Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Why Does Writing Matter?

On the first day of classes, I usually ask my students to do some writing.  Today, I asked them to write for 30 minutes on this topic: Why does writing matter?  I like to do the in-class activities I require my students to do, so here's what I came up with.

Writing matters because it allows humans to communicate in a way that is semi-permanent.  Without Shakespeare, my understanding of Elizabethan England would be pretty shallow.  Without John Steinbeck, my understanding of Depression-era California would be greatly diminished.  Writing allows us to document our lives and our world, so future people will be able to look back and say, "Aha!  So that is how they lived and what they thought about."

But writing is not just about the past and the future.  It is also about the present.  Newspapers, magazines, and blogs allow us to see what is happening right now, beyond the scope of our small lives.  Writing and reading allow us to see our lives and communities from other perspectives.  An article in the OC Weekly, for example, might help me understand the politics and culture of where I live.

Writing is also empowering.  Learning to communicate through the written word allows us to assert our voices, to speak up against injustice, to speak truth to power.  Writing allows us to share moments of beauty and joy, or pain and sorrrow with fellow humans, so that we might understand our lives more deeply, and realize that we are not alone.  Sometimes, in a moment of great confusion, reading someone else's thoughts can bring enlightenment.

Learning how to write well, to communicate thoughtfully and creatively, is increasingly important in our information-saturated age.  The internet has made information and text much more available and accessible, but quantity of information doesn't necessarily mean quality of information.  The ability to concisely and powerfully tell the truth through writing is an increasingly valuable commodity.

You might say, "Who needs writing?  We have videos and pictures now.  We are a visual culture."  It is true that videos and pictures are an important and powerful means of communication.  But, in my own experience of research and writing, most of my information comes from print sources...books and articles.  This is not just because I'm "old school" and like to hang out in libraries.  It is because video sources simply DO NOT EXIST for many of the topics I'm interested in.  Occasionally, I'll stumble across a documentary or video online that is related to something I'm writing about, but this is the exception to the rule.

Many of the most stunning insights I discover still come from books and articles.

I'm not saying we should ignore the internet, with its plethora of pictures and videos.  I'm just saying that, as serious academic writers, print sources are our "bread and butter" so to speak.  Reading things that other humans have written is an indispensable part of what we do.

This holds true not just for academics, but for anyone who is curious about the world, who wants to really understand science, or philosophy, or literature, or art, or mechanics.  The written word, writing and reading, are crucial to education and to making sense of this complex, weird world we live in.

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