First a quote from William Stafford's short essay "A Way of Writing," reprinted in Writing the Australian Crawl:
For me this raises yet again the issue of how best to formulate my objectives in teaching writing. Maybe it's a matter of where I choose to throw the emphasis (form vs content vs process). Of course, I need to talk about all three (and much more); perhaps the emphasis will be so internalized that it's nearly indistinguishable to my students.
Yes, I want students to be able to write focused, developed, coherent, mechanically correct prose. I don't at all mean to minimize the value of that as an objective (or the difficulty of achieving it), but somehow it feels like a surface-level competency. What I'm interested in is the scaffolding supporting that goal. Is it sufficient that students be able to produce competent samples of the various rhetorical modes (emphasis here on form)? To what degree is this useful FOR THEM, in practical terms, beyond the "confines" of the classroom? (That answer will vary, of course, depending on students' academic, career, and personal goals.) To what extent does rhetorical-mode competency represent skill in critical thinking? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
Most semesters I write on the board E. M. Forster's often-quoted line:
I remember the click-into-place sense of understanding I had when one of my high school English teachers wrote it on the board (like understanding the nature of inverse relationships in mathematics). In class I may detour here to tell about the time in 9th grade we observed oranges, the texture of their skin, the packets of juice lined up like tiny canoes (I try never to miss a chance to encourage students to OPEN THEIR EYES). Returning to Forster's sentence, I take the opportunity to point out a few stylistic elements: complex ideas conveyed by simple diction, strong verbs, balanced syntax. What are the distinctions and connections between the four actions, I ask.
My sense of the connection between words and thoughts has been complicated recently, though, by reading Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct. A few pertinent quotes:
Pinker terms the internal "language" of thought mentalese. It's all very interesting to me (I guess I'm the self-referential type who likes to think about thinking, read about reading, write about writing). I'm eager to read more about cognitive science, but there's probably a more immediate point to emphasize to writing students: to communicate your thoughts to someone else, you must put them into words. Another case for the primacy of audience?