In October, in place of a mid-term exam, I asked my students in WR420/520 Writing Across the Curriculum to interview a professor in a discipline that interests them, asking how that professor teaches their majors to write. Students were also asked to make connections to readings in the course as they arose naturally. In this article, Julia Malye interviewed Lee Ann Garrison, Director of the School of Arts and Communication, about teaching writing in the fine arts. Julia Malye is a graduate student from France and author of the novels La fiancée de Tocqueville (2010), Thémoé (2013), and Les fantômes de Christopher Dorner (2016). She is working on her MFA in fiction here at OSU.
-Vicki Tolar Burton, WIC Director
By Julia Malye, (MFA 2017, SWLF) SWLF GTA
The office of Lee Ann Garrison, director of the School of Arts and Communication, is covered with paintings. A first sign that words matter for this fine arts professor, who also writes poetry, is that she is “never ever not reading a novel.” I tell professor Garrison about the change one can witness in French art schools; when my mother graduated from Camondo (Paris) in 1976, her degree did not entail any writing component. Nowadays, Camondo students take mandatory writing classes from their first year on and all the way to graduation. Professor Garrison explains to me that she had a similar experience as she went to school around the same time as my mother did. So, how did this change occur over the years? Interestingly enough, Professor Garrison does not start with defining good writing; rather, she jumps right in with concrete examples of writing assignments.
She first mentions an exercise which heavily relies on writing – the goal being for students to familiarize themselves with describing art. Students go on a field trip to an art museum where they are asked to choose an art piece and sit in front of it for forty-five minutes. What do they see? They are encouraged to slow down and list everything they notice, without referring to their emotions or personal experience. This list will evolve as they include research about the artist and then turn it into a one-page essay that they bring to class. “They have to read out loud. If you can’t read it, it means it isn’t in your words,” adds Professor Garrison. I can’t help remembering Flaubert’s gueuloir (from gueuler, to yell), for whom reading in a loud voice was the ultimate test for good writing. Professor Garrison goes on explaining to me that the students do peer-review in class, where she encourages them to work on their word choice and to revisit the structure of their essays so that “the more important ideas are at the top of the page.” I am surprised to see how much she emphasizes revision, insisting on the fact that “the first draft isn’t the last draft.”
The activity shows student writing as a multi-faceted process, as they start with more informal writing – listing what they see – then move on to research, introducing others’ voices in their paper, and finally write down their thoughts before working as community in class to better structure and convey their ideas. I find it interesting that the activity is divided in multiple stages, so that the students can’t just sit and write their essay all at once. Between the moment they come up with the list and the moment they do research, they gain some perspective on what they have written – and one could say the same about the first and last draft of their essay. This activity invites the students to see writing as a process, which echoes Herrington’s conception of writing, as a “discovery process” (127). Hence, this first assignment deconstructs the idea of an immediate perfection, of a final product – something that the students will probably apply to their own artwork, as they will go on polishing what they have first produced.
Professor Garrison mentions another writing assignment, the artist statement that seniors need to present at the gallery as they exhibit their final work. Since they read it out loud in front of the public, I take the opportunity to ask her about audience – to what extent she emphasizes rhetorical awareness to her students. Her response is immediate: the students are taught about and familiarized with different audiences. The artist statement is not only addressed to faculty members, but also to students’ peers, who have witnessed the evolution of the project. Other assignments allow students to target wider audiences; for example, Professor Garrison’s husband, a professor and art critic, gives the students the opportunity to polish one of their articles and publish it on an online student magazine, The Corvallis Review. If they want to, he also offers to work some more on their writing, so that it could eventually be published in an art magazine. Once again, revision is emphasized as a key part of the writing process; the students come to realize that by keeping in mind who their readers are, they will need to write differently. It isn’t about “doing school” anymore, either. Rather, they are stepping into the world of art, jumping into a broader conversation and adding their personal insights on a defined topic.
Students majoring in fine arts must be able to write about other artists in order to build a discourse around their own artistic product. Now that I have a better idea of what students’ writing goals are in this discipline, I ask Professor Garrison to define what “good writing” means to her and her colleagues. I share with her Chris Thaiss’s idea that defining good writing in one’s own discipline is one of the main areas of difficulty for teachers of writing in the majors. She first mentions efficiency and clarity, before adding that it should engage the reader, coming full circle with this focus on rhetorical awareness. One of these elements surprises me, as it hasn’t been discussed much in our articles: good writing in fine arts must be beautiful. And what could be more natural for a discipline with a focal point on aesthetics? Professor Garrison goes further, illustrating her point: “I used to teach a class with 350 students. I would tell them ‘If I’ve already read 328 papers and the 329th one is beautifully written, then I will forget about the number of essays I had to grade.’”
Then, what kind of common mistakes would remind her of the crushing number of papers she has to give feedback on? Considering her previous comment on “beautiful writing” (and a part of me wonders how one would clearly define that), it isn’t a surprise when she mentions poor sentence structure and students starting with clichés like “I feel this” or “it caught my eye” rather than jumping right into their own analysis. Professor Garrison adds: “Then there is the paragraph issue, students writing in one block.” This last comment struck me as perhaps particular to fine arts students, since it goes back to something which is visual before anything else, and therefore struck the artist’s eye: an essay with only one paragraph feels rushed and doesn’t invite readers to immerse themselves in the text. Next I ask what kind of strategies she applies to help her students better organize their thoughts. Professor Garrison goes back to the first activity she mentioned, and the peer-review work in class where the students are invited to tackle those sentence-level issues and move around paragraphs in order to clearly structure their ideas. She also mentions the rubric that she hands out for the writing assignment; to her, the grading guide is more important for the student as they are working on the assignment than after.
Professor Garrison is a firm believer in the general education that students need beside their major. She considers that implementing more writing components at Oregon State University has been successful. Still, there seems to be room for improvement, when she recalls this one student who once had the courage to tell her about the research paper they had to work on: “You know you keep on telling us that it’s a short paper. Only 2000 words. We’ve never written that much before.” This student was a senior at the time.
I asked Professor Garrison if she could compare how writing is included in the OSU curriculum with other universities where she had previously taught. Professor Garrison tells me about another concern faculty members have; she remembers a former colleague confiding in her, “I can’t teach writing, I’m a painter.” To which she replied: “You’re a college professor and you can.” This seems extremely interesting to me, this idea that the reticence of certain faculty members can be hiding anxiety – the feeling that they are not expert in this field, that when it comes to writing they don’t have the comfort one has in their own discipline. I couldn’t help thinking about Sommers and Saltz, who argued that the students who would grow as writers would be the ones who accept to be novices again, who “discover they can ‘give and get’ something through writing” (304). This idea could also be applied to professors. How to help them gain confidence in teaching writing, how could one convince them of the importance to be novice in this field? If faculty members attend WIC workshops, they have an opportunity to discuss together the issues they face and if they are the ones coming up with solutions, then they remain the experts in their field, which might help them deal with the anxiety expressed by Professor Garrison’s painter colleague.
I have one last question for Professor Garrison. Talking to a fine arts professor, I can’t help remembering where Thaiss wonders if, considering the democratization of technologies, one should expand the definition of writing to “a greater variety of ‘written products’” such as “visuals-and-text magazines, radio, television, CDs, live theater, Web sites, MOOs” (91). When I mention this idea, Professor Garrison smiles. The answer is yes; to her, writing, just like drawing or painting is about communicating, conveying a message. “When I write a poem or when I paint, I’m commenting on my time.” With such a conception of writing, it is no wonder that Lee Ann Garrison is so involved in incorporating writing component in her course. One can only hope that she convinces more painters that they know how to write, and not only with their brush.
Herrington, Anne J. “Writing to Learn: Writing Across the Disciplines.” Zawacki and Rogers, pp. 118-127.
Sommers, Nancy, and Laura Saltz. “The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year.” Zawacki and Rogers, pp. 290-309.
Thaiss, Christopher. “Theory in WAC: Where Have We Been, Where Are We Going.” Zawacki and Rogers, pp. 85-99.