When I first learned about massive open online courses, the truly massive xMOOC types, I thought, OMG, now I too can finally educate the world from the convenience of my laptop and the high speed internet that I have. In fact, I had just bought a new MacBook Air at the time. And, being a writing teacher, I wanted to teach writing, because, you know, everyone in the world needs to “write better.” Perfect.
What I needed in order to get started was a course banner, especially an image that would represent the kind of writing that I teach, “academic” writing.
“Academics” has to do with wisely thinking through existing knowledge and generating new ideas, so I thought the best image to represent it would be, oh, yes, the “owl”!
However, before I settled on the owl and slapped a big wise owl image at the top of the screen, I wanted to take a quick moment to ensure that most (if not all) students/ participants from around the world would get my point when they see my course banner.
Five minutes of Googling led to another five, then an hour, and finally after three full hours of reading what I found about the owl as a symbol, I was discouraged. I lost my confidence in the power of my laptop, as well as my years of experience teaching while tethered to one particular context at a time. I sat there, face-in-palms, somewhat glad that I didn’t use a local metaphor to claim to convey a particular meaning universally. I was glad I knew how to Google.
If you are wondering what a disastrous situation my Googling led me into, here is a summary of owl’s metaphorical, symbolic, ritualistic, and other meanings from a few places around the world:
|Western world (general perception)
|insightful or wise, having acute vision and hearing, academic
|Greece, Rome (in the past, positive)
|status, intelligence, wealth
|Greece, Rome (past, negative)
|Russia (esp. folklore)
|sign of death
|South Asia (popular reference, curse word)
|stupid or silly, unable to learn quickly
|South Asia (literary symbolism)
|evil, ill omen, turmoil (Sanskrit: uluka)
|Native American cultures
|foresight, keeper of sacred knowledge; consultant for punishment or sickness; mediator between the living and dead; dreaming it means impending death; rejuvenation
|Some other meanings
|psychic power, angel of death, darkness, guardian of the underworld
When I lost my confidence to find an image that would universally convey the subject I wanted to teach, I also started questioning an even more basic assumption that I had been making. What does “writing” mean in different parts of the world? So, I posted a set of simple questions on my Facebook wall:
What does “writing” mean to you or generally in your context? What does “good” writing mean? What do you do or achieve when you “write”?
Friends on my Facebook network are from many different places around the world, but most of those who responded to the above questions were originally from Nepal, so their academic backgrounds were similar. And yet, their answers were stunningly varied.
The first response was from a friend with whom I went to the university in Nepal twenty years ago and who now lives in Australia. He described writing as one means for achieving many ends, specifying simplicity and truth as its good qualities:
I have four things in mind for your inquiry. … In my context, I write to express, reflect, inform and record. They serve variety of purposes in my day-to-day life, including university work, private writing and work-related documentation. For me good writing is simple and has ability to tell simple truth.
Another friend from Nepal was a little more philosophical in his response:
Writing is an ocean of all art and non-art forms where all the forms blend and converge; in fact, it is the foundation of humanity; the real cause for human civilization, also like to say – up to this advancement; it’s a freedom of expression vaporizing human minds to call either monsoon or acid rain; and, demarcation between sanity and insanity; humanity and inhumanity. Good writing may roar or soothe but it lasts forever. … It has a capacity to transcribe even a silent note. बढी त लेखिन नि सर? [Tr: I didn’t write too much, did I, Sir?]
When I read this response, I sat there thinking that even with my twenty-one years of teaching experience and a tremendous passion in teaching, I may not be able to teach writing to people like the friend who wrote it.
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The response from a friend from my undergraduate days in the mid 90s who now lives in London relieved the anxiety a little; he used some humor and made it sound easier:
The word writing has ‘TING ‘ as it’s suffix ( not exactly a suffix but say) at it’s end. If any writing that tings the bell in our mind and awakens us is a good writing.I know it’s too superficial but just a little thought :-))
Using a little bit of social media shorthand, a former student (whom I taught in eighth grade in 1999 in Kathmandu), said, “in my opinion, writing is a medium of expression not only the abstracts bt also the concrete. n a good writing is the one that is clearly conveys the writers message and also has the potential to create an impression upon the reader.” She was probably using a mobile device to respond to my question. Another Nepalese friend who now studies in Florida used a more “academic” type of language in his response:
Writing is a medium of self-expression which can be subject and objective both in its end, a never ending process of completing incomplete. … Good writing is the one that you really want to write about, you feel about it in your heart and head and you want to give it a concrete shape, and if it solaces your heart then that writing I would call a good writing.
One of the least expected answers I received was from a Nepali immigrant in New York City who used a little bit of post-colonial theory for defining writing:
As far as I am taught, writing follows a formulaic conventions choreographed by Western universities. However, as I guess, it is a unique reproduction of play of conflicting socio-political forces upon an individual consciousness.
This friend seemed to be critical of how his teachers taught him writing by using imported, foreign models. Some friends gave short and direct answers. The shortest answer came from an English language teacher and scholar in Kathmandu: “Writing is technical…” An engineering scholar in southern US wrote this to-the-point answer: “To me, primarily, writing is a way to release thought-induced stress from my mind. It is driven by the need of ‘self-actualization’.” This engineer friend has a particular knack for creative expression. As you see above, some friends took broader, social views about writing. But the response of a teacher and journalist in Kathmandu stood out in this regard:
For me, writing is something that empowers people. It has helped me generate income for my living when I have become a teacher, development activist, and ultimately a news/feature writer for national English daily here. My writing skill was one of many components that impressed the current employers to qualify me for the two parallel jobs that I am engaged in. Hence, I believe this is a powerful tool for professionally developing those who write.”
Arguing that teachers of writing must regularly write themselves, he said that writing “is one of the first skills and the most important attribute that qualifies one to unlock the door of amazing opportunities.” Others were generous in their writing, as well as sharing personal opinions and experiences. A friend in Canada wrote by drawing on his knowledge of the history of personal writing in English Studies:
Writing is an expression in and of privacy. Speaking, you have got public or an audience in front of you that draws a border before you limiting what you can say and what you should say, writing, however, leaves you in a total freedom to say what your heart and mind want to say. So, writing can be better means to express yourself. . . . This enables them to better express themselves without any external pressure. Since the writer can always manage the time, place and privacy to write, a good writing should be well thought, well expressed and well proof read. / I write to keep record of something I really can’t say as it’s not always easy and practical to say everything that I want to say. Writing gives me full rights! Samual Pepys used this full rights when he wrote his Diary.
I thought his use of British English was a good fit. Finally, a radio journalist from eastern Nepal defined writing in terms of “passion” and described its quality in terms of “satisfaction”:
…writing is a kind of passion either that is good or bad. Good writing means which satisfied writer himself/herself at first and if one is appreciated for his/her writing then nothing is great achievement than this for the writer! It’s my personal opinion about writing and writers.
A friend who didn’t respond on Facebook told me in person that “writing” meant “exams” to her, and another friend reminded me during a phone conversation that a lot of people in Nepal define “good writing” as good “handwriting”–which made me think, well, I can’t teach that! In fact, even in the US, a lot of people define writing as proper spelling and grammar.
Overall, even just the one dozen responses that I received within a day were extremely varied in their focus and perspectives, reflecting different experiences of a global community of friends and colleagues.
So, after the two rounds of quick “research,” using secondary and primary data on two issues that I wanted to learn a little more about before I embarked on the project, I gave up my ambition to teach the world how to write well. Daunted by the complexity of how two seemingly simple ideas were defined very differently by people in different contexts, I felt humbled enough to get back to further educating myself about different cultures, academic systems, and different ways of looking at things–before, I hope one day, I can go back to teaching writing to the world. 😉
As a small consolation, I did learn an important lesson: even though the internet is a great means for us to reach out to the world, benefiting from the connection and often making greatly positive impact on others, it is also an equally effective means for announcing one’s ignorance. LOL.
Also in the meantime, while I gave up the attempt to educate thousands of people around the world from the convenience of my MacBook Air, I created this meme [click on it to expand] to share with a small group of fellow teachers in the “Connected Learning” community (sponsored by, among others, the National Writing Project in the United States) who are making and sharing memes this week.
Happy Meming, Everyone!