What Writers Do: Behaviors, Behaviorism, and Writing Studies

By Gallagher, Chris W. | College Composition and Communication, December 2016 | Go to article overview

What Writers Do: Behaviors, Behaviorism, and Writing Studies


Gallagher, Chris W., College Composition and Communication


It's a story so familiar it's parabolic:

The dreaded moment has arrived: the committee charged with revising the general education program has turned its attention to the learning goals for writing, which I, as WPA, have drafted. The learning goals I've written involve adapting writing for multiple occasions and audiences; developing facility with genres of one's chosen field and profession; developing and using effective writing strategies through practice and reflection; and demonstrating awareness of writing conventions. The committee chair thinks the goals aren't specific enough; we need "strong verbs" that describe "measurable behaviors." A colleague disagrees, claims the goals are too specific. "All I want is for students to write well," he offers. I rise to the latter challenge, and a long discussion-one I've had many times before-ensues, with me taking the position that notions of "good writing" are always contextual, and my colleague insisting that "good writing is good writing is good writing." The conversation goes round and round, until a third committee member offers what he thinks of as a compromise: "Could we add a goal about recognizing the characteristics of good prose?"

In compositionists' usual rendition of such parables, the moral is usually that they dont listen to us. Our expertise and knowledge are not recognized or valued in our institutions or the broader culture. Instead, an uninformed, positivist behaviorism holds sway, as we see not only in my colleagues' responses, but also in the goal of the exercise itself: to reduce writing to a set of "measurable behaviors."

We often use these melodramas of beset WPAhood to highlight the need to improve the way we "frame" (Adler-Kassner and O'Neill; O'Neill) arguments about teaching and assessing writing. We tell ourselves that we need more convincing ways to challenge commonsense notions like "good writing is good writing is good writing" and to articulate the contextual nature of judgments about writing.

This may be true. But I think there's more going on in this story than the tidy moral suggests. Notice the way "writing well" slips seamlessly into "good writing." The focus of attention shifts from writing-the-verb to writing-the-noun. Perhaps because I have inherited a disciplinary allergy to the b-word-behavior-I have been all too happy to engage in arguments about the work texts do, leaving off discussion of the work writers do.

But writerly behaviors are at issue in conversations like this one. In the vision I offer, students are behaving as writers: adapting to rhetorical situations, learning genres, developing strategies, practicing, reflecting, and so on. In my colleague's vision, students are behaving as students: producing clean sentences and paragraphs-"good writing"-for their teachers' inspection. But this isn't the conversation we have, at least in part because I am trapped in my own antibehaviorist disciplinary frame, which limits my ability and my willingness to engage in discussions about writing behaviors.

Certainly composition studies comes by its antipathy to behaviorism honestly; as Maja Joiwind Wilson convincingly demonstrates, education reformers have long used John Watsons anticonsciousness theories and Pavlov's reflex conditioning to build a "behaviorist infrastructure" (15) that serves the interests of industry/business while controlling the behaviors of teachers and students. Today, this infrastructure supports behavioral outcomes-based assessment regimes, including some models of competency-based education and prior learning assessment that atomize, regulate, and commoditize teacher and student "skill sets" to the point that shared educational experiences become unnecessary-or beside the point (Gallagher, "Our"). At the same time, our field has a rich, and mostly untold, history of engaging with beOur antipathy to behaviorism does not change the haviorism and behavioral fact that we are in the behavior business; we are, and learning theory. …

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