Teaching writing to a specific audience is like learning karate (trust me – it makes sense)
Disclaimer: This post is a thought-in progress. Hence, the ideas will be underdeveloped from where I eventually want them to land. And it will be more about problems than solutions.
I’ve got a problem that is far from unique. My students, especially my freshmen, have a really hard time thinking about their audience when they write essays. I don’t mean that they ignore the idea, or get the audience wrong. I mean that they just have a hard time conceptualizing what Suzy’s reaction will be when Suzy reads their paper. This really hit me the other day when I was talking with my Freshman Comp II Honors class. We were talking about the differences in writing process of skilled and unskilled writers. When I talked about the skilled writer really thinking about the audience through the whole process, I just got a bunch of blank stares.
That reaction is far from new. The freshmen that I’ve taught have always had problems conceptualizing their audience. They just struggle to think about the reader’s needs. They have a hard time getting out of their own heads and into the heads of someone different.
I’ve always blamed this on inexperience. In my mind, they just haven’t had enough practice writing for other audiences; their papers have been too focused on the generic. And the rhetor / tech writer in me has always cringed in the audience-free meanderings that they would produce. I’ve always thought, “If you don’t know who you’re writing for, how do you know if what you’ve written is good? Good is subjective based on the readers and their needs.”
But an idea hit me today while I was on a long, multi-hour drive. Maybe the problem isn’t inexperience or lack of training. Maybe it’s psychological. I don’t have a ready source for this claim (part of the undeveloped nature of this post), but contemporary psychological development theory contends that the human brain goes through a final major stage of development somewhere between ages 19 and 24. Before that stage, we are still in something of a narcissistic state where we can think only of ourselves. It’s not necessarily that we don’t care about others; it’s that we can’t really understand them. That’s why our parents baffle us so much as teenagers and why we don’t understand their frustration when we’d rather spend time with our friends than them. That’s why we fight so much with dorm mates. It’s something vaguely related to austistic problems with “other minds.”
(Side note – another side effect of this psychological underdevelopment is the sense of immortality. What makes teenage boys drive 90 mph down the highway and college girls go on drinking binges.)
It’s not until we hit that final stage of development that we begin to appreciate others, their motivations, their knowledge, their needs, etc. Think of that famous quote usually attributed to Twain
When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.
That quote emblematizes our final stage of development.
So if it takes us until our final mental developmental stage to understand our father, why are we surprised that they can’t understand a reader that they’ve never even met?
Why are we surprised that they can’t take their reader’s needs and wants into consideration when brainstorming content? When they can’t imagine what their readers will and won’t understand in their prose?
Not sure yet.
Right now, I’m leaning in two directions.
1. Let them keep writing their audience-free generic essays until they hit that final stage of development. Work instead on logical organization and poetic prose. Work on skills that tend to be transferable to most mature audiences.
2. Force them to keep writing for an audience even though they can’t quite do it yet. Drill that idea into their heads so deep that, when they can understand the reader, the technique becomes reflexive. A bit of a “Wax on Wax off” scenario.