How can I ‘write what I know’ when I don’t know anything?

Note: The short essay serves as a model for the first writing assignment in ENGL 203, “Rhetoric & Composition II,” Northern Illinois University, spring 2019. See also the video we watched in class, “Ricky Gervais Tells a Story about How He Learned to Write.”

The career-placement test that I took around 1994 asked me to rank my “expertise” in relation to particular skills: “Assess your comfort level with the following tasks, where ‘1’ means ‘extremely uncomfortable’ and ‘10’ means ‘I have attained expert proficiency.’ ” Then came a list of about one hundred projects such as “extract wisdom teeth” and “remove and rebuild the engine in a 1977 Ford Pinto” (which gives you a sense of the age of the test, as if the stained pages of the assessment and scoring manual hadn’t already given that away). I’m sure that I did not give myself a “10” in any category, and I still wouldn’t. “I know that I know nothing,” said Socrates, if we can trust Plato, and we probably shouldn’t. I do agree with the statement, whether Socrates actually said it or not, whether or not there was actually somebody named Socrates.

I don’t really know anything.

When thinking about a writing “territory” where I know (ha!) more than many others, I’ve selected the Presbyterian Church (USA) peace-accompaniment program in Colombia. Tempting as it was to select “the offensive line and position players of the Washington Redskins from 1971-72,” it would be hard to move through this writing project with a focus on the National Football League, because, for me, American football is part of a distant past that has no relevance to me anymore. And I do agree that Washington should change the name of its team, which insults those to whom this land properly belongs. But who cares what I think?

My knowledge, however fragmentary and ill-formed, about Colombia came accidentally. A fellow teacher at a non-profit that serves the Latin American community in Atlanta told me about a volunteer program for teachers in México and Colombia. At the time, I was well-disposed to leave. I was having problems paying my bills. My landlord was a freak. He stood outside the screen door of my garage apartment near Emory University and talked to me about the simultaneous joys of smoking and motorcycle stunt-riding.

In Colombia, I started volunteering at a teacher’s union in Popayán, Cauca, in 2011 and ended up staying the rest of the year. Later, I learned that the peacemaking leadership of the Presbyterian Church had been training volunteers to be peace accompaniers, that is, witnesses to the endemic violence that has killed and displaced millions of campesinos and community servants, indigenous and Afro-Colombian. The training I’d had in political science, international relations, and community organizing and journalism made me capable of writing about the “people and social processes” that human-development specialist Kevin Rathunde speaks about in An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing (Miller-Cochran, Stamper, and Cochran 385).

When I started writing about Colombia, it was about soccer (see “In Colombia, a Soccer Paradox,” New York Times, 1 July 2011). Now I’ve moved on. The knowledge domain I wish to develop is that of teaching English in a Latin American framework, integrating territories such as peace studies, community development, and reconciliation. Thus far, I’ve written journals, letters, blog entries, and, now, a short book about my experiences (Mensajes Desde Colombia in 2019).

The textbook suggests embedded literature reviews and theory responses as additional genres, but I agree with applied linguist Aya Matsuda, who says that “because of the ‘real-life’ nature of the kinds of questions my field addresses, there are many other kinds of writing that applied linguists do. Textbooks, articles in newspapers and general magazines, policies, consultation reports, and public education materials” (400). Following close to two years researching English-language acquisition among Mexican Americans, I see presentations and articles in the future (and another book?), but directed toward a broader audience than linguists. Because I sense a strong human bond with my research participants and students, I also feel that I must write in both Spanish and English and cross this language border with the same courage that they have crossed this border and others.

Works cited

Miller-Cochran, Susan, Roy Stamper, and Stacey Cochran. An Insider’s Guide to Academic WritingMacmillan Learning Curriculum Solutions, 2018.

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