On March 5th and 6th, in celebration of their ten-year anniversary, the Writing Center invited author/editor/speaker/columnist John Warner to give two talks on writing to faculty and students. John Warner is the author of The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing, as well as his most recent book Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. He’s had over twenty years of experience teaching college-level writing. He writes a weekly column for The Chicago Tribune, and is also editor emeritus for McSweeney Internet Tendency.
In his first talk, “Why the World Needs More Writing Degrees,” Warner told his personal story of graduating college with a creative writing degree and finding work. He talked about how, at the time, he didn’t know how to market himself as a writer. Despite this, others saw value in his field of study and writing skills. His first big break came when he was hired by the marketing research business Leo J Shapiro and Associates. Though he had not studied to work in the business field, the methodology he had studied as a writer helped him in this research position. He always began with questions, which led to observations, upon which he could make inferences and conclusions. This method of observing, inferring, then coming to conclusions was the basis of his work in college, how he overcame the assignments and challenges he faced, and the development of his critical thinking.
Warner argues that writing leads to critical thinking, observations, and the ability to overcome novel or foreign challenges. This, for me, was the main take-away from his talk. He encouraged the audience to market themselves in this way: as critical thinkers and writing-related problem solvers. As writers, Warner believes we are flexible, adaptable and curious; we often are divergent thinkers. These skills are valuable in any work environment, and ultimately, are why the world needs more writing degrees.
His second talk, “The Writer’s Practice: Building Assignments that Get Students Thinking and Acting Like Writers,” was based upon his years of teaching and his two aforementioned books. His talk centered on shifting away from prescriptive college-level writing and towards a more open forum, where the process of writing is held in highest regard. “We can’t prevent students from making errors,” Warner stated. “But that’s okay, those errors are where they are going to learn.” He talked about how students are scared to make errors, how their experiences with writing from grade school have left them unable to identify themselves as “writers.” Students often come to college with some idea of “perfect” writing, but writing is always a process, and there’s no such thing as a perfect writer.
To combat this, Warner suggested multiple approaches which would radically shift the way writing is taught. One suggestion was to have professors share an early draft of a text they had written with the class. After reading, the students would read a revised version. This activity would prompt discussions on the process of writing, while simultaneously tearing down the notion of their professor as the arbiter of “perfect” writing. A focus of process rather than product was also encouraged by Warner. As an example, he removed the research paper assignment from his class, and replaced it as an activity, one which might not produce a “final paper” at the end of the semester. This, again, encouraged his students to focus on writing as a process, and also as an experience, one which can last long after the class has ended. Reflection is key as well. Warner encouraged his students to reflect on the work they had done for the class and well as the ways they grappled with the challenges they faced. All these suggestions empower students to begin to see themselves as a writer who has a process, and to see writing as an ongoing practice.
In speaking with my colleagues at the Writing Center and other professors within the department, it was clear that Warner’s visit was a success and enjoyed. Warner, too, enjoyed his visit at Rowan, much of which was spent with Writing Center tutors and staff. He wrote a blog about his time at Rowan in Inside Higher Ed. In his blog titled “How’s the Water?” Warner had some kind remarks and reflections on his experience here: “My favorite part of the Rowan visit was spending time with the undergraduate and graduate writing tutors from the Writing Center. This is when I realize how much I miss teaching full-time...Speaking to the master's students who were teaching first-year writing was speaking to colleagues, not apprentices, and I may have learned a thing or two from them.” I highly encourage you to read the full blog!
Thank you to John Warner for visiting our campus and delivering great talks to our faculty and students!