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The Rise of Writing: A Q&A with Deborah Brandt

May 17, 2018 | By Blake Plante, NEH Research Intern

What happens when writing becomes more common than reading? In a time when it is easier than ever for people to publish their sentiments, what kinds of risks do writers face? Millions of Americans now spend much of their working days “with their hands on keyboards and their minds on audiences,” writes Deborah Brandt in her latest book, The Rise of Writing: Redefining Mass Literacy (Cambridge University Press, 2015). Her publication explores the effects of writing as a new and dominating form of mass literacy.

I caught up with Deborah Brandt to explore the growing trend toward mass writing and what its consequences might be.

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BP: In your research, you look at the rise of mass writing at a time when mass reading declines, and you look at this cultural transition from several different perspectives. Which findings surprised you most?

DB: I was surprised that writing is such a dominant form of labor in so many domains. For this project I interviewed 60 people in the private and public sectors about their routine work writing. These individuals came from health care, law and law enforcement, farming, finance, social service, information technology, business, the military, the ministry, and other spheres. It was not uncommon for them to spend four or five or six or more hours of their working day in the posture of the writer—whether creating or synthesizing knowledge and information, or monitoring, revising, or responding to the writing of others. When I began this project I could not imagine how anyone could write more than they read, but over the course of the adult lifespan, that seems to be happening. Writing is crowding out reading. People read to write, of course, and read during writing—but reading now more commonly occurs as part of the act of writing, as part of a production process. That strikes me as a new development in the history of mass literacy.

BP: In the introduction of your book, you mention that James Madison proposed a different wording for the first amendment to specifically protect people’s rights “to write” and “to publish their sentiments.” In what ways might things be different if our First Amendment reflected Madison’s proposal?

DB: I think about this question all the time! Had the Continental Congress ratified Madison’s initial draft of the First Amendment, the “people’s right to write” and “publish” would have been enshrined in the Bill of Rights along with the right to speak. As we know, however, the language of the amendment was changed to protect freedom of the press instead. In that revision, the press gained explicit independence from government interference and the people gained invaluable protection of their right to read: that is, to have access to a wide range of information. Over time this Constitutional language helped to shape American citizens as reading citizens, as receptive citizens, not as writing citizens. In the name of democracy, schools invested much more heavily in the teaching of reading than in the teaching of writing. Communication technologies were allowed to fall out of the hands of the people and into corporate ownership. Writing became associated with our need to earn a living rather than with our civil rights and responsibilities. As a result, everyday writing has come to be regulated differently from reading and is less protected by government. People are not fired from their jobs for what they choose to read in their personal lives. But people are being fired for what they write on their personal Facebook pages. At a time when digital technologies finally make it feasible for the people to exercise their right to write and publish their sentiments, many impediments stand in the way. When it comes to realizing a robust relationship between literacy and democracy, Madison left much on the cutting room floor!

BP: You note a necessity to skim, to look around and find the things that are needed in a person’s job, rather than reading for pleasure. What kind of effect could this have on our experience of literacy?

DB: In this economy, writing has become a means of production and reading has become a means for writing. There is pressure to produce. At work, we may read just enough to sustain our writing. In our leisure time, we may read just enough to respond to other people’s messages. For some, these habits of production make it more difficult to settle into the old-fashioned reader’s role and what Nicholas Carr calls “deep reading.” However, workaday writers do find pleasure in writing—the pleasure of word craft, the satisfaction of bringing a text to life, the felt sense of ethical risk in letting language loose in the world, and the thrill in knowing one’s writing can bring about good outcomes. As another source of stimulation, people these days write with other people who also write. Discussions about writing are common in the workplace. People engage the full powers of writing every day from their desks at work. We may be leaving an era of “deep reading” but we are entering an era of “deep writing.” We are becoming a nation of authors. The pleasures of literacy are changing. But they are still there.

BP: In an interview you conducted with a police officer, he explains that he “writes [his] reports as if [he] were writing a movie”—he gives a narrative. Many law and literature theorists are concerned about the biases implicit in any individual’s reconstruction of events. What do you think your work unearths about the responsibilities that working authors in government and business face in the narratives that they write?

DB: If there was a second major surprise in my research it was the extent to which workaday writers reflect upon the ethical dimensions of their writing. Is my writing true? Is my writing fair? Is it legal? Will I get in trouble for it? Will it bring about a good outcome for others? Even though workaday writers are mostly anonymous, not the owners of the writing they do at work and not technically responsible for it, they still “sweat it.” One of the reasons the police officer wrote such elaborate narratives, narratives that he said contained “the whole human element,” is that he would find himself testifying in court cases two and sometimes three years after writing a report. By re-reading its details, he said, he was able to recall an incident more vividly and thereby could testify more truthfully under oath. So I would say that no form of writing is more biased than another—the bias is in those who wield the form. Those who write have power over those who are written about. That bias carries on. But I think an important answer to this problem is to make sure that the teaching of writing engages ethical considerations. Students of writing should gain a critical understanding of the power of institutional and corporate writing and the role they can play, even from a little work cubicle, to make that power more responsible and equitable.

BP: You note that “Unlike for mass reading, we lack robust civic and legal theories of mass writing, and we lack them increasingly at our peril.” What might a theory of mass writing look like and why is it needed?

DB: For a long time we have believed that writing develops through reading. But as a society we are now in a developmental stage where reading is more likely to develop through writing. We need to reorganize literacy instruction around writing development. Yes, writing is difficult and time consuming. Yes, the teaching of writing is difficult and time consuming. But we have to confront these facts and make adjustments. Writing needs a lot more attention in school than it is getting. Further, legally and ethically we have to debate what it means for so many Americans to be renting out their literacy skills (especially, their writing skills) to the employ of others when those very same skills require protection for the exercise of free expression. During the course of this project, I interviewed government employees with well-developed understandings of critical issues such as prison reform, health care, education, the environment. But they never wrote about those issues as citizens for fear they might jeopardize the interests of their employer. This same reticence pertained among private sector employees as well. So the question is this: can a (free) civic voice stand apart from one’s institutional or corporate voice? If so, how? If so, when? We need to sort that out. The courts could help. But judges and legal scholars would have to take more active interest than they currently do in the rights of everyday people as writers and in the existential experience of writing as a human activity.

BP: One of the arguments you make is that it is important not to see writing, or good writing, as a kind of intrinsic skill available only to some. What is your vision for mass writing literacy?

DB: To answer this question, I must return to James Madison. It is time to ratify the original vision. Madison regarded writing as a natural right of the people living in a democracy. But to exercise the right to write, people need access to organs of writing development. They need ongoing opportunities for writing instruction. They need unobstructed access to writing technologies. They need a legal system that will protect the people’s literacy with the same gusto with which it has protected the professional press. The first goal of government must be to democratize the practical power of the First Amendment, to make sure that when students leave school they are capable of publishing their sentiments.

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Deborah Brandt is professor emerita of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has published Literacy and Learning (2009), Literacy in American Lives (2001), and Literacy as Involvement (1990).

Deborah Brandt received an NEH Fellowship (FA-55086-10) to support research for The Rise of Writing: Redefining Mass Literacy (Cambridge University Press, 2015).