October 14, 2004

Writing My Humanity(ies)

Besides the writing that I did in school as a child, I was a prolific contributor to my personal journal, writing nearly every day during some stretches of my youth. While my school writing kept my attention on writing in an academic setting, my journal gave opportunity for expressive and reflective personal writing. In my journal, naturally, I felt free to experiment and to write with a certain playful spirit.

As I moved into high school, I spent some time (as seems mandatory for American teenagers) writing poetry. My interest in creative writing extended to short fiction late in high school when my family bought our first home computer. At the time, the demands of general academic writing, as taught through the public school system, didn’t seem too restrictive or particular. Writing a long term paper about the early logging industry in Wisconsin (during my environmentalist phase) seemed to require substantial facts and data from my research, but allowed—as far as I could tell—the same casual presentation that I used to enumerate and examine my daily experiences in my journal as well as a touch of the narrative from my fiction writing. To me, writing felt holistic; I didn’t feel any competition between the several genres I experienced.

It is important to note, however, that science writing was exceptional. While the writing component in my first science classes was minimal (if not nonexistent), my chemistry and physics classes of my latter years each included a stringent writing requirement. Each quarter we compiled an extensive lab book wherein weekly experiments were written up in detail, rigorously following the standard “scientific method” as it was taught to us. These lab books were infamous in the school culture and were the first introduction to all-nighters for many conscientious, but procrastinating, students. The challenge of writing these lab reports was valuable, but it never achieved the status of “writing” to me; it was matter-of-fact reportage that failed to indulge in any of the practices—creative narrative, personal reflection, inventive prose, lush description, etc.—that I enjoyed about writing. Science reporting was mechanical whereas writing—everything else—was magical.

In my naiveté, I approached my early college writing the same way I had my high school writing: relegating science writing as “the other” and unaware of any other generic variations or disciplinary expectations. In my first year, although I had thoroughly enjoyed my science classes in high school, I avoided the physical science departments, preferring the stimulating expansiveness of the humanities to the confining empiricism of science. I did little science writing in my first year.

The rest of my writing—undertaken in the rather uncomplicated approach I had developed in high school—was received well and left me satisfied with both my grades and my learning experiences. When I returned to college after a two-year hiatus to begin my sophomore year, I suddenly remembered my affinity for the sciences and within the year, after explored various science fields, I settled on a major in chemistry. After completing the general courses (which required minimal writing) that year, my junior year found me immersed in intensive laboratory classes that demanded extensive lab reports that conformed to the conventions of academic journals. The only writing instruction I received in college (I purposefully—perhaps arrogantly—found a way to avoid freshman composition) was self-administered during this phase of my coursework. I invested intensive effort to understanding and mimicking the style of professional science writing.

I found it difficult, but it eventually became a game: how could I distill my characteristically abundant prose into the succinct syntax expected of scientists? I relished in writing the Methods section wherein two days of lab procedures might be expressed in as little as ten lines of text. The purpose, scope, and audience of this kind of writing were so precisely defined that it allowed me to focus almost exclusively on crafting minimalist prose and deploying terminology efficiently and accurately. Whereas my humanities writing had been expansive, far-reaching, and global, my science writing was incisive, restricted, and local to the point of being microscopic. In these ways, I found the respective disciplinary goals—“big picture” analysis on one hand and assays of minute detail on the other—to be manifest in the conventions of writing within the disciplines.

My composition and revision practices shifted in accordance with the nature of science writing as I continued to focus on the genre of the lab report. Always particular about details on the sentence level, my natural tendency was amplified by the value placed upon sparse, exact language. Writing to such exacting expectations and within a prescriptive outline (the formatting formula of specific sections: introduction, materials, methods, results, discussion, conclusion) facilitated the decline of my ability and incentive to make major revisions or experiment with form.

As I contemplated a career in chemistry, I became increasingly certain that I didn’t want one. I found myself stifled and unenthused about my school work. Returning to the humanities classes that had so stimulated me in my early college career, I felt refreshed. It was the writing—as much as the subjects and modes of learning—that rejuvenated me. Writing became more closely associated with thinking—writing generated new thoughts rather than being a practice of documenting data and articulating old, linear conclusions. Science was challenging (heaven knows I didn’t understand half of the concepts expected of me), but its complexities and complications were dealt with formulaically. I yearned for a methodology that was generative and complicated in itself. I needed less order.

Ultimately, I’ve ended up in graduate school in the English department. In itself, that is telling. Learning to write substantial seminar papers that engaged literary theory as well as literary texts has been another process of self-instruction. I have struggled to understand a new set of generic conventions and stylistic expectations that, in many ways, diametrically oppose those of science writing. While it is generally refreshing, at times it is frustrating as I find myself unable to write to the standards of my professional discourse community. Some of the ways of thinking, it seems, are not my own. Furthermore, I resist the detached, disembodied (impersonal) tone of much of the writing—a residual effect of science’s insistence on removal of personality in the name of objective, rational investigation.

At the end of my second year of my graduate studies, a feminist rhetorician in our department introduced me to discourses that validate the personal voice in academic writing and acknowledge the deception behind a thin veil of objective, impersonal language. Writing in her seminar included responses to readings that permitted—and even privileged—the personal. Such personal reflection wedded with rigorous thinking brought me full circle to where I began my writing career (and this account of it). Writing became, once again, a practice that was integral with my identity, not in opposition to it. As I contemplate writing a dissertation—that magnus opus—I am confident that, while my analysis and interpretation requires the same precision and attention my science training developed in me, the project cannot be divorced—in methodology or compositional style—from my identity, my personality, my humanity.

Posted by ogde0004 at October 14, 2004 8:37 AM