Writing as Problem or Solution? Using Writing Interventions to Promote Student Engagement

Sometimes I fear I am being coy: when faculty members ask me to share, as a Writing Across the Curriculum fellow, techniques for improving the quality of their students’ writing, my answer is frustratingly circular. “Make your students write as much as possible,” I say, then read the disappointment in my interlocutor’s eyes. Does this guy really believe (those eyes seem to ask), that the solution to my students’ writing problems is more writing?

While my honest answer is yes, I do view writing as a tool more than  a pedagogical hurdle, I understand that I am biased by my background. I teach English, not physics, or dentistry, or mathematics. And though I can recite with confidence each of my WAC commandments — I. Thou Shalt Use Writing to Achieve Course Goals, II. Thou Shalt Use Low-Stakes Assignments to Prepare Students for Longer, High-Stakes Assignments, etc. — these were delivered to me, Moses-like, by other English and Composition instructors. Wielding my English degree and my pedagogical methods devised by English professors, I must look like a chauvinist.

What a great relief, then, when I encountered two articles by psychologist Judith M. Harackiewicz about the use of carefully crafted “writing interventions” to foster success in introductory science classes. Harackiewicz’s work focuses on student engagement in college STEM courses, paying special attention to the performance of “underrepresented minority” (URM) and “first generation” (FG) students (Harackiewicz, 2016). Compared with “continuing-generation” (CG) students — college students with at least one college-educated parent — FG students arrive at college with more anxiety, greater doubts, and fewer expectations of success; ultimately, FG students drop out of college at higher rates than their CG peers, a phenomenon called the “social-class achievement gap” (Harackiewicz, 2016). Harackiewicz’s efforts to shorten this gap through the use of targeted writing tasks is directly relevant to WAC’s efforts to meet the needs of City Tech’s diverse student body.

Harackiewicz’s research found that URM and FG students performed better in introductory science classes if they were given targeted writing tasks — “writing interventions” is her expression — that require students to consider the value of what they are learning. “The perception of value,” writes Harackiewicz, “is critical to the development of interest over time” (2014). A student who identifies “personal utility connections” with her coursework is more likely to develop interest in that subject and the confidence and motivation to succeed (2014).

Harackiewicz describes two different forms of writing interventions: “utility value interventions” and “values affirmation interventions” (2014). Utility value (UV) interventions take the form of “short essays about the personal relevance of course material” (2016). A sample UV assignment looks like this: 

“Select a concept or issue that was discussed in lecture and formulate a question…Write an essay addressing this question and discuss the relevance of the concept or issue to your own life. Be sure to include some concrete information that was covered in this unit, explaining why this specific information is relevant to your life or useful to you” (Harackewitz, 2016, original emphasis). 

Harackewicz’s research suggests that these kinds of utility value-generating questions force students to take a personal stake in a course’s material and their learning process. Interestingly, a linguistic analysis of student responses to UV interventions suggested that these prompts produced “greater evidence of cognitive engagement” among students than a control question (Harackiewicz, 2016). Harackiewicz concludes that UV interventions are especially useful for students “who doubt their competence,” but she also emphasizes that students must establish their own utility value connections (2016) In other words, don’t do the work for your students by telling them how valuable your course is to life outside the classroom.

While UV interventions require students to consider the personal value of their coursework, “values affirmation” (VA) interventions ask them to consider and articulate their own personal values. A VA intervention asks that students to select two or three values that are most important to them from a list of twelve — values such as “independence,” “belonging to a social group,” “creativity,” “relationships with family and friends”— and “write an essay describing why their values [are] important” (Harackiewicz, 2014). While this form of intervention does not address specific coursework, Harackiewicz argues that it fosters confidence, a sense of belonging, and “continued motivation” among the URM and FG students who are most likely to drop out of STEM classes (Harackiewicz, 2014).

I am eager to try both UV and VA interventions in my classroom, though I don’t doubt that I will have to experiment a bit. I wonder, for example, whether I might make these assignments a little livelier, and more specific to my course — especially in the case of the more generalist-minded VA interventions. Also, is there a way to discourage cynical responses to the prompts (ie. “This course has no value in my life,” or “This is just a requirement for graduation”)? Nevertheless, I am encouraged that Harackiewicz sought writing as a medium for addressing student retention in the STEM field. In Harackewicz’s schema, writing is not a problem to be overcome, but an avenue for greater student participation, motivation, and learning.

Works Cited

Harackiewicz, Judith M., Canning, E. A., Tibbetts, Y., Priniski, S. J., & Hyde, J. S. (2016). “Closing Achievement Gaps With a Utility-Value Intervention: Disentangling Race and Social Class”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 111 (5): 745-765

Harackiewicz, J.M., Yoi Tibbetts, Elizabeth Canning, and Janet S. Hyde (2014). “Harnessing values to Promote Motivation in Education”. Advances in Motivation and  Achievement; 18: 71–105

Encouraging Effective Reading Strategies

In this post I would like to discuss some strategies for turning students into better, more active readers. By teaching our students how to engage deeply and actively with the texts they read, we are preparing them to be critical thinkers and thoughtful writers. This process begins with the instructor taking on both reading and writing instruction as her responsibility. The list below draws from my own teaching experience and from chapter nine of John C. Bean’s Engaging Ideas (titled “Helping Students Read Difficult Texts”).

  1. Model your own reading process.
    As a college-level instructor, you are an expert and experienced reader. Allow your students to benefit from your knowledge! On the first day of class, pass out a guide describing your own reading practices. You may describe where you read, what you read with (pen and paper? tablet? computer?), and where and how you take notes (do you prefer marginalia or a reading notebook?). Most importantly, explain what you do when you get stuck, confused, or frustrated in your reading. Your descriptions of how you overcome such stumbling blocks may be general or discipline-specific; either way, they will help prepare your students for the inevitable difficulties of reading complex texts. (See below for the reading guide I provide for my literature students. Feel free to alter it to reflect good reading practices in your discipline.)
  2. Explain the genres and writing conventions of your discipline.
    Your students encounter varieties of texts in their studies and their lives. Prepare your students for your reading material by explaining what kinds of texts you will assign (i.e., scholarly articles and textbook chapters, essays and poems) and describing the best strategies for reading them, keeping in mind the distinct methods we use to read different texts.

    Similarly, you should teach your students how to identify the writing conventions of your discipline. If you assign articles from a peer-reviewed science journal, you should explain how to identify an author’s hypothesis, methodology, results, etc.; if you assign fiction, you might devote class time to discussing narrative point of view and irony.

  3. Avoid lecturing over readings.
    Though it is important to review difficult passages in class, the instructor should stifle her urge to “lecture over” or “explain” the text to her students. Over-explaining a text, argues Bean, teaches students that they do not need to read the assigned material (Bean 168). Instead of explaining the reading material to your students, encourage them to read actively and bring their own explanations, conclusions, and questions to class.
  4. Create active reading assignments.
    You can goad your students into reading and participating actively by constructing low-stakes reading assignments. For example, you may require your students to submit reading logs or response notebooks that record the questions, comments, and insights that occur as they read. These assignments may also be tailored to address the specific reading troubles your students encounter. If your students have difficulty comprehending a writer’s diction and syntax, you may ask them to write “translations” of particular moments of the text or to produce a glossary of new vocabulary. If your students have trouble comprehending the structure of a writer’s argument, you may ask them to provide a paragraph-by-paragraph analysis of what the text “says” versus what it “does” (Bean 170-1). Finally, a warning: reading quizzes are sometimes necessary, but recent studies suggest that they promote “surface” rather than “deep” reading (Bean 168). Keep in mind that our goal should be to produce students who have an active, critical relationship to the texts they read and who do not merely search for “right answers.”

Example: A Guide for Effective Reading (Literature)

Reading a work of literature is not like reading a text message, a menu, or a street sign. Whereas those forms of media merely communicate information (“I’m not home yet,” “All sandwiches come with fries or salad”), literary texts present a narrative. The word “narrative” refers not only to the events of a story but also to the various elements that make it up, including the narrator’s language, descriptions of setting and character, a diversity of moods and emotions, and a multiplicity of philosophical and psychological vantage-points. Such a complex work requires more patience, concentration, and participation from its readers than other forms of written language. Please consider the following recommendations in this spirit.

  1. Always read with a writing utensil and a piece of paper. Mark passages that are interesting, exciting, humorous, confusing, or which you would like to revisit later. You should draw from these notes during class discussions, while studying for tests, and while composing your final paper.
  2. If you prefer to read on a tablet, use an annotation feature to highlight important moments in the text. Do not read on your cell phone.
  3. Use a dictionary to look up any words that you do not understand. If you do not look up the meaning of a word, you will never know what you are missing.
  4. If you do not understand a sentence or a paragraph, re-read it. If you still do not understand it, read it aloud. This is especially helpful when reading plays or poetry.
  5. Sometimes you have to re-read whole stories, chapters, or books to grasp their meaning. You will be amazed how much clearer a difficult text can become when you know what to look for.
  6. Steer clear of reader’s guides such as SparkNotes, which are marketed to lazy high schoolers and are often oversimplified and inaccurate. More importantly, these summaries leave out of the most important part of any work of literature: its language. If you need help thinking through a text, I am happy to recommend useful essays by qualified writers.
  7. Lastly, please write down any questions that occur to you while reading and share them during class discussion. If you are confused about something, your classmates probably are, too.

Works Cited

Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. 2nd Ed. Jossey-Bass, 2011.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Revision

When my students ask me how they can improve their writing, my answer is almost always the same: revise. Young writers, inexperienced and impetuous, bristle at the thought of recasting what they have only just molded. What person devoid of masochistic tendencies wants to revisit and redo a completed writing assignment? But since part of my job as an educator is to deliver bad news, here it is: all the acceptable writing I have done has been on the second, third, or fourth take. 

The good news is that effective revision practices are easy to develop and, in my experience, habit-forming. (I could spend the rest of the day rewriting this blog post and, like Hamlet in his nutshell, call myself a king of infinite space.) Yet I suspect that I have too often taken the meaning of revision for granted, even as I have over-explained more arcane terms like “iambic pentameter” and “chiasmus.” So I will begin by defining revision as a new draft of writing that treats the initial piece as its courageous guide. A productive revision is an opportunity for the writer to revisit her assignment with the experience of someone who has been there before. The writer should aim to produce a fresh piece of writing that retains her first draft’s virtues but avoids its missteps.

I should emphasize that what I mean by revision is not merely swapping one word for another, experimenting with word order, or replacing punctuation marks. That kind of textual tinkering can be a playful method for stepping into a revision — or a satisfying way to conclude one — but by itself is no substitute for a comprehensive rewrite.

Below is a list of revision exercises that I have picked up in my years as a student and a teacher. I hope that these tips will help my students transform their drafts — which are often more praise-worthy than they suspect —  into successful papers. 

Revision: A User’s Guide

  1. Let your paper sit. The first step of rewriting is to separate yourself from your work. Ideally, you should allow yourself a day or two away before you reread your draft. If you are working on a deadline, you should still afford yourself a short break. Go for a walk, make a cup of coffee, or play with your cat. (If you don’t have cat, consider getting one. A feline is a writer’s best friend.) This time away gives you distance from your work’s errors and weaknesses, and combats your brain’s impulse to read what you meant to write, rather than what is on the page.
  2. Print a hard copy and read it aloud. Don’t be embarrassed! Reading your paper aloud forces you to review your work slowly and carefully and encourages you to engage with your prose style. As you read, ask yourself: where are my sentences awkward, unwieldy, or choppy? Use your ear as a tool. If a sentence sounds strange, you should probably rewrite it. Similarly, note the aspects of your paper that strike you as successful. You should try to capture the tone and style of these effective moments in your second draft.
  3. Write a one-sentence summary of each paragraph of your paper. This mini-exercise, which you can perform in the margins of your essay or on a separate sheet of paper, encourages you to take a bird’s-eye view of your argument’s structure. As you reread these summaries, look for sentences that stand out as repetitive, extraneous, or out-of-place. Similarly, ask yourself if there are any gaps in your paper. If your structure is strong, your one-sentence summaries should read as a coherent outline of your paper.
  4. Write a revision as a new word document. Using your old draft (which at this point should be covered with notes, corrections, and marginalia), begin your second draft on a blank document. This crucial part of the writing process ensures that your revision is a new occasion for writing and not a tweaked version of your first draft. As you write, consult your chain of one-sentence summaries and ask yourself whether they still reflect the paper you wish to write. If they do, consider incorporating these summaries as topic sentences (or elsewhere). If they don’t, then allow your new draft to break free of the old one. The beauty of a second (and third and fourth) draft is in the way it deviates from your initial efforts.
  5. Try to take pleasure in the process. Consider your revision as a chance to play with your ideas again and use them to build something new. Take comfort in the fact that writing, unlike many aspects of life, permits second chances.

WAC to Basics: A Preposterously Belated Introduction

As the spring semester ends, the WAC Fellows are preparing a new faculty cohort for Writing Intensive Certification. In the process of reviewing these teaching portfolios, the fellows and I have revisited some of the questions that we asked ourselves at the beginning of the year: what are the fundamentals of Writing Across the Curriculum pedagogy? What makes a writing assignment effective? How can instructors across the disciplines employ writing in their courses? Though writing pedagogy is always evolving and adapting, consider these WAC basics as a starting point. If you are currently preparing for certification, use these notes as a handy guide. If you are new to WAC, read through these tenets and consider reaching out to us for certification next year.


  1. Writing is a shared responsibility across disciplines. The English department is not the sole arbiter of effective writing. Every discipline (including mathematics and the hard sciences) employs writing to some extent—think of lab reports and scholarly articles. Teach your students the conventions of writing in your field.


  1. Writing education is an ongoing process. No single course can transform a student’s writing. Be patient with your students and understand that it takes time and practice to master the conventions of academic prose. Your responsibility is to give your students the tools for effective writing and the occasion to practice.


  1. Writing is an effective tool for mastering course material. Use writing assignments to gauge your students’ knowledge of your course content. This can take the form of a formal assignment, such as a term paper or lab report, or an informal assignment, such as a blog post or an in-class freewrite. If you teach in a STEM field, ask your students to describe a particular concept in prose. A popular example of this assignment is the following: “Write a letter to your grandmother (or some other non-expert) describing the first law of thermodynamics.” WAC refers to this process as writing-to-learn.


  1. Don’t worry about grammar! In WAC, we call grammar a lower-order concern. While we want our students to write in effective, comprehensible prose, we encourage instructors to focus on higher order concerns: whether the student responds to the prompt, develops an argument, engages with course materials, employs critical thinking, accurately evaluates and cites sources, and produces a structurally sound paper. Except in the most egregious cases, grammatical errors are a cosmetic concern.


  1. Mark your students’ papers sparingly. This relates to the above point. When marking papers, focus on “higher-order” issues and not missing commas or misspelled words. In your written comments, describe what the paper does effectively and where it can be approved. If a paper has a glaring and widely repeated grammatical error, you may point this out; however, your goal should be teaching your student how to identify and correct these errors herself.


  1. Encourage your students to revise, revise, revise. Excellent papers are not written overnight. Encourage your students to view writing as an ongoing, multi-step process by scaffolding assignments, or breaking large projects into smaller, discrete tasks. For example, if you assign a term paper at the end of the semester, anticipate this with a topic proposal, a draft of a thesis statement, an annotated bibliography, and a rough draft or two. Similarly, you may assign informal writing that allows your students to engage with a topic that they will be writing about in more detail later in the course.

7. Foster an active learning environment. Yes, writing is an active learning strategy—ask your students to freewrite at the beginning or end of class, or during a quiet moment. These bits of informal writing (which you may collect, but need not grade for anything but completion) may be about their homework, the concept you are introducing, or an answer to the question, “What is confusing you at the moment?” These questions allow you to take your class’s temperature while encouraging your students to engage with your course material through writing. (For more information on using writing and games to make your classroom more active, see our helpful workshop, “The Creative Classroom.”)

The Socrates Test: A Baseline for Writing Instruction

There is a phrase of Saul Bellow’s that has been on my mind recently. Describing his education in the Chicago public school system, Bellow remarked, “by the time you got out of high school, no one had to tell you who Socrates was.” (The phrase comes from the first volume of Zachary Leader’s venerable two-volume biography, The Life of Saul Bellow.) Bellow’s assessment of his schooling is cheekily succinct. He doesn’t claim he and his peers were widely read in classical Greek philosophy. He makes no mention of Plato’s dialogues, nor of Xenophon’s, nor of Aristophanes’s satirical portrait of the philosopher in The Clouds—nevertheless, a diploma-bearing Chicago kid could, in Bellow’s estimation, find himself in a conversation about Socrates and avoiding embarrassing himself. That’s not bad for a student body made up of “the children of bakers, peddlers, cutters, grocers, the sons of families on relief,” largely immigrants, like Bellow, who spoke other languages at home. (Fun fact: Saul Bellow, who is largely responsible for creating the dazzling, energetic voice that readers have come to expect from American fiction, was an illegal immigrant to the country he would spend his career mining for literary material.)

Bellow’s modest assessment of his public school education has me thinking about my own role as a sometime educator at a public university. What, I wonder, is the writing equivalent of not-having-to-be-told-who-Socrates-was?

At the public high school I attended, the Socrates Test—the one thing you had to leave school knowing—was the Five Paragraph Essay. You might remember the lifeless entity I’m referring to. Paragraph One is an introduction, which often begins with a pretentious, unverifiable claim (“Since the birth of civilization, man has debated…”) and ends with a mealy-mouthed thesis (“Though in many ways Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter conforms to his definition of romance, in other ways it doesn’t”). Paragraphs Two and Three support the thesis. Paragraph Four gracelessly contradicts the thesis. Paragraph Five paraphrases Paragraph One. In North Jersey we called that good writing.

So the Five Paragraph essay won’t cut it. What, then, will constitute our Socrates Test? Perhaps each student should be made to understand a handful of unshakable Tenets of Good Writing. I remember these tenets from my school days as injunctions against a certain kind of “bad” writing rather than a description of what made “good” writing. Here are a few so-called rules, chosen at random, that I have heard over the years:

  1. Don’t begin a sentence with “I”
  2. Don’t begin a sentence with a conjunction (“and,” “but,” “or”)
  3. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition
  4. Write short, clear sentences
  5. Don’t begin your conclusion with “In conclusion”
  6. Do not use contractions!
  7. Don’t use exclamation points
  8. Spell out numbers under ten
  9. Avoid using adverbs
  10. Don’t use passive voice

…et cetera, et cetera.

When I began teaching writing within the CUNY system, I met incoming freshmen who had internalized all kinds of preposterous rules. I have difficulty recalling a single rule that made them better writers. Rather than model good writing, these inherited restrictions aim to quickly and cheaply eliminate bigger grammatical and stylistic problems that young writers face. For example, I suspect that rule two was designed to prevent students from writing in fragments (“Or maybe Thursday.”) or cluttering their sentences with needless words (“And while the authors of the Constitution intended…” is just as effective without “and”). At best, rules such as these mean well, but leave out details about what makes writing effective. At worst, these rules directly contradict good sense. Consider that farcical iteration of rule number three, attributed to Winston Churchill: “A sentence ending in a preposition is something up with which I will not put!” Other rules, such as four, six, and nine, merely the reflect the preferred style of a given writing primer or grammar book. This might do no harm, but it also does little good. In its own way, each so-called rule skirts the issue of what makes compelling, effective writing.

Another potential Socrates Test emphasizes grammar. Maybe good writing is grammatical writing. While it’s important that students learn how to write sentences that conform to the conventions of standard English—whatever that may be at the time—grammar is not a cure-all. After all, “This book stinks” is a perfectly grammatical sentence, but no teacher wants to see it in an essay. Additionally, penalizing undergraduates for their grammar errors does little to fix them—or so say the composition and rhetoric experts, whom I’m inclined to believe. Over the past few decades, writing instructors have come to regard grammar as a “lower-order concern,” the icing on a writing-cake. (Yum.) We need to teach our students to think about content before we saddle them with details about commas.

So what, finally, is my Socrates Test? I want my students to leave my classroom able to write a strong paragraph that makes a single claim and supports that claim with evidence, thoughtful reasoning, and logic. I’m not asking for the labors of Hercules. I only wish for my students to write a compelling and effective paragraph (and then another and another and another).

     My preferred instruction method is to have my students write as much as possible, in as many different modes as possible. I want them to be comfortable with their writing voices. Equally important is that I introduce them to good writing, and that we take time in class to discuss what makes a paragraph or sentence successful. You need not assign your students James Baldwin’s essays to do this. If you teach math, or chemistry, or computer science and are assigning writing in your course, you may bring in relevant newspaper or magazine articles covering current issues in your topic. Use this as an opportunity to connect your course’s subject matter to real-world events and, in the process, assess your students’ abilities to read the written word. Assign an article from the Times or the Economist, for example, and ask your students to locate the author’s thesis statement, their supporting evidence, and any counter-arguments they provide.

There is no simple solution to teaching writing, and under that weight my Socrates Test analogy begins to sweat and shake. Answering “Who is Socrates?” rests on internalizing facts; knowing how to compose a coherent, meaningful paragraph requires practice. Our job as instructors across the disciplines is to provide an environment in which our studies can practice writing with their coursework and master their coursework through writing.

The Pale Usher: A Case Against Grammar

Note: this post is part of WAC’s ongoing conversation about teaching grammar. I am indebted to the program’s “Minimal Marking and Effective Grading” workshop as well as Christina Quintana’s fine blog post “Weighing in on the Grammar Debate,” both of which are available on this website.

The first character to shuffle onto the pages of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is a grammarian. Yes, before Ishmael tells us what to call him, before even the “Sub-Sub-Librarian” presents his list of quotations on whales and whaling, the reader sees a “Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School” provide an etymology of the word “whale.” This is how Melville describes his linguistic authority:

“[The pale Usher—threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now. He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world. He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.]”

What can we assume about Melville’s grammarian? Despite the cosmopolitanism suggested by his multi-flagged hanky—and which “mockingly embellished” exposes as a joke at its owner’s expense—the usher is a sickly man cut off from the living. What matters to him are his dusty books, which have in all likelihood long outlasted their relevance. The passage’s dusty darkness makes me imagine the usher underground. Does the usher know how people, living people, speak and write? Or does his only knowledge come from moldy textbooks? Though the usher works at a grammar school, students are absent from this portrait.

I wish to argue that when we emphasize grammar over ideas, spelling over structure, and punctuation over logic, we run the risk of becoming, like Melville’s usher, threadbare in heart and mind—in heart because we must be callous to think that today’s students’ relationships to English will not be different from our own, and in mind because we must be willfully ignorant to pretend that language and its rules have not changed since we were in grade school.

(I am not suggesting that we regard Melville’s assessment of the usher without irony. After all, Chapter 95 of Moby-Dick compares a ship-worker called the “mincer” to an archbishop or Pope. What are the “peculiar functions” of the mincer’s “office,” which he performs in a “conspicuous pulpit”? He cuts whale blubber into slices as thin as bible pages and drops them into a boiling pot, all while wearing as protection from the liquifying fat a suit made from the skin of the whale’s penis. The mincer’s unholy holy vestments inspire the chapter’s title, “The Cassock.”)

What I am advocating is nothing more than patience towards the eccentricities of our students’ writing. You might protest, “This I cannot do!,” but the fact is that you already afford this kind of patience to other writers. Did you scoff at the incomplete sentence that Melville places before a semi-colon in the quotation above? Or at his extraneous, Trump-like capitalization of “usher”? (Our Commander-in-Chief is also our country’s most delinquent prose stylist.) What’s the story with those peculiar brackets that surround the passage? More to the point: were you nauseated by my own sentence fragment starting “Or at his extraneous,” or by the overtly Yiddish syntax of “This I cannot do”?

My point is that we make exceptions for writers all the time. If you are a scholar, then you have experience reading tedious, jargon-laden sentences of astonishing and needless length. You may even write such sentences. Why not extend our students the same courtesy that we grant our colleagues, who should also be writing at a higher level than they are? (“They should already know how to do this!” is the grievance I hear most often about student writing. Yes—and I should be playing for the New York Knicks.) If we choose to read our students’ work with patience, we can offer the type of feedback that will help them become better writers. But if we dismiss our students for not already possessing the education that we are supposed to give them, then what kind of educators are we?

I will confess that, like the pale usher, I am fond of reflecting on my own mortality. (For my money, English verse’s finest couplet may be, “But at my back I always hear/Time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near.”) Yet I never wish to be a cadaverous educator. The classroom is a place to be alive: alive, and attentive—to ideas and to dialogue, to change, to the at times startling gap between ourselves and our students, to the diverse ways our students communicate, and to the voice that encourages us to adapt.

Writing Troubles: a Confession

Each morning I wake up and force myself to write a thousand words. A colleague recommended that I develop this habit when he learned that I had let months pass without working on my dissertation. “Just write your thousand words,” he told me, “and for the rest of the day you have no other moral obligations.” The advice isn’t foolproof. I still grunt and moan over every word, fantasizing about the freedom that comes when my word count hits one thousand. Writing is a slow, exhausting, and lonely process. By the time I reach my quota, my back aches and my head feels full of gauze. But at least I am free from writing for another twenty-four hours.

After a week of this routine, I re-read what I have written. If I am lucky, I can lop off two or three thousand words of brush and discover the kernel of an essay underneath. But most weeks I am unlucky, and after I have smeared my printed drafts with handwritten ink—hordes of question marks, scribbled synonyms, arrows leading nowhere, the occasional exclamation point or emphatic bit of underlining—I am left with the realization that I must begin again with only a page of notes as evidence of last week’s work and my guide for next week.

I offer this brief confession in an effort to be more candid with my students about the difficulty of writing. However, I do not wish to paraphrase those lines attributed to Albert Einstein in response to a letter from a struggling school girl: “Do not worry about your difficulties in Mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater.” A poster bearing those words and a picture of the hoary, apparently combless mathematician hung in my eighth grade algebra classroom; awash in mathematical difficulties of my own, I found Einstein’s cheeky advice insulting. No, I am recommending that we send our students the opposite of the poster’s message: if I, a PhD student who has spent most of his life reading and thinking about literature, cannot painlessly compose a sentence, how hard must writing be for a first-semester freshman, who likely lacks a quiet place to study, who is balancing her education with a job, and who may or may not be a second language learner?

We must admit that writing is a difficult, frustrating endeavor. Yet our students can also benefit from my colleague’s advice. They need not begin with a thousand words. Instead, if our students have a paper due in a week or two, we may encourage them to free-write about their subject for half an hour a day. No need to worry about grammar, style, or correctness just yet: they should guiltlessly play with the course’s content as they explore their ideas and their entrance into their subject. (As instructors, we can encourage this kind of low-stakes experimentation by scaffolding longer writing projects.) After a week of these exploratory exercises, our students will be surprised to find that they have a few pages of writing that may guide them as they develop their more formal work. And if our students are at all like me, they will find themselves emboldened by the paragraphs they have already written. When you write a bit each day, there is less to fear.

Writing as a Tool for Improving In-class Discussion

In this blog post, I would like to offer some strategies for using low-stakes writing to foster productive and engaging in-class discussions. The list below draws from chapter eleven of John C. Bean’s Engaging Ideas.

  1. Begin by holding a “discussion about discussions” (Bean 208). Early in your course, ask your students to share their ideas about what makes a class discussion memorable and informative. Better yet, ask them to respond to this prompt in writing! Use your students’ experiences to develop a set of criteria for productive class discussion, or a “charter for discussion” (209). Devoting fifteen or twenty minutes to the principles of a good discussion (especially at the course’s outset) will set a standard for your classroom and may save you time later in the semester, when students tend to grow weary and silent.
  2. Assign a “minute paper” as a transition between lecture and class discussion (Bean 204). Some pedagogues deride lecturing as a form of passive learning, but this doesn’t need to be true for your class. Instead of concluding your lecture with “Any questions?” — a stultifying, anemic anti-question — ask your students to free-write in response to a specific question of your own. Your students’ responses will serve as a jumping-off point for in-class discussions and will encourage them to engage with the content of your lectures while it is new to them. In addition, you may consider collecting your students’ free-writes and reviewing them after class as a way of assessing the quality and effectiveness of your lecture.
  3. Engage your silent students with a free-write (Bean 206). Don’t know what to do when the room falls silent? Despair no longer! Embrace the silence and ask your students to free-write about what they are thinking or what is confusing them. After letting your students write for a couple minutes, ask a few of them to share what they have written. You may find that discussion improves when your students have time to process their ideas and that shy, tentative students participate more freely when they can share something that they have written.
  4. Use free-writes as a time-out during heated discussions (Bean 207). And what should you do in those rare, electric moments when every hand is raised and students begin talking over each other? If you find that your class is approaching the cacophony of a town hall meeting, ask your students to take a few minutes to write out their contributions to the discussion. Writing provides a productive outlet for the class’s energy, and your students may be surprised to see how fluidly they write when they are engaged in their subject. Again, consider collecting these free-writes; you can use your students’ responses to revisit a rich topic at a later date.
  5. Assign discussion questions as homework (Bean 206-7). By assigning a few questions along with the reading, you are preparing your students for in-class discussions. I ask my students to respond informally to two or three questions and to choose a passage that confused, interested, or stood out to them. In this way, every student comes to class with some talking points. Additionally, each student’s accumulated responses can serve as a resource for future papers or exams.
  6. Break your students into groups and ask them to write their own questions in response to a lecture, a reading, or an assignment (Bean 207). Generating questions in groups allows your students to engage actively with their peers. You may then use each group’s questions as a starting point for  a class-wide discussion.

Works Cited

Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. 2nd Ed. Jossey-Bass, 2011.