Resisting the standardisation of writing in schools and universities: Walter Benjamin, ‘operating writing’ and … An Australian case study

Year: 2021

Author: Parr, Graham, Bulfin, Scott, Diamond, Fleur

Type of paper: Individual Paper

When Walter Benjamin wrote ‘The author as producer’ in 1934, while living in self-imposed exile from Germany, he was concerned about the implications of a passive citizenry in democratic societies. In his essay, Benjamin explored the potential for writing to ‘intervene actively’ in civic life under a regime intent on oppressing its citizens. He characterised ‘operating writing’ as a form of social action that could activate creative and political potential, enabling writers to become producers of their own knowledge. Conversely, he critiqued the passivity of merely ‘informing writing’, which reinforced the oppression of citizens whose agency and identity were already under threat. Taking inspiration from Benjamin, this paper presents evidence from Australia and other parts of the world of increased standardisation and narrowing of writing forms in schools and higher education, and explores the implications of this standardisation and narrowing for educational outcomes and democratic societies more broadly. A recent large-scale Australian Writing Survey showed a marked decline in the quality of secondary students’ extended writing, affirming recent trends in NAPLAN data. The survey also noted a reduction in the time that teachers are devoting to teaching writing. This follows a decade of Australian schools teaching to the NAPLAN writing test, and increasingly setting in-school assessment rubrics requiring students to use writing templates (eg TEEL). In teacher education, too, student writing is being similarly standardised. These trends are mirroring the increasing standardisation and commodification that sociologists are identifying in diverse areas of civic life from health care to retail to popular culture to banking, where they argue the convenience of reduced choice is encouraging passivity and a lack of critical thinking in its citizens. Using Benjamin’s notions of ‘operating writing’ and ‘informing writing’, we present a set of five writing discourses that we have developed as a heuristic for evaluating and reflecting on writing cultures in schools and universities. We also present a reflexive case study of our own experience of building writing communities and capacities in English teacher education at the institution where we teach, as part of our efforts to intervene actively in resisting higher education’s standardising imperatives.