Student Learning SupportThoughts, Feelings

Different Strokes: The “J”

People often ask me what we do in the Writing Centre—a fair question, the answer to which is relatively straightforward: we support students in the development of their writing. Others ask how we do that—a slightly more complex question but also relatively easy to answer: we facilitate conversations about writing through its messy process. Then, the truly curious, ask why, and that’s a poser. Yes, there are the standard responses about the importance of writing in the undergraduate experience, the need for effective communication skills, and the banal “students need to write well in order to get a good job.” I buy all that, and the existence of a campus Writing Centre is pseudo-evidence of an institutional recognition that students need guidance in this direction. But surely there’s more. I need there to be something more…poetic about the work we do. Or I need to find another line of work. So, in my search for the poetic, I turn to canoes. Bear with me as I contemplate an analogy.

I’ve been canoeing most of my life. Sitting in the back of a canoe, paddle in hand, is about as comfortable a place I know. And, over the years and miles, I’ve acquired a kind of way of being in a canoe, a style, shaped by ten thousand paddle strokes, the inventions borne of the navigational necessities of ten thousand lakes and rivers. And further shaped by years of instruction by master canoeists.

What was the purpose of mastering this craft, of having so many lessons and spending so much time learning techniques? Not simply to master the craft. Not simply to demonstrate a talent to others. Not so I could get a good job—not much money in paddling these days. No. The reason is simple: so I could expand the possibilities of travel.

There is no end to improvement but I have reached a kind of mastery that allows me to be alone in a canoe and comfortably navigate just about any watery place, no matter what the conditions. I have the techniques and the practice that allow me to make the canoe do just what I want it to do and take me just about anywhere. The possibilities for exploration and risk-taking are greatly expanded as a result of my practice. It’s not without struggle—as anyone who has flailed solo against a hard wind in a keel-less canoe can attest. But armed with a repertoire of problem solving techniques, a paddler begins to understand his limits and how to navigate within them.

This, it seems to me, is a lot like writing. Being faced with a writing assignment is a bit like being set adrift in a canoe. There’s a medium, there’s an instrument, there’s an expanse to be navigated and there’s the skill one brings to bear. The analogy can stretch in many directions from there but what’s useful for me to ponder is the idea that what we do is help students get from their first contemplations of an assignment (the shore from which they depart) to a fully realized coherent piece of written work (the shore upon which they land). And along the way, as they invent techniques borne of the necessities of post-secondary writing endeavour, we help them to develop more and better techniques that will equip them for more and more challenging expanses. The development of technique is not the goal; it’s a means to a more important end—expanding the possibilities of confidently exploring new territory.

  • Ian Crookshank

    It doesn’t get more “Canadian” then a Canoeing analogy. I appreciate how you have framed the writing journey and the students’ role in not just learning tried and true methods but also in developing and discovering new techniques.

    • John Hannah

      “Discovering” is the keyword, Ian. And not just un-guided discovery but inventions borne of necessity and made visible by experts.

  • Natalya Androsova

    Love the metaphor and the photo! It doesn’t get much more poetic than this! Well said, John! I love using the word “discovery” to describe the essence of the writing process. It’s so exciting to bypass the mind and discover what you really feel.
    Now… we already have skype appointments in the writing centre… I say we add “writing in the canoe” appointments as an alternative to the “let’s sit at the desk and look into the monitor” appointments 🙂 What do you think?

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  • Rebecca Dirnfeld

    I just read your blog post Different Strokes. Loved it. The timing is great because I’ve been pondering this exact same question with a project I’m leading. I am designing documents for programs in the Faculty of Science to showcase the kind of careers (and variety of options) students have with their chosen degree. The Dean and I did not want to make this about job titles, similar to your sentiment about “students need to write well to get a good job”. It’s just not the essence of what we do or the important take away. I had this moment on the subway when I realized, after months of working on this project, how much bigger it actually was. We had veered away from job titles, and instead gave students fields, and sub fields, for them to explore. Essentially, we want them to do the exploration themselves, with our ongoing support and guidance, similar to your analogy of perfecting your strokes. The more they research and explore, the more labour market knowledge they gain, and the sooner they open the door to possibilities. They build confidence in using and navigating this approach in professionally developing throughout their lives, just as you note about confidently navigating the waters and opening your doors to travel. We so often get bogged down with the technique. This was a great piece for me to read. It reaffirmed my own thoughts on this project and how we can effectively use it as a tool for student learning and development.