In the sixth and final episode of Season 1 of Slow Agency, we spoke with Bob Yagelski, Director of the Program in Writing and Critical Inquiry and Professor of English Education in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice at the State University of New York, Albany. Our conversation focuses on writing as a way of being and the power of writing in the moment.
We apologize for the sound quality of this episode. Click here to jump to the edited version of the transcript.
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Emig, J. Writing as a mode of learning. College Composition and Communication, 28(2), 122-128.
Postman, N, & Weingartner, C. (1971). Teaching as a subversive activity. Delta.
Yagelski, R. (2011). Writing as a way of being: Writing instruction, nonduality, and the crisis of sustainability. Hampton Press.
Yagelski, R. (2018). Writing, silence, and well-being. Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning, 23, 14-24.
Editor’s note: This transcript is being edited.
CWCAB (C): We usually like to ask our guests about their literacy background. What experiences or memories of literacy in your childhood, adolescent years or young adulthood led you to the work you do today as a writer, writing teacher, and scholar of writing?
Yagelski (Y): My first academic work titled Literacy Matters includes some autobiographical moments that are seminal in my formation as a literary person. I was always an avid reader. I grew up in a kind of working-class neighborhood. One summer—I was about 10 or 11—I was in my bedroom, reading and my father came up: “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m reading.” He said: “How come you’re not outside playing ball?” Ironically, my dad was an avid reader, too. He’s not an academic or a college graduate. But he loved reading history and current events. So I grew up in a home that wasn’t literary, but there was a lot of reading material around. Reading was a regular activity. I was a good student and reading was one of the things that just felt right.
And as far as writing is concerned, I think I had this idea that somehow, I should be a writer of some kind. I used to joke that where I grew up, there were four reasons to go to college: a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, or an accountant. And I was interested in language and literature. But it was when I was in college that I began to think about the possibility that writing could be part of a career. A professor-mentor helped me understand that there are other ways to write. You don’t have to be a novelist or a literary critic.
C: Did you major in literature or creative writing?
Y: I went to Penn State as an undergrad in the 70s. The English department at the time had three tracks: the standard literature, creative writing, or English teaching secondary. I didn’t want to be a teacher back then and the writing that I was interested in wasn’t fiction or poetry, but nonfiction. So I just majored in literature. But I took these other courses. And that opened up for me the possibility of pursuing writing in different ways.
C: You’ve been writing for a long time. What’s your writing process like?
Y: When I began writing publication for science magazines—I might still have been in college—once, the assignment was to write a story about rural health care. I did my research, drafted the piece, then revised a couple times as I usually would. When I sent in manuscript to the editor, I thought now I would just get my check and see this in publication. This is before the Internet. A couple of weeks went by, I got a letter that was like four or five single-spaced pages from the editor. It was basically “here’s what you need to do to make this work for our readers”. And I learned a couple of things. One was that the audience is critical to how you think about how your final text should look like. And the second thing was that this isn’t over until it’s published. So for revision, I wrote it again but this time I put the audience in mind.
I think that my process has stayed largely the same. If the project is a big project, I have to get into a routine of writing regularly because there’s a momentum that’s generated. Even with an article, if I don’t have a routine and write regularly, it becomes difficult to work through it. Once I have a draft, and I have a sense that the pieces are there and where it’s going, the revision almost becomes realizing the promise of the piece. When I first wrote a book-length project I learned that you have to write through bad bits. It’s really important to be writing so that the next day that momentum is not lost.
The metaphor I have used is that I need to get to a point in the process that which I’m inhabiting that project, that I’m thinking about it when I’m not writing. I might be reading a New York Times article and something will hit me that relates to the project that I’m working on. When I sit down for my writing time, those things facilitate the process.
C: We want to focus specifically on your book titled Writing as a Way of Being: Writing Instruction, Non-duality and the Crisis of Sustainability (2011) and the article Writing, Silence and Well-being (2018). The book is about the ontological nature of writing and its role in social change and social healing. The article is delving into that ontological space through the rhetoric of silence. Let’s begin with the book. Could you give us an introduction and a little bit of an overview of the argument of that book?
Y: There’s two sides to the argument there, an argument against what I call the Cartesian writing. Part of the analysis is really a critique of mainstream conceptions of writing as they emerge in scholarly work in composition, rhetoric, and pedagogy, and literacy studies, but also in instructional practices, both in K12 and post-secondary settings. The gist of the argument is that almost regardless of the particular pedagogical approach, the fundamental conception of writing that informs most instruction and thinking about writing research is informed by a fundamental separation between the writer and in the act of writing, just as in the classic Cartesian sense, there’s this fundamental separation between our physical being and our intellectual being between the body and the mind. This conception of writing leads to a whole series of problems, which are quite well explored in various strands of scholarly literature.
The other piece of the main argument is that one manifestation of this Cartesian model or Cartesian view of writing is an obsession with the text in most instruction. In other words, the whole point of teaching someone to write is the production of a certain sanctioned kind of facts. That approach to writing instruction completely ignores and devalues the experience of the writer in the moment of trying to produce the text. What I try to do in the book is to show that if language is connected to our sense of self, so also is writing. But because of its physical characteristics, writing has distinct components or a distinct impact on the writer’s sense of self. So that’s a sort of theoretical-philosophical justification to care about the experience of writing in the moment because it affects our sense of who we are in relation to the world around us.
But there’s another piece of this that I’ve explored more recently, not so much in that book. And that has to do with empirical research on the effects of certain kinds of writing. For example, James Pennebaker, clinical psychology researcher from the University of Texas, was studying the effect of disclosure on trauma and disclosure. Basically, there are benefits, mental health and physical health benefits for people who suffer a trauma to talk about it in a therapeutic session. So Pennebaker and his team were studying this phenomenon. But instead of having the subjects talk about it, they had them write now because they were interested in writing that they wanted to capture data. And what they found was that the writing had a really important impact. Some people in the study told them afterwards long after the study that they would write to feel better, not to produce a text. They were writing letters just for themselves. But there are all kinds of other ways which act of writing can affect how we understand in relation to the world around us that aren’t necessarily tied to trauma. So that’s that kind of work really reinforced the importance of understanding what happens as we write. And that grew out of, in some sense, out of the book. The book was an attempt to understand and to place that understanding in the context of prevailing through in the field of writing studies, but also in terms of intellectual life.
C: In your 2018 article Writing, Silence and Well-Being, you were giving an example of a situation where you were presenting at a conference and you had everyone at the beginning of your presentation stop and write. You said, it’s when writing becomes not just a communicative act, but an act of being human together and you said that the folks at the National Writing Project convinced you about that. What is it exactly that that hit home with you about the whole being human together piece of writing?
Y: It was not like a moment of revelation after which everything became clear. It was a process and took some time. Honestly, I think ultimately for me, what made the difference was, first, it was so clear that something was happening when you were writing. The second thing was that I started to notice ways in which people use writing that I haven’t really noticed before, that is, using writing as a tool for and using writing to work through things because there’s a time or sometimes a need for us to make sense of what’s happening around us. And writing has some capacity to focus on the mind, to slow things down, almost like meditation.
C: So that’s what you mean when you say ontological as opposed to rhetorical—writing is both rhetorical when we’re producing a text for an audience and ontological when it is an experience of being.
Y: I think that every act of writing is an act of being, but there are different ways in which we engage in writing. And as I said earlier, the problem that I begin to see is that we were conceiving of writing as a process to produce a text that that ignored all these other components that were so potentially powerful. And so the experience of writing for many students was painful, was a reminder that it was a way to sort them or evaluate the extent to which they were meeting certain kinds of standards. So my interest is theoretically understanding how we can conceptualize writing as something more than that. So that’s what I mean by ontological—to try to capture those components that we’re not really attentive to in writing pedagogy or in the field of research.
I will say that I’ve become less preoccupied with theory, partly because I’m just getting old and running out of time, but partly because when I work with my students, what I’m finding is that writing is so often connected to their well-being and what we’re engaged in, and that in our program it’s really about well-being, not about academic preparation. So I’ve become much more interested in those connections. So the experience of writing is at the crux of how writing- how that experience can help foster an understanding of who you are in relation to what’s happening around us such that it fosters well-being.
C: In the same article (i.e., Writing, Silence and Well-Being), you also brought up the silence is also a means to well-being. Can you help explain the connection between silence and well-being?
That article really grew out of the moment that I describe in the program when we had this writing. After the presidential election in the fall of 2016, there was a lot of anxiety and tension on campus. So one of my colleagues said, why don’t we just gather together? And all we did was writing. And then we shared thoughts if we want it or not. And one of the things that really struck me was the silence we’re experiencing at the beginning of that session. It had sort of multiple characteristics. One of them allowed us to just be together without feeling like we had to say something or respond to someone else. The writing enabled us to sort of focus and be in that moment and articulate whatever those feelings and thoughts were. It became clear to me that it wasn’t just the writing, but it was the way in which the writing was a vehicle for that silence.
And so I thought more about that after that experience, because what followed was this sort of explosion in social media as a kind of political discourse facilitated by the president who was using Twitter in ways that had never really been done by or backed by a politician at that level before and the like. Everywhere you turned, it was just somebody was saying something, right? However, what I experienced in that writing on my campus the week of the election was not to speak, not even to listen, but just to be and to think and to sort of reaffirm our connection to one another. So what I felt in that moment was that the students really felt safe and valued. Like reaffirming almost like that, yeah, this is tough, but there’s a way in which our connection to one another might help us. And the writing was at the center of that. So I began to think more about that connection though my concern still really was about well-being. And I think of that in broader terms, not just the individual, but also collective like our communities are not well, either. It may seem I’m thinking of the American context, but we can think more broadly about what we’ve witnessed in terms of the political conflicts in other places around the world. While we take a moment to think about the importance of our connection to one another in the context of facing these challenges, we have to figure out how to navigate them as individuals and as communities and our societies as well.
C: We wanted to ask how you see your work and what you’ve shared with us, how you see that gets translated into the writing center space and whether you see that there needs to be a re-seeing of writing center practice and pedagogy?
B: One of the things I’ve learned is that people have used writing centers as a place where they can engage in writing practices that are not easy to do or possible elsewhere where there’s no space for them elsewhere. The alternative nature of the writing center as the alternative space actually opens up possibilities that are really important. And one of those is that students find ways to do writing that are not necessarily connected to evaluation, because if nothing else, the writing center helps students without giving them a break. They can tell students that I am not giving you a grade, get rid of those anxieties or talk about writing without worrying about me giving you that judgment on your record. That’s a really powerful position for the tutor and for the writer to have particularly if the writer is there, because, no, they’re compromised in some way. And very often they are. The vexed position of the writing center is actually a space of opportunity that I fully appreciate. With respect to engaging in writing, these kinds of in-the-moment writing practices, you could easily imagine, and I’m sure it happens all the time, those kinds of things happening in writing centers, I can say that the writing center on my campus, which I’m not officially affiliated with any longer but have connections to, is a place where students who are interested in writing gravitate to that space. It’s a place where writers can go and be together and talk about writing and all that, that they’re valued for those interests. That’s a pretty powerful thing in a setting in the modern neoliberal university where everything’s about economic return on investment. So I don’t know if that’s a good answer to the question. But it does seem to me that writing centers are never really going to go away. Every writing center that I’ve visited, there’s always people who are so clearly benefiting from being in that writing center that it almost doesn’t matter that it’s a marginal space from the point of view of an university.
C: If you were to offer some sort of practical advice for writing center administrators, especially when it comes to tutor training, curriculum, and so on, what would you advise them to do?
Y: Very often, having to demonstrate usefulness to universities’ bottom line is a really significant pressure so I’m hesitant to offer any advice in that context. But one thing that I would say is that in my own experience in the writing center here in Albany and informal experience elsewhere, one of the things that I’ve learned is that students who need it find their way there, not just the ones whose professors say you can’t punctuate so go. Sometimes those students really do need to go to the writing center and they get exactly the help that they need. And that’s not insignificant. I don’t mean at all to trivialize it, but what I found in the years is that students found their way there because they needed the space where other people were interested in these things, and that space is morphed into a kind of refuge for many students, not just in terms of all the political discourse that’s going on that they’re trying to make sense of but just in terms of, you know, being a young person and trying to figure out how to do. Well, I think that’s a really significant thing.
I do think that in practical terms the need to demonstrate the usefulness of the writing center is greater now. The urgency is greater. Very often what I do when I was running our writing center is to look at numbers. Like, this is how many international students have come for tutorials. That’s all really important. But one of the things that writing centers do is contributing to students’ sense of connection and well-being. And we do these little surveys to document that’s in fact one of the things that happens is that students come and they feel better about being a student at the university. When they feel better, they’re probably going to stick around. And if they stick around, then that means they pay the tuition that the administrators are so worried about these days. So well-being can be profitable, I guess, if you want to be crass about it. I don’t mean to be crass about it.