A PhD advisee of mine, C, did her exams yesterday. The exams in Writing Studies are oral (the exams in Communication—formerly Speech Communication—are written, but this curious transposition is a matter for another post). C, more than anyone I have ever met, is a writer. She has an M.F.A. in creative writing, for starters. She wrote her way through two seminars with me, and when I say that, I mean she sat through each class, head down, scrawling in a big notebook from one end of the page to the other, top to bottom, page after page, occasionally looking up to see who was talking. This is how she learns, and I’m reasonably sure that what happens in her notebooks tilts more toward invention than transcription.
Her response papers are the reason I became very strict about length limits. They always spilled over, and she also prefers a smaller-than-usual font, which more than anything else, serves to underscore the density and liveliness of the writing. (I had to finally ask her to at least bump it up to 11-point.) Emails from C, too, tend toward the unusually long, thoughtful, and carefully crafted. The most challenging part of these exams, she and I have both known for awhile, would be that she would need to put down her pen, pull her head up, and speak rather than write. This was the cause of much anxiety for C, and has been since she first entered the program three and a half years ago.
I don’t know the details about her exam preparation, except that she read or re-read probably 250 or so books and articles in the past several months. I’m fairly certain that writing featured prominently in her preparation—I rarely saw her in recent months without the 3-inch-thick notebook she brought back from Portugal, which seemed to be getting thicker.
Listening to C in her exam yesterday, I realized that she speaks like a writer, like she writes—in full, vivid, paragraphs, her answers forming something like narrative arcs. Plato talks about writing taking the place of memory, and whether he is right about that or not, it is definitely the case that writing facilitates memory. C buttressed her answers with quotations, illustrations, descriptions (my favorite description was when she compared reading one particularly troubling scholarly book to watching a house burn down—“at once fascinating and horrifying”), weaving answers on the spot to our pointed questions.
C's answers brought the seventeenth-century chironomist John Bulwer as close as he has ever been to composition researcher Janet Emig, thickly described psych-lab experiments that suggest gesture does not just convey thought but helps constitute it, and explained to us precisely and without hesitation why Descartes ought not be so easily tossed out with cartesianism. Toward the end of the exam, I wondered whether it was possible to speak in a 10-point font. If it is, she was doing it, only instead of filling the page, her words filled the room. No squinting was necessary.