I finally finished Joseph Harris's book Rewriting: How To Do Things with Texts. It is the best book on academic writing I've encountered. Harris spoke at our TYCA-West conference this last fall (score for Counterintuitive and Antistrophe!). I was lucky enough to get him to sign a copy of the book. He wrote, "To Jason, Fellow Teacher and Critic of Dead Poets." Cool.
I won't try to summarize all of the wise and wonderful things Harris has to say about writing in this fine volume. Rather, let me focus on two things. First, I'm drawn to Harris's account of the intellectual work we're asking our students to do. Toward the end of the volume, Harris warns against introductions that seem to fully anticipate and therefore pin down what the essay will go on to say. He ties this proscription to a more positive account of what academic thinking and writing is about. "I have no quarrel with the need to define a clear plan of work," he says, "But you also want to develop a line of thinking in an essay, to explore its contradictions and stuck points and ambiguities, not simply to stake out a fixed position" (117). When we teach a writing course, Harris believes we're teaching "a habit of mind that resists quick closure and acknowledges the merits of competing interests and values" (125). One lesson I'll take away from this book, then, and hopefully import into my own courses is to place a greater emphasis on inquiry rather than argument.
In each of the main chapters, Harris describes the main intellectual moves in the writing process:
- Coming to Terms--describing how students actively read with purpose, how they make readings their own
- Forwarding--recirculating key ideas from a text in one's own writing
- Countering--not simply to oppose a text, but to supplement it, to view its account of a subject as "partial"
- Taking an Approach--focusing on the transformative moment in writing, where the student makes new knowledge after the work of coming to terms, forwarding, and countering
In his descriptions of his own courses, I was struck by how Harris provides a subject matter for his classes and asks his students to engage in serious intellectual work through writing: "a writing course needs a subject, to be centered on some substantive issue or question" (9). Since I and some colleagues are in the process of tinkering with one of our writing courses, Harris's description gives me pause. In our course, we emphasize writing as a form of action in community or public contexts. In what way can we better join that vision of writing with writing as an intellectual endeavor?
Finally, this book made me think about my own academic writing process, particularly the long dark night of dissertation writing. On the one hand, Harris's book made me a little mad. Gee it would have been nice to have someone on my committee sit me down and take me through some of these steps. This book should be required reading for all humanities graduate students. Period. On the other hand, the book has given me new hope that I may yet have a worthy academic thought or two in me. Harris's book is enormously inspirational in that regard, though it doesn't come across as self-help, and I can't recall any long passages of explicit encouragement in the book. What's encouraging is that the process Harris describes is one I want to practice. I found myself last night finishing Harris's book and then immediately opening my laptop and adding a small chunk to my distinguished faculty lecture draft. Now I find myself writing this review.