7.02.2006

Norton Field Guide to Writing

For a while now I've toyed with the idea that writing handbooks try to be the field guides of academic writing (or the writing classroom), but when planbreaker loaned me a copy of the Norton Field Guide to Writing a while back, I was surprised to see the connection being made so obviously—both with the title and choice of cover art.


(Herring Gull? Western? It's hard to tell ...)


While busting out a term paper can be a reference-heavy activity, handbooks only seem to me to imagine themselves as indispensable to the most routinized enactments of the activity in the way that field guides are (and many handbooks do this, gussied up as they are with quick-reference elements such as thumb-tabbing and color-coding).

Field guides, if you've fetishized used them, are central to activities with high and singularly focused reference orientations. Cookbooks, though not called guides, work in this way sometimes and for some people, but the regular and routine accomplishments of academic writing do not integrally depend on the handbook to the extent that field guides get depended upon. At best, I'd say the handbook is tangentially useful, and with so many online resources these days—hardly even that.

That does not keep so many of our fyc texts from being shrink wrapped with a handbook, which to my mind is kind of like bundling a new iBook with one of those old-school thick manuals: a practice that died out years ago. (Okay, maybe not the best comparison, but anyway ...)

I think the handbook as a genre that gets used (not just sold) is either toast or, for those invested in keeping them around and having them actually get use (two different things), new pedagogies in support of justifying their sale would need to focus on the alteration of the reference orientation in undergrad-level writing. So this would not be about learning to use the handbook, but learning to conceive of and practice writing with a newly magnified reference orientation—something that seems to me kind of bleagh.

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