The Word Production to Mean Writing or Making

by Jeff Oaks

I’ve seen some proposals lately, written by colleagues in literature and composition, that talk about writing (and making art in general) as “production” and reading as “reception.” Some of this renaming has come from my favorite colleagues, people I have, I think, a lot in common with.  We generally hate hearing civilian casualties referred to as collateral damage. We’ve read Orwell. We would neither say that sex is only for the generation of offspring. Nor would they call me a producer when I write or themselves receivers when they read. They are interested in discussions of a neutral pronoun to use for students whose gender identity isn’t simply ascribable to he or she. They hate calling students “customers”.

I’m honestly not sure why this is irritating me this morning. God knows there are more important issues to be irritated by these days. Maybe I feel unproductive lately. Maybe I have a knee-jerk reaction against a Latinate, industrial-sounding word for what I do with as much of myself as I can. Maybe it sounds dehumanizing, and this is one small place where I might say something useful to prevent more of that. Having a productive cough in my childhood meant you were spitting up phlegm, mucus, snot. It was good to do that, but productive was just a cover for what might make you sick to say, what was socially unsettling.

So much of what’s going on, as we all struggle to figure out how to talk about what we do in the humanities, is figuring out what will keep the administrators from destroying us. We have to make ourselves sound like them, systematic, industrial, cold. We’ve had it easy for a long time, I suspect. Reading, writing, and arithmetic were the warm-up acts of any education, its primary colors. Now it’s difficult to even say those words in a course description–they sound perhaps too basic, too elementary (as opposed to being elemental). Students will in engage in “the production of texts” instead. Sometimes “creative projects”.  No one wants to give a grant to a writer unless she produces something or already produced something. No one wants to give help to someone who might take it, who might be a “taker”.

I’m suddenly remembering being told as a kid not to make a big production about everything. I couldn’t help showing and telling when I was unhappy. I was asking my parents to consume too much of my emotional excess, at least as they saw it.

Is the word “writing” too primitive sounding to the bureaucrats we’re all often really writing to? Or are we all now producing for them? (Check your local intellectual properties clauses.) Do our actual students (our clients, our customers, our audience?) want to take classes in which they produce creatively? Or do they want to write and/or make movies with and about their lives? They get a lot of practice in high school producing writing, we all seem to agree, but without much sense of what it means to actually write, by which we mean do something complicated and thoughtful and sensitive and surprisingly tough.