Speaking and Writing, Continued

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Last week, I wrote about women’s attempts to get into the act where speaking was concerned, and about how colleges tried to prevent that from happening. As odd as it seems from our perspective today, those efforts tied in to the growing prominence of writing and the decline in power of speaking. (This is definitely the longest post I have
subjected readers to, but I hope some will bear with me.)

While oral discourse practices certainly continued into the 19th century, writing grew in power and prestige. In the ancient world, the “artistic proofs”—i.e., those created by the rhetor and delivered orally—were considered most persuasive, but by the 19th century, the “inartistic proofs”—written laws, testimonies, and so on—claimed superiority: “put it in writing” became the byword. Aided by new technologies such as improved typewriters, better printing presses, inexpensive writing equipment, newspapers, magazines, and books proliferated at a great rate, and the reading public expanded exponentially. Colleges, whose enrollments soared in the last half of the century, began to focus much more on writing than speaking. After all, colleges no longer prepared white men just for the bar, the statehouse, or the pulpit, but for careers in business and industry, where writing was increasingly the major mode of communication. And burgeoning enrollments meant that it was harder and harder to have students give speeches of all kinds: writing increasingly became the means of showing that you were worthy of progressing through the college years—and of success in the business world.

Much has been written of Harvard’s Boylston Chair of Rhetoric and Oratory, and of the traditional Harvard curriculum that featured four years of rhetorical education. That curriculum began to change not only with growing enrollments but with the appointment of Francis James Child to the Chair in 1851. A folklorist by training and trade, Child turned away from rhetoric and its commitment to speaking in favor of reading and writing: students increasingly spent their time in the analysis and interpretation of written literary texts and wrote their “themes” in response. By the beginning of the 20th century, John Clapp—writing in the English Journal, summed up the situation by noting that “for the purposes of the intellectual life, which college graduates are to lead, talking is of little importance, and writing of very great importance” (23).

University Museum at Harvard UniversityUniversity Museum at Harvard University

Strongly influenced by Harvard’s entry exam, which focused exclusively on print literary texts, and by the Modern Language Association, founded in 1883 to “promote the study of literature and language,” departments of English in the U.S. dropped “rhetoric” or an emphasis on speaking in favor of reading and writing about literature. The MLA, however, fractured in the early twentieth century as scholars interested in the teaching of composition and rhetoric split off in 1911 to form the National Council of Teachers of English in response to what they called the “changing needs and values regarding education, particularly English language education” of an “increasingly diverse student population” who were being failed by the very narrow curriculum offered in schools and colleges. In 1914, teachers of speech and linguists also left the MLA, forming the National Communication Association; this group will hold its 105th convention this fall with a theme of “Rhetoric for Survival.” 

Some attention to elocution lingered in pre-college US classes (my grandmother remembered weekly recitations in her Tennessee Quaker school—telling me more than once about the boy in her class who recited the very same poem every week for an entire year without the teacher noticing it!). But by the mid-twentieth century, the shift from the ear and mouth (for speaking) to the eye and hand (for writing) seemed complete. In the United States, first-year writing programs and graduate programs in composition became ubiquitous, and few thought to question the status of writing “properly” as a key to success. 

When Walter Ong and Eric Havelock began publishing works about the rise of literacy in the ancient world, they seemed to reify the centrality of writing not just to academic and professional success but to thought itself. In Orality and Literacy Ong describes the revolution in technology that was writing, a revolution he viewed as rippling throughout society, transforming the way people think as they move from the immediate and concrete ways of knowing in an oral culture to the more abstract ways of knowing in a literate culture. In his words:

Writing, commitment of the word to space, enlarges the potentiality of language almost beyond measure, [and] restructures thought (7-8).

In much of his work, then, Ong posits a tension between the “old oral, mnemonic world of imitation, aggregative, redundant, copious, traditionalist, warmly human, participatory,” and the “analytic, sparse, exact, abstract, visualist, immobile world of [Platonic] ideas” (164) and writing. Many scholars (such as Sylvia Scribner and Michael Cole, Brian Street and Beth Daniells) pushed back against a “great divide” or “great leap” theory of literacy, rejecting what they saw as a totalizing view of writing as a technology that transforms thought. Indeed, in his later work, Ong is more judicious in the claims he makes for writing, perhaps recognizing that Eric Havelock and others might have gone too far in arguing for a direct causal link between literacy and abstract or ”philosophical” thought.

Janet Emig, another scholar who compares speech and writing, earned a Ph.D. in Education at Harvard, where she studied cognitive theories and student learning. Her study of the composing processes of 12th graders was a groundbreaking book that took the relatively new field of “rhetoric and composition” in the U.S. by storm. But her 1977 essay, “Writing as Mode of Learning” also worked to underscore the primary importance of writing. Emig opens this seminal article by saying that “Writing represents a unique mode of learning—not merely valuable, not merely special, but unique . . . writing possesses a cluster of attributes that correspond uniquely to certain powerful learning strategies” (122).

Emig makes clear that she is not denigrating the importance of talking to learning, but she goes on to focus on the differences between the two and to argue that if talk is important to learning, writing is absolutely vital. She warns against blurring or ignoring these differences, which she spends the rest of the article enumerating. Arguing that “writing involves the fullest possible functioning of the brain, which entails the active participation in the process of both the left and right hemispheres Writing is markedly bispheral,” Emig goes on to describe writing as learned behavior (speaking is natural, she says); as a technology (speaking is organic); as slower than most talking and thus better at enabling learning. Writing results in a visible graphic product, and is a stark and barren medium (in contrast to the rich luxuriance of talk). She concludes that writing has always had an “aura” or “mystique” surrounding it (while speaking has been seen as mundane and ephemeral) and that “because writing is often our representation of the world made visible, embodying both process and product, writing is more readily a form and source of learning than talking” (124).

I remember reading this essay—and then rereading it—as an awe-struck graduate student who not only studied writing and rhetoric in my PhD program but worked hard to legitimate writing studies as of equal significance and importance to the reading of literature. So by the time Emig and Ong were publishing their work on literacy, I was a passionate advocate of writing and of its importance to research, to theories of communication, and to teaching. I am still an advocate of writing, but as I said earlier, now I see it differently than I did then; I see the complexities and the destructive hold that an obsession with “proper” writing has had on generations of writers.

And as I came to interrogate my own advocacy of writing and writing itself, I began asking “and what about speaking?” Indeed, it was hard not to ask such questions as the seismic shift in technologies of communication became impossible to ignore. Walter Ong had written about “secondary orality,” that is orality that is singularly marked by writing; I began to think about “secondary literacy,” that is writing that is singularly marked by speaking. 

Cindy Selfe answered my question—“what about speaking?”—in a brilliant 2009 essay, “The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimedia Composing.” In this essay, Selfe traces the history of the aural composing modalities of speech, music, and sound and shows how they have been systematically eclipsed by the written word. This is a state of affairs Selfe finds understandable but regrettable:

The contemporary adherence to alphabetic-only composition constrains the semiotic efforts of individuals and groups who value multiple modalities of expression. (616)

In short, the view of writing as the desirable literacy has severely limited the communicative capabilities of writers everywhere. But Selfe too wants to resist a dichotomous binary between speaking and writing, and she tries to do this by adopting the term “aurality”:

In using the term ”aurality” rather than the more common orality, I hope to resist models of an oral/literate divide and simplistic characterizations of cultures or groups as either oral or literate in their communicative practices. Humans make and communicate meaning through a combination of modalities—sound, still and moving images, words among them—and using a variety of media.

As Selfe points out, during this period the growing status of vision “gradually undermined the position still occupied by other forms of sensory experience.” Seeing is believing. Put it in writing. So the spoken word, with its “soulful’ knowledge, turned inward to the largely silent practices exemplified by St. Jerome’s suspiciously silent reading. Great Shakespearean works were now not heard but rather read and subjected to written analysis: classrooms were quiet spaces where students read and wrote and observed. 

Some white women along with African Americans and Hispanics in the U.S. and Indigenous people across North America often retained an attachment to what Selfe terms the network of aurality. Despite often being denied higher education, members of this group still managed to learn writing skills—and to deploy them with passion and precision—while rejecting the violence of literacy and also holding on to oral traditions: storytelling, embodied performances and presentations, church-related activities, verbal games, and other parts of what Peter Elbow terms “vernacular eloquence” in his book-length discussion of “what speech can bring to writing." And indeed, orality/aurality persisted as a kind of steady undertow to writing: teachers and scholars continued to refer to “voice,” to “tone,” to “rhythm," to the flow and musicality of prose. Still, as Selfe notes, “By the end of the twentieth century, the ideological privileging of writing was so firmly established that it had become almost fully naturalized.”

During the period of the late 90s and early 2000s, as I continued to explore the history of writing (I taught a course on the history of writing at Ohio State and the Bread Loaf School of English for well over a decade), including its powers and its problems, I began to teach another course that I called “The Language Wars.” This course traced the struggle for the vernacular and the rise of vernacular languages across Europe, then shifted to the United States and the obsession with error-free prose as “good” writing—and the inevitable backlash against this obsession coming from all directions, and especially from women and people of color. We read and interrogated the Students’ Right to their Own Language documents and examined the AAVE debate in detail. We read the work of Michelle Cliff, who said after finishing her Ph.D. in, I think, Victorian literature, that she never wanted to read, or write, again; of fiery women orators such as Sojourner Truth, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Anna Julia Cooper—and many others Shirley Logan has introduced us to. We read Gloria Anzaldua and studied the ways she mixed Spanish, English, Tex-Mex. We read Anishinaabe cultural theorist Gerald Vizenor’s Lost Voices and Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Survivance, a term he defines as “an active sense of presence.” I remember the excitement in our classroom as we explored these challenges to traditional print literacy and the even greater excitement as we began to compose pieces ourselves, pieces that mixed modes, languages, dialects, and soundscapes.

Gloria AnzalduaGloria Anzaldua

When I offered this course, it was always over-enrolled, and perhaps this should have warned me that a new course I called “Writing 2.0: the Art of the Digital Essay” might not be as successful. I arrived at the first class to find only eight students in it. Taken aback, I asked them, as I always do, to introduce themselves and to tell us why they had chosen this course. The first three students said essentially the same thing: “Well, I almost did not choose this class, but I heard you were an OK teacher so I took a chance.” And why did they “almost” not choose it. Again, they were unanimous: the word “essay.” One said “that word makes me think of old people bossing me around—like “don’t get outside the lines in your coloring book.” And of course, what they had in mind was the kind of five-paragraph themes they’d written in high school and what they considered the “long boring” essays featured in many English classes. I had a hard time convincing them that the very word “essay’ carries a connotation of experimentation, of trying something out. They weren’t having it.

So, when Adam Banks rose to deliver—and to perform—his CCCC chair’s address in 2015, I was ready for “Funk, Flight, and Freedom.” Adam’s talk mixed rhythms from jazz and hip hop with echoes of the African American sermonic tradition, mixed theorizing with personal anecdote, mixed high-falutin’ academic language with oral vernacular. In one particularly memorable moment, Banks paused to address “the essay,” saying that on this day, he declared it officially “retired” (long and loud applause). Speaking directly to the retiree, Adam said “don’t worry, Professor Essay; you can keep your office campus" and we will even “continue to give awards in your honor.”

This is the tradition of resistance, of challenge, of counterpoint that Cindy Selfe explores and celebrates in her essay on aurality and multimodal composing. As she points out, and as Adam Banks demonstrated, discourse practices today are multimodal, multilingual, multimedia rich; they mix genres and styles across multiple semiotic channels. This shift to aurality has been enabled by digital technologies that are changing so quickly we can hardly stay abreast of them, as the possibilities for digital literacies seem almost endless. Print has not and will not disappear, but it is now accompanied by myriad blogs, vlogs, audio and video and imagistic compositions as well, full of illustrations and sounds and animations. Acknowledging the irony of a print text about aurality, Selfe includes four student examples of aural composing, with links so that readers can hear the spoken words. I was thinking of these aural compositions when I listened to friend and colleague Alice Wingwall, a noted photographer who lost her sight in 2000 but continues to work, talk to those attending an exhibit of hers about what she called “my soundscape world.”

Increasingly in the U.S., universities are turning to writing programs to provide instruction in oral and multimodal forms of composing. We began this practice at Stanford in 2002, piloting a second required course that focuses on oral/multimodal presentations. In the same spirit, Stanford renamed its writing center the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking, and is expanding its support for multimodal compositions as well. Such moves underscore the point that no single mode of expression is able to convey all the meanings within a text. And what texts students are producing! Digital storytelling is going on everywhere I turn. Stanford’s Storytelling Project, which started as a second-year writing course well over a decade ago, is now a permanent fixture on campus. Just a week ago I was on campus for the Lunsford Oral Presentation of Research Awards, given to a second year student every term. We’ve been giving this award for about a decade now and I get to go every year to hear the winners make their presentation. Today, it seems, writing and speaking are thoroughly intertwined.

Selfe concludes her article by reiterating that while she wants us to understand the historical dimensions of the rise of writing and the decline of orality as a general shift, she is not arguing against writing or the value we place on it. Moreover, teachers of writing and speaking must remember that while students today are “intuitively aware” of these changes and shifts, they still require help in understanding them fully—and utilizing them, and we must do so “in ways that are rhetorically effective, critically aware, morally responsible, and personally satisfying” (624).

That’s quite a challenge to all of us. And while I have perhaps belabored Selfe’s points a bit too much, I do think it is critically important that we see the big picture of literacy changes across the millennia, that we know where we have been as well as where we are now. And where we are now – well, there’s the rub. After all, Selfe was writing a decade ago. Just think of what we have seen in terms of literacies and technologies in the last ten years. I want to move toward a conclusion, then, by considering some of these changes and innovations, in terms of their promise as well as their problematics. Yes, the relationship between writing and speaking has shifted, but as I’ve just noted, the relationship is still there, as it has been throughout history, though perhaps more intertwined and intense than ever. In fact, MIT researcher Tara Shankar has even offered a new word to capture that relationship: “spriting.”

Thank you for your patience. Next week I will offer concluding thoughts and list the sources I have been relying on. Onward!


Images via Wikimedia Commons

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