Academic journal article English Journal

In Praise of the Unfinished

Academic journal article English Journal

In Praise of the Unfinished

Article excerpt

It's all about process. Even product is process. Product is an arbitrary stopping point along a neverending zigzag of growth, the same as our teenaged students' ongoing lives. They stop for a semester or a year or four in our classrooms. We're lucky to know them. And then, when they move on, they flourish, or flop, without us.

As educators-Ben at the beginning of his career and Jeff 40 years in-we're interested in reflective growth. We want students to become independent learners who are increasingly aware of and in control of their writing process. When assessment usually means a grade on a final product, though, how do we get students to value process? We wondered what it would mean to see writing, like art and music, as unfinished. How is process exposed in final product? How could we help make learning more visible? And what would that look like on a final exam? In this shared inquiry, we examine the concept of the unfinished in writing and describe what that looked like in Jeff's classroom, which, for the first time, culminated in a process-based exam.

Art of the Unfinished

In 2016, the new Met Breuer opened in New York with an exhibit that made us rethink how we teach writing. "Unfinished: Thought Made Visible" demystified product by exposing process in what we think of as the final version. In Picasso's The Charnel House (1944-45), for instance, white spaces look like preliminary sketches inside a more finished painting. In his Mother and Child (1970) the faces are washed out. Picasso once remarked that "if he could . . . there would never be a finished canvas, but the different states of a single painting, those that usually disappear in the course of the work" (189). This is a manifesto about painting as unfinished process of discovery.

Over and over, we saw this beautiful rendering of process-from Leonardo da Vinci's exquisite Head and Shoulders of a Woman (c 1500-1505) to Jean-Michel Basquiat's satisfyingly chaotic Piscine Versus the Best Hotels (1982). These unfinished pieces are not fragments or sketches. They are whole works that require the viewer to reflect on how they are made. They "demand the active engagement of the viewer's imagination" (14), Kelly Baum et al. write in their introduction to the "Unfinished" catalog. "An unfinished painting affords a remarkable glimpse into artistic process and the working of the artist's mind" (20). In Kerry James Marshall's Untitled (2009), the striking black figure in the foreground holding a painter's palette is surrounded by an unfinished area that looks a lot like a child's paint-by-numbers. The artist demands that viewers see process in product. An accomplished artist not only composes a piece but also reflects on how it is made. The same thing happens in writing.

This notion of the "unfinished" is embedded in our students' world. Think of Facebook, texting, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat where messages appear swiftly on screens, longing for a reader's response. Not only in social media but also in music, process is becoming more part of the product. On his 2016 album The Life of Pablo, Kanye West set out to create a record that would be, in his words, "a living breathing changing creative expression." Recorded and produced over a period of six years, the album features rounds of post-release changes to almost every song. This capacity to stretch and change allows Pablo to remain, as Jon Carmanica writes, "crisply alive, like water that's still boiling even though the flame is off." During the album's ongoing release, the appetite for this revelation of West's process-which Carmanica calls "as fascinating as the end result"-turned out to be insatiable.

But West's sentiment is nothing new in art, especially in literature. Ralph Ellison labored for almost 35 years on his second novel, which has been posthumously published under two different titles. We're reminded, too, of Whitman's endless revising of Leaves of Grass and Auden's aphorism, which originated with Valery, that "a poem is never finished, only abandoned. …

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