Keywords in Writing: “Process”

“Process” is near or at the center of many conversations about teaching writing. As a noun or a verb, “process” surfaces in classrooms and corridors, around water coolers and in watering holes, during commercial breaks and following a performance, after reading a book or writing one. Conceptions of "process” inform much of what we say and do in our classes, in our intellectual relationships with our students, and in our reflections on the work we do. 

“Process” is interdisciplinary, but processes need not be. The word most often operates across disciplinary boundaries as a prescribed series of ordered steps or procedures. Principles of scientific management have made “process” a national standard of commercial expediency and pedagogical regulation. Adhering to this standard, faculty are traditionally expected to codify writing into a universal “process” that does not necessarily account for the vagaries of individual writing styles.

"Process" and Disciplinary Boundaries

Consider "process" as a noun in such disciplines as sociology, where it usually appears in tandem with the adjective "social." Like most terms in sociology, the phrase suggests virtually any social interaction or, more specifically, what the Dictionary of the Social Sciences calls a "continuous sequence of social activities rigorously defined on the basis of empirical research" (538). Except for the phrase “of social activities,” this definition readily characterizes academic expectations of writing. "Process" in sociology represents a transition, or a series of transitions, from one social condition to another. In writing, we articulate process by transitioning effectively from one point to another, from one paragraph to the next.

Sociologists regard themselves as "social scientists.” They trace their intellectual heritage to the study of biology. (See F. N. House, Development of Sociology. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1936, esp. chapter XIV.) They expressed this lineage by searching for the processes of biological structures in social structure.

In the early 20th century, sociologists focused their study of process on conflict and competition. Only in more recent years have they shifted that emphasis to various forms of cooperation, to what composition calls collaboration. So, too, as attention to process increased in the late 20th century, sociologists placed a greater premium on evidence of equilibrium between different types of social relations. Images of movement, change, and flux dominate the metaphors to explain process in social theory.

Anthropologists invoke process in discussions of acculturation and in analyses of specific cultures. The issues resemble those of sociology — cultural interaction, transitions from one culture to another, as well as the equilibrium between and among different cultures. Yet anthropologists have historically devoted far less attention to studying "process" than, say, political scientists, for whom "process" (as in "political process”) seems to be a catch-all phrase dominating scholarly debate and talk during cameo appearances in media coverage of political crises.  

The discourse of political science is replete with process — as in such phrases as "the legislative process," "the judicial process," and the "nominating process." The emphasis here is on rules and procedures, on codifying experience. In an environment governed by the procedures of institutions and the rules of education, the act of writing is a process designed to generate consistent results.

For political scientists, "process" reflects a deliberate attempt to privilege talk about “movement and change." They often create analogies linking their work to the natural sciences. This may well be an effort to convince us that the patterns of change they observe in the body politic are governed by universal laws, thereby adding stability and intelligible procedure to the discipline. This underlying impetus to privilege identifiable and stable (and therefore more readily teachable) intellectual procedures remains akin to the pedagogical appetite for codifying the “steps” inherent in the composing process. The most constraining example remains “the five-paragraph theme” with its mechanistic protocol for what should be included in each paragraph.

Within legal discourse, process refers either to a summons or writ ordering someone to appear in court, or to the entire course of a judicial proceeding. In this sense, "process" also functions as a transitive verb: to "process" means to enact "the steps of a prescribed procedure." Within a legal context, to "process" is "to serve with a summons or writ," or, more generally, "to institute legal proceedings against someone, to prosecute." (American Heritage Dictionary). 

In its singular form, "process" functions as a noun around which we gather a series of actions, changes, or functions, in order to bring about a result. In this respect, "process" refers to "any of various photomechanical or photoengraving methods" or "any particular method of operation in any manufacture, or in printing, photography, sanitation, etc.; often named for the inventor, as Bessemer." (OED)

In even more specific terms — with implications for thinking about and teaching writing — "process" indicates "a series of operations performed in the making or treatment of a product" (AHD). In composition studies, "process" and "product" are inseparable; they function in a manner akin to breathing in and breathing out. 

Much of the scholastic treatment of writing revolves around the need to evaluate students based on their work, the product of their writing. The inevitability of due dates and grades privileges “product” as the primary benefit of the writing process. We might draw the distinction here between writers and readers: “product” is for readers, and “process” is for writers. The word "process" signifies, in both literal and figurative terms, the movement or passage of writers as they practice their craft and prepare their work for the eyes of readers.

Now consider, if you will, the word "passage" for a moment — both within and beyond composition studies. As we know, a "passage" is a segment of a written work or a speech or a piece of music. In its simplest sense, "passage" (much like "process") indicates movement from one place, one condition, one stage or phase to another.  Implicit here are such factors as time and progress. "Passage" and "process" involve elapsing time as well as advancing toward some point of termination. And, curiously enough, both "process" and "passage" assume that progress is being made. In this respect, both words imply some transition between one place, one condition and another. They suggest, as the OED reminds us, not only a termination, an ending, but also a journey.

"Passage" bears similar implications: signifying not only a right to travel, to come and go freely, but also a path, a channel or duct through or along which someone or something can pass. (The famous late-20th century sports writer Red Smith was fond of saying “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”) As Red Smith implies and most writers also know, writing is also a passage, the action or process of moving through or past something on the way from one place or state of mind to another. In this sense, writing is not only a rite of passage for first-year college students but also a journey, an opportunity for self-exploration and self-articulation. For those writers who choose to explore these self-defining possibilities through multiple drafts, the rewards are not only greater practiced self-confidence but also greater appreciation of how we can look beyond writing as an occasion to avoid making mistakes. Practicing writing achieves far more than avoiding making errors; it enables all of us — instructors and students — to express the states of consciousness that are distinctively our own. 

In such circumstances, and much like the intellectual work of the sciences, the notion of process in writing hinges on experimenting, on having faith in trial and error, in writing and revising, on believing that the work of words will be rewarding even if the first draft does not articulate the writer’s point fully and effectively. In each of these respects, the journey implicit in "passage" and “process” bears as much significance for the writer as the fact of its completion. 

"Opportunity's Assassin:" A Student Writer On Procrastination

"Opportunity's Assassin:" A Student Writer On Procrastination

Types of Sense