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February 1, 2006

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).