Last fall while watching the new Ken Burns series on the history of our national parks, America's Best Idea
, I was stunned to find out that John Muir didn't like to write. He is quoted in the documentary as saying words to the effect of 'A life of writing is like a glacier, endless grinding away' (I can't seem to find the exact quote on the internet -so if you have better luck let me know)
Writing is tremendously important in academia. A friend of mine who has been a senior level administrator once commented to me that when faculty don't achieve tenure, sometimes it reflects that fact that they don't really like to write. I shuddered because I hated writing as a college student. Imagine my surprise when recently, contemplating the need to put together another blog, I realized that I really enjoy writing. Just as many people feel that they are born good or bad at math, I thought you were born good or bad at writing – and I was bad. What happened?
When I think back, this wasn't really a miracle. First, I had to overcome two rather substantial misconceptions: 1) I thought that writing was the task of putting words on paper. Somehow, I didn't catch that the real work was in figuring out what to say. Once I learned this, then I had license to take time walking about outside trying to find the ideas before I sat down with pen and paper. 2) I thought that everyone else had more or less the same ideas in their head as I did. Therefore, in order not to insult or bore the reader, I should start my thesis assuming this knowledge and recording only the highest level thinking in the paper. Needless to say, this didn't lead to clarity in presenting my ideas. These misconceptions reflected a disconnect between the notion of writing as an act, and the thinking that underpins it. In retrospect, if I had talked to more people about their thinking and their writing, I would have learned this much faster. So now when I am called to help people with writing, I make a point of talking as much about the thinking/writing process as I do about the words on the page.
Second, I had some major skill problems. I didn't really understand that all the rules of grammar should be applied in my papers. I didn't understand how to make an argument. I didn't really understand that scientific papers were arguments. My freshman roommate went through my papers for a semester fixing the grammar and encouraging me to use topic sentences. One of my thesis advisors, Hugh Taylor, marked up my arguments in multiple colors with incredibly valuable comments, and my then boyfriend, now husband, spent hours reading letters and papers helping me to develop skill with both argument and tone. I had excellent writing teachers.
Third, I was terrified of a big empty pad of paper. Writing papers made my stomach hurt. This still happens sometimes, but I've got enough experience to know that if I just get started and blurt out a few hundred words (usually to be thrown out and rewritten when the paper was closer to finished) it will stop. If it is really bad, I take it 500 words at a time until I get rolling. And when the first draft totally sucks, I know that it is possible that it will get better in the second draft. And, sometimes I now know, people actually like what I wrote and they tell me about it – and this makes a little pain worthwhile. These are issues of confidence, the realm of the affective domain
. Getting past all of this was really about writing a lot, which took some folks encouraging me along the way.
Thinking like an educator, I needed to develop confidence, skill, and stronger metacognition
to support my writing. How do we make these things happen for lots of students, or all students, so they leave college comfortable expressing themselves in words?
Over the past year, I have gotten to know some of the leaders in the Writing Across the Curriculum
(WAC) movement: John Bean, Carol Rutz, and Bill Condon. John has written the bible of WAC: Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom
. WAC, which is founded on the notion that students should learn and practice writing in the context of their regular courses, helps students become comfortable, competent writers as part of their academic experience. It is a good strategy for giving students lots of encouraging practice - addressing my third point above.
, who has engaged Carleton faculty in numerous workshops to counter the argument that faculty outside of English are not prepared to teach writing, tells me that there are three things that are really important for faculty to know:
- students need to get feedback, revise, and get feedback again.
- assignments need to be structured and sequenced so that students can build their writing skills over the course of the semester
- assignments need to be realistically matched to the students ability and to the time that is available.
This is the kind of advice that helps all of us be better writing teachers in our courses developing students skill.
Bill who led the WAC program at Washington State University, has explored mechanisms for teaching and evaluating the development of critical thinking skills in students writing. His Critical Thinking Rubric
is a tool that faculty can use with student's writing to focus on the thinking behind the words. I think that this has a lot of potential for helping students with the kinds of misconceptions I started with, as well as for developing stronger metacognition for both thinking and writing. I've used this rubric to score oral presentations at the end of the term. Perhaps the most important part of that exercise was forcing me to articulate what I was looking for in these presentation and how it related to more general ideas about critical thinking. This helped me articulate the connections between what I was seeking in this class, and what students are being asked to do in other disciplines. Talking about critical thinking and scientific thinking in these kinds of terms can only help students with metacognition and transfer between classes.
Writing this essay by the fire as a way of having fun makes me ever grateful to those who propelled me down the path to liking writing (even the ones I cursed at the time). Writing, like math, is an essential skill in a knowledge economy. An ease with writing is one of the most important things our students can have when they leave college. WAC and other program focused on teaching writing provide tools for us to use in teaching our students about writing. It is a good thing that writers can be made and not just born.
Writing, like training for an athletic event, has to be practiced early and often (by our students and ourselves). And the intensity and duration of writing/training should be varied to realize the many modes of writing used for different purposes: reflective, exploratory, analytic, synthetic; for different audiences; of different lengths and formats.
I'd also like to emphasize the importance of the corallary to writing: reading. I just don't think that our students read enough these days--not widely enough in terms of exposure to topics and style; not deeply enough in terms of critically engaging the ideas presented, nor making connections with the larger body of knowledge. This latter point has a metacognitive component because in reading students need to continually ask the question "Do I know that the ideas presented agree with what I otherwise know to be true?" Reading widely in the literature (and yes, printed material pre-Web) leads to good writing as students become familiar with appropriate use of geological vocabularies, style of presentation acceptable to the community, and the underlying content knowledge that informs our Science. Chuck Goodwin writes about the skills needed to help novices become masters in our "community of practice", and reading and writing are essential.
In the hurly-burly of my day-to-day life, I cherish the few moments sequestered away when I can write something new. It's a privelege to have the latitude to take the time to think deeply and to commit ideas to text. Sometimes I take a guilty pleasure by starting the day with a writing session before the rest of the world comes rudely crashing in. Mostly, I submit to the demands of my "day job" and the writing gets pushed back to another day. But ultimately, writing does result in a sense of deep satisfaction when ideas become real when shared through the written word. I hope that my students will all realize the joys of writing in their own personal and professional lives.
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