Monday, February 16, 2009

My New Favourite Book: Proust and the Squid

I just read an amazing book by Maryanne Wolf called Proust and the Squid. Basically the book is about the history of reading, how people learn to read, the implications reading has on people and the development of their brains, and what happens when people have trouble learning how to read.

While a lot of the book really struck me as I was reading it, one part in particular I found very interesting in relation to my work in the area of undergraduate writing competence. I often wonder about what are the implications of not being a competent writer in university. One issue is that students who are not competent writers are not going to be able to convey their thoughts in a precise and meaningful manner. However, Maryanne Wolf takes this one step further when she discusses the ideas of Lev Vygotski and how he believed that the act of writing does not just convey thoughts, but when spoken words and unspoken thoughts are put into writing, this act releases and, in the process, changes the thoughts themselves. He felt that as people learn to use written language more and more precisely to convey their thoughts, their capacity for abstract thought and novel ideas accelerates. In other words, there is “a germinating relationship between writing language and new thought” (pp. 65-66).

I really was intrigued by the idea of a generative relationship between word and thought and how the process of writing down thoughts leads people to refine those thoughts and to discover new ways of thinking (p. 73). Writing enables students to think of new things that they would not have thought of if they weren’t able to write with academic competency. Taken further, being a fluent writer is going to aid students in generating new thoughts they would never have had if they weren’t fluent. Based on Wolf’s interpretation of Vygotski, writing isn’t just about reporting what people think, it’s about generating new ideas through the act of writing.

The implications for my research would be that if students haven’t reached a certain level of undergraduate writing competence, it isn’t just about them not being able to convey their thoughts in a precise manner. They will be missing out on the generative nature of the writing act. The less able the students can write fluently, the less able they will be to come up with novel ideas as they write. It is the transition from laboriously reporting thoughts to creatively putting together thoughts as they write. This idea of a continuum from simply reporting thoughts to generating creative ideas has cast a new light on the Effective Writing exams I’ve been looking at in my doctoral research. There always seemed to be a certain panache to the papers that did very well on the exam. I am always struck by their novel way of putting together words and coming up with ideas. I am particularly struck by how easy it seemed for the writer to write compared to papers which did not pass. Thinking about it again, it looks like the better writers were coming up with creative responses to the essay prompts during the act of writing, while the poorer writers were perhaps painstakingly trying to write down what was in their heads, or they were going at it one idea at a time. Hmmm, maybe as I write, I’m generating new ideas . . . . Anyway, I’m going to have to think a bit more about this, but I’m starting to worry that the repercussions of not being a fluent writer are much greater that I first thought.