“The Good Writer: Virtue Ethics and the Teaching of Writing” by John Duffy
College English 79:3 January 2017
Teaching writing is more than teaching rules (deontology) or teaching to outcomes and purposes (consequentialism). It’s about teaching students how to engage in discussions in authentic, ethical ways that foster conversation, even when those conversations are competitive and/or uncomfortable.
The word “virtue” in the title drew me to this reading, and I’m not sure what I expected, but I appreciate how Duffy complicates the concept of virtue as something more than mere moral aptitude.
“A virtue, then, is the disposition to act in the right way, at the right time, and in the right manner” (234).
You probably read that quote and thought “but, isn’t that about morality?” Not exactly. Duffy pushes the reader to consider the relationship between the Aristotelian concept of virtue and the decisions that writers make.
“Should I use this inflammatory metaphor? Shall I include this questionable source found on the internet?” (230)
This notion of writing as a virtue, the image of a writer making choices based on critical thought that includes more than just getting at the purpose through any means, appeals to me, especially in this age of vitriolic political discourse and fake news.
In a similar way, Duffy makes me rethink what makes up a “good writer,” which is not, as you might assume, interchangeable with “good writing.” The former does create the latter, but (and this is me interpreting here) “good writing” is not really the focus of Duffy’s argument. He calls for a renewed sense of authenticity and honesty in the written word, a shift back toward civil discourse that encourages exchange rather than shutting it down. In other words, Duffy is more concerned with the writer’s intentions than the text produced.
“Expression in speech and writing of honesty, accountability, generosity … kairotic calling for the right words at the right moment” … these virtues are “learned, at least in part, through the instruction, practice, and guidance offered in the writing classroom” (235)
That’s right. Duffy sees the writing classroom as the vehicle through which his vision of a “good writer” can be nurtured, and since I teach first-year writing, I see a lot of value in his argument. In fact, his vision aligns so well with what I already believe and practice as a teacher that it would take only a slight tweaking for me to incorporate it.
I’ll leave you with perhaps my favorite quote from Duffy:
“Writing involves proposing a relationship with others, our readers–the good in an ethics of rhetorical virtues is defined in the context of that relationship, and the good writer is one who writes in ways that promote the health, well-being, or flourishing of the relationship” (241).
I’d love to hear other views on Duffy’s piece.