Recently I came across an interview with anthropologist and historian Alan Macfarlane (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dnd_B89_ugE). This hour-long interview is a gem: it is entirely about the writing process and is conducted by a student in the process of learning the ropes of academic writing. As the author of three graduate school theses, 20 books, and numerous academic articles, Macfarlane has had years to hone his writing process. While he primarily discusses graduate school writing, his insights into the writing process hold valuable information for teaching undergraduates. How can instructors use knowledge of the larger-scale writing process to help students achieve results in written assignments? How can we help students become active participants in their own writing goals? Below, I outline some key takeaways from Macfarlane’s interview and suggest ways to implement them through Writing across the Curriculum theory and practice.
Think about your starting point: Macfarlane discusses starting points for writing from a couple of perspectives. In one sense, this is about the timing of different stages in the writing process: from thinking to research to actual written production. Students often see writing as “broken off” from these other stages. However, doing the work of actual writing as early as the thinking, research, and planning stages leads to a much more manageable writing process overall. For one thing, writing during data and source gathering allows the writer to manage information as it is gathered. This means a much more manageable “pile” of information, theory, or data. As new information is added, writing down one’s new insights, ideas, and importantly points of excitement (more on this below) incorporates the new information into what has already been gathered. This type of writing process is also valuable because it allows for more breaks between periods of work, which facilitates cognitive information processing. We can think of this piece of advice as what Writing across the Curriculum notes as the crucial relationship between critical thinking and writing. The writing a student does during the early stages of an assignment allows them to think their way to research questions and thesis statements. WAC pedagogy offers a number of strategies for instructors to help this process. These include assignments that link course content to personal experience, explaining concepts to others, and providing analytical entry points through controversial statements or “what if” scenarios. (See Bean 2011 pp 151-159 for more information and examples.)
Write from the “hub”: Writing during the early research stages is related to my favorite piece of advice from Macfarlane: write from the hub. The hub is the area of inquiry that excites the writer. Macfarlane compares this method to starting a fire. You set down the ideas that interest you first. This triggers motivation and lights the fire. Importantly, the initial excitement creates cognitive connections and insights that lead to more ideas. In other words, these points of interest and curiosity set the mind alight. Once these ideas are explored, the student can begin to outline from their hub to other sections of the assignment. Perhaps the point of interest becomes the main paper thesis. Or, or it may be that the writer now understands they need a different starting point to build to their favorite idea. WAC-inspired exploratory writing tasks are ideal for helping students find their writing “hubs”. These can include journalling, creative writing activities such as dialogues between important figures, and mid-class writing sessions to process course content.
Make writing a communal process: Another point Macfarlane brings up is the helpfulness of creating a writing group involving both social aspects and opportunities to share written work. Instructors can help create the conditions for this. Setting aside short chunks of time three to four times throughout the semester for students to share ideas and progress on their papers is one way to do this. Another idea is to use online platforms such as Blackboard for students to post and receive peer engagement with their writing. This could include weekly assignments to: (1) post a general topic they have chosen with rationale and some background, (2) give a brief explanation of a defined number of sources they have found for final papers, or (3) upload a draft of an assignment. This will aid students in formulating their ideas through explaining to another. They also receive valuable feedback to improve their assignments. Importantly, this also taps into Macfarlane’s point that everything we expose ourselves to adds to our body of ideas. We never know what might give a writer a new perspective.
Expanding the social context in which student writers produce assignments makes pathways for all sorts of new knowledge. This can also increase motivation for students who do not initially have an interest in a particular topic or class subject. In analyzing participation in an undergraduate interdisciplinary conference, Barron, Gruber, and Pfannenstiel (2016) noted a high degree of student engagement in working across fields to make their research comprehensible to lay people. The key was in creation of an affinity group, a social community with shared ideas about knowledge and communication. Getting students to work together to make the conference successful created an affinity group that got them engaged in fields they had little knowledge of previously. By emphasizing the social aspect of writing, instructors can help motivate students unsure of how to connect to new course content. Finally, incorporating regular communication with professors into the syllabus around the developing paper will add a community aspect to student writing. This will also make writing less stressful for students as they have approval for their ideas and research questions from the person who will be assessing their work.
Barron, Nancy Guerra, Sibylle Gruber, and Amber Nicole Pfannenstiel. 2016. “Reconstructing the Concept of Academic Motivation: A Gaming Symposium as an Academic Site for Critical Inquiry.” Across the Disciplines: A Journal of Language, Learning and Academic Writing 13(4). from https://wac.colostate.edu/docs/atd/hip/barroneetal2016.pdf.
Bean, John C. 2011. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, 2nd ed. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.