The mystical element of flow — teaching writing at the college level
It’s a commonly used phrase in any writing class and all students, it seems, seek it like the gold of El Dorado or the redemption of the Holy Grail.
To define it, “flow” apparently is a quality that writing students crave as a means of bettering their papers.
Students stipulate to its existence. Many writing students tend to agree that it is something that any writer can achieve. Yet, the ways in which writers capture flow are widely debated and often misunderstood.
As a teacher of composition, literature, creative writing and rhetoric, I’ve puzzled over the nature of “flow” and how students can conquer it. However, there’s a problem with flow: it’s very much like dark matter because it’s evidently indefinable. Discussing its qualities is as fruitless as describing the facial features of the Invisible Man.
To close in on this elusive prey, I’ve begun asking students both in the classroom and in various college writing centers to define flow. From that, I bagged a bounty of aphorisms: it operates to better “move a paper along,” or “make sense to the reader,” or, as one student put it, to “tie everything together.”
In the thick of these conversations, I remained aware that the identity of flow actually melds the grammatical strategies of coherency and unity — qualities that, well, unify the sentences and their ability to transition easily, coherently. Yet and still, even with this knowledge, I’ve found pilgrim students in search of flow often respond with resistance and even frustration to this description. The reason is simple enough. A student’s level of compositional comprehension is less dependent on the class that he or she is in, and more dependent on one’s willingness to engage with his or her own grammatical knowledge.
In the end, what I’ve learned is that flow is far from an invisible quality. In fact, flow stares each student in the face, typed out word-by-word, compounded with each stroke of the pen, each click of the keyboard. Flow is a series of independent and unique grammatical, syntactical, and mechanical errors that gradually interrupt the … the … well, flow of a student’s paper.
The real problem with flow is that it’s unique to an individual writer. Like corrupted snowflakes, flow actually is a series of errors that each student makes commiserate with the student’s unique weaknesses in composition. Flow can range from simple problems, such as subject-verb agreement, to more complex punctuation devices such as employing non-restrictive and restrictive relative clauses, transitive verbs, or the selective process of specific active verb choice.
In any case, there is a remedy. All it requires is an injection of patience and understanding. Too often, basic grammatical structures are foreign to even collegians. I’ve often shared the bad news with my students: mastering the numerous rules of grammar requires more than a semester or two. The good news, though, is the rules also are locked in a student’s subconscious, much like the ability to ride a bike. Even with simple practice, many students can become masters of grammar — capable of divining the proper verb tense, the placement of a comma, or the portion of a clause that requires emphasis.
What needs to become commonplace — even in college writing classes — is for teachers to take a more concerted stand on even the simplest rules of grammar. Truly, teachers have deserted these things rather than the students. Of course, students bear the obligation of learning grammar past the point of introduction.
Still, even the most rudimentary diagnostic largely can help mend mangled manuscripts. Hardly as time-consuming as it sounds. As creatures of habit, many of us tend repeatedly to make the same grammatical errors. While one person may be prone to prepositional phrase fragments, another may be more susceptible to the slippery slope that is run-on sentences. Regardless of the error, we have means of correction — often with multiple options available.
Once students realize this, they realize that grammar is less a sextant and more a kaleidoscope of delights. Whatever the case, identifying specific and individual grammatical concerns is the compass to discovering which way the words flow.
Christopher J. Irving teaches English, composition and rhetoric at Beacon College www.BeaconCollege.edu in Leesburg, Fla., the first college or university accredited to award bachelor’s degrees primarily to students who learn differently.