But they do the opposite. That there is so much good writing instruction—and I have witnessed it, both at the institutions where I have worked and elsewhere—is a miracle. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves that the dedication of an individual instructor to make bad conditions work means that the system doesn’t need fixing.

. . . .

RB: After 2020 there was a shocking stat that higher education as a sector lost a tenth of its workforce, and I thought, surely that is going to lead to something seismic happening. The question maybe isn’t “How do we wait around for the beneficence of administrators to descend upon us and change things?” but more one of forcing schools to change.

Could you speak to the role of labor action and unionization and things like that in the fight for better pedagogy and better teaching conditions?

JW: These things are inextricable. And to the extent that unions representing instructional faculty and staff can make that argument, it can be persuasive. This is not an argument just for improved salaries or benefits for the people doing this work, it is an argument for additional resources to support this activity that everybody says is important.

You will not find a single administrator who says, “We don’t care about the quality of our general education or first-year courses,” or “We don’t care about our students’ mental health.” It’s the opposite. And I believe they are sincere.

So if we accept everybody’s sincerity, we can use that as leverage in the argument to improve conditions for the laborers who do that work, to create better conditions for the instruction to happen, which will ultimately benefit students.

RB: These debates and struggles don’t stop at the campus gates. We need to be getting larger publics on board with the project. And yet, when the legacy media reports on higher ed and academic freedom, I hear a lot of focus on stuff that seems to be more culture war–esque in tone. They are less focused on discussion about labor unions or the student mental health crisis or whatnot.

JW: A huge part of that is that the Harvards and Yales and Stanfords and USCs dominate the conversation at the broader public level. And as simple as this sounds, much of that is because the people who write and think and comment on these things went to those schools.

The solution is to try to do much more to raise the issues of real college students. Having these arguments over these elite spaces really serves the interests of people who attended them or intersect with them.

Link to the rest at Public Books

PG posits that a great many college professors can’t write either.

To be fair, more than a few attorneys can’t write.

11 thoughts on “Habits of Mind: John Warner on Teaching Writing”

  1. Ryan Boyd (RB): Why is there this widespread, seemingly historically durable perception that college students can’t write? Does someone benefit from this narrative?

    I think that idea comes from reading what so many college graduates write.

    • Good writing *starts* with critical thinking.
      Not much of that in too many recent grads these days. Some acquire it afterwards in the school of hard knocks but many never pay attention to the lessons.

      My most useful training in college came from my Plant Design & Engineering Economics prof who ran a guerilla war against the language departments over technical writing. He structured his course around real world job requirements (never calling it technical writing) and insisted we learn to write memos, progress reports, and white papers. Come my first job, I was assigned a simple failure analysis as an undeclared test to see what on the job training I needed. Answer: none.

      As a rule most technical training ages poorly as tech evolves and the old ways fall by the wayside but good writing (clear, concise, complete) is a lifelong skill. It also makes for quick promotions. 😀

  2. Hmm. Well, I would phrase it as “Does a cause of action for First Amendment retaliation claims exist under the precedent(s) laid out in Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics?”

    However, although my formulation is, I believe, somewhat better phrased, I do wonder whether the phrasing is just poor English or a case of “this is how it’s always been done.”

    Now, as to the latter points – every profession has its own language. Legalese, in the main, is actually a model of clarity compared to my own former profession of software development – and we won’t get into an outsider trying to decipher Milspeak. I presume that a SCOTUS Justice (and their law clerks) are expert speakers of Legalese, and would have little trouble understanding the issue being brought up here.

    • I can decode Milspeak. I’m no outsider; I spent More Than A Few Years between undergrad and law school as The Old Man. So I understand the concern.*

      One would hope that everyone in the courts is an expert. One must also remember, however, that the law clerks are (with rare exceptions) one or two years out of law school, having done at most only a prior clerkship and no practice. And almost without exception, they did not live in the real world at any time — straight from high school to four years of undergrad to three years of law school. So the clerks are… not expert. Since the clerks screen everything for the judges, that can create Problems.

      But it’s pretty bad when Supreme Court justices, less than two decades later — including two who signed on to the earlier opinion — outright state “We said this misleadingly and with bad writing the first time around, it has had serious effects that have harmed parties, and so now we’re saying it the way we should have.”** Or you could just consider one of my favorite appellate opinions in which the Court of Appeals remarked (quoting from memory) that a contract provision was not a model of clarity, and it “had obviously been drafted by lawyers.” A quick search of just the Seventh Circuit’s reported decisions when I maintained a law office there shows several dozen precendential decisions directly criticizing lawyers (not legislators, not lobbyists, not pro se litigants, not claims-processing employees) for unclear writing, often involving misuse of technical terms.

      * We won’t get into the utter contempt I have for the misuse of previously-existing technical terms in directly related fields in advertising, perhaps most obviously the food chain. My entire diet consists of organic food, because I’m not in the habit of chowing down on granite — Quarry is not my favorite cereal (very, very old SNL reference).

      ** I’m away from my more-academic law materials right now, which included an extensive law journal article on the civil-procedure doctrine in question, and how it distorted copyright law, that got pulled from submission when the Supreme Court recognized its error. The “corrective” case is Arbaugh v. Y&H Corp., 546 U.S. 500 (2006). And it matters directly to authors because it’s both a consequence of Tasini and a lead-up to Muchnick.

      • Well, technically Grape Nuts (reg. tm) are “food.” But if you have ever tried them, the experience is remarkably similar to munching on gravel. (For some reason, my Mother liked it – and one morning, there was no other cereal in the house.)

        “Organic” to me is a label indicating “includes assorted additional organisms for no extra cost.”

        The other thing that annoys me about marketing labels are “gluten free” – most recently seen on a block of cheddar cheese.

      • How about federal contractese? 😉
        I loved seeing the debates over whether it was better to use shall vs will in the RFP.
        Fun watching engineers and procurement specialists butting heads.

        • That’s just because the “procurement specialists” didn’t know the criminal-law meaning of “procure.” Or hadn’t ever been to Amsterdam. <vbeg>

          We can go several levels of reflexiveness deeper with this, any time y’all like.

          • Not sure it would be fun for everybody.
            I try to limit my reminiscences to protect the guilty. 😀

            • Probably a good plan around here. There aren’t a whole lot of “innocents” among writers… except on the business end of things.

  3. PG is far, far too generous to the legal profession. The legal profession can’t write a shopping list.


    For a lawyer doing an appellate brief, the “shopping list” is the “Questions Presented for Review” — the specific issues that one wants an appellate court to rule upon. Most lawyers (and the entire tradition) would be roundly criticized by the late Alex Trebek, and rightly so: They can’t even put the Questions Presented for Review in the form of a question. They write something like this:

    Whether a cause of action exists under Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics for First Amendment retaliation claims

    Egbert v. Boule, No. [20]21–147 (U.S., argued 02 Mar 2022). And remember that if you’ve gotten a petition for review accepted at the US Supreme Court, you’re near the top of the heap among appellate attorneys.

    And that’s one of the clear ones. At least, it’s clear if you already know what a Bivens action is, and what a “First Amendment retaliation claim” is (I should also point out that this question is far too broad, because the scope of a “retaliation claim” is different for free exercise of religion, freedom of assembly, and free speech… regardless of whether it should be different, it is).

  4. I take issue with the premise that it’s academic writing only that students can’t do.

    My sibling used to teach university level writing for business majors. Judging by the writing, and I saw some of it myself, no one is teaching grammar anymore. Misused pronouns, subject and verb disagreements, using the wrong word, erroneous spellings galore, punctuation? what’s that? and that is before you get to the lack of organization of thought.

    I spared a grateful thought to those boring classes in grammar and high school where they taught us grammar, spelling and how to write various things. College level is way too late to start.

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