purposes of writing

Our adjunct lab instructor caught my attention as I walked through the space to the storage and prep area last week. I was just on my way to return something to a back shelf, but for some reason when he sees me it’s as though I’ve already initiated a conversation, and he continues it as if we’d already exchanged pleasantries and even begun deriving new understandings about our places in the world.

“I thought some of you should see this,” he started, showing me a traditional lab notebook turned open to a page with handwritten, fountain pen writing. I squinted to make out the script. He interpreted this as concern, I think, as he responded to my expression: “Yes, it’s littered with profanities.” The word “littered” was spit out with its enunciation.

I looked more closely at the notebook to make sure it wasn’t mine.

I’m not sure it was so much “littered” as it was “speckled,” perhaps “sprinkled.” But, it’s a matter of semantics, what you think of the use of various expletives, and how you’d like to color the description.

I said I was pleased that the author used a nice fountain pen.

He said he wished he “could find these people before they did something bad.”

I suggested that maybe writing about frustrations was a beneficial vent. Privately, I was pleased that someone in a physics lab had taken up a pen and was writing in complete sentences.

I’ve always seen many things differently than this colleague, so it’s not really a surprise that I’d take note of the script and fountain pen where he would notice the profanity and frustration. I score labs out of 10 points, with only integer scores possible (8, 9, 10); he uses a 100 point scale and parses things out to the nearest tenth of a percent (89.1, 89.2, 89.3). I’m concerned about broad conceptual understandings; he’s always looking to make sure that equipment is just so and results are attained accurately for the sake of the results themselves. There isn’t a right and wrong to this so much as it paints different profiles of us and our focus. In this case, I thought the interpretation of writing was as stark and interesting a contrast as one could want to highlight.

I encourage students to write not in order to produce something, but to figure out what’s in their head. I don’t think it’s fair to judge what goes on between the pen and the paper when ideas are being tossed around, and in fact I think that it’s necessary to get the mistakes, the profanities, and the half-baked ideas out onto the page (or screen) in order to get them properly vetted. But I suppose that we often see writing as a place to document something, define something, and represent a finished piece. And, in doing so, maybe one sees writing as like that which is formed in wet concrete, a permanent mark of “Fluffy the Dog, 1992” adjacent to a paw mark. At least, that’s how I’m sure this instructor viewed writing. Writing would be a representation of who we are, solidified and permanent. Judgement of the writing would be judgement of the other.

I don’t think I’ll show him this blog.

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