Social Issues Motivate Writing

While posting to Tumblr last night, I noticed that the articles I was posting were really, really drawing me in.  But I wasn’t researching writing – I was researching and writing about public perceptions of autism, and hacking of government personnel files, and the story of a young boy with Sanfilippo Syndrome, and police brutality indicating institutional racism.  And more: Tamir Riceteenage girls creating their own documentaries about sexual harassment, the presidential elections, the California drought

I couldn’t stop myself.  Eventually I had to.  And as I was going, I realized that much of what I really cared about in the articles actually does tie back to writing.  But that’s not why I cared about those topics.  I found them compelling because they are issues that I see personally tied back to who I am and what I care about.  My brother is autistic, my veteran information might have been included in the hacked data, I dread the possibility (however remote and unlikely) of my son ever having an incurable illness.  I’ve never suffered from interactions with the police or from sexual harassment (my race and gender make me a far less likely target), but those are issues that really get to me.  I guess because I get really, really upset when I see people in power beating up on people who aren’t in a position to argue back.  And that’s what it is – bullying.  And why does that irritate me so much?  Well, maybe that’s something I need to figure out as I approach my own writing, particularly delving into life writing.

This really is what writing activity is all about.  Through writing, you begin to uncover knowledge and insights that you didn’t anticipate.  As Feynman (I think) said, the notes are the thinking (not an exact quote.  Can’t remember which book I saw this in – it’s on my Kindle app.  So guilty of poor scholarship right now…but that’s what blogs are for, right??)

Anyway, exploring the internet, following the links, I’m learning about society and learning about what I care about.  It’s not that I’m unaware of myself, but the process of copying links over to Tumblr, typing up brief responses, and then tagging those posts with keywords has forced a kind of reflective discipline.  It’s the kind of work I need to be doing more of on my dissertation, but these specific articles are giving me a somewhat better idea of why I’m working on a dissertation right.  I mean, yes, they are demoralizing articles, and they do leave me wondering whether or not I should be doing something “more productive” with my life.  At the same time, though, seeing people marching forward without regard for one another, I see how my work in writing is really a response to that.  As I thought in college, if I could just learn to write that perfect science fiction novel, I could show people all the wrongness in the world.

But I haven’t written that novel yet.  Instead I teach.  And, if the dissertation goes well, maybe my writing will help teach teachers as well.  But the real issue I’m seeing that teachers should learn to better articulate the fundamental connection between what people care about and how well they learn to write.  Frequently, we hear charges that college professors are teaching ideology rather than useful skills – on the flip side, we’re told that the classroom is the place to teach social awareness.  Most teachers, I think, inherently understand the connection between literacy skills and social justice – after all, you have to be able to share your voice if you’re going to overcome marginalization in today’s society.  Where we falter is in helping parents and students see this connection themselves.  To see it not just as “writing will help you get a job,” and more as “writing will help me see the world more clearly, which will help me decide the kind of job that matters to me.  And when I care about this work I’m doing, I won’t just write – I’ll want to keep writing.

So, I think I’m going to assign some of my Tumblr posts to my students as examples of this kind of impromptu research.  I don’t know exactly what I would write about these articles for an academic paper (or even if I’d have time to include these specific ones), but work of organizing the material you read is important.  It’s just that now, with technology, I suddenly have this crazy new way to sort and share the stuff.  So even if no one else ever reads it, I at least have the hashtags to help me find material I might want to read again in the future.

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