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Summary for Janet Emig's "Writing as a Mode of Learning"

In “Writing as a Mode of Learning,? Janet Emig posits the argument that writing “represents a unique mode of learning? different from talking, listening, and reading, other forms of composing, and composing in other graphic symbol systems (89). She gives primacy to writing over these other methods of learning because writing is the most available. She further emphasizes writing’s importance by differentiating the nature of writing from listen, reading, and most importantly, talking while noting a problem in courses that primarily focus on reading and listening. Reading and listening, Emig notes, are “receptive functions? (which implies passivity) while writing and talking are active or “productive functions? (90). She makes an important distinction between writing and talking, arguing that writing is not “talk recorded? but a unique language function. Her detail here is thorough, yet in places problematic. For example, in citing the differences that privilege writing, she notes, “Because writing is often our representation of the world made visible, embodying both process and product, writing is more readily a form and source of learning than talking? (91). Hmmm.

Drawing on sources as varied as Jean Piaget, John-Paul Sartre and Robert Pirsig, Emig attempts to clarify her thesis by defining “learning? from different disciplines and by drawing on the relationship of writing to learning as an active, organic process that follows the pace of the writer and engages the whole person. Writing is a unique mode of learning for Emig because it is both process and product—it allows for constant feedback and reinforcement of process while continuously displaying the written product. This constant back-and-forth of process and product, work and reward, is what makes writing so central to learning. She writes, “If the most efficacious learning occurs when learning is re-inforced, then writing through its inherent re-inforcing cycle involving hand, eye, and brain marks a uniquely powerful multi-representational mode for learning? (92). Lastly, Emig draws on the “epigenetic? nature of writing; in other words, writing leaves a trail of notes, journals, drafts, and “full discursive formulations? (although Emig would have to change her argument today as technology allows us to immediately delete the unsavory parts of our writing). She leaves us with a call to other scholars to continue her “crucial line of inquiry? to save writing as a “central academic process? (96).


Heh. I agree with Lisa's "Hmm."

Indeed, I was left with the impression that Emig believes that writing is not just unique--a defensible position, I think--but that writing is the most important, the key to learning. On the good side, it made me start to think about the weaknesses of writing, and its possible drawbacks as a medium, which I think is an "important line of inquiry" as well.

Among things I found problematic...

The idea that "writing provides its own context." Isn't there a context of shared cultural knowledge, ways to write in different genres, etc.?
The idea that written word is far and away most important, and spoken word is "mundane." In the modern, televised era isn't spoken word also critical?
"Writing involves the fullest possbile functioning of the brain." Uh, I didn't see a citation for that.
"In enactive learning, the hand predominates." The hand floating in the air, not directed by the brain?

So I wondered...what are the possible downsides of writing as a learning medium? Can it be too private? Can we be too unwilling to change our ideas, or at least less willing, once we have committed them to paper? Especially as a writing teacher, I think it's important to think about the ways in which other modes--talking, listening, other types of construction--might be better for some types of learning activities or people.

I agree with the points of critique Lisa and Marcia bring up, but my overall response to the article is positive. I read a quote once that went something like, "I don't know what I think about something until I write about it." Unfortunately, I can't remember who said that, but it rings true with me - I find that articulating something in writing usually forces me to really think through it carefully, and that I often understand my own thoughts on an issue much better once I've put them down in writing.

As Marci and Lisa said, writing is not the only way to do that. Speaking - especially recorded or public speech - can have the same effect. I guess what I like about writing in that regard, though, is that you usually have a chance to take back your words; it's not as easy to do that once your spoken words are in the air. Sometimes (often?) I realize immediately that something I've said out loud doesn't really make sense, or that it's inconsistent with something else I've said or something I belieive; when that happens in writing, I have the chance to revise it before anyone else can call me on it. Obviously you can't erase something that's been published or read by others, but in most cases it's not as easy to stick a foot in your mouth while writing as it is while speaking.

What I found myself thinking as I read this is that while it should be obvious that writing is heuristic, I'm not sure that my students all see that. Perhaps I can be more explicit with my students in encouraging them to explore and expand themselves as they write, rather than simply trying to display the knowledge they already have (or have simply collected) or write what they think an instructor wants to hear. I'd like to see that my students understanding the powerful learning tool writing can be.

Oops! That anonymous post is from me.

I was struck that many of Emig's reasons for the primacy of writing would be true of recorded speech as well. For example, both writing and recorded speech allow for easily building on the ideas of non-proximal others, and no need for fully committing to memory.

Heather's post raised an interesting thought for me. Has anyone experimented with audio recorded spoken assignments?

I've had students bounce good, well-communicated research ideas off me, only to watch them struggle to write those same ideas on paper. My take was that this struggling was more about putting it in a form that is known for being graded. I wonder if my students would do better if I asked for an audio recording with the instruction to speak out loud their research question and justification for it.

This article makes me think about the role of “advertising?. Why is it necessary to promote something? Do we really need to promote the importance of some process/product as writing?
Can we say that some people don’t use the power of writing because they don’t understand its power? Or is because of something else?
Why is e-mail a popular way of writing communication between our students even if they don’t like to write test and essays?
In my opinion, Emig groups all writing together.
However, this article is interesting as theoretical exercise: Emig’s view uses all kinds of arguments (psychological, neurological, cognitive, grammatical, epigenetic, literary, contrastive, etc.) to try to demonstrate writing’s supremacy as a mode of learning. (I hmmm also). Personally I miss the mention of Ong, the classical researcher in contrast oral/writing expression. Am I wrong?
Finally Emig warns us (but only once and in the end) about her essay “It is at once over elaborated and under specific? I agree.

I'm really intrigued with Laura's idea of using audio/spoken assignments, since I too have often had the experience of students articulating very well what they want to say and then not being able to in writing. But I've also had the reverse -- students who won't say more than two words all semester in either class or conferences, or are often tongue tied when we do talk, but who then turn out some of the very best writing that I see.

As a writer I've conducted a number of experiments of my own trying to connect my "spoken thoughts" with my writing, including an attempt to "write" a short story through the use of a hand held tape recorder as I took a long car trip (either the radio wasn't working, I couldn't get any stations, or maybe I was just bored, I can't remember which). It was more than a failure -- it was down right embarrassing. In that way, I guess I'd perhaps take exception to Emig's contention that writing is an "artificial process" while talking isn't. In that case it was the speech that felt artificial. Perhaps it was because I was trying to turn one thing (speech) into another that it wasn't meant to be (writing). So in my experience there was no such thing as "written speech," which to me seems like a contradiction in terms.

Still, the relationship betwen speech and writing is very interesting to me, and I wonder what the benefits are of analyzing famous speeches in a writing course, or doing some sort of "cross connective" work with a speech instructor where students are delivering speeches and then turning them into effective pieces of writing. Might that help with Emig's belief that spoken word has "proved emphemeral and treated mundanely," while also helping our students to become better writers? It would seem to me that both (effective speaking and writing) are worthy goals...

Oops -- I'm the anonymous poster. Sorry about that.

I’m definitely one of those people who thinks most clearly through writing, but like the others, I read this article with skepticism. It might be interesting to ask students to consider some of her points. First, the idea that one must provide one’s own context in writing, rather than relying on an environment or an ongoing conversation, might highlight the importance of conventions. Writers employ conventions to create a shared context with their readers, and in fact, there’s a convention of written conversation in many academic journals—a back-and-forth argument.

Students might particularly enjoy discussing the ways in which speech must adhere to conventions (people won’t understand you or will mistrust you if you speak in ways that are strange to them—or conversely, if you attempt to mimic a dialect that is strange to you), and the ways in which instant messaging, etc. have blurred the distinction between writing and talking. “[W]riting tends to be a more responsible and committed act than talking? (111), Emig states quaintly.

I actually really liked this article, although in some places, it is a bit embarrassing. In particular, statements like "Writing is learned behavior; talking is natural, even irrepressible, behavior" are problematic. Talking is, of course, learned, too, and I'm reminded of Derrida (quoting Bertrand Russell) claiming that we can't know whether writing or speech came first; humans could have developed speech as a means of translating writing. I also agree that almost everything Emig says about writing could also apply to recorded speech, the one crucial difference being that writing is visual while recorded speech is auditory. Do we process auditory signals as effectively as we process visual signals? There is also the difference that recorded speech is much more difficult to manipulate than the written word (especially in a word processor). There is something about having to produce (I hesitate to say "record") one's thoughts in a visual medium, and then having to stare at them, and move them around, and delete them that seems to me to be very key for learning. Writing both gives one the opportunity to memorize what one thinks (as one has one's thoughts right in front of one), it also forces one to deal with, and clarify, and revise one's thoughts (all the dirty work that goes into thinking).

I love that Maru brings advertisement into this discussion, because that’s really what Emig is about here in 1977 it seems to me. She’s got her eyes fixed on privileging writing and the research that was being done connecting it to cognition---all moves that were intended to take it out of the “skill set? and “remedial? camps and move it into the “research-worthy? camp. Seen in the time-line context we laid out last week ---1977 is only three years after the “Johnny Can’t Write? article came out in Newsweek and in the middle of a backlash of standardized reading and writing tests.

So yes, I agree with everyone, from Lisa’s original “Hmmm? on. Emig’s an inner-theorist, in Bizzell’s terms, wouldn’t you say? So many of the social construction arguments w/which we all seem to be agreeing are not found here. She’s full of universals…and that, again, is her pushing the “writing is a legitimately cool subject? button.

The written assignment idea of Laura’s is worth experimentation. All assignments are based on objectives. If your primary objective is that students make a clear statement of their research question, and if you want them to consider that you are their only audience, and if you have time to listen to these tapes verbalizing sounds good to me. You must recognize, however, that you are limiting the assignment quite a bit with this single purpose and audience.

And yes, as Steven brings up, new technologies are expanding possible definitions of “writing? and text. And what happens with the speaking/writing comparison when we are teaching students to speak in their non-native languages?