Writing and rowing have never really been linked in my mind. But John Warner connects them when he introduces freshmen to college writing. On the first day of class, he tells students that each of them is a “unique intelligence” and that taking comp will show them how to apply that intelligence to everything they learn. He then challenges them:
“Your role here, rather than to prove to me that you can pay attention in class and write stuff down to later regurgitate it in the form of a quiz or essay, is to pick up an oar and start helping us row the ship and the world at large towards greater enlightenment.”
Most students have probably never seen themselves as producers of knowledge. Some are too overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge there is to consume. Others have never thought about where knowledge comes from. They take scholars’ findings on faith, not realizing that an academic discipline is the product of individuals who wrestle with problems, propose solutions, critique others’ solutions and revise their own based on new findings and new insights. Some of those insights come from being proved wrong, either because ideas or methods don’t work as expected or because debate exposes flawed logic or inadequate evidence.
Knowledge is produced by people. It is neither fixed nor infallible. If students don’t know that, they have a hard time understanding the difference between cutting-and-pasting and using sources to support their own opinions.
Of course, beginning academic writers have yet to master a discipline. That’s why picking up an oar is an effective metaphor. Like thinking and writing, rowing is work. The work is done by individuals, but progress is the result of a collaborative effort. Freshman writers are not expected to set the pace or steer the ship. However, if they want to move ahead, they have to do more than sit on the bench.