Russell A. Hunt
St. Thomas University
 
 

"Could you put in lots of holes?"
Modes of Response to Writing

[As published in Language Arts 64:2 (February 1987), 229-232, and reprinted in Interwoven Conversations: Learning and Teaching Through Critical Reflection, by Judith M. Newman. 378-382. Toronto: OISE Press; Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann, 1991.]

The idea that reading, writing and thinking are essentially and radically social in nature has in recent years gained increasing acceptance among English and language arts teachers and researchers. Accordingly, we have begun to hear a good deal more about the necessity for apprentice writers to acquire a sense of audience by actually having other people respond to their writing. Regularly, it is suggested that writers can begin this process through the help of others -- either the thoughtful, expert assistance of the teacher, or the less expert assistance of "peer editors." Peers, it is often said, need to be "trained," but are more likely to be helpful, partly because they are peers, and partly because there are more of them -- as a writer you're more likely to be able to get the attention of another member of the class than that of the overworked teacher.

It's not often acknowledged by those who make these suggestions, however, that there are a number of entirely different modes of response to writing, some of which are of a good deal less assistance to writers than others. Unfortunately, the concrete implications of those distinctions are rarely taken into account as we consider what happens in classrooms and outside, as student writing is read by teachers and peers and their responses are read or listened to by writers.

Randall Jarrell's children's book, The Bat-Poet (1963), contains the most powerful dramatization I've seen of two entirely different modes of responding to writing. In it, a bat (because he can't sleep during the day and because he's inspired by what seems to a bat the mockingbird's "deep bass voice") becomes a poet by beginning to compose texts about the strange new daylight world. The poem that is his first "keeper," though, is about his own night world -- a terrifying twelve-line portrait of the owl ("The ear that listens to the owl believes / In death") which he finally works up courage to recite to the mockingbird himself.

The poem ends, "The owl goes back and forth inside the night, / And the night holds its breath." Here's how Jarrell describes the response of the mockingbird (a professional):

When he'd finished his poem the bat waited for the mockingbird to say something; he didn't know it, but he was holding his breath.

"Why, I like it," said the mockingbird. "Technically it's quite accomplished. The way you change the rhyme-scheme's particularly effective."

The bat said, "It is?"

"Oh, yes," said the mockingbird. "And it was clever of you to have that last line two feet short."

The bat said blankly: "Two feet short?"

"It's two feet short," said the mockingbird a little impatiently. "The next-to-the-last line's iambic pentameter, and the last line's iambic trimeter."

The bat looked so bewildered that the mockingbird said in a kind voice: "An iambic foot has one weak syllable and one strong syllable; the weak one comes first. the last line of yours has six syllables and the one before it has ten: when you shorten the last line like that it gets the effect of the night holding its breath."

"I didn't know that," the bat said. "I just made it like holding your breath."

"To be sure, to be sure!" said the mockingbird. "I enjoyed your poem very much. When you've made up some more do come round and say me another."

The bat said he would, and fluttered home to his rafter. Partly he felt very good -- the mockingbird had liked his poem -- and partly he felt just terrible. He thought: "Why, I might just as well have said it to the bats. What do I care how many feet it has? The owl nearly kills me, and he says he likes the rhyme-scheme!" (pp. 14-15)

Not long afterwards, the bat makes contact with a chipmunk, and says him the owl poem to show him what a poem is, as part of his offer to "do the chipmunk's portrait in verse." The chipmunk's response is rather different.
He said his poem and the chipmunk listened intently; when the poem was over the chipmunk gave a big shiver and said, "It's terrible, just terrible! Is there really something like that at night?"

The bat said: "If it weren't for that hole in the oak he'd have got me."

The chipmunk said in a determined voice: "I'm going to bed earlier. Sometimes when there're lots of nuts I stay out till it's pretty dark; but believe me, I'm never going to again."

The bat said: "It's a pleasure to say a poem to -- to such a responsive audience. Do you want me to start on the poem abut you?"

The chipmunk said thoughtfully: "I don't have enough holes. It'd be awfully easy to dig some more holes."

"Shall I start on the poem abut you?" asked the bat.

"All right," said the chipmunk. "But could you put in lots of holes? The first thing in the morning I'm going to dig myself another."

When most of us think about responding to the writing of others, what we have in mind is what I suspect Jarrell would have called "mockingbird responses." The mockingbird is positive, supportive, educational, and "kind": he refrains from actually suggesting ways to improve the writing, but he does take the opportunity to help the bat toward more conscious awareness of his skills as a writer. What Jarrell foregrounds, however, is the fact that his response is condescending, judgmental, and of no use to the aspiring bat poet -- just as that of a teacher, or a "peer" who has been trained to be helpful, might. ("Why, I might just as well have said it to the bats," thinks the bat.)

On the other hand, the chipmunk responds almost entirely unreflectively. He responds. The poem is scary; he's scared. He's not entirely unselfconscious, as we see later on, when after another recital he comments, "It makes me shiver. Why do I like it if it makes me shiver?" (The bat responds, "I don't know. I see why the owl would like it, but I don't see why we like it.") What's important, however, is that through the chipmunk's fear, the bat sees that the poem works, that it does what he thought it ought to do. (In fact, it's clearly the chipmunk's response, not the mockingbird's, that encourages the bat to continue his career as a bard.) Whether he's analytically aware of the techniques (how he "gets the effect of the night holding its breath") or not, he's made a better writer by the chipmunk's response, because (among other things) he has more confidence in the communicative and affective power of his writing. Without that -- as we all know -- technical sophistication about metrics and poetic devices is worse than useless. The technique is a function of the poetry, not a cause.

Many teachers to whom I've read these passages respond by saying that the bat's situation isn't analogous to that of their students. The bat's text, they say, is a powerful piece of poetry and their students' texts are, usually, profoundly imperfect pieces of exposition. It seems to me this misses an important fact about the nature of reading and writing: what texts are is a function of their situation and their reader as much as of the writer and of the presumed "features" of the text itself. For the mockingbird, clearly, the bat's text is an imperfect example of the genre "poem," an artifact which needs assessment and whose creator needs gentle encouragement and assistance. For the chipmunk, on the other hand, it's meaningful, socially embedded discourse which doesn't "need" anything at all.

As long as our model of the writing situation is the mockingbird's, we create, because we expect it, a situation in which any student's writing can never be more than an artificial example of text to be dealt with condescendingly, helpfully, and kindly. If, however -- and only if -- we can begin creating situations in which students' writing serves the real purposes of writers and readers, we can respond to students' writing as though it were real, as though we were its readers serving our own purposes. It will be real. We will be its readers. We won't have to pretend, to imagine how it might be for someone to read it in a real situation. We won't have to be mockingbirds, basing the construction of your artificial responses on a theory of how language might work (do metrically truncated last lines actually work? Only the chipmunk can know).

And only in use (as, forty years and more ago, John Dewey made so clear that it seems hard to believe we're still discovering it) do we learn to use our tools; only use polishes and refines the tools themselves. "Sheer plod," says Gerard Manly Hopkins, "makes plough down sillion shine."

Once we've decided that it's what we want to do, it's not difficult to begin creating situations in which students' writing works to do what the students want to have done, situations in which their writing is useful to its readers. What we need is to find ways to make students each other's teachers, to help them find things to say which are of genuine interest to their peers, and which they know to be of genuine interest to their peers. We need to use collaboration not to attend to the form of discourse, but to the substance. We need to convert our classes into collaborative learning experiences in which students write to and for each other, to share what they've learned rather than to demonstrate that they've learned it.

Let me offer one example of how this can be done. In my university course in children's literature I regularly divide the class into groups and send them out to libraries or bookstores to explore different parts of what is obviously too vast a field for any one person to survey (for instance, each group might look at the work of a different writer) and report back to the class as a whole. The reports are photocopied, distributed and read. They are not evaluated, edited or corrected; they become the basis for further exploration (for instancee, the class might decide that everyone should read a work recommended by a survey group). Such writing is not commented on or "helped"; it is used. If it fails to be usable, it's not used. If (like the bat's poem) it serves its purpose, the evidence isn't the mockingbird's approval but the chipmunk's delicious fear.

In The Art of Teaching Writing, Lucy McCormick Calkins recounts the story of Maria, who was miserably homesick and lonely the first day of kindergarten, and the way she found a chipmunk reader who understood what she was saying. On her second day she drew a picture and some letters, and was invited to read her story to the class. Her story was simple:

The girl is sad.
She has no friends.
As Calkins recounts it, several children raised the hands with comments like, "I like your picture," and "I like your writing." but one small boy understood: he looked up and said simply, "I'll be your friend."

Calkins points out that "we need to write, but we also need to be heard." I'd go a step further: unless we are heard, we'll never need to write, except in the sense that we need to please and placate all the waiting, condescending, kindly mockingbirds.