The other night in my comp history/theory class, we were discussing Joseph Harris’s A Teaching Subject: Composition Since 1966. After a lively discussion about process–the real rewards of teaching it, the pitfalls, the confusion on how exactly to teach a process course that doesn’t end up with a final product that we value more than the actual process–we enacted a particular process: “composing aloud.”
In his book, Harris discusses Janet Emig’s 1971 study, The Composing Process of Twelfth Graders. In her study, Emig wanted to observe the way student writers produce texts. One way she did this was asking her eight student test subjects to compose aloud: “that is, while vocalizing as much of what they were thinking about while they were writing as they possibly could” (Harris 57). So, to get a feel for what these students experienced, we practiced composing aloud. And by we, I mean I was the guinea pig, and after my disastrous process, we quickly shuffled back to discussion.
I had five minutes to answer the question “What Is Process?” while two of my peers took notes on my own process. After three minutes, I was told I could stop. This is all I could muster:
“What is process?”
Process is a movement out of the 1970s. Process is about composing; it’s about studying the composition process and the steps that we take in order to create our ideas and try to formulate them into cohesive parts.
You can break down it into different parts, like prewriting and drafting, revising.
Wow. That was the most embarrassing excerpt I have ever written for a class. What’s interesting is how completely unlike my writing process the “composing aloud” process was. I faltered, I stammered, my face was red, I could see my classmates and professor looking at me, and I totally blanked. I couldn’t think of a single intelligent thing to say, and for a while, I just repeated the same question over and over, trying to recall if the word process was even in my vocabulary.
What this exercise showed me was how tricky these methodologies can be. Emig’s students were likely better mentally prepared for composing aloud because they were part of a study, but I wonder if these students would have been familiar with composing aloud prior to this study. Were they accustomed to talking about their writing while writing? In my very brief, very embarrassing experience, composing aloud was certainly no indication of my writing process–not in terms of how I think about my writing, how I speak about my writing, nor how I write.