Charles Bazerman, The Wonder of Writing (Chair's Address) CCCC 2009

Here are my rough notes, taken while the speaker was talking. (Conference on College Composition and Communication, 2009.)

After thanking the audience for the “opportunity to serve in the cause of writing,” Bazerman began with Mesopotamian farmer’s clay pebbles used to keep track of flocks. What will the world be like 5000 yrs from now, or a century, or a decade? Our life projects develop with literacy; few in the developed world are farmers, but we participate in complex knowledge-based activities.

Farmer GPS Software slide: “Even farmers now grow crops by the book.”

Writing has been considered sacred; it creates a space where we can be more thoughtful.

Writing facilitates building a parallel world of knowledge that allows us to monitor and influence the world we live in. As teachers of writing, we are bearers of this transformative technology, leading future generations in to more refined skills, deeper understanding, more complex cooperation, new adventures, greater communion.

The take-away message for me…

“The pen may be mightier than the sword, but the pen, like the sword, takes a deft hand, won through long years of training.”

An emotional call for respect for the differences of composition, not by hoping for a world in which all English professors will be judged by their fruits, but rather a separatist rallying cry for the discipline of composition. It was well-received by the audience, though I find I rather like my own identity as an English generalist. (Bazerman invoked journalism several times in his talk. But that’s one of the hats I wear, under the broad umbrella of English, that would not fit with the mission of the CCCC.)

More notes…

Writing is not biologically inevitable for our species; many have lived successful and happy lives never having seen a book or tapped a keyboard. Writing had to e invented from small beginnings, cascading innovations. Nor is it inevitable that every child will learn to compose in this medium. (Noted that children need endless hours of work to practice development…) We barely know the dimensions of skill that contribute to higher levels of participation in advanced literacy.

We have each tasted only a fragment of the variety of writing. But we have all come to appreciate craft, and the commitment to text. We are all aware of the mentoring and support that has allowed each of us to reach this point. Touched by the joys of spontaneity, flow, and discovery, and at some point, the muse.

Writing exists at the intersections of the individual and the social, form/meaning, spontaneous/planned, conscious/non-conscious. It is easy to get lost in the funhouse of text, particularly if we forget the intersections which writing binds together.

How does writing serve to coordninate meanings and interactions, rather than only to inscribe individuality?

One reason – agonistic tradition (“competition for truths”) are most effective in structured institutions that bring divergent parties together (courts, parliaments, political campains, scientific communities, advertising). Mutual tension, shared recognition of meanings and experiences, identification and intelligibility of differences, cumulative shared community of knowledge. Basic cooperative actions such as answering questions, providing, storing, coordinating, and making assessable data.

Of course, within these coordinated tasks, individuals present diversity. Recognition and evaluation of those differences are part of reflective participation and action. Offer criteria evaluation that lets the agonism be harvested.

Common assumptions about rhetoric – cooperation (rather than debate). Rhetoric requires a socially-constructed agora in order to work effectively, even as rhetoric works to reinforce that environment.

For any individual to establish a voice in this system, you have to know the game. If literacy is defined as only reading, and not writing, in the early grades, the absence of writing over the years has an impact on the writer’s ability to articulate an intellectual self. A child who reads without writing can only eavesdrop on the world of literacy, but such a child is neither seen nor heard. The child feels the conversation is about them, they lose interest, and wander off.

As writing educators, we have a vested interest in the literacy of children, so that they bring with them to college the skills that we can use.

Our concern for voice and empowerment supports students to establish identities as they learn to write.

But voice and empowerment are not enough, particularly if we think the voice and power are only from within. Writing to situations (we are embedded within situations). You have to report something into the writing in order to be able to discuss it. Supports participatory democracy and communal knowledge.

Hamurabbi’s Code – example of writing in the hands of the scribal classes. Even the democratizing potential of print was constrained by attempts at state control. As print and paper costs decrease, brand-name marketing of authorship turned literacy into a spectator sport.

The durable words of writing could serve as witness against one’s character or legality; the system of copyright in England started with government control over sedition – “You knew who wrote it, so you knew who to come and get.”

The promise of interactive tech has yet to be realized. “A feel-good simulacra of choice”. Effective action has always required deep understanding of the game.

“The pen may be mightier than the sword, but the pen, like the sword, takes a deft hand, won through long years of training.”

Using the power it makes available requires skills (gained through long years of practice) as well as the courage to wield it.

Invokes the public courage in action – whether the signers of the Declaration, or a child trying to spell a word she’s not sure of.

In the last century and a half, when disciplines have become social and academic forces, we are under the shadow of a discipline that refused to recognize our role for most of the previous century.

History of CCCC within the larger field that subordinated it. Composition is “less preaching to a gospel of elite culture” and the cult of the teacher’ authority, and “more attached to giving voice to all”

Characteristics of other disciplines

1. Practical
2. Student-focused
3. Collaborative
4. Interdisciplinarity
5. Activist
6. Pedagogic

Cited a CCCC leader 45 years ago who articulated the need to break from English.
Bazerman got some applause on his call for composition to complete the break from English, to define itself as its own academic tradition, on its own terms. (The response was not nearly as the much cheaper applause lines that some of the introductory speakers got when they mentioned regime change in Washington.)

Research is the key to completing this transition to a separate intellectual identity.

Listed “Sites of Teaching” – noting “Every college-educated adult has gone through our classes.” (I actually tested out of Freshman Comp, so the first time I was ever in a FC course was when I taught one as a tenure-track faculty member.)

Increased responsibility leads to an increased need to produce a body of evidence that convinces the outside world of the value of what we do. If we find empirical evidence restrictive, it is our obligation to come up with other forms of persuasion.

Called for CCCC attendees to create the conditions we know our profession needs in order to succeed.

Refers to a 1050 Buddhist temple, where The Buddha is walled in, where only one visitor can stand in the doorway at a time without feeling crowded. Bazerman likened the imprisoned Buddha to composition walled in by the greater discipline of English.

Speaking with emotion , his voice breaking, Bazerman shared his vision of the prison walls starting to crumble, so that more people can share a greater vision of writing, including “the devotions it deserves, and the blessings it can bring.”