Writing as Revisiting Connections

Sometimes when I put down on a page my riveting ideas in my mind, these ideas suddenly become bland and dull. One reason behind this, I think, is that the linearity of writing works differently from our way of thinking. When I have an idea, or an image in our mind, it does not stand alone; it reverberates on a web with many potentially relevant images or ideas, close or distant. But the moment I put it down on a page, all the fascinating connections are cut off.

Sometimes I don’t have much to say when I start out writing. But putting words on a page triggers some connections I have never thought about before, and I end up having some good stuff.

One thing common in the two scenarios, I think, is to make connections, revisit connections, and find a way to present the pertinent connections in a linear way. Having an idea in mind is like ink dropping in liquid, curling, spreading, and unfolding in time, in all directions and dimensions. But writing is unlike this; it forces one to put letters from left to right, from top to bottom. This one-dimensional writing is inconsistent with thinking.

To bring these connections onto a page well usually doesn’t happen in the first round of writing. In the first round of writing, or freewriting, or “sketches,” which I’d like to call, I find myself too rushed and too overwhelmed to observe all the connections of every sentence and every claim. It isn’t until the third or fourth round that I cool down a bit and could finally examine each possibility and connection I could redraw and rearrange. So, one major task of my writing, I think, is to revisit these connections, make rearrangements, and let time unfold the connections.

Sometimes I share sample essays from an MLA handbook to show what a good essay looks like. But I always have the concern that these sample essays would fail to teach students how to get there from here. In a sample essay, each word has its fixed, appropriate position, as if this were the only version that the writer wrote. What it fails to tell is that it is not written in one shot. Admittedly, there are exceptions in history; Kate Chopin wrote rapidly and without much revision, or Rilke finished the Duino Elegies and 55 Sonnets to Orpheus in a few weeks in February 1922. But we must acknowledge that these may not be practical for us. For most of us, we still need time to revisit our writing, and let time distill the writing into a finer piece. These sample essays would be uninstructive especially for undergraduate students to understand the struggles in writing—the numerous revisions/drafts that lead to this final product, the time, the frustrations, the A-Ha moments—as if someone just simply typed in the letters in a sequence that is on the page.

The illusion may be unconsciously translated into our minds that one may produce a piece of good writing in one attempt. When I say “our” minds, I’m particularly thinking of undergraduate students who work overnight and finish their first draft before the dawn of the deadline and submit it as their final work. But I’m also thinking, how, in many courses, inappropriate or lack of scaffolding of a long paper also contributes to this mindset.

I would argue that making changes to the scaffolding doesn’t need much work. This semester, I’m teaching a writing-intensive course, in which we need to write three papers throughout the semester. I divide each paper into three stages. The first stage is called “preliminary draft” or “sketches,” in which students need to submit 1-2 pages of their writing. Instead of asking specifically for a thesis or an outline, I let them choose the most comfortable way to write: “It could be in various forms, such as a detailed outline, two or three body paragraphs, some close reading analysis, an introduction plus one or two body paragraphs, etc. It gives you some freedom in deciding how you want to approach the topic of your paper. The aim here is to get the paper going.” Students work differently towards their paper; some prefer having an outline, some love having a thesis first, and some just put down everything that comes to them. For this draft, I make minimal marking. Then a week later, I ask for a draft for peer review (2-3 pages). After peer reviewing, students will have another week to revise it into a final paper. Two to three weeks before the “sketches,” students know the prompt and could develop some thoughts through their journal entries and low-stake writings as we read texts. When they submit their paper, I also ask for a cover letter reflecting their writing process: “What are the significant changes that you made to the Essay 1 in your revision? Specify the changes you made and reflect on the changes made from preliminary draft to peer review draft, and then your final paper.”

I’m happy to find out that giving students one week for each draft and three weeks in total to complete a piece works well. When asked what they learned through the whole writing process, one wrote, “I learned there was more value in multiple drafts than I had thought, for most assignments I have a tendency to only do one draft and I could definitely see some improvements between drafts.”; another responded, “I have learned that drafts are very important and it is important to keep making changes to your writing and good writing takes time. When writing an essay it cannot be done in a day but in a course of a few days because it is important to think about what is being written and what ideas I have on the subject.” It is encouraging to know that some early planning and scaffolding, leaving enough time for students to revise and to improve through multiple drafts would benefit them. It is even more encouraging that some students realize how writers bring new connections onto a page through time and multiple attempts.


Writing, Stress and Anxiety

Nobody said dissertating was easy, but I figured it would be easier than this.

Writer’s block is real, and made worse when you expect words to flow seamlessly from your mind to the page. Nothing is so crippling as the expectation of perfection on draft number one. I am writing my dissertation, and have gone through nearly ten revisions on at least three different chapters. I can assure you that they are still nowhere near perfect.

For me at least, empty pages and clunky prose have historically been cause for quick rushes of anxiety. When I started writing my dissertation, I would often find myself either staring nervously into the white void of a blank Word document, or fiddling with a single paragraph (sometimes even, a single sentence) for hours, changing a word here, or a comma there. I was either completely impotent or editing my edits. This routine got me nowhere.

What I soon learned was that despite my lack of progress, I didn’t actually have a “writing” problem. This may sound counter-intuitive. I was falling behind on the schedule that I had laid out for myself and struggled with my writing daily. Of course, I thought, I had a writing problem. I now recognize that I had a “thinking about writing” problem. That is to say, the ideas that I had about what writing was and what it should be, were skewed. I considered writing to be about expressing my ideas, about committing the thoughts in my head to paper.

In fact, the process of writing is often much closer to exploration than it is to the expression of ideas. The difference is of course subtle, and made worse by the alliterative insistence of the previous sentence. But what I mean to say is that writing doesn’t simply communicate a priorithoughts. Rather, writing stimulates, organizes and develops them. As John Bean has argued, “writing is both a process of doing critical thinking and a product that communicates the results of critical thinking” (Bean 2011, 4). Although I fully intend to finish my dissertation and look forward (more than almost anything, to be sure) to the day that I submit a final “product” to my committee, that will come at the end. To get there, and in order to actually move forward, I need to move from thinking about writing to writing to think.

This post is only tangentially about writing as process. My colleagues have already made those connections clear. Instead, this post is about the affective outcomes of writing as process. The connections here are thus between writing, stress and anxiety. When writing is understood as an integral component of thinking, some of that anxiety and stress of expectation starts to melt away. The blank page transforms from a test of knowledge into an opportunity to think, and the stakes are in turn lowered. Now I begin each chapter, each page, with an admission that I don’t yet understand – at least fully – the implications of what I am about to write. But I know that writing will get me there.

I wouldn’t be able to tell you with any more detail than you might receive from a 60 second elevator pitch what my dissertation is about. That’s because despite what I think I might know about my research, it still exists in my head as a rhizomatic web of ideas and connections, rather than as a linear narrative. But traditional dissertations – in their final form, we might hope – are linear expressions of research, products that demonstrate years of work and thought. Worry not. To get to that point, from a web of ideas to a coherent narrative, we will have to first think some more, and then of course, write some more to help us think.


Perceiving Writing As a Process, Not a Product

Supposedly there is a quote by author John Dufresne that goes “the purpose of a first draft is not to get it right, but to get it written”. Unfortunately, as with many historical quotes, I can’t find where or when he said it, but that doesn’t diminish its sensibility. When I came to know this quote, I immediately interpreted it as a type of ‘done is better than perfect’ logic. A (badly) written thesis is still better than the (obviously great) thesis existing solely in my mind, so let’s buckle up, push this draft out, and we can move on to the next writing hurdle. In a sense, it motivated me to produce writing, because a product is better than no product.

I feel that this production perspective on writing was also encouraged by my education. Typically, most courses I took during my bachelor and master’s degree culminated in a term paper where students could demonstrate their mastery of the subject. I say culminated because there wasn’t really a practice built around submitting several drafts. On occasion I was asked to submit an outline first which was supposed to detail the paper’s premise and arguments. This typically resulted in me scrambling a skeleton together, because I didn’t know yet what I was going to write about. Also, which element of the subject one had mastered exactly tended to be open to interpretation, since most term paper assignments were not specific. I recall taking a course one semester that was called International Relations and my term paper discussed Harry Truman dropping the bomb, which seemed to make perfect sense at the time.

Lately, my perspective on writing has changed though and that is due to being a part of the Writing Across the Curriculum fellowship program (WAC) at City Tech. The nice thing about City Tech is that we’re exposed to the WAC pedagogy, mostly via discussing John Bean’s book Engaging Ideas (2011). Bean talks (writes really) a lot about the relationship between writing and critical thinking. The whole premise of the book is that writing is an active learning task, which evokes a high level of critical thinking. Why is it an active learning task? Because writing is simultaneously a process of doing critical thinking and the product that communicates the results of the critical thinking.

This blew my mind. Mainly because I perceived writing as a product alone for years. And, as mentioned above, not just any product but the end product: The written culmination of all my thinking efforts. This view does not acknowledge at all the thinking that goes into the writing. It can essentially be summarized as: Think first, write second. Whereas Bean’s perspective posits: Write first, you’ll think during. Consequently, he takes this philosophy even further: Writing does not only trigger thinking, it strengthens the thinking itself. Though this perspective may be new to me, this feeling is familiar: Being forced to formulate (and justify) my ideas often strengthened the ideas themselves.

So my perspective has shifted from perceiving writing as the end of the thinking, to the process of thinking itself. I think this resonates so much with me because it explains why I had such trouble scrambling a skeleton together in college. At the time I thought I was just a bad student who couldn’t think together an outline, but there were good students out there who could. However, the whole assignment now strikes me as curious. How am I supposed to think together an outline, without any of the writing (thus thinking) having taken place?

Moreover, WAC’s philosophy around critical thinking explains my issues with the lack of focus in term papers. Critical thinking is most evoked by problems (Kurfiss, 1988). Therefore, part of teaching critical thinking is making problems apparent to students. Most term paper assignments I encountered were not problem focused. Most of them didn’t seem to have any focus at all which is how I ended up writing about Truman and the bomb at the end of the International Relations course. I’m not saying that there’s something wrong with that, but I do realize now that unspecific term paper assignments do not evoke critical thinking. Plus, the whole concept behind the term paper seems to foster the perspective of seeing writing as an end product instead of a process.

Therefore, my change in perspective on writing is accompanied with a change in interpretation of Dufresne’s quote. Done is still better than perfect, but the quote no longer encourages writing as a finished product. Instead, it now encourages me to perceive writing as a thinking process. Perhaps I can remind myself best by rephrasing it: “The purpose of a first draft is not to get it right, but to get thinking” (free after supposedly John Dufresne).

Freewriting: Method and Model

For decades now freewriting has been a pivotal technique in writing instruction.  Most students (but not all students, importantly) are exposed to it even before they enter their undergraduate writing classes.  Now that we are all conducting our classes remotely, freewrites have become an even more common practice for engaging with students across academic disciplines. This being the case, in this post I would like to think a bit more deeply about freewriting and why it works.  This seems useful because although freewriting is generally accepted as a worthwhile educational exercise, students (and even teachers) themselves are often not exploring in any depth the underlying assumptions of why freewriting is so pedagogically valuable.  In the era of COVID-19, in which we are radically rethinking what pedagogy itself even is, reconsidering our existing practices (such as freewriting) also seems like a fruitful endeavor.

Freewriting, broadly defined as writing without stopping and editing, was initially advocated as a method by Peter Elbow in his book Writing Without Teachers in 1973. In the simplest terms, freewriting refers to the act of writing quickly for a set time, just putting down whatever is in your mind, without pausing and worrying about what words to use, and without going back to edit what has been written.  As Elbow puts it in his book, “the only requirement is that you never stop” (3).

We might subsequently suggest that there are two interrelated senses by which we can approach freewriting:  as 1) a method and 2) a model.  As outlined above, it is a method for producing writing, but on a theoretical level it is also presenting a model for the way our minds process and produce language.  In other words, freewriting is pedagogically useful because it claims to directly tap into the way our minds ordinarily function.  If our minds auto-generate thought and language even without our willing them to, freewriting, in the manner of a recording device, becomes the attempt to faithfully transcribe these thoughts.  In a nutshell, freewriting is simply the attempt to set a canoe upon the stream of consciousness and chart its path for a time.  As a technique, this is interesting because it tends to go against the grain of usual academic instruction, which precisely tries to get the mind to function in ways it normally wouldn’t (writing a “formal” academic paper being one example of this).

Freewriting, we could say, is built on a model of productivity:  we are relentless producers of thought and language; therefore, we should capitalize on this excess and externalize it in the world (on the page before you).  If this transcribing only produces a bunch of “garbage,” no need to worry!  As Elbow quite emphatically states the matter:  “There is garbage in your head; it if you don’t let it out onto paper, it really will infect everything else up there.  Garbage in your head poisons you.  Garbage on paper can safely be put in the wastepaper basket” (8).  Here Elbow is arguing against accusations of the “infectious” model of writing (in which the production of bad writing only encourages more bad writing), but he is also making an interesting philosophical argument:  our minds are ordinarily chock-full of garbage; therefore, we should attempt, almost in the manner of therapy, to rid ourselves of it so we can focus our attention on those ideas which actually contain value.

Overall, in his defense of freewriting, Elbow argues that freewriting is an organic, developmental process—it is a way to end up thinking something you ordinarily wouldn’t (or couldn’t) have. In other words, the sheer act of freewriting itself begets thinking, which in turn, develops thoughtful writing.  Freewriting in this sense is a recursive process that both begins and ends in the written word.

There is much more that could be said about the theoretical underpinnings of freewriting (and to do so would take us beyond the bounds of this short post), but our brief analysis does seem to indicate that freewriting is useful both in terms of method and model; and in fact, it shows that each of these two factors are dependent on (or at least directly correlated with) the other, a quality that all good forms of pedagogy should strive for.

Recognizing this, I would, lastly, like to share some brief ideas about the actual implementation of freewriting in the classroom.

Although freewriting itself is always unstructured, freewriting as a teaching tool can be both unstructured and structured in terms of implementation.  For example, freewrites can be planned for the beginning of a class (structured) but also, depending on need, peppered throughout a class in intervals in order to spark discussion (unstructured).

While they can also be generative of thought at any point in a class, it is also worthwhile to consider what comes before and after a freewrite.  To use the structured example above, freewriting at the beginning of a class or workshop is useful insofar as it allows participants to generate their own ideas before the instructor even shares their own.  In other words, it allows participants to marshal their own background knowledge and evaluate their preconceptions in terms of the new material being presented.  But what about after?  In the actual classroom setting, we might say the end result of freewriting changes modalities:  it usually becomes the impetus for verbal discussion, rather than a written assignment (although it can also be the latter).  In other words, freewriting not only effectively produces written expression but also oral expression.

In our current remote environment—in which our only view of our students is usually a small black Zoom screen emblazoned with their name—encouraging our students to verbal expression is perhaps most important, not only for them, but also for us as instructors.  As teachers most of us have faced the predicament of deathly silence and blank faces after asking an important question in our classes. Over Zoom, the weight of that silence has become even more onerous:  we no longer even have the comfort of blank faces, we have blank, utterly inexpressive screens.  I have heard repeatedly from colleagues that many instructors, when faced with this total muteness, immediately feel the need to fill the silence with some kind of speech of their own.

This need is understandable; it comes from a long educational tradition in which every moment in a class is supposed to be filled with “curricular content.”  Unfortunately, this is usually counterproductive.  Sometimes students actually just need to have time to quietly process their thoughts.  Increasing your “wait time” (if even by 15-30 seconds) after asking a question is an important strategy to keep in mind, but often a better approach is just to spend a few minutes letting students freewrite in order to give them the time and space to think the question over.

Interestingly enough, the same can be true if there are too many people who are willing to speak.  Teaching remotely, it is very easy—because of lag, or the lack of obvious (spatial) cues such as hand raising—for students to begin speaking at the same time and either talk over one another, or else to realize someone else is speaking and to apologize and stop, recreating the silence all over again.  Just as freewriting can help to transform silence into oral expression, if too many students are trying to speak at the same time, it can often be helpful to have students just spend a few minutes freewriting in silence to allow them to organize their thoughts and express them without worry of interruption.  Conversation can then commence again once the freewriting is complete.

Overall, it is worthwhile to remember the circumvention of the editing process in freewriting is also a circumvention of our traditional pedagogical models, which are largely grounded in a framework of “assessment” or “evaluation.” Having activities that are not solely based on a model of assessment means students are free to bring their own forms of self-assessment to bear.  As we adapt to online teaching, allowing our students time for this kind of conscious self-reflection has become increasingly important.  Across the disciplines, freewriting remains a viable tool for promoting critical thinking and engagement in our classes.


Peter Elbow, Writing Without Teachers (London: Oxford University Press, 1973).

Note Taking, Active Learning, and the Writing Process

Note taking is a crucial aspect of the writing process, and yet it is a skill that is often under-emphasized in pedagogical practice. Aside from exhortations to “take notes,” it is rare that instructors take time to assist their students in understanding the functions note taking serves or in acquiring concrete strategies for developing their own note taking habits. Generally speaking, note taking serves as a means of both recording information and facilitating reflection. The former is often taken for granted, obscuring the many different approaches that can be taken. The latter is often under-appreciated, and as a consequence, note taking is construed as being prior to the writing process rather than constitutive of it.

There is nothing passive about note taking. Rather, it is an active engagement with the material that has concrete benefits in its own right. Whether listening to a lecture, participating in a discussion, or reading a text, taking notes requires an attentiveness to the situation at hand, thereby unconsciously improving engagement with the material (Piolat, Olive, and Kellogg 2004). Writing notes also produces a “generational effect” (Foos, Mora, and Tkacz 1994). The cognitive tasks of sorting, coding, and arranging new information leads to stronger connections between newly received information and that which has previously been encoded in long-term memory. Note taking also facilitates the construction of more complex analyses, as notes themselves can serve as external storage, enabling students to hold more elements in mind at once than would be possible from rote memory (Cary and Carlson 1999).

These cognitive benefits suggest that a better incorporation of note taking within the writing process, might lead to more developed written analysis. Writing Across the Curriculum pedagogy is grounded in a view of knowledge that is dialogic, a view of learning that is focused on developing the capacity for critical thinking, and an understanding that writing is a fundamental tool in that development. Not taking, I would suggest, is central to the dialogic aspects of knowledge production, since it places students in a position of active engagement with the material. Not all notes are equal, but when implemented as an active learning strategy, note taking can encourage students to think critically about the information they are engaging with.

Taking notes can strengthen the analysis and organization of student writing in at least three ways.

First, many of the challenges students face when writing stem from difficulties with reading, and note taking can strengthen students’ facility with understanding the texts they are being asked to engage with. Reading notes serve as the first opportunity for students to grapple with, unpack, and understand the key concepts that they will need to conduct written analysis. There are several ways to encourage students to develop their note taking skills while reading:

    • Annotations: Incorporate reading annotation into course requirements. This can be done by asking students to make a minimum number of annotations per page, asking students to write out in their own words any sentence or concept that they underline/highlight, and asking for different kinds of annotations. For example, an English professor I worked with at a community college asked students to include one personal reaction, one summarizing annotation, and one question on each page of the reading.
    • Dictionaries: Another way to encourage close reading of texts is to ask students to find definitions for words or key concepts that they do not understand. The act of finding and writing out the definitions encourages students to pause and reflect on difficult aspects of the reading rather than skimming over them.
    • What It Says/What It Does: For each paragraph in a reading, ask students to write a sentence summarizing what is said and a sentence explaining what the purpose the paragraph serves in the context of the whole reading (Bean 2011: 170). This type of assignment encourages students to do the metacognitive work not only of understanding the text, but of understanding how analysis is structured.
    • Outlines: By reconstructing the structure of the reading in the form of an outline, students learn to recognize the hierarchical nature of analytical writing. Asking students to identify the research question, the argument, the literature review, the evidence, and the findings can also familiarize students with practices for organizing their own writing.

Second, note taking can serve as the basis for more formal, written assignments. When students have engaged in note taking that promotes active thinking, they will already have done aspects of the analytical work required of the assignment. There are several ways to encourage students to take notes that prefigure the analytical work they will be expected to do in their formal writing assignments.

    • Thesis statements: Ask students to write, in their own words, the thesis for each of the readings you assign. Doing so encourages students to view readings as arguments in their own right rather than merely as sources of information.
    • Author’s Frame: Ask students to reflect on the author’s reasons for writing, and to consider how the author’s own positionality may be informing the analysis itself, making note of places in the text that provide support for the student’s claims. As with the thesis statement, this kind of note taking/mini-analysis fosters an awareness of the dialogic aspects of knowledge production by situating the reading within an intersubjective context.
    • Before/After: Help students understand that texts are attempting to persuade them of a particular view by asking them to respond to the following questions. “Before I read this text, the author assumed that I believed…; After I read this, the author wanted me to believe…; The author was (not) successful in changing my view because…” (Bean 2011:174).
    • Summaries: Asking students to write brief summaries of the readings, in which they simply restate the essential argument and ideas of a text without quotations, both helps students to internalize the information and can serve as the basis for future analysis.
    • Diagrams: Ask students to find ways of visually representing the arguments of different texts or illustrating how different texts can be situated relative to each other.

Third, many of these note taking strategies can be employed as tools for self-reflection during the process of revising one’s own work. Ask students to take notes on drafts of their own papers using some of the above assignments. Engaging with their own text as a reader can help them to identify areas in need of stronger analysis as well as strengthen the structure and organization of their writing. Similar note-taking tasks can be incorporated into peer-review, to guides students towards providing feedback on higher order issues of analysis, structure, and organization.

In short, treating note taking as a serious analytical task offers a window into some of the ways writing and learning are mutually entangled. Focusing on the activity of taking notes helps to illustrate the linkages between reading, drafting, and revising, and throws into relief the iterative nature of writing. In doing so, we undertake the difficult work of reorienting our expectations away from products and towards process. From a student perspective, note taking offers an opportunity to learn to treat texts as vibrant interlocutors rather than dead documents to be harvested for facts. In this sense, spending time teaching note taking not only helps students develop their reading, writing capacities; it helps empower them as producers of knowledge in their own right.



Bean, John C. 2011. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons Inc.

Cary, Melanie, and Richard A. Carlson. 1999. “External support and the development of problem-solving routines.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 25(4): 1053-1070.

Foos, Paul W., Joseph J. Mora, and Sharon Tkacz. 1994. “Student Study Techniques and the Generation Effect.” Journal of Educational Psychology 86(4): 567-576.

Piolat, Annie, Thierry Olive, and Ronald T. Kellogg. 2005. “Cognitive Effort During Note Taking.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 19(3): 291-312.

There Is a Big Misconception About Writing, Across Disciplines. We Can Fix It.

Perhaps one of the greatest misconceptions across disciplines is that good writing is equivalent to good grammar and mechanics, and a polished final product.

This harmful misconception turns writing into drudgery, as it rests on the assumption that to write well, one must master drab rules about punctuation and sentence structure and have clearly formulated arguments in mind. This type of thinking also limits opportunities for most disciplines to take advantage of writing as a tool for learning, as writing just seems to be most relevant to the English department, where grammarians thrive.

In reality, good grammar is just one very, very small aspect of writing – an aspect that mostly becomes relevant in the final stage of writing, as it helps lessen confusion for the reader when trying to convey ideas. More importantly, in order to convey ideas, one must first have ideas to convey, and writing is actually a tool with which to do that. Writing allows you to grapple with concepts and think through arguments presented by others so that you can arrive at your own. This is the crux of the writing across the curriculum (WAC) perspective: that writing is actually a process of critical thinking.

The Real Purpose of Writing

Somewhere along the way in their educational journey, most students miss the message that writing is a process of critical thinking. If we are to help them understand that writing is a process by which we learn critical thinking skills, we first need to help them understand why critical thinking is so important.

Why is it important anyway?

Because it is the way by which we arrive at knowledge.

John Bean, a professor at Seattle University and the author of Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, suggests that most students arrive at college with a dualistic view of knowledge. They believe that the correct answers are somewhere out there, and they need to find them, then use writing to demonstrate that they have acquired them. In reality, Bean suggests, knowledge is dialogic: It grows out of a dialogue that involves engaging with opposing ideas and alternative perspectives that students can actively participate in and contribute to – through writing.

As defined by Bean, academic writing is writing that begins with a problem or question, is characterized by a problem-focused thesis statement, which is then supported by a hierarchical structure of supporting evidence. The thesis statement can be thought of as a writer’s proposed one-sentence solution to the problem or question that is driving the essay. In this way, writing is equivalent to joining a conversation of people who are “jointly seeking answers to shared questions that puzzle them” (Bean 22). This is how knowledge is dialogic: A thesis leads to a counter-thesis and the evolution of ideas through this presence of opposing or alternative voices is what generates knowledge (Bean 22).

Critical thinking is thus the backbone of knowledge. It is also the backbone of academic writing, as for the most part, this kind of writing requires analytical or argumentative thinking skills. We develop critical thinking by practicing it through writing.

Critical thinking has been defined as “an investigation whose purpose is to explore a situation, phenomenon, question, or problem to arrive at a hypothesis or conclusion about it that integrates all available information and can therefore be convincingly justified” (Kurfiss 2). When writing is perceived as a way to conduct a messy investigation of ideas rather than as a polished report of correct information, it frees students to write messy drafts with an exploratory purpose meant to clarify their own thinking. In essence, students can begin to use writing as a tool for honing critical thinking. Grammar in these early investigations of ideas is just not of primary concern.

How to Dispell the Biggest Writing Misconception

To undo these harmful misconceptions about writing, we need to first explain how knowledge is acquired – that knowledge grows out of an active, dialogic thinking process. We then need to invite students to join in this dialogue, to use multiple, early drafts of writing as a way to attempt to make a tentative argument that presents one of many possible perspectives. We need to explain that writing is not primarily a method by which to transmit a message, but first and foremost, it is a way “to grow and cook” the message (Bean 24). We need to explain that a very normal part of writing is the process of crafting multiple messy drafts with scrambled ideas. In doing this, students will be successfully engaging with a problem their writing focuses on, entering the intellectual struggle of developing and clarifying their own ideas. We need to explain that writing at once challenges one as a thinker and clarifies their thinking, and this is how it really becomes a learning tool for critical thinking.

Seeing writing in this sense turns the concept of writer’s block on its head. Because, really, there is no writer’s block. There is only a hesitation to engage with ideas through writing — a hesitation that arises from harmful misconceptions, including the one about grammar and also the one about writing needing to be polished at every stage.

The mere existence of the concept of writer’s block when it come to classroom assignments, to me, simply suggests that in order to help students become more effective writers, learners, and critical thinkers, we need to examine our own assumptions about writing. Then, we need to change the way we think about, talk about, and teach writing.

Want to discover ways to incorporate meaningful writing in your classroom? Learn more about WAC here.

Works Cited

Bean, John C. Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.

Kurfiss, Joanne Gainen. Critical Thinking: Theory, Research, Practice, and Possibilities. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 2, 1988. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Reports, The George Washington University, One Dupont Circle, Suite 630, Dept. RC, Washington, DC 20036-1183, 1988.

New Fall 2020! WAC Office Hours for Writing Support

Starting Fall 2020, Writing Across the Curriculum has a new offering for Writing Intensive certified instructors and their students. WI certified faculty can direct students enrolled in their classes this semester to WAC Office Hours. These office hours are one on one sessions in which a City Tech WAC Fellow provides a student with guidance and feedback on written work for a class assignment. This is an ideal way for City Tech students to refine their writing through research-backed WAC pedagogical principles. Now that all of CUNY is getting accustomed to 100% remote instruction, many of us are finding ourselves and our students facing isolation along with a heightened struggle to get a feel for progress in classes. One solution to this is to build connection around coursework into our syllabi. Some instructors are incorporating peer review, mandatory meetings with the professor, and even attendance at tutoring sessions.

For many students, getting feedback on their writing during the revision process, as opposed to after submission, is a new experience. This post addresses four best practices for developing a community of practice around writing. The ideas offered below can be used as a way to guide students in their use of support from WAC Fellows and other methods of engaging with others around their writing process.  

Use the limited time with others to focus on higher order writing concerns. Higher order concerns (HOCs) are where the rubber meets the road when it comes to the connection between writing and critical thinking. While lower order concerns (LOCs) deal with the mechanics of writing such as grammar, spelling, and punctuation, HOCs are crucial to crafting written work that successfully articulates ideas and defends theses (Weber 2017). HOCs are elements like the hypothesis or proposal, overarching structure, and methods used to support a conclusion. We can all remember the experience of grading a paper in which HOCs are not well developed. These are the papers that we pick up and reshuffle to the bottom of the pile of grading because they can be very challenging to decipher, much less provide feedback for. A clearly defined and well-supported thesis will shine through a paper in which the mechanics need improvement. The opposite is rarely true. A paper that needs HOC work might confuse a reader by not delivering a clear thesis, building to a point that seems different than the original thesis, or neglecting to actually support the important points. The challenge is that students and graders often focus first on LOCs because they immediately stand out and offer up their own feedback. Addressing HOCs requires more time and strategic thinking. This makes these areas ideal for tutoring and peer review contexts. The conversation between participants can be used to help develop ideas, test out essay design, and redirect faulty logic. 

Implement rhetorical stances into the writing process. Elements like audience and genre are HOCs that Bean (2011) brings together in the mnemonic RAFT. Bean distinguishes between the problem posed by a well-constructed assignment and the “RAFT”, or the  role (purpose), audience, format (genre), and task (98). Many students write papers in a generic “this is a college paper” format. It’s not their fault. They have likely encountered multiple assignments that do not specify elements like audience and genre, and to boot, many students have been taught through years of schooling to write this way. If we ask students to think about the difference between explaining a concept to a friend or a family member versus a group of academics, we can see how rhetorical aspects refine and supplement a topical problem to solve in an assignment. Students and tutors or peers can use the RAFT to think through the necessary elements to answer a question. Some possible questions to address: What will your audience need to access and understand your ideas? What sorts of information will build on the audience’s knowledge and scaffold them to an understanding of the author’s point? What are the writing conventions of the genre, and how closely should the author stick to these or can playing with them do some beneficial work? What sorts of examples and proof move your readers to your point? Addressing these questions also allows the author to decide if they have the required understanding of the topic or problem to speak to their audience. 

Decide how to use feedback. As challenging as it can be to provide valuable feedback, it can be equally challenging for students to implement. (See here for a WAC workshop on Effective Grading and here for a blog from a WAC Fellow for more ideas.)  Does the student have a specific set of issues they want to address in the session, or are they at the stage of writing where they need more general guidance? A tutoring and feedback session can set goals and realistic methods for implementing feedback. It can also model for students ways to look at writing with a critical eye.

Embrace brainstorming! In my experience, students often discount the importance of this stage of the writing process. It can feel like an extra step with no resulting deliverable. On the contrary, my writing process transformed when I took the beginning step of idea generation seriously. Brainstorming through writing can provide a wealth of ideas that never occur to us if we try to come up with a complete thesis and essay structure too early in the process. Even devoting an hour to letting the mind wander around a topic and putting these ideas on the paper or in a doc will point writers in directions towards an eventual finished piece. Students can work with peer reviewers and tutors to talk through possible ideas for an assignment. Taking advantage of the social nature of thinking and learning will have real benefits for the final written product.

Indeed, the writing process is deeply tied to the thinking process, and both of these are thoroughly social processes. Writing is always to another, even if that other is the writer themselves. Thinking is a way of grappling with the world around us and taking eventual action. Using these ideas can help students make the best use of WAC Office Hours, peer reviews, and one on one meetings with professors. 


Bean, John C. 2011. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Weber, Breanne. 2017. “Higher Order vs. Lower Order Concerns.” Last modified June 16, 2017. https://pages.uncc.edu/unccwrc/blog/2017/06/16/higher-order-vs-lower-order-concerns/.

Thoughts on Teaching English as a Second Language

By Labanya Unni

In more than half a decade of my teaching English, one of the most profound challenges I have faced is the question of English as a second language. I encountered this problem in a more limited sense in India, when I first began teaching, where degrees of fluency varied on the basis of class-position and cultural capital. While this issue was definitely something that I navigated, the student body had enough cultural and contextual homogeneity to convey modes of critical thinking in the minds of students. In the US, this problem takes on more complex proportions, since much of the student body is composed of international exchange students, migrants, first- or second-generation English speakers, and even students whose English are infused with specific dialects.

As a teacher, I find it difficult to see students struggling not just with ideas but also with the medium in which these ideas are expressed. From classroom interactions, it is clear that non-native English students sometimes feel inhibited and isolated, often without the space to express unique cultural and linguistic perspectives that they could bring to the table. It is difficult not to dwell on the profoundly hegemonic structure of English as a global language and the onerousness of teaching it to a non-native speaker, this thought process could potentially lead to defeatist modes of thinking or a tendency to shift or deny responsibility (the “abolitionist move” as David R. Russell puts it in his essay “Writing Across the Curriculum”).

These are strategies I have learned in my last few years as a teacher:

Modifying the rubric: The single-point rubric is not just a grading tool, but also a useful checklist for students to have while writing their essays. With English as second language students, teachers need to have awareness of the lexical and grammatical specifics that they bring to the table. This requires a careful perusal of student essays, as their textual analyses, evidence and thesis presentation might not be in a customary academic style. It might also be helpful to go over the rubric in class and carefully break down its contents, with detailed examples and illustrations.

Mindset: As someone teaching in the medium of the English language, it is perhaps useful to understand how English came to be historically constituted as a global language (David Crystal’s English as a Global Language is a good resource for that). A lot of what we understand as critical discourse/thinking reflects a majoritarian Western conception of knowledge, and it might be pertinent to communicate some of these ideas in class. Understanding some of this might help lessen the anxiety of a second language speaker who comes to class with the notion that English fluency represents the height of cultural and linguistic achievement.

WAC principles: The great thing about WAC is that it emphasizes thinking as well as writing. Ideas such as minimal marking, multiple drafting, scaffolding, low stakes writing, editing oriented towards revision rather than grammar correction, are very useful to keep in mind while dealing with second language speakers. John Bean in Engaging Ideas thoughtfully advises teachers to be forgiving of ‘accent errors’ – errors that come from not having naturally inhabited English speaking milieus.

Affective measures: It is clear that the question of English as a second language cannot just be tackled with a handful of linguistic and academic guidelines. There is, without a doubt, an affective component to this process, in which it is important for the teacher to make the student feel comfortable. This can be done by pairing them with peer study-partners (ideally with kind and thoughtful native speakers); encouraging creative and inclusive learning activities that are idea-based; taking the time to interact with them during office hours to try and gauge their cultural and rhetorical contexts and encouraging personal writing that lead up to academic writing/thinking

Utilizing writing centers: Writing centers have activities that professors might not be able to conduct in class due to limited time. Exercises likes conversation classes, dictionary-use, listening or audio-based learning can be useful supplements to WAC. According to Stephen Krashen in his Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning, the most effective way to teach a language is to mimic as much as possible the natural methods of acquiring said language, which is through conversation, low-anxiety settings, and “comprehensible inputs” – the writing center, which is just an aid without the worry of grades might be a good place to implement these principles. Teachers across disciplines would do well to work closely with writing centers to provide extra support to second language speakers.

Works cited

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

Krashen, Stephen D. Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Prentice-Hall International, 1988.

Russel, David R. “Writing Across the Curriculum in Historical Perspective: Toward a Social Interpretation”, College English, vol. 52. 1990, pp. 52-73, JSTOR

Could we flip the fellowship, or Why are we doing this in year 5?

I just started my Writing Across the Curriculum year at City Tech and I love it. I’m getting taught how to teach. Specifically, how I can use writing to promote critical thinking, without the extra grading load. How I can move from a lecture-centered course to an assignment-centered course (Bean, 2011). Thanks to WAC, I’m working towards becoming a “guide on the side” instead of the “sage on the stage” I’ve apparently been (Johnson, Johnson, and Smith, 1991).

Although I’m grateful (very grateful), I wonder, why now? I’ve been teaching at CUNY for four years. Until now, I received zero formal pedagogical training. Instead, I was sent two example syllabi and that was it. To infinity and the wolves. No one wants to disappoint, so four years later my “pedagogy” consists of a grassroots hodgepodge involving many conversations with colleagues, self-organized workshops, Teaching and Learning Center support etc. My inner socialist points out now that much of this training went unpaid because it came out of my own initiative and, therefore, my own time but in any case: Can’t we do it differently?

Of course, we can. No one thinks that training teachers how to teach is a bad idea. But, the struggle is in the implementation. Initially, I thought that WAC was a great contender to provide this much needed pedagogical background. All we have to do is move WAC from year 5 to year 1 and – poof – future teachers don’t have to self-scramble pedagogical skills. A central issue with this idea is the variation within WAC program execution. Each campus has defined their own set of goals when filling out the WAC Fellowship. Therefore, although my fellowship has a pedagogical focus, this may not be the case for other positions. This variation is detrimental to the goal: Training teachers to teach and the solution being moving WAC.

So if not WAC what then? There is the Teaching and Learning Center. Apart from individual consultations they offer all kinds of workshops. Although I have personally benefited from the support the TLC offers, relying on them to provide the necessary teaching background is naive. Graduate students would have to add this search for pedagogical self-improvement on top of their other responsibilities. Plus, I expect the occasional workshop won’t do the trick. But, the TLC also offers an entire course on pedagogy to graduate students. This course is also worth zero credits. Nonetheless, had I known about this I might’ve actually considered taking it – thinking back about all the hours I spent just figuring it out – and that’s how this problem persists.

The problem being: Although everyone agrees that providing pedagogy 101 to future teachers is a good idea, it’s not a priority such that implementation of this idea has been successful. The thought of shifting WAC has been expressed before. Most recently, one of my fellow CityTech Fellows mentioned it in our WAC WhatsApp group (specifically: “also, this bean book is great! i wish i had it when i was actually teaching”). More formally, this thought is expressed in a ten-year review of the WAC program at CUNY: “… there is a greater need for professional development of Enhanced CUNY Fellows prior to their fifth year of the fellowship” (Aries, 2010:26). The review was published ten years ago, yet here I am, doing WAC in my fifth year.

Similarly, although the Teaching and Learning Center has been lobbying for a required, credited course on pedagogy (keywords underlined), they didn’t get that far. Some of the push-back is coming from PhD programs themselves, not wanting to give up a program course in exchange for the one on pedagogy. So, although I don’t criticize or invalidate the TLC’s work, they are currently yet another helpful resource graduate students have to go out and locate.

There’s a compelling tragedy in a problem that everyone agrees is important, but nevertheless persists. I don’t have a solution either other than raising it every so often, like in this blog-post. Hopefully, we make some moves by continuing the discussion. I know that there were plans to reevaluate WAC again before COVID hit. Also, the TLC itself is a relative new resource and their Summer Institute and the zero-credit course are all steps in the right direction. No one thinks training teachers is a bad idea, but until we hash this out, we clearly think it’s an acceptable idea to send unprepared teachers into the classroom.

Aries, N. (2010). Writing Across the Curriculum at CUNY: A Ten-Year Review. City University of New York. https://www.cuny.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/page-assets/about/administration/offices/undergraduate-studies/wac/WAC10YearReportJune2010.pdf

Bean, J. C. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. John Wiley & Sons.

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T., and Smith, K.A. (1991). Cooperative Learning: Increasing College Faculty Instructional Productivity. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 4. Washington, D.C.: George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.


Writing and Distance Learning for Large Classes

This semester I’m not teaching. One thing that has come up among my friends who are teaching is how discussion-based seminars that used to be capped at thirty-two or so are slowly creeping into the seventies. Assigning, reading, and evaluating student papers is, in my view, the hardest part of teaching undergraduates (and where I found myself procrastinating most often). It doesn’t take too long to learn that there is a pervasive reticence to assign much writing because it translates into more reading of student work. As I taught, I found myself assigning less and less writing because I felt I wasn’t able to give the feedback students needed within the time constraints of a busy semester. As class sizes increase in the “new normal”, I imagine the tendency is for many instructors to assign less writing. I do believe that writing is the best way to learn, so I want to make sure that when I do go back the classroom, assigning and evaluating student writing is less daunting.

Assuming that some form of remote learning is here to stay (inflated class sizes included), I wanted to use this space to research, think through, and suggest ways of making a remote, writing-intensive seminar for large classes meaningful for students and manageable for instructors. The following is geared to humanities and social science courses that meet twice a week, although it can easily be adapted for other disciplines and schedules.


One change I’d immediately make from the way I taught in-person classes is to significantly cut down on readings and lectures. I will assign one set of reading per week that will be the focus on the first meeting of the week. The second meeting will serve as a space for writing and small group discussions (using break-out rooms or discussion boards), so that students can spend more class time producing their own content.

I.) Reading Response. Divide the class into three groups and have tasks rotate each week. Using the Blackboard (or similar online software), have students post one of the following before the first meeting of the week:

i.) Micro-summary– a short summary of the text/s (no more than 25 words).

ii.) Quote and Question– a question related to the readings as well as a short quotation from one text that conveys what they think is the general thrust of the reading.

iii.) Expanded Summary– a one paragraph summary (no more than 150 words) of the week’s reading. For weeks with more than one reading, students should identify shared themes.

II.) In-class Writing and Discussion Reports. The second meeting of the week will, following Bloom’s taxonomy, focus on using getting students beyond understanding and work towards analysis and evaluation.

i.) Semi-structured, Free Writing. For the first thirty minutes of class, the instructor will provide a prompt based on the issues raised in the previous class. The semester will begin with open-ended prompts that will become progressively more argument driven (e.g. providing students with a thesis statement to defend or refute, having students develop a thesis and outline potential body paragraphs, etc.).

ii.) Discussion Reports. For the reminder of class, using break-out rooms (in the case of synchronous online instruction) have students discuss their free-writes and/or an additional discussion question in groups of no more than four. One student in the group will write a short summary of the discussion (no more than 150 words). For asynchronous instruction, this assignment would need to be modified for discussion boards.

iii.) Sequencing Longer Essays. For the second half the semester, free-writes or discussion reports (alternating weeks) will be replaced by break-out room discussions (again in groups of no more than four) of small writing assignments and revision sessions that are designed to assist students in completing a final essay based on course readings. These smaller assignments need to be completed and submitted before class. Again, for asynchronous instruction, this assignment would need to be modified for discussion boards.


Reading over the above, I’m aware that it may be overly ambitious. For one, it depends on a quick and free (or at least affordable) way to easily divide students into groups. I have yet to find a software that allows me to quickly modify parameters when making groups (for example, mostly I want groups to be random, but occasionally, for example sequencing the longer essay, group continuity might be better). In the above, however, the instructor is able to spend at least one hour of “class time” a week reading and evaluating student writing.

For most assignments, a check/plus/minus system would be the most manageable. Giving discussion reports a letter grade would incentivize students to take this activity seriously. It is important that students get written (short) feedback at least twice for each kind of assignment so that they do not feel like short writing assignments are busywork and they can track their improvement. And while grading and providing feedback for all parts of the sequenced assignments would be difficult, giving substantial comments (one short paragraph) for each student at some point in the drafting process would stagger the time spent on evaluating final essays.

Weighing short writing assignments into the final grade is always difficult. Bean, citing the potential for grade inflation, discourages giving too much weight to these more exploratory forms of writing (143). But I think distance learning shifts our evaluative concerns. If the idea of “taking a course” is to retain any integrity, it is important that remote instruction promote active, processual learning, so I’m inclined to make these kinds of assignments count for a significant portion of the course grade. Balancing student participation, grading load, and grade inflation while teaching large classes remotely is always going to be difficult. We should use this “problem” as an opportunity to push ourselves, our students, and our institutions to rethink what grades are for and what student performance means in the virtual classroom.



Bean, John. 2011. Engaging Ideas. Jossey-Bass.

“Integrating Low-Stakes Writing into Large Classes.” Gayle Morris Sweetland Center for Writing, University of Michigan. https://lsa.umich.edu/sweetland/instructors/teaching-resources/integrating-low-stakes-writing-into-large-classes.html. Accessed: September 9, 2020.

“Sequencing and Scaffolding Assignments.” Gayle Morris Sweetland Center for Writing, University of Michigan. https://lsa.umich.edu/sweetland/instructors/teaching-resources/sequencing-and-scaffolding-assignments.html. Accessed: September 9, 2020.

“Using Writing in Large Classes”. WAC Clearinghouse, Colorado State University. https://wac.colostate.edu/docs/tipsheets/largeclassesSB.pdf. Accessed: September 9, 2020.