I’ve been researching how people learn to write and what can stand in their way. My interest in this topic stems, first, from my own experiences as a college writing teacher (with a PhD in “composition studies”), and second, a book project I’m working on for college students facing their first college writing class, whether as recent high-school graduates or returning adults.
A lot of research indicates that, as with many other cognitive functions, early experiences matter. This seems to be particularly true for writing. After all, writing is not “natural.” No one is “hard-wired” to do it, as we all seem to be for speech. Neuroscientist Stanislaus Dehaene explains current theory suggesting that our brains must redirect neural pathways “designed” for other functions into the unnatural and unevolved task of connecting visual images with the sounds that then translate into the words we’re familiar with. The earlier we recognize that these visual stimuli are important components of our environments and have meaning, the more likely this process will occur when our brains are most plastic, most ready to manage this redirection. Intuitively it makes sense that people who had the richest literacy experiences from the earliest ages will have the most time to hone this use of their brains.
It’s also clear that writing makes huge demands on our cognitive resources. I’m reading research that indicates that even such tasks as typing, when they’re not largely automatic, steal working memory and cognitive energy from the higher-order processes that go into more complex writing tasks. And when we’re dealing with multiple tasks with high cognitive load, like accessing new, complex material, something has to give.
So my conundrum: Do I tell potential readers of my book on college writing that if they missed out in those early years, they’re doomed?
I contend that it is true that those early experiences make a difference. Powerful evidence suggests that the nature of our fortunes in our developmental years affects us on a number of fronts. The current conversation suggests that one reason the poverty cycle repeats so obstinately is that children raised in poverty experience deficits that hamstring them on a number of the dimensions required for social and material success in our culture, one of which is literacy. I subscribe to this view. But I also recognize, and am concerned to deal with sensitively and usefully, the case raised in a recent New York Times piece, “Can Brain Science Be Dangerous?” by Anna North.
According to North’s sources, the upside of seeing early deprivation as causing deficits is that these deficits, whatever they are, are not the fault of the people who suffer them, and that, if our society wants to make serious inroads on the cycle of poverty they fuel, we need to devote much more attention to nurturing the very young. As Conor P. Williams, Senior Researcher with New America’s Early Education Initiative points out, we have basically refused this investment in this country.
But the downside is insidious. The implication, as one of North’s sources, the sociologist Susan Sered, argues, is that the poor really are inferior (and really are doomed to be inferior writers). If their brains missed out on the right nourishment in those crucial years, we are left with a population of less-than-us souls who must be managed as such. Sered points out that the upshot has been a trend toward classifying lower-income parenting as inadequate parenting by definition, with, in some cases, actual trends toward interventions that risk making child-raising the prerogative of the wealthy. North references Patrick Butler, who, writing for The Guardian, draws on the views of Sue White, a professor of social work:
Neuroscience is “infiltrating” child protection practice and the family courts . . . where it has been conscripted to support “moral arguments” about state intervention in family life.
Obviously, the social and political implications of these trends are frightening. But back to what it means for people wanting to become better writers—and since people hoping to grow as writers may find themselves reading my book, what does it mean for me?
The good news that I feel I must convey is that, like the debate over the extent to which genes determine cognitive abilities, the debate over the extent to which environment is destiny is alive and ongoing. According to the Times article, experts like Eamon McCrory, a leading neuroscientist at University College London, assert that it’s incorrect to assume that “brain changes associated with adversity in the early years are necessarily irreversible.” Also, not all adaptations to deprivation are bad.
Other research I’m encountering supports the view that the brain is much more plastic and malleable going forward in life than earlier theories allowed. Not only does it appear that IQ can change over time; working memory, one of the resources that can most seriously limit writing ability, can be improved. This is important knowledge—as long as Sered’s fear that people who don’t take advantage of these possibilities won’t be further condemned for not trying hard enough. After all, the tools that can raise IQ and expand literacy skills take time and money to acquire. As Sered notes in the Times piece, Americans tend to blame individuals rather than social conditions for problems (“What’s the matter with you? Didn’t you know you could get coaching to raise your SAT scores? All you have to do is pay the tuition, and take the course between the three jobs you’re working and taking care of your family. What kind of deadbeat are you?”).
In my book, the issue of the effect of early literacy environments matters because I find myself wanting to emphasize, first, that there are things a writing teacher in a fifteen-week course can help you with, and other things he or she cannot. Second, many writing teachers incorporate strategies into their classes that can help people grow their mental “writing synapses” if they commit to them. (And by the way, you don’t establish a new neural pattern the first time you do something: you have to practice and repeat in order to strengthen the pathway. So all you profs out there who don’t understand why one semester of college writing doesn’t equip students to write your sociology paper or your economics paper, lay off.) Third, there are things people can do individually, if they can find a way to do them. Not all the students in my classes had this third option. I know that.
But I can’t help hoping that knowing something about this debate will give my readers some sense of how hard writing is, why it’s so hard, and what options are worth exploring so that they can make the most of those fifteen weeks and the rest of their time as a college reader and writer. Rewiring a lifetime of literacy experiences so they will mesh with the “academic discourse” valued by college may not always be possible, but I hope that the knowledge of what this means and what options are out there will help.