The Body of Writing
Back in 1989, Professor Robert F. Dalzell told my college class that “the impact of computers on student writing has been disastrous.” I was inclined to disagree–it seemed like anecdote, or correlation without causation. However, these days–especially after reading the chapter on Ways of Mind-Walking in Tim Ingold’s Being Alive, I’m much more sympathetic.
Writing seems to have become almost completely disembodied–it’s thought to be all about ideas, screens, and keyboards. Writing, and reading, have become even further removed from the bodily practice that Ingold points to as a way of “walking through the scriptures” and of “reading and writing as modalities of travel” (2011:198).
I was especially thinking about this as I reflected on comments from professors who teach writing as part of the Writing Competency Requirement at Hartwick College. Hartwick’s model is rather unique–we seek to advance students to competent college-level writing which is evaluated separately from a course grade. It can be frustrating. As one professor asked, “Why is it that the coaches can get such hard work and dedication from their athletes, but we can’t get that for writing?”
It’s an interesting question, but I would guess that if we compared the top-level elite athletes with the best writers, there would be a similar level of hard work, internal motivation, plus coached guidance. But that is not really the best comparison. A better comparison is between the writing competency requirement and another of Hartwick’s requirements, two credits in physical education.
My guess would be that in many ways students exhibit the same kinds of behaviors with the physical education requirement as they do with the writing requirement: they postpone to the end, even sometimes after graduation ceremonies. “Why do we need to do that?” “What difference does it make?” “I’ll never use it again!”
And here’s the rub: how many times as an advisor have I aided and abetted those sentiments? “Physical education, you can ‘get that out of the way’ later.” “Yeah, I know it’s silly, but you have to do it.”
Very rarely have I talked about the connections of body-mind, how physical exercise and mental exercise go hand-in-hand, that “the mental and the material, or the terrains of the imagination and the physical environment, run into one another to the extent of being barely distinguishable” (Ingold 2011:198). In other words, I’ve probably been as blasé and dismissive of the physical education requirement, perhaps even more so, as I imagine some others are of a writing competency requirement.
So, just like a coach urges the athletes to “get your head in the game!” it is time to “get your body in the writing!” This may even help with one of my biggest pet peeves about so-called academic writing: the idea that there should be no subject, no “I”, no-one who seems to actually be writing or doing anything at all. The screen, the keyboard, and a near-complete disembodiment. Instead:
To walk is to journey in the mind as much as on the land: it is a deeply meditative practice. And to read is to journey on the page as much as in the mind. Far from being rigidly partitioned, there is constant traffic between these terrains, respectively mental and material, through the gateways of the senses. (Ingold 2011:202)