Engaging Students Through Exploratory Writing

A central tenet of the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) pedagogy is that the act of writing is in itself a process of learning. The clearest example of this to me is the exploratory writing assignment, where students are asked to write in a way that is relatively brief, informal, and low-stakes, to help develop and clarify their ideas rather than to present a formal written product. In this blog post, I explore the rationale for using exploratory writing to facilitate student learning, discuss strategies for designing effective writing assignments, and share some of my own experiences incorporating writing (imperfectly) into a 150-student, largely lecture-based undergraduate abnormal psychology course.

Writing to Change Thinking

Exploratory writing is meant to be a work in progress – freeform, sometimes stream of consciousness writing that is used to stimulate and refine ideas, rather than a completely polished report with a clearly delineated thesis and carefully deliberated evidence. Exploratory writing assignments are thus ideal for when students have not yet fully formed their thoughts on a topic, as it encourages them to translate their partially constructed ideas into words. This process, this struggle of putting ideas into coherent sentences pushes students to provide structure and narrative to their thoughts, since the words they write should still be coherent to a reader, even if imperfect in grammar or syntax. Translating thoughts to text can in turn inspire ideas, realizations, or even questions that then spark more ideas. When we ask students to engage in exploratory writing then, we are asking them to begin developing, organizing, and restructuring their thoughts, and to invite us into their minds as they play out this process on the page.

Although the notion that writing can be used to change ideas is not new, there is compelling evidence to support this phenomenon, particularly through clinical trials of writing as a form of therapy for people with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a mental health condition which can develop after someone experiences a traumatic event, and one core feature of PTSD is having negative thoughts about oneself (e.g. “I’m a failure,” “I’m to blame for what happened”), others (e.g. “people are untrustworthy,” “everyone wants to hurt me”), or the world at large (e.g. “the world is dangerous,” “the world is unfair”). Though there are several ways of treating PTSD, gold standard treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and cognitive processing therapy typically include strategies to change these negative thoughts, as they can contribute to the maintenance of other PTSD symptoms. In other words, a primary goal in the treatment of PTSD is to help people relearn the way that they think.

Expressive writing, or freewriting about thoughts and emotions related to the traumatic experience, has consistently been shown to improve PTSD symptoms. In his seminal study on expressive writing, psychologist James Pennebaker (1986) had two randomly assigned groups of participants complete 15-minute freewrites on 4 consecutive days. The expressive writing group was asked to describe their feelings about a personal traumatic experience, while a control group was asked to objectively describe a neutral topic (such as their living room or their clothing). Interestingly, after a 6-month follow-up, participants in the experimental writing condition were less likely to have sought medical care than people in the control condition, demonstrating that a brief writing exercise could lead to changes in health outcomes even months later. This finding sparked an interest in writing as a means of therapy, and over the next three decades, hundreds of studies have largely supported the finding that expressive writing can improve PTSD symptoms (and potentially other mental health conditions such as depression), albeit at a small to medium magnitude (Reinhold et al. 2017). Although the exact mechanism for how writing improves PTSD symptoms requires more study, evidence for the cognitive model of PTSD suggests that expressive writing allows people to make meaning of their traumatic experience, constructing narratives that make sense of the trauma in ways that change the negative cognitions they have about themselves, others, and the world (Sloan and Marx, 2004).

The literature on expressive writing and PTSD provides evidence of how exploratory writing can be an effective means of helping people change the way they think, by helping them make sense of their thoughts and ideas. In the context of undergraduate education, exploratory writing can similarly be used to foster critical thinking skills. By asking students to write about the ideas, theories, and information we present them with in class, we challenge them to grapple with and make sense of the topics we teach, possibly changing the way they understand the world as they consider a different way of thinking. Although it can seem daunting to include more writing into our courses, exploratory writing assignments can actually facilitate engagement with the coursework and help us achieve the learning objectives of our courses. As Bean and Melzer (2021) describe, instructor testimony has consistently reported that the “payoff of exploratory writing is students’ enhanced preparation for class, richer class discussions, and better product writing” (p. 117).

Maximizing Student Buy-in

Given all the benefits of exploratory writing, how do we actually incorporate it into our courses? A key component of developing effective exploratory writing assignments is to facilitate student buy-in. If the writing assignments begin to feel like busy work, students will be less inclined to put effort into the assignments, if they do them at all. So how might we maximize the likelihood that students are invested in the writing assignments? There are three strategies that I think can be particularly effective.

First, we should emphasize to students that these assignments are low-stakes, largely graded on completion (if graded at all) and are designed to help develop ideas. This means that students should write to get their ideas on the page, without paying inordinate attention to grammar, punctuation, or syntax. Hopefully, this lets students understand that the assignments are not meant to waste their time, but simply to help them better engage with the course material.

Second, exploratory writing assignments should be integrated into the course design, such that it builds upon other aspects of class. For instance, an in-class writing assignment at the beginning of class might be used to facilitate classroom discussions or groupwork, or a writing assignment might be used to brainstorm and develop ideas for a formal paper or an exam question. Ideally, students should be able to see how these assignments have a function within the larger structure of the course, rather than being standalone assignments that need to be completed for the sake of completion (i.e. busy work).

And lastly, writing assignments should feel relevant to the lives of our students in some way. Students are more likely to complain about an assignment when they do not see the purpose of it, and I think that an important factor in encouraging students to see that purpose is by designing our assignments to help students apply the information they are learning to their own lives (more on that later). Ultimately, we create these assignments because we want our students to be interested in the topics we teach, so the best way of fostering engagement is by using them to show our students why our topics of interest are so interesting in the first place!

Strategies for Exploratory Writing Assignments

Now, what might exploratory writing assignments actually look like? Exploratory writing can take many forms, including “journals, notebooks, thinking pieces, marginal notes in books, nonstop freewrites, reading logs, diaries, daybooks, letters to colleagues, electronic postings, notes dashed off on napkins, [and] early drafts of essays” (Bean and Melzer, 2021, p. 94), all of which can be incorporated into class time or assigned as homework. However, the format the writing assignment takes may be less important than how the prompts are structured. Since the purpose of the writing should be to encourage thinking, asking students to regurgitate information from a textbook (e.g. to define a term or explain a theory they read about in a chapter) may not be the best way of using exploratory writing. Rather, asking students to find and reiterate information encourages cursory reading, and similar to the control condition of Pennebaker’s experiment, likely has limited impact on the processing and reworking of information that is so crucial to critical thinking.

A more effective way of fostering engagement with readings may be to ask students how they could apply the information they are learning to other contexts. In my abnormal psychology course, I have often found that students are most engaged when they are able to see how the topics we cover are relevant to their own experience. For example, when we discuss specific phobia, I ask students to write about their own anxieties and fears, and then try to draft an exposure hierarchy for themselves (which they could use if they were doing exposure therapy for their fear). Applying the exposure hierarchy to their own lives can help students better understand how exposure therapy can reduce anxiety. This exploratory writing assignment also provides me with the opportunity to gauge students’ understanding of material, since I can quickly go through responses and provide individual feedback to students who are completing the hierarchy inaccurately.

Similarly, students can be asked to apply information from the course to current events or intellectual debates. Although current events may not be immediately relevant to every discipline, every discipline has unanswered questions that can be fruitful for classroom discussion. As an example, gender dysphoria is a disorder that is currently debated in the medical literature, as there are proponents and critics of keeping it as a medical diagnosis. In my lectures on gender dysphoria, I try to present students with arguments for both sides, and then give them an exploratory assignment where I ask them to choose a side and explain why. This type of assignment can help students clarify their thinking on the topic, and I believe also demonstrates to students how real-world problems don’t necessarily have a “right” answer, because professionals in the discipline also need to struggle with ambiguous and imperfect solutions.

Another way of asking students to apply information to other contexts is by asking them to assume a different role in their response. For instance, after lectures about historical perspectives on mental illness, I present students with a case study and ask them to write out a diagnosis and treatment plan for a patient, first as a discipline of Hippocrates in ancient Greece and then again as a modern cognitive-behavioral psychologist in private practice. Similarly, students can be asked to take on a “teacher” role by asking them to teach a topic to someone outside of the discipline (e.g. “Explain this theory to your grandmother”), or perhaps a role specific to the discipline (e.g. “Imagine you are on the hospital ethics committee and you were reviewing this case, what might your concerns be?”). Prompting students to take on a different role in their writing assignments encourages them to see a problem from another perspective, to use their imagination and try to understand why the information we present can be important in various contexts. Encouraging this use of perspective is not only applicable across disciplines, but can also be fun for students to write, and fun for us to read!

Exploratory writing assignments can also be used to help students explore the process of learning itself, by having students write about their experience engaging with course material. For example, an in-class writing assignment at the beginning of class might be to ask students to “describe the most confusing part of the readings for today,” which can then facilitate a class discussion on the difficulties of the assigned reading. In my own course, I offered students an extra credit opportunity to provide weekly feedback about the class, where students who completed at least 6 weekly feedback forms would receive a few points extra credit on their exam scores. The forms were identical every week, and primarily asked students to share what they liked most from the week, what they liked least, and what they were still unsure about or confused by. I found that these forms often helped me get a sense of which topics students were most confused about, and therefore which topics I may need to teach differently or emphasize less of on our exams. Another benefit was that in my end-of-course evaluations, many students have commented on how they appreciated being able to provide feedback about the course, and felt that their concerns were heard even within such a large class.

Another way to explore the process of learning can be to demonstrate to students how their own ideas have changed and developed. One way of doing so may be to use exploratory writing assignments as an iterative process. For instance, if students are required to submit a formal project, exploratory writing assignments could be used as a means of scaffolding, such as by having students brainstorm ideas, submit an initial draft, provide notes for their peers, and then revise and resubmit. An additional writing assignment might be to have students write about their own development, between their initial brainstorming to their final product. Although I haven’t been able to implement this type of scaffolding in my own course just yet, I have asked students to write about their opinions on a topic (e.g. substance use) and then to revisit their opinions after reading an article or watching an informational video. I have found that these assignments, asking students to write about how their own ideas have changed, are often the ones that students report to be the most memorable at the end of the semester.

Although I unfortunately have not had the opportunity to teach since learning about WAC pedagogy, I have found in my previous experience that exploratory writing assignments can be very effective in promoting student engagement with course content and enriching classroom discussions, even within a large, primarily lecture-based course. Engaging in WAC pedagogy has deepened my appreciation for the utility of writing to facilitate student learning across all disciplines, and I look forward to further integrating writing assignments into my courses for when I teach next.



Bean, J. C., & Melzer, D. (2021). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. John Wiley & Sons.

Pennebaker, J. W., & Beall, S. K. (1986). Confronting a traumatic event: Toward an understanding of inhibition and disease. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95(3), 274–281.

Reinhold, M., Bürkner, P. C., & Holling, H. (2018). Effects of expressive writing on depressive symptoms—A meta‐analysis. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 25(1), e12224.

Sloan, D. M., & Marx, B. P. (2004). Taking pen to hand: evaluating theories underlying the written disclosure paradigm. Clinical psychology: Science and practice, 11(2), 121.

Making it Personal: a Tool for Student Engagement

The most memorable lecture I ever attended was in an Economics class in my first year of undergrad. It was the last day of class before the final and the professor was delivering his “end of the year wrap up” — essentially covering a semester’s worth of materials in 75 minutes. He paced up and down the aisles of the large lecture hall, his words keeping cadence with hundreds of keyboards furiously typing in time. Towards the end of the class period, he grew quiet. The note taking slowed and we all settled into our seats as he stood at the front of the room, rubbing his suddenly-stopped jaw. He looked around and told us he had one last lesson to teach us, then he repeated a phrase that had been a staple of our semester in the class: “sunk costs are sunk.”

In terms of economics, sunk costs are those which have been incurred and are unrecoverable. We were taught in the class, from the very beginning of the semester, to ignore these losses when conducting any kind of future cost/ benefit analysis. The professor had used the infamous example of the Concorde as illustration, explaining how even after the supersonic airplane project was predicted to never cover its own losses, interested parties were blinded by their investments and continued working until it was completed, ultimately spending millions of dollars on a plane no longer in use.

When my Economics professor repeated this phrase, “sunk costs are sunk,” I assumed he was just reminding us of this ever-important rule for the final exam. He continued, however, to outline the greater fallacy at play. When we consider sunk costs, he explained, we are thinking irrationally. We are considering the past rather than the present or the future. “Just because we lost something in the past — time, money, happiness — does not mean we have to continue losing.” He used a range of examples to underscore his point, everything from putting down a book we haven’t finished because we find it boring; to ending a years-long relationship that no longer makes us happy. Just because we have invested in something, he said, does not mean we have to continue investing in it. We can never get back what we lost —  sunk costs are, after all, sunk — but we can lay claim to our future.

Before this lecture I’d struggled with he concept of sunk costs. I couldn’t necessarily understand why you wouldn’t include them in a financial analysis, but I accepted the rule as an obscure economic truth.  This personal application of the concept, this humanization of what I’d thought was an abstract principle, suddenly made the rule seem so obvious. It became easy to understand because I could see its application to reality, to my own life. WAC pedagogy, at its foundation, seeks to increase opportunities for this kind of more intimate student engagement and, while there are several researched and proven-effective ways of doing so, my favorite methods are those which specific encourage students to make learning personal in the way this professor did for me.

Writing Intensive curriculums are heavily centered around assignments and course designs which foster critical thinking. This is because critical thinking promotes, among other things, self-reflection, which then leads to “personally meaningful learning.” And when learning becomes personally meaningful, it sticks. The practice of improving engagement through writing and personalization has even been studied and proven effective. The Meaningful Writing Project (2016) was a landmark study which focused on students’ and instructors’ thoughts regarding what made a writing assignment impactful. The researchers, Michelle Eodice, Anne Ellen Geller, and Neal Lerner, surveyed and interviewed graduating seniors at three institutions of higher education, asking them about the qualities of their most meaningful college writing experience. From the more than seven hundred student survey responses collected and over two-dozen instructors interviewed there emerged clear patterns in the kinds of writing tasks that students found most meaningful:

  1. “The assignment gave students agency to pursue a topic that they were passionate about or that they found especially relevant.”
  2. “The assignment required students to engage with the instructor, peers, and the disciplinary content of the course.”
  3. “The assignment made a connection for students: connecting to previous experiences, connecting to a student’s passion, connecting to future aspirations and identities” (Bean 65).

As you can see, two of the three emergent patterns reference the students’ personal passion for or connection to the writing project, making it clear that this personalization is what engages students most. But how does one actually do this? How can instructors effectively integrate personal learning into courses that aren’t necessarily designed to include the kinds of creative writing assignments that inherently encourage more intimate writing? Engaging Ideas, the primary book used in WAC curriculum and the WI certification process, references exploratory writing and “open-form genre” assignments as means of encouraging personal connection and, therefore, more engaged learning among students. “These assignments can help us get to know our students better. We learn characteristic ways that different students think and study. We learn about their backgrounds and values and get insights into how we might engage them more fully or coach them more effectively. […] exploratory writing gives students a safe and easy way to disclose personal problems that may be affecting their studying or class performance” (Bean 95). These assignments can be something as simple as a daily journal writing task that asks students to relate a topic to their own life. An art history course might ask students to look for certain design principles in the architecture where they live; while a physical science course might tell students to keep track of all the laws of physics they witness at work in their day to day life. Exploratory writing can also be a creative assignment that asks students to write out an imagined debate-dialogue about a course concept between them and a friend. Such an assignment allows a student to defend a thesis from their own point of view, highlighting how they think and what their influences might be, while also forcing them to think critically and present an opposing point of view. The exploratory tasks can look any way you want them to, the point is for them to humanize the material in a way that makes it accessible — to “immerse students in complexity without being threatening.”

Within exploratory writing, the concept of “open-form” genres invites a kind of flexibility in student writing than can be really empowering. Open-form genres, such as literary nonfiction, “often celebrate playfulness, digressions, personal voice, […] or other characteristics that resist the smoothly mapped structure, predictability, and argumentative confidence of closed‐form prose. These open‐form genres often have a reflective, personal, exploratory, or inquiring stance; they often try to heighten or deepen a problem or show its human significance…” (Bean 48). Open-form assignments differ from thesis-driven assignments because they given students the freedom of both abstraction and personalization. Students are empowered to take a concept and extrapolate it outside of the context of the course and into their own lives.

One example of the way WAC pedagogy redefines writing assignments to encourage personal connection to course materials is by reimagining the materials as dialogical rather than just informational. “In addition to creating cognitive dissonance for our students, we need to show them that our course readings, textbooks, and lectures are not simply “information‐to‐be‐remembered,” as if nothing were at stake, but contingent perspectives embedded in a field of inquiry, analysis, and argument” (Bean 28, emphasis added). By redefining course materials in this way — as perspectival and subjective — students feel empowered to enter in a conversation with them, to interpret them through their own lens and take into consideration their own personal experiences. Students should be encouraged to view course concepts not as untouchable, informational realities outside their realm of influence, but rather as jumping-off points for their own critical thinking exercises. The example given in John Bean’s Engaging Ideas reads as follows:Suppose a history textbook enumerates the “five causes of the Civil War.” Novice students are apt to regard these five causes as facts or “right answers” to be memorized for a test. To grow as critical thinkers, they need to see these causes as interpretations by historians—as meaning‐making analyses open to revision and debate” (28). To elaborate, making this lesson personal could mean challenging students to consider how this historical reality relates to them. While a “fact” of the Civil War is that it started over slavery, students might be asked to consider what non-negotiable civil rights issues might lead them to go to war. Their responses will be influenced by their own personal values: their upbringings, religions, personal experiences, etc., and this personal engagement will go farther than just exposure to the surface facts of a historical event, it will deepen their understanding of a human concept. Rather than just learning how the Civil War started, they’ll come to understand the complexities of organized violence within humanity. Furthermore, they’ll recognize that these histories are interpreted and reiterated by human-beings with their own unique perceptions, perhaps even seeing themselves as existing within this process of meaning-making.

It’s this freedom of relation to self that makes learning personally-meaningful and powerful. It’s what will get students engaged in learning and retaining information, maybe even decades later — while I have completely forgotten how to calculate a cost/benefit analysis, the concept of a sunk cost has never left me. If we want to achieve this kind of retainment, we have to allow and encourage a personal engagement with what we teach or it will always feel distant, unattainable, and, in the worst cases, uninteresting. WAC pedagogy and WI curriculums are designed to improve student engagement through this kind of humanization. There are tools to help make any discipline feel accessible and relatable to its students, to help them engage with materials and, hopefully, take responsibility for their own learning. If this is the true goal of our instruction, to get students to process and understand great concepts and complexities, not just remember information long enough to be tested, then we have to make it personal.

Bean, John C., and Dan Melzer. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. Jossey-Bass, 2021.

Creative Writing Across the Curriculum

Last semester, I taught a 200-level English course called “Genre,” which I themed “Changing Natures, the Nature of Change.” We roamed through centuries and continents to explore how writers’ relationships to “nature” and the environment have shifted. We began by reading lyric poetry, moved to drama, and ended with science fiction. Along the way, I assigned scholarly articles that might help students more clearly understand the rules and abilities of each genre. But, at times, during our discussions, I could see that students weren’t quite grasping what made science fiction different from, say, fantasy or the domestic novel. What, they kept asking me, was lyric poetry again?

I began to reflect on my own knowledge of genre. When I was assigned to teach the course, I’d read almost no genre scholarship. My own dissertation was a genre study—the personal essay—and I was catching up on that conversation, but that, it seemed to me, was different. I felt I knew the essay inside and out not through reading about it but through reading it and through writing it. I have a career as a public-facing creative nonfiction writer and science writer—I published a book on the history and culture impact of air conditioning—and what knowledge I claim about the genre comes from contributing to it.

So why was I trying to get students to write about a genre they’d never attempted to write? Halfway through the semester, I transformed the final assignment into a creative writing task, and not without deep anxiety. How would I grade it? What was I doing, assigning creative writing when this was a literature seminar? Would the less writerly students rebel? Again, how would I grade it?

As it turned out, it worked better than almost any assignment I’ve designed, and I think, in reflecting on it, I might press out a few suggestions for instructors in other disciplines—in the humanities, certainly, but also in the natural sciences.

The assignment was simple. I tasked students with choosing one reading from the semester as an inspirational model. After studying it, the student would then write their own version. It would have a different plot, different characters, different voice, etc. But the genre would remain the same. Perhaps they would re-write the story from a different perspective. Or perhaps they would write their own micro-fiction about planetary exploration. I scaffolded the assignment by having students brainstorm an idea, write several drafts, review drafts with classmates, meet with me one-on-one about the idea, and, all along, write about the process, particularly its challenges.

When the students were well on their way to a final draft of their genre piece, I introduced the final part—and, actually, the true component—of the assignment. I wanted them to write a 3–4 page reflection that explained how their creation was representative of the genre, how it drew inspiration from one of the course readings, and how it connects to one of the claims in the scholarly pieces we read. I told them I was eager to read their creative work, but, really, I would focus on the reflective essays.

The results were compelling. The creative work was of a higher caliber than I expected, but I suspect it was because the task wasn’t simply to express themselves. It was both to draw inspiration from a work we’ve read (which requires close analysis and reflection), to imitate it, and then to work within (and perhaps break) the conventions of genre. The reflections stunned me in their clarity about how genres work, what was possible, and what fell flat in the drafting process. Students confronted firsthand how lyric poetry could become prosaic if they used a jargon-y word or how lengthy exposition in a sci-fi narrative can easily dull the reader. They had inhabited the genre first-hand, and the point wasn’t to create exhilarating works of fiction—though some had—it was to attempt what the authors they’d read had attempted and to reflect on it.

I think we underestimate the potential for creative assignments outside of the English department. First, the original act of creation engages students with a sense of ownership. This is theirs. So students tend to nurture and care for the work that goes into the assignment because they’re invested. Second, focusing on replicating genre gives students models to work from, which avoids the dreaded blank page of starting from scratch. Third, writing with a purpose beyond simply “analyzing” or “reflecting” but actually to communicate to a real person in a specific situation can enhance and clarify this assignment even more.

Let me try to open up that last point for anyone skeptical that a model creative genre might not exist in the natural sciences. Several swim to my head: Biology? Rachel Carson or Lewis Thomas. Physics? Richard Feynmann’s There’s Room at the Bottom or Albert Einstein’s elegant explanation of quantum physics through a train metaphor. Math? Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s The Waste Books. I could come up with more examples, but my point is simply that they’re there.

But won’t this take up precious time the students need to learn content? The goal is not to replace content-learning with creative noodling. It’s to use the context of compelling, public-facing writing to allow students to digest and communicate complex concepts to non-experts. I worry, when we teach students to regurgitate dense, academic jargon on its own terms, that students fail to understand how to use, explain, or build on those concepts. They can repeat the jargon exactly by rote, but any patient third-grader can do that. My point is that writing—and, specifically, the principles of writing across the curriculum, which can work alongside creative writing and more expressive writing assignments in non-literature courses—can help students become emotionally invested in assignments that assign them the responsibility to translate the course’s discipline-specific concepts to the general public.

Creative assignments need not be huge, final papers, and they don’t need to be fiction. (As an essayist, I bristle when people assume “creative writing” or “literature” is synonymous with “short story” or “novel.”) They could take the form of weekly, low-stakes first-person reflections on the non-human world outside the students’ homes, a typical genre of earlier generations of “natural historians.” They could take the form of a short dialogue between two competing theorists. Or they could attempt to narrate a dense, physics theory to a child—which requires that students understand exactly how it works, what to include and leave out. Higher-level, abstract thinking is crucial for every discipline, but it’s strengthened by combining it with narrative, with high-functioning thinking of the senses. Our brains do not naturally split into narrative and non-narrative disciplines. Homo sapiens sapiens are, as Sylvia Wynter has noted, hybrid beings, both bios and mythoi, the storytelling animal.

Now is the time. Robin Wall Kimmerer, a biologist and lyric writer, graces the top of the New York Times Bestseller list, and her book has allowed so many reader to understand the overlapping crises of ecosystem collapse, settler colonialism, and a failing political economy, all from a very human perspective. And Kimmerer’s work is not alone. Plenty of literary examples, both contemporary and historical, can be incorporated into our respective disciplines. The latest Best American Science and Nature Writing anthology, edited by marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, with pieces on the natural world and the ethics of AI, is an excellent starting place.

After all, isn’t this one of the most pressing issues of our time? Atmospheric scientists, environmental journalists, and science writers are sometimes admonished for failing to communicate the urgency of the climate crisis in metaphor, images, and accessible language that a middlebrow reader can comprehend. Especially for the natural sciences, we need to train our students in rhetoric, genre, and compelling public-facing writing across the disciplines. We need to start seeing our disciplines as interdependent, all of them connected through story.

The challenges of assignments in the COVID-19 era: strategies for an active process

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged education worldwide, forcing universities and community colleges in the U.S. to turn online. While there is immeasurable “learning loss” during the last almost three years, there is also an opportunity to ensure that writing is a tool of self-expression that engenders political, economic, and social change. In the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, college classroom has changed forever, and there is opportunity for more and different cross-curricular writing than before.

In a complex interconnected world of increased poverty and inequalities, cross-curricular writing has the power to give young people access to the academic and professional world.  If education is freedom, writing is the tool of self-expression to transform it. It is our duty, as teachers and students, to transmit that across our academic communities. We must interact with students’ assignments in a more meaningful way, so we go beyond reviewing grammar, spelling, and style.

From 2019 to 2022, during which I was teaching at Brooklyn College, I did my best to bring critical consciousness to the classroom. But this became particularly challenging when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, as not only the class turned online but students were also struggling to adapt to the new world as well as to concentrate on the writing and other assignment processes.

Our solution was to go together through the online learning process, so students had an active role to play on it instead of being a passive recipient of knowledge. For instance, we had collaborative writing assignments—when students had to work in zoom breakout rooms to write an analysis of one international organization—and research papers, which were divided into several steps during the semester, including feedback from me and the other students in the classroom.

Yet, it was only more recently, as a WAC fellow at City Tech that I had access to a broader variety of pedagogical strategies on how to best make writing a process of critical thinking for students. In the insightful “Engaging Ideas” by John C. Bean and Dan Melzer, there are a variety of ideas that apply to pedagogy in general and can be particularly helpful for engaging students in times of online learning. Let me share three strategies from “designing productive small-group task” (Bean and Melzer. Engaging Ideas, 2021, chapter 8) that I found most useful for online assignments and my reflection about how they help to overcome the challenges of online teaching.

First, the template strategy, in which the instructor provides a template frame to shape a short essay. Students must create the content, developing the argument for each section. What appeals to me in this strategy is that students are free for thinking but at the same time have a clear structure to guide and develop that thinking. Moreover, students usually have difficulty to develop their ideas in a structured manner or a way the reader can understand. This is particularly good for online teaching and addressing concentration issues: with clear guidance, procrastination and distractions become harder.

Second, the question-generating strategy, in which the instruction breaks the students into groups to brainstorm possible questions related to the topics in discussion. Students must select 2-3 best questions and explain why they are good ones. Although the format – breakout groups – is like what I did before, I wish I had known about this strategy before as it focuses on question-generating rather than on the students answering the questions I was posing. This strategy incentivizes students to collectively think and build arguments because they need to justify why a specific question matters as well as to try convincing each other. One of the online teaching challenges is that, given the environmental distractions, students need extra incentive to actively engage in class discussion and assignments.

Third, the evidence-finding strategy, in which an instructor asks students to use evidence to support an assertion. In my field, international relations, this means finding textual details from primary documents. The way of doing this online is breaking the students into smaller groups and suggesting a topic for them to find evidence. For instance, looking at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and world leaders’ official statement, both usually available online, for evidence to support their argument on whether some leader is violating a human right.  The beauty of this task is that often we learn together how evidence is actually selectively chosen. Since this task challenges students to search and prove a point, it incentivizes them to move away from distractions and try to convince their peers.

To transform education with WAC, we must take the opportunity of the pandemic and construct together the change we want to see.  The strategies already exist. It’s our job to adapt and use them for the online learning and teaching world, which came to stay.


Works cited:

Bean, John C., and Dan Melzer. Engaging Ideas. 3rd Edition, Jossey Bass, 2021.

Revisiting “Peer Review” in the Post-Pandemic Era

In WAC, we consider writing as a process that promotes critical thinking. One of its implications is to emphasize revision. The revision process is built into the scaffoldings of big projects during the semester. In revising, we make new connections and discover new ways to understand and express thoughts. Perhaps one support for this argument is to observe the differences between the second edition (2011) of John C. Bean’s Engaging Ideas, one of the key texts for WAC, and its third edition (2021) (in which Bean co-authored with Dan Melzer). Of course, much can be discussed regarding the differences between the two, as we have new developments of writing pedagogy in the past ten years (Preface ix-xi), face new challenges (e.g., covid-19), and adapt ourselves to new ways of learning and teaching. In the preface of the third edition, Bean and Melzer list major changes in the new edition (xi-xii). In this essay, I want to focus on the “peer review,” one of the key strategies for revision. I’ll trace and discuss the changes in Bean’s book and reflect on my own experience in teaching. I’ll also compare the revision process with the one from the design industry and show what I think can be improved in our teaching.

In the second edition of Bean’s book, guidance for peer review is in Chapter 15 “Coaching the Writing Process and Handling the Paper Load,” a chapter focusing on how to minimize teachers’ workload while at the same time encouraging students to write. Peer review is considered one of the key strategies to save time (295-302). Although it is still included as a strategy for saving time in the same chapter in Bean’s third edition, “peer review” is singled out and reframed into a new chapter “Helping Students Use Self-Assessment and Peer Review to Promote Revision and Reflection.” In this newly added chapter, not only does it include all the useful advice in the second edition, but also lays out recent research findings for the benefits of peer review (trying to advocate its value; e.g., research shows that “peer review from at least three peer readers results in feedback that is strikingly similar to instructor feedback and leads to as much or more global revision” (252)), admits the problems with peer review (244-245), and adds a new digital platform (Eli review), in addition to the original two (namely, Calibrated Peer Review and Peerceptiv). I like the shifting from a teacher-centered view to a student-centered one; in other words, the third edition emphasizes more how peer review benefits students.

Including the three digital platforms raises an interesting question: how should we use media to facilitate peer review in a post-pandemic era? Before the pandemic, I used to ask students to print out hard copies and bring them to class (this causes some problems: some students tend to work on their drafts at the last minute and cannot find a place to print their work in an early morning class). In class, they exchange drafts, write comments, and give them back to each other. Transitioning to online teaching, I used Zoom breakout rooms and Google Doc to do the work, with guided instructions. Coming back to the classroom again this semester, I find that students are more likely to bring their laptops to class and feel more comfortable with digital tools, so I continue using online platforms such as Google Doc and Google Form. To me, a digital copy can be accessed more easily than a hard copy, considering sometimes the print copy gets lost. Sometimes handwriting is not easy to recognize compared to the regularized typography. Of course, there are disadvantages. Different platforms can be overwhelming as students need to learn how to manage them. Students also lose the freedom of writing on a piece of paper, and of arranging and rearranging ideas in a non-linear way. Additionally, they are limited by a small screen, instead of a wider view of multiple pages. Handwriting is also more intimate than the standard font. We should also consider students’ needs and accessibility: some students prefer physical copies, while others like the digital version better.

We may continue discussing the pros and cons of learning through different media, but I want to return to the topic of how to do peer review. I believe that we should guide students what we instructors practice when we comment on their papers and lay out some guided instructions and templates for their reference. Without guidance, I find students tend to focus on editing sentences such as syntax, grammar, etc. In the prompt for peer review, I usually ask students to write marginal comments of only higher-order concerns, and an end-comment or a one-paragraph comment (312-313), which consists of comments on the strong and weak points of the draft, as well as the suggestions for revision. In this way, reviewers can focus more on the higher-order elements. I also consider it important to ask students to write specific and descriptive comments and support their comments with evidence and analysis, in line with Bean’s proposal for “descriptive questions” instead of “judgment questions” (247).

Although I previously asked students to talk/communicate with each other about the comments they make, to clarify any confusions and make a to-do list for revision, I found it hard for students to translate the feedback into revisions. I also find Bean and Melzer spend most of their time addressing how to do peer review and give good feedback, but not so much how to integrate comments into revision. Indeed, there is a short section on “Revision Plans” (239), which includes a sheet to ask students to reflect on if the reviewer can correctly identify the important elements (such as thesis, analysis, etc.) and think about how to revise. The set of questions are helpful to guide students to reflect on some important writing elements, but sometimes this top-down approach may ignore certain aspects that are not listed in the guidance but exist in the feedback. Hence, I would propose a bottom-up approach.

Peer review is not only limited to academic practices. It is also a critical process in designing an app or a website. During the summer, I took a series of courses on Google UX Design Professional Certificate, in which they discuss peer review in detail. Some suggestions are also valuable for my teaching.

I think perhaps one missing piece in Bean’s book is how to read feedback. The first tip would be to “stay open minded.” Reading feedback sometimes can trigger mixed and even defensive feelings. It is important to see the feedback as something to expand one’s own limited view, and to “think about where that feedback is coming from,” how it is different from one’s own expectations. Secondly, keep in mind one’s goals. For a writing assignment, what are the goals and rubrics? Could applying the feedback improve the writing to better meet the goals? If not, think about why the feedback is not effective and document it for later consideration. Thirdly, keep one’s own agency. There will be moments when one disagrees with the feedback, and that’s okay. Everyone has their own opinions about the work. When we disagree, we should not completely ignore the feedback. Instead, we need to think about where the disagreement comes from, and whether and how the different thought is supported by evidence and reasonable analysis. We then need to judge if the feedback would fit the writing goals.

In addition to how to read feedback, I suggest arranging the feedback in an “affinity diagram.” The diagram asks one to pull the comments from different sources to one single place (with sticky notes; online platforms such as Miro, Jamboard, Notely, Mural, Padlet can do something similar.) Sometimes marginal comments are spread out through the entire paper, and can be confusing if one receives feedback from more than one reviewer. Writers may not notice some common patterns without stepping back a little bit. The affinity diagram helps with synthesizing the feedback into groups. One may rearrange/reorganize the comments into big categories such as thesis, transitions, structure, support, evidence, citation, etc. The categories/related ideas/themes can also be customized to fit one’s needs. Think: if there are any connections or relations between feedback from different reviewers? Do any common patterns/themes stand out particularly? For example, if one notices that a few comments from different reviewers are about the transitions in different paragraphs of the essay, one may need to revisit some common strategies for making transitions and go back to examine the transitions again. Gathering all the comments together in one place and organizing them according to themes offer a global view on the feedback from bottom up and allows one to identify patterns that may not be easily recognized when the feedback is from different sources.

After organizing and thinking about feedback in the affinity diagram, the next step is to come up with “insights for each theme”/pattern. The “insight” is to write out a specific “next step” for how to improve the writing. The specific insights should be based on the feedback, evidence and analysis, and the goals and criteria of the writing assignment. They also should lead to direct actions to revise. When writing insights, one may follow a template like this: It was observed that xx out of xx reviewers think that ______________ (description of the feedback). This means that ______________ (analysis of the feedback). An insight based on the theme/pattern is: ______________ (what to do next). One should also prioritize key elements in revising. Revising thesis should be prior to revising transitions, as transitions may need to change according to the revised thesis. Grammar and sentence editing should be the last step because high-order concerns will lead to sentence-level changes. Some insights “should be considered a Priority Zero,” meaning “they must be fixed” for your essay, such as having an argument, not a descriptive statement for writing an argumentative essay.

In this article, I focus on peer review, one of the teaching strategies for revision by tracking the changes in two editions of Bean’s book, and by reflecting on my own teaching experience. I’m hoping the above tips from another industry that practices peer review—reading feedback, creating affinity diagrams, drawing insights from feedback—can offer some practical steps for students to translate the feedback into effective revision and complement Bean’s wonderful suggestions for peer review.

Works Cited

Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas. 2nd Edition, Jossey Bass, 2011.

Bean, John C., and Dan Melzer. Engaging Ideas. 3rd Edition, Jossey Bass, 2021.

Google UX Design Professional Certificate. Coursera.

Expressive Prose and Freire’s Problem-Posing Education

In the third edition of Bean and Melzer’s seminal text Engaging Ideas, they posit that students are learning to critically think when they are “active, involved, consulting and arguing with each other, and responsible for their own learning” (Bean and Melzer 4). This mode of thinking may be distinguished from what the Brazilian thinker Paulo Freire terms the “‘banking’ concept of education” (Freire 72). 

The banking concept of education takes learning to be a kind of value-depositing process: the teacher takes the valuable thing that they own (a piece of knowledge) and they deposit a copy in the mind of their student. Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1967) argues that the banking concept of education is misleading because it treats students as if they are not subjects (i.e., human beings) but rather objects (i.e., banks that must be filled with facts or skills). For Freire, inquiry (or what we might today call critical thinking) is fundamental for being a free human being because it allows us to relate to each other and the world in a kind of “dialectical” (or feedback-loop) manner. In other words, inquiry captures the phenomenon of human beings intellectually confronting challenges and in confronting them being shaped anew. Once shaped anew, new problems or challenges present themselves, to which human beings must intellectually adapt. Freire explains: “apart from inquiry…individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing hopeful inquiry that human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other” (Freire 72). 

The issue with the banking concept of education is that in “projecting an absolute ignorance onto others” it makes it seem as if knowledge and education are not inherently “dialectical,” relational processes of inquiry (Freire 72). Freire thinks this leads to a contradiction in the teacher-student relationship. On the one hand you have the know-all teacher who has no need for inquiry because they “have” knowledge. On the other hand, you have the know-nothing student who has no capacity for inquiry because they don’t “have” knowledge. This contradiction precludes inquiry (read: humanness) altogether. As an antidote, Freire suggests what he calls “problem-posing education,” which is enacted through dissolving the binary contradiction between teacher and student through “dialogue” (Freire 93). He explains: 

Problem-posing education, which breaks with the vertical patterns characteristic of banking education, can fulfill its function as the practice of freedom only if it can overcome the above contradiction. Through dialogue, the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teachers cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student with students-teachers. The teacher is no longer merely the one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach. They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow […] [Here], people teach each other, mediated by the world, by the cognizable objects which in banking education are “owned” by the teacher (Freire 80).

One may remain agnostic on the political implications of Pedagogy of the Oppressed while still appreciating Freire’s method for teaching critical thinking: teachers must use what he calls “dialogue” to treat ourselves as “horizontal[ly]” learning in tandem with our students, and thereby enable all of us (teacher-student and students-teachers) to enter into education as inquirers, as “critical co-investigators” rather than all-knowing messiahs or empty vessels for knowledge to fill (Freire 92, 91, 81). Freire thinks that non-hierarchical dialogue between student and teacher both requires critical thinking and generates critical thinking (Freire 92). 

Advocates of Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) celebrate writing as a form of critical thinking. Indeed, one of the tenets of WAC is that writing is not simply a “communication skill,” nor is it simply an end-product of critical thought, but that writing itself is critical thinking (Bean and Melzer 3). One question a WAC-advocate might have for Freire is: How should the “teacher” position themselves in regards to the “student” when assigning writing? Practical questions include: How can we keep students on task (and not overwhelmed) with complex writing projects without being problematically paternalistic? How much struggling is too much struggling when it comes to student learning? How should teachers manage their own feelings when student writing does not meet their expectations? 

Freire would start answering these questions by noting that true non-hierarchical dialogue (the kind that begets inquiry) is not possible without love, humility, and faith (Freire 91). Learners cannot enter into dialogue without a love of other human beings (and therefore a commitment to non-hierarchical learning in communion with other human beings). We cannot enter into dialogue without proper humility, where we understand ourselves to be limited knowers and others as having things to teach us. And finally, we cannot enter into dialogue without a faith in the potential of humankind to be good partners in dialogue. Even if someone’s power to inquire is impaired or malnourished, which it can of course be, Freire argues that we must always have faith in its tendency to be reborn and nourished (Freire 91). Thus: “Founding itself upon love, humility, and faith, dialogue becomes a horizontal relationship of which mutual trust between the dialoguers is the logical consequence” (Freire 91). 

I think those practical questions italicized above spring out of a lack of trust, humility, faith, and an attachment to the banking theory of education. Below, I suggest that assigning, and importantly, academically valuing, something James Britton calls expressive prose will be fruitful in establishing Freire-ian dialogue with our students, and will consequently attend to the practical questions above. 

Expressive prose is described as “writing that is close to the self,” and is championed as a method to encourage student “voice” (Bean and Melzer 84): 

One of [expressive prose’s] main functions is to help the individual assimilate new ideas by creating personal contexts that link new, unfamiliar material to what one knows or has experienced. It is writing to discover and explore, mull over, ruminate on, raise questions about, personalize. It is often fragmentary and disorganized, like talking to oneself on paper. Although intended for the self, it seems to be the seedbed for ideas that later emerge in products written for others. Britton and others noticed how frequently professional writers explore ideas in notebooks, journals, daybooks, memoranda to themselves, and letters to colleagues about ideas in progress. They further noticed how extensively expert writers revise their ideas through multiple drafts in which the earliest drafts have the characteristic inchoateness of expressive writing.”(Bean and Melzer 84)

With expressive writing (in the form of journals, in class freewriting, letters to classmates or others, blogs, personal reflections, etc.) what is produced is not something which is easily measured against the knowledge that the teacher “has”. This means that expressive writing need not be graded in a merit-based way (it may be graded pass/fail: Did the student take the assignment seriously or not?) Expressive writing is about students writing for themselves (thereby practicing being inquirers), tackling a disciplinary issue in the world that they find challenging, and showing how the issue is impacting them as a thinker. The goal of an expressive assignment is not to please the teacher or to show that some fact has been memorized or some skill successfully acquired. Thus, the only expectation the teacher should have is that the student seriously engages in expressive-prose writing. Moreover, empirical work mentioned in Engaging Ideas points to teachers really enjoying reading exploratory pieces (Bean and Melzer 96).

Since the goal of the assignment is simply to strengthen and share the student’s process of inquiry, whatever struggling is occurring is perfectly appropriate (and there’s no need for the teacher to intervene). And as for helping students with feelings of overwhelm, the point of expressive prose is to meet students where they are in their thinking processes. Thus, expressive writing shouldn’t be any more overwhelming than their own thoughts. The only thorny question still remaining is how to keep students on task without being paternalistic. In this context, the question becomes: How can we ensure students take expressive prose assignments seriously? I think Freire would tell us that students taking expressive assignments seriously requires a relationship of mutual trust, and trust cannot be built without dialogue, which in turn requires hope, humility, and faith. If trust isn’t there, and students aren’t taking these sorts of assignments seriously, Freire wouldn’t advocate forcing students to do them, since this undermines them as independent and free inquirers. Rather, I’d guess that he would advocate tending to other areas of the student-teacher dynamic and letting your students know that you retain (a) faith in their capacities as inquirers (b) hope in the potential of expressive prose to lead to critical thinking and (c) belief in the value of critical thinking. 

I’m working on a “Writing Intensive” syllabus as part of my WAC fellowship at New York City College of Technology. In the past I’ve played with assigning my students expressive prose in the form of journal entries: one at the beginning of the semester, and one at the end of the semester, for students to reflect on their learning. In an effort to ensure academic rigor, the prompts I released for these exploratory assignments were lengthy, full of academic jargon, and made specific demands of students (e.g., minimum word limits, requests that they mention at least three sources, etc.). In return, I’ve sometimes received disappointing work from students that didn’t reveal genuine inquiry but rather showed their attempts to fit the constraints I set them. In learning more about Freire and expressive prose, I’ve been reflecting on how this otherwise interesting and fun teaching experience has been marred by worries around versions of the practical questions outlined above. 

During my WAC fellowship I plan on working on my expressive prose assignment prompts, so that they better embody Freire’s “humanizing pedagogy” where “the method ceases to be an instrument” which I may evaluate or judge how much knowledge students show  (Freire 69). Instead, I am inspired to view these types of assignments as notes to students’ selves, as parts of their own repertoires of critical thinking, rather than to notes to me as the know-all teacher. I will aspire to appreciate expressive assignments as “express[ing] the consciousness of the students themselves,”  and of being an opportunity for me to learn something from my students, for us to engage in dialogue together, and for us to built relationships of trust that are so fundamental to inquiry (Freire 69). 



Bean, John C., and Dan Melzer. Engaging Ideas. 3rd Editio, Jossey Bass, 2021.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Bloomsbury Academic, 2000.


Multimodal Thinking and Writing

Any educator would agree, I think, that course planning is a perpetual exercise of trial and error. For me, this has been especially true when it comes to finding innovative and dynamic ways to  engage students in reading, thinking, and writing about academic texts. Part of the challenge in my case is that I teach about language, a social practice about which everyone has an opinion, and media, a ubiquitous mechanism of social interaction. Abstract ideas about what language and media are and how people use them are so naturalized that it can be difficult to facilitate critical consciousness of them, let alone their deconstruction through the discipline of anthropology. Since starting the WAC fellowship, I’ve been learning about how to encourage deep engagement with the course material through consistent and diverse writing assignments. As I prepare to teach about language and media again next semester, I’ve been thinking specifically about the affordances of multimodality in the thinking and writing process, especially after almost two years of teaching and learning online due to the pandemic.  

Over the past couple years, I’ve taught a class called Texting & Talking, a linguistic and media anthropology course that explores the differences between face-to-face and mediated communication, and the role of media in language and vice versa. We study everything from radio talk to gossip columns to breaking up with your partner via social media. As you might imagine, students usually have lots to say about these topics. Our in-class discussions are usually quite lively and students often share interesting personal anecdotes about how they and their communities use language on and offline (which I welcome and value!). However, I’ve noticed that this level of deep engagement does not always translate the students’ formal writing assignments, in which I ask them to decipher and make arguments through anthropological concepts. This has been an ongoing struggle for me as I teach, revise, and teach again. 

In an effort to address this disconnect towards the end of my first semester teaching the course, I switched things up and created a final assignment that mirrored a typical final research paper, but that could be completed in any modality the student chose. I provided examples, such as a formal presentation, a letter, a podcast episode, a video essay, a recorded conversation between students, a face-to-face conversation with me, a series of Tweets, or a typical written assignment, but the students were encouraged to propose other modalities that aligned with their preferred method to communicate the information. While there were specific requirements (references to course material, an analysis of a mediated or face-to-face linguistic routine, etc.), the assignment was open-ended and shaped by each student’s interest. My idea was that breaking away from the rigid structure of a final paper might give the students the opportunity to express the clarity I witnessed during class sessions, and I thought this approach modeled what I preached about complicating certain conventions of language use. Some students ran with the opportunity and crafted interesting and well-developed multimodal research assignments; for others, the open-ended structure and creative invitation caused confusion and anxiety and many ultimately chose to write a typical paper. I realized throughout the process that the assignment was far too unstructured to yield the deep critical engagement I had envisioned, and that I hadn’t provided my students with the proper tools to complete the assignment successfully.

Halfway through the second iteration of the course, the pandemic hit and my course became asynchronous, which presented obvious challenges to constructing a sense of community and creating online space for students to discuss and learn from each other. Although I imagined this would largely happen through written text given the circumstances, I looked for ways to diversify class participation. I found a free, web-based blogging platform called Padlet that ended up being the perfect virtual space for us to interact. Each week I posed two questions to the class, one about that week’s readings and another inviting students to share their personal experiences with the same topic. What was particularly fruitful about using Padlet was that it allows for text, audio, video, and image, and participants can interact through likes and comments. So, although it was a private site that only our class had access to, it looked more like a social media platform than a formal class discussion board. I encouraged my students to lean in to what that meant for their writing on the Padlet; I explicitly allowed for informal writing, emojis, internet slang, memes, TikToks, or any other genre of language that helped the student express their response to the week’s prompt. The results were exciting. The students took the opportunity to be creative in their class participation, and many of the students who were timid in person were more vocal and participatory online. Throughout the semester I was impressed by how this constant engagement with the course material through writing and/or multimodal creation had clear implications on the students’ ability to articulate complex anthropological analyses about media and language. Even so, I was still left with the sensation that I overemphasized informal writing, and my assignments did not encourage enough development in their formal writing skills.

As I prepare the next version of Texting & Talking, which I’ll teach next semester, I am using WAC pedagogy to address my concerns from each of the previous classes in my syllabus design. I’m specifically looking to scaffold the assignments in ways that not only equally prioritize informal and formal writing, but see them as integrally related. To do so, I’ve created two semester-long writing assignments: a reading log, which requires formal writing practice through weekly prompts about the readings, and a media journal, which is designed to practice informal and multimodal writing through ethnographic data collection. The former is basically a formal notebook, where each student will have documented, written engagement with each week’s course material. The latter is an informal and multimodal guided ethnographic field notebook, where the students are asked to provide thick descriptions of their media usage (including screenshots, links, videos, accounts, etc.) throughout the semester. The two combined are the basis for the students’ final assignment, which is an autoethnography about how each student uses mediated and face-to-face language. The reading log will help the students construct the literature review section of the ethnography, and the media journal is the data they will analyze linguistically. I believe these continuous assignments will encourage and incentivize students to prioritize the process of writing over the product and improve their writing throughout the semester as a result. And if they don’t, or not as much as I’d hoped, I’ll have to try again! 

WAC pedagogy teaches us how to use writing to promote critical thinking and facilitate deeper student engagement, and provides us with pedagogical tools to implement these ideas in our classrooms. I’m interested in thinking about how multimodal thinking and writing can enhance WAC pedagogy, especially in the context of our current moment when our reliance on mediated forms of communication and knowledge has intensified and our student populations have shifted. In a classroom of digital natives and media addicts (myself included), how can the incorporation of multimodal thinking and writing invite a different kind of student participation? What do we, as educators, have to lose, if anything, by embracing seemingly informal, mediated forms of knowledge production? What might our students manage to gain?

Modelling a Discipline and Delaying Closure in WAC Pedagogy

In Engaging Ideas, our WAC textbook, John C. Bean proposes that a “problem-driven model” of writing instruction draws on practices in the academic disciplines in order to reimagine the usual “think-then-write” approach to composition. Bean suggests that orienting writing assignments around a problem or question, rather than asking students to decide on a guiding thesis statement early on, can extend the process of exploration, much the way it does for scholars participating in written and verbal conversations, producing sketches and reflections, partial and complete drafts. In fact, the thesis often arises within that process of exploration: “A thesis statement often marks a moment of discovery and clarification—an “aha!” experience (“So this is my point!  Here is my argument in a nutshell!”) rather than a formulaic planning device at the very start of the process” (Bean 34). As I’ve become more familiar with Bean’s approach, I’ve noticed a lot of overlap with the way writing is taught in the high school English department at Friends Seminary, a Quaker school in Manhattan where I taught for three years before entering the English PhD program at the Graduate Center. I want think about the practical application of some aspects of Bean’s model by taking a close look at the way I learned to teach writing to ninth graders at Friends. I think to do this well, I’ll have to go into some detail, so apologies in advance for that. If it becomes tedious, just skip to the last two or three paragraphs!

Over the past ten to fifteen years, instructors at Friends have developed—and continue to modify—a formal model for writing instruction, a set of fixed terms and procedures, for deriving arguments from close readings figurative language in literary texts. In ninth grade, students begin by learning to produce simple units of analysis of very short, figurative passages, usually no more than a phrase or a sentence, from the first text covered in the Fall semester, Genesis in the King James or Robert Alter translation. For each unit of analysis, instructors ask students to give a sentence of context, situating the passage within the scene at hand; then another sentence presenting the quoted text itself; another to observe the meaning of a pivotal word or phrase in context; and finally a sentence asserting an implication of that meaning for the narrative—maybe something about a character’s attitude, the meaning of an action, or the nature of a belief. This basic unit analysis is called a “sequence of analysis.” In later assignments, students practice synthesizing the findings of two or three sequences of analysis to form a substantial analytic paragraph. Towards the end of the first semester, they will write a four-paragraph essay—three paragraphs of analysis and a conclusion paragraph—on Macbeth.

Students begin the essay-writing process by choosing a big question about one of the play’s major concerns that have emerged in class discussion, e.g., “What does Shakespeare’s Macbeth suggest about political titles?” “…about women?” “…about visions and dreams?” For each question, the instructor will provide a short, relevant passage from the play. The first scaffolded assignment will be to give a sequence of analysis on this starter passage, drawing out an implication or two that in some way begins to answer the big question the student has chosen. In the next assignment, students conduct a passage search, casting a wide net for moments in the play that, like the starter passage, might lead to an answer to their big question. For each of these, they give a preliminary or loose sequence of analysis bearing on their question.

To be clear, at this point students have not arrived at an answer to that question. They are still in the exploratory phase of the writing process. Instructors ask them to collect and analyze more relevant passages than they think they will ultimately need, because gathering evidence is not an exercise in shoring up a fixed position, but rather a good-faith inquiry into the question at hand–a study of what, in fact, Macbeth has to say about political titles, or women, or visions and dreams. When it comes time to decide which moments to focus on, students are encouraged not to select passages that could easily be yoked together to reiterate a flat answer to their question—”Macbeth suggests women can act like men”—but rather to include passages whose implications seem to complicate whatever tendency the student has begun to notice, or that raise further questions—Does Lady Macbeth, in fact act, “like a man?” What about Lady Macduff? What does it mean to “act like a man” in this play? Going through this process of provisional passage selection, students will begin to develop a rough sense of an answer to their question, but it really won’t be until they’ve drafted all three paragraphs of analysis and compared and synthesized the full range of their findings in the conclusion that they will articulate a thesis statement.

In this way, both the writing process and the essay structure are designed to delay the closure of a final assertion. The four-paragraph essay has no introduction in the usual sense—no statement of the topic, no guiding thesis, no argument synopsis. The first paragraph begins immediately with analysis of contextualized language and closes, not with a thesis, but with the essay’s guiding question, raised by the initial close reading. Similarly, the following two analysis paragraphs begin immediately with analysis—no topic sentences or claims. At a later stage, students will be encouraged to make a transition at the beginnings of their paragraphs, but for now they are asked to get right to the analysis and wait for close of the paragraph to synthesize their assertions and make a larger claim that begins to answer the essay’s guiding question.

I’ve been told that topic sentences, introductory theses and argument synopses, and other measures of enforcing closure early on in the writing process keep students “on topic.” This may be true, and approaches that delay closure may risk allowing students’ analysis to meander. But the encouragement to inquire into tricky, conflicting meanings and risk being confused, rather than simply prove a canned thesis, sometimes gives students room to work out remarkable accounts of textual complexity, or in other words, to think critically. Other times, that extra room leaves students stumped by the contradictory implications of their analysis–they may restate inconclusive findings or grasp at a reductive thesis that doesn’t do justice to their work. Still other times, students’ analysis is too general or under developed to lead to much of a statement at all. To me, any of these outcomes is preferrable to a premature claim justified by convenient evidence because, compared to that, all of them suggest an attempt at something like genuine intellectual inquiry.

This approach to scaffolding and delaying closure, with its emphasis on close reading, is especially suited to the study of figurative language and the supposedly unified structures of literary texts, usually plays, poems, and novels. I don’t think it would be as useful even in the proximate disciplines of the humanities, say, history or philosophy. Furthermore, the conventions of  academic writing in other disciplines do often prescribe a thesis and argument sketch in the opening paragraphs of a paper—for that matter, many articles in English studies journals begin this way. And of course the range of what counts as an object of study in any of these disciplines today is very wide, and none of them treats texts uncritically as thematically unified structures. When scholars in English programs do study a text in a traditional literary genre, they usually bring it into conversation with texts in other genres, with historical and material contexts, and often with one or more theoretical apparatuses. Few of these aspects of what it means to conduct intellectual inquiry in the disciplines find their way into the Friends Seminary approach to teaching writing.

In fact, the disciplinary practices that are reflected in the Friends approach tend to make it look a lot like the New Criticism with its discredited commitments to the unity and autonomy of texts. While I would not endorse these commitments in academic work, I’m not sure the version of them that structures the Friends approach necessarily implies something backward in the program. The Friends approach is the result of a series of choices that instructors–trained academics, a number of whom have published in their field–made to model the practices of the discipline for a high-school classroom while preserving some of what they considered the most vital affordances of those practices, among them the possibility for discovery that comes with the delay of closure. Their choices aren’t in any way necessary. Other choices might highlight other affordances of the discipline. But their choices do reflect some aspects of the way actual practitioners use writing to support their intellectual work. Their choices also reflect a serious consideration of the less glamorous, but no less vital, need to adapt those practices to form a usable pedagogical model.



Process, Affect, and Writing

In the spirit of some of the preceding posts, I want to dwell for a moment longer on the ideas of process and affect in relation to writing. Like some of my colleagues, I too have long envisioned writing as being fundamentally about the product. I have come to think of writing as the text, the document, the finished work. There is process, of course, for texts result from arrangement, selection, and compilation. The document is a sedimentation of prior work and work is an activity in addition to the thing produced. But on the whole, I have learned to see the process—the working—as valuable for its outcome, not for its own transient existence. This orientation has had negative implications for both the emotional experience of writing and the quality of the texts I produce.

As others have mentioned, I too have found that an orientation towards outcome infuses the writing process with anxiety. But anxiety was not always the most salient affective experience of writing. Before beginning grad school, I was one of those students who generally enjoyed writing. I approached writing assignments as opportunities to think through something, to grapple with some idea. Sitting down to write felt like an act of discovery, accompanied by curiosity and care. This lucky orientation to writing was undoubtedly the result of many factors, among which may have been that my primary schools, where I learned to write, didn’t give grades and focused heavily on the work of revision. Regardless, something has changed. Now, the idea of having to write brings with it crippling anxiety, even when the stakes are practically non-existent. I fret endlessly. I write in fits and starts. I delete and rewrite. Ultimately, I miss deadlines, view the final products as failures, and do what I can to distance myself from what I have created. The reasons for this shift are manifold, but a crucial element has been my gradual instrumentalization of writing. If I once approached the act of writing as an opportunity to explore, I now see it as a means for an end, as an activity valuable largely for what is produced.

My personal reorientation towards writing is almost certainly connected to a broader political economy of value. If I now instrumentalize what I once enjoyed for its own sake, it is because, as someone who must now write “professionally,” I am dependent upon collective allocations of value. And collectively, we have come to privilege those texts which circulate. We justify this privileging with niceties about writing being a way to communicate, to share something of ourselves with others, to participate in the public square of our common humanity, to transgress the limitations of temporal and geographic distances. But in practice, I suspect much of this privileging has a simpler explanation, for it is only through their circulation that texts have been able accumulate the kind of value from which profits can be made and livelihoods maintained. In this sense, our view of writing is ineluctably capitalist. The lexicon of “productivity” has seeped into my consciousness like a mold. And in the subtle way that words, symbolic though they may be, impose themselves upon us, this attachment to productivity has spread and grown deep roots in me. More than I would care to admit, I evaluate my days on the basis of how productive I have been, and in doing so, I minimize the importance of other sources of value, like curiosity, care, joy, or presence—values that somehow feel more intuitively worthwhile. In short, our relationship to writing is entangled with our relations of production.

This instrumentalizing of writing—the skewed allocation of value placed on product—has implications that are both affective and material. It is paradoxical, but for me and for many of my students, the valuation of the product often impinges on the conditions of production, creating a kind of negative feedback loop. When the value of writing is seen as residing in its future product, the activity of writing becomes a process of justification. The words on the page cannot be mere opportunities for exploration; they must ward off the judgement of the future, whether that judgement comes in the form of a grade, a publication, or a paycheck. This is anxiety-inducing, insofar as anxiety is a kind of inability to be present. Held down by the weight of the past and eclipsed by the shadow of the future, the act of writing can be a claustrophobic experience. When we over-value the product and under-value the process, we eliminate the jouissance of the immediate experience of writing. The present is poisoned by the need to justify, and inevitably, to the extent that the writer manages to fight past that claustrophobia, the result is often rather shabby. This post, with its tangents, unfinished thoughts, over-simplifications, and disorderly progression is a prime example.

By obscuring both the activity and affectivity of writing, our product-oriented approach probably leads to an excess of anxiety and sub-par writing, foreclosing opportunities for joy, curiosity, and exploration. What if we inverted our value schema? We could emphasize exploratory or informal writing. We could replace “final” drafts with multiple rough drafts, reflections on the process, or speculative letters about the work that remains to be done. We could reformulate our grading systems to privilege the time spent working instead of the final product submitted, work towards ungrading, or abolish grades entirely. In this light, reclaiming the value of the process, the activity of writing itself, acquires a kind of liberatory glamour. And maybe that glamour is well-deserved, maybe embracing process over product would free many from enormous anxiety, unshackle the labor of writing from the logic of the market, and create spaces for some sort of authentic self-expression and deeper thinking. But I worry that on some level the glamour is more of a thin patina, a shiny coat of novelty that appears different only because it looks unfamiliar on the surface.

Writing, like language, is always a vehicle for power. And under contemporary conditions, where power is so often tied to the flexible metabolism of capital, we should be wary of things that present themselves with the sheen of liberatory gloss. Processes can be commodified just as easily as products. Social media—in turning life itself is into an endless process of drafting, freed from the inherited mandates about what makes writing good, or what counts as writing—has made this abundantly clear. There is, I think, an intuitive elegance to the act of reconsidering. The act of rendering the familiar unfamiliar is a generative one; it creates possibilities for change. There is immense value in being open to being wrong, or in merely being willing to examine what we are doing at some measure of distance. I do think there is merit to carefully reconsidering our approach to writing through a closer examination of the relationships between process and product, between activity and affect. But, unless the context in which we write drastically changes, writing will remain tied to some notion of result. And that is also something to reckon with. At some point, I have to press submit, and in doing so, I will give this text the appearance of a finality it does not possess. It will become a thing produced.