Arts and Sciences Lecture, Spring 2002

You Can't Because You're a Woman
Confessions of a Frustrated Theologian



 
 
 

The mind, the weaver of illusion, is also the only guarantor of reality; therefore, reality is always to be sought at the base of illusion.
Sir Arthur Eddington, Nature of the Physical World
 

At eighteen I told the Augustana College dean of students that I wanted to be a theologian, and he told me, as my father would say "in no uncertain terms" to pick another major. Women did not become theologians.  Perplexed, I tried to think of a major that would fit my research interests.  I wanted to know everything about everything. That desire pointed me to theology or science.  Women weren't doing much science in those days either.  What else?  English.  I could do anything in English because everything fit, especially in the writing end of English.  So I proceeded to write theology under the guise of doing research in English.  I'm still at it, so here in this secular time and place, Iím going to talk about theology but with some very peculiar twists and turns.
Creation as mess
In Bill Moyers' wonderful Genesis public television series, he brought together theologians, novelists, sociologists, pastors, and poets to talk about the power of stories to help us understand ourselves and others.  In that series, the nature of god is interpreted as the nature of human beings.  The discussants came to understand that the story of Genesis portrays the human struggle to understand why families are so vexed and messy.  The discussants also came to see that god, most of all, has to do some learning in order to begin to understand his creation. He has to learn that creatures will do what they will do and that just wiping them out every time they annoy him stunts their growth, and his growth as well.
Creation as self
All a writer or a writing teacher needs to know about writing is embodied in those two messages.  First, all creation is messy, very messy. Second, creators should save everything. Pitching writing in the waste bin looks dramatic, but one day's dreck is another day's genius. I first connected my interest in writing and my interest in theology when I was writing my defiant dissertation on theology in English.  I read Dorothy Sayers Mind of the Maker while I was writing on C.S. Lewis (I had assigned myself the pleasurable task of reading all the works of all the Inklings, the famous writing group made up of Lewis, Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and Dorothy Sayers).
Sayers begins her discussion of creativity by examining the claim in the beginning of Genesis that humans are made in God's image. She contends that the way in which we resemble God most is our "desire and ability to make things" (34).  She answers critics of this analogy by noting that all knowledge is analogical and language-based, not "real."  She notes that whenever we think of something of which we have no direct experience, we must inevitably use analogy or "refrain from thought" (35).  She argues that we anthropomorphize  everything (including God) and notes that "If the tendency to anthropomorphism is a good reason for refusing to think about God, it is an equally good reason for refusing to think about light, or oysters, or battleships" (35).  We anthropomorphize these things all the time because we cannot do otherwise; we inevitably think in terms of ourselves.
Sayers goes on to extend this argument by noting the constant creative processes of all humans, but she defines the creativity of the artist as different from the creativity that produces "identical" buttons from a press or Hostess cupcakes from a machine. "The components of the materials world are fixed; those of the world of imagination increase by a continuous and irreversible process, without any destruction or rearrangement of what went before" (40).  The human who creates new texts or paintings or sculptures, like God, has no limits on the possibilities or scope of that creation.
Sayers compares the creative energy of the writer to the Trinity, describing the creative Idea as the constant spark that begins and controls the text, the creative Energy as the vigor the writer experiences when producing the text, and Power as the response that the writer and all others experience when reading the text. She notes that no writer could explain which of these three is actually the text; it is all three, and the writer is somehow both a part of and distinct from the text, as the creator is both a part of and district from the creation (47-52).
Common knowledge
Consider now with me how Sayers' description of the creative artist relates to the teaching of writing. Every English teacher knows the feeling of rejection that comes when sitting next to a person on a plane and admitting to being an English teacher. We all know what comes after the admission: either silence or the declaration that the person will have to watch her grammar.  Think first which of these definitions of writing are common; which does the person next to me on the plane mean when she stops talking to me?

1. Handwriting
2. Punctuation, grammar, spelling
3. Organization and logic
4. Rhetorical situation: audience/forum, context, purpose
5. Style
6. Developing ideas
7. Discovering new ideas/perspectives
8. Thinking critically
9. Thinking creatively
10. Interpreting the observations, texts, and experiences          (Lunsford & Straub. Twelve Readers Reading.  Cresskill P.)
11. Contributing a useful suggestions for the improvement of  another's text
12. Using another's suggestion to re-envision your text
13. Making meaning
14. Reframing a story, argument, process

I have never had anyone say to me that she will have to watch her critical thinking or her story telling.  So few people give themselves the freedom to enjoy writing, to experience writing as the sort of explosion of energy that comes with the expansion of a new galaxy or the birth of a child.
What writing is for
The research in the field, however, tells us that that is what writing will do for us and for our students.  In 1987 Judith Langer and Arthur Applebee completed a two-year longitudinal study of twenty-three teachers who volunteered to participate in an investigation of How Writing Shapes Thinking.  The teachers agreed to be observed, to keep teaching logs, to meet and discuss their students and their teaching, and to reflect and analyze their experiences.  In addition, their students' ability to recall knowledge and ability to use writing to solve problems would be measured.
The results of the study coincide with the theological arguments of both the Genesis discussants and the writer's inquiry of Sayers. Teachers often used writing to review work learned and to discover when students had learned what had been taught, especially to "grade the students on newly learned material" (137).  The researchers note that such review writing was far less effective than review writing that would "help students to rethink and clarify new learnings" (137), yet teachers seldom took the step of moving the writing to this stage in which an Idea, in the sense that Sayers used the word, would form.  The researchers note that "Writing was most effectively used to enhance student learning only when the teachers' criteria for judging that learning changed from the accuracy of students' recitations to the adequacy of their thinking" (137).
The difficulty came when teachers tried to evaluate the quality of students' ideas in more valuable writing experiences.  Teachers encouraged creative and analytical papers that stressed "no clearly right or wrong answers" but instead asked for "progress toward a deeper understanding of the material" (137). This deeper understanding provided "evidence for learning" (137), but when teachers used old models for evaluation, they tended to "abort the deeper process of instructional change they meant to embrace" (137).  Thus this important and valuable study led to a stalemate.
How to grade creators