As a teacher it is easy to get caught up in merely right or wrong. You either got the answer, or you didn’t. There simply is no in-between. No room for another option. No room for a possible second correct answer. And that, to me, is the rut that John Maguire is stuck in in his article”The Secret to Good Writing: It’s About Objects, Not Ideas“.
Now don’t get me wrong, I find the idea of writing with objects a fascinating new technique to teaching students how to improve their writing and how to focus their ideas if they are struggling, and I have no doubt that it works for most students. However, the way Maguire is going about talking about object-based writing is that it is either object-based and good, or it’s not and it’s “mush”. That is simply not true. He writes, “Assigned to write about some idea, students can’t think of examples easily and get caught in the sphere of ethereal ideas and stay there…If you ask freshmen to write about, say, The relationship between wealth and productivity in a market society, watch out. Few will notice that the terms relationship, wealth, productivity and market society need definition or examples. They will just move those vague terms around like checkers on a board, repeating them, and hoping that through repetition something will be said. The resulting paper will be mush” (Maguire Oct 2 2012). He later makes the remark that the students could use corn or a market stall on the side of the road or a stock exchange floor instead of using the same abstract idea of a market society. However, a market society is not that simple. It requires the definition of a free market, something that is really hard to describe with concrete objects. It is more idea based and less object based. How are you supposed to define ‘an economic market in which supply and demand are not regulated or are regulated with only minor restrictions’ (dictionary.com) with objects? Its hard. But those objects can come in when giving examples.
He makes a really solid start of an argument about a teacher he knows named Bernadette and how she says that it is in fact the ideas that matter and getting them to define said ideas is important. Maguire then makes the statement in his article that he wanted to say “When you boil it down, Bernadette, all abstract ideas derive from objects. You can approach them in that concrete way and teach students to do the same”. In a way, I agree with both of them. It is the ideas that matter. Defining the idea of say, communism, is very important, for without the defining and explaining of what communism means there is no paper. But what Maguire is saying is that a great way to define communism is by using concrete objects like people all holding money or buildings with every person’s name in the country on it. It is sort of like what Czikszentmihalyi writes about in his article “Why we need things” because he says, “without objects we have no identity”. And maguire is saying that without objects these abstract ideas have no identity. So if we don’t define them with objects how will we know what they are or how they work or even how they fit into our society? We need those abstract ideas, but at the same time, we need those concrete object-based explanations.
Which ultimately brings me to the thing that I’m getting at; that Maguire and his teacher friend Bernadette and the other teachers who he says don’t listen and their eyes glaze over when he starts talking, are relatively talking about the same thing in two different halves! There’s another option in the middle of these two idea based and object based opinions. It’s like the object based is the right side of an orange and the idea based is the left half. All you have to do is put the two together to make a whole orange. It’s still an orange, but it gives you a third option than just one half or the other. The real difference is in the teaching style. Which when thought about makes perfect sense. In the article “Style as Evidence”, Jules Prown states that style is a distinctive manner/mode which bears a relationship with other objects with similar qualities. Now, he was talking about objects in relation to culture, but it works just as well for Maguire’s topic of object-based writing. He relates an abstract concept to a solid drop-on-your-foot object that has similar qualities.
Whether one is teaching object-based writing or idea-based writing, the both have the same specific function: to teach students how to become better writers. My proposal is that there is another way besides what Maguire is offering. This is no right or wrong question, no you either got the answer correct or you didn’t. There is a secret third option that I don’t think Maguire has considered: Put the two methods together to give a rounded and more full way of improving student writing.