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).

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.

 

DigitalWAC and Asynchronic Learning

It seems that a prominent feature on every syllabus I write is a stringent, punitive attendance policy that grants students a limited number of “free” absences, after which they lose points on their final course grade. This strict attendance policy is partly dictated by the school and department; and I have justified the policy to myself because I teach theatre—a collaborative art form that requires everyone to be present and participating. However, the longer that I teach, the more I have come to believe that such an attendance policy is problematic. Especially at an intuition like CUNY, where many students have outside obligations to support their families and/or long commutes complicated by inclement weather and the unpredictable service of the MTA, I believe we need to rethink our classroom practices to accommodate the everyday lives of our students.

The strict attendance policy is based on an antiquated system of education in which students had to be present in the same room with the professor at the same time in order to receive the knowledge that the professor had to impart. This notion is problematic in two senses:

  1. It encourages what Paulo Freire has termed the “Banking Model” of education. This model sees the student as an empty vessel waiting to be filled with knowledge by the “expert” professor. While the “Banking Model” is successful in some instances, it limits the student’s educational horizon to what the professor knows, which is necessarily limited. The student becomes dependent on the professor for the expansion of knowledge. Our mission as professors should be to provide our students with the skills to become their own professor—to ask questions and find solutions on their own.
  1. A strict attendance policy that requires students to gather within the same four walls during a given period of time ignores advances in digital technologies that allow students to participate in class discussion and projects from remote locations and on their own time.

Blended classroom environments that combine face-to-face class meetings with online components help provide a solution to these problems. They allow students to pose their own questions and work together using internet resources to find solutions—under the supervision of the professor who acts as a guide rather than ultimate authority. Blended classrooms also allow students to work in an asynchronic atmosphere—each working within their own time schedules—to complete tasks and work collaboratively.

At the same time, blended classrooms present their own challenges and may not be right for every classroom. They require that students have a certain level of maturity and willingness to complete the tasks on their own time. They also require that all students have equal access to the digital tools necessary for the course. Additionally, Professors must rethink how they deliver content and develop effective digital assignments that engage students in their own explorations of the course content.

Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) is uniquely situated to help our City Tech classrooms explore Blended Classroom options. Asynchonic digital learning will, by its very nature, require students to complete a variety of low-stakes and formal writing assignments from blogs to collaboratively written Wikis. Therefore, I am excited to announce that over the course of the next couple months I will be developing a new section of our WAC website devoted to applying digital tools for writing in City Tech courses.

I would love to hear from our City Tech community regarding the use of digital tools as I develop this resource. Do you have questions or concerns about the use of digital tools in your course? Have you used digital tools and assignments that you have found effective? Please feel free to contact me (jpike@gradcenter.cuny.edu) with any thoughts you have that will improve this new resource.

Student Stress & Learning: How ‘Writing Across the Curriculum’ Can Help

Our student’s lives are filled with stressors. Students have the pressures of part- or full-time jobs, child and family care-taking responsibilities, financial difficulties, interpersonal relationship problems, and also mental and physical health issues. In fact, the prevalence of anxiety and mood disorders is quite high, with 32% of adolescents meeting criteria for an anxiety disorder, and 14% meeting criteria for a mood disorder like depression (Merikangas et al., 2010; Watkins, Hunt, & Eisenberg, 2012).

Unfortunately, chronic anxiety and depression can reduce our ability to focus and learn new information. For professors, this should be of significant concern. Luckily, we are in a position to help our stressed students improve their learning while reducing the negative effects of stress on their lives. And by helping our students, we too can learn to better manage the effects of stress in our own lives.

Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) pedagogy offers several strategies that can help students better manage stress and reduce the negative physiological effects of stress on our brains and bodies.

Psychological distress & Learning

When a person is chronically stressed or depressed, their physiological stress systems that regulate physical well-being become altered (Grenham, Clarke, Cryan, & Dinan, 2011; Eskandari & Sternberg, 2002). In the brain, these changes are associated with damage to the hippocampus, a brain area that is very important for learning. We reviewed the importance of the hippocampus in learning in an earlier blog post, but in short, the presence of anxiety and depression can impact the size of our hippocampi (Bremner et al., 2000; Campbell, Marriott, Nahmias, & MacQueen, 2004) and thus reduces our ability to form new memories. Additionally, chronic psychological distress is also associated with altered attention and reduced cognitive performance (Eysenck, Derakshan, Santos, & Calvo, 2007).

What can professors do?

  1. We can teach our students profession-specific ways of dealing with psychological distress

We teach our students how to utilize information specific to their field, but isn’t it equally important that we help students manage the stress of these professions? There are a variety of ways that professionals practice self-care to remain effective, and we should be helping students develop these skills. You could even model this, by describing what self-care routines you follow yourself. Reviewing this can benefit the student as well as the teacher, as it may also make the professor more aware of the importance of self-care. Some ways that professionals manage stress include:

  • Physical exercise. Physical movement is one of the most effective ways to reduce psychological distress. Research has even shown that regular exercise can be as effective as antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication. With many Americans and students sitting for much of the day, it is important to review how physical movement can be incorporated into one’s professional life. One effective way to encourage physical activity is to incorporate physical activities into the classroom.
  • Meditation and/or mindfulness. This is an effective method to relax and focus, and is popular among psychologists, medical professionals, business people and athletes. Such techniques can be incorporated into classroom learning, even just by asking students to self-reflect and be aware of their current state. Low-stakes writing assignments may be especially helpful here.
  • Gratitude. Practicing daily acts of gratitude can reduce stress and elevate mood. This could be tied to any field, but may be particularly useful to those in professions where they may encounter a significant amount of stress and sadness as part of their jobs.
  1. We Can Incorporate WAC Classroom Activities That Promote Stress Reduction

While reducing psychological distress is not necessarily an explicit goal of WAC pedagogy, many WAC strategies do fulfill this function. Below we discuss specific WAC strategies that may be particularly beneficial for anxious and depressed students:

  • In-class writing exercises. Expressive writing is a powerful tool for reducing stress and depressive symptoms (Baikie & Wilhelm, 2005; Gortner, Rude, & Pennebaker, 2006). By making these low-stakes writing exercises specific to self-care topics, it could benefit the students further. Here are some examples:
    • When introducing a large, scaffolded project to students, a professor could begin by having students’ free-write and reflect on their procrastination habits, what thoughts and feelings come up? How may they be able to manage these habits better for the upcoming project.
    • When reviewing a midterm exam, you could ask students to free-write about their awareness of their stress. Ask them to reflect on the thoughts and feelings that come up as they review the exam material. Do they notice any physical reactions to stress? By having students identify their emotions, and bringing awareness to the impact of these emotions on their physical bodies, students can become more mindful of their emotional responses and be in the present moment.
    • Self-criticism is highly prevalent amongst anxious and depressed students, and is often associated with perfectionism and procrastination. A free-write assignment could be included asking students to reflect on how they feel about themselves as students (do they feel like they’re good enough?), and asking them to imagine how their most compassionate selves would respond to their initial self-view. Such an exercise may be particularly helpful before exam grades are handed back.
  • Scaffolded class assignments. One WAC strategy that helps fight procrastination is a scaffolded assignment design, a central practice of WAC pedagogy. Scaffolding means breaking down larger assignments into smaller tasks with due dates throughout the semester. Not only will you receive better developed class papers and projects, you will also assist your students in experiencing less anxiety and depression by reducing procrastination.
  • Incorporating physical movement into class activities. Create activities that involve some level of movement. A great way to reduce the physiological effects of stress is through moving the body. A few activities could include:
    • The Snowball activity: As a brainstorming session, have students answer a question on a piece of paper that they then crumple up and throw toward the front of the classroom. Students then have to get up and pick up a “snowball” in order to respond to the first students’ response.
    • Creative Assignments: Send students to do assignments on campus or in the city that involve exploration. For example, for a history class, you could ask students to visit historical locations throughout the city. Students could be asked to film themselves at the site, explaining the location’s importance and relevance to other historical topics.
  • Creating fun social in-class activities. One of the biggest antidotes against stress, anxiety and depression is social involvement. Laughter, feelings of happiness, and social connectedness reduce stress and cortisol levels. WAC pedagogy promotes group and peer activities, as this increases active learning. These social activities also have the added benefit of reducing stress and depression.

 

References

Anderson, G., & Horvath, J. (2004). The growing burden of chronic disease in America. Public health reports119(3), 263.

Baikie, K. A., & Wilhelm, K. (2005). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in psychiatric treatment11(5), 338-346.

Bremner, J. D., Narayan, M., Anderson, E. R., Staib, L. H., Miller, H. L., & Charney, D. S. (2000). Hippocampal volume reduction in major depression.American Journal of Psychiatry.

Campbell, S., Marriott, M., Nahmias, C., & MacQueen, G. M. (2004). Lower hippocampal volume in patients suffering from depression: a meta-analysis.American Journal of Psychiatry.

Eskandari, F., & Sternberg, E. M. (2002). Neural‐immune interactions in health and disease. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences966(1), 20-27.

Eysenck, M. W., Derakshan, N., Santos, R., & Calvo, M. G. (2007). Anxiety and cognitive performance: attentional control theory. Emotion7(2), 336

Gortner, E. M., Rude, S. S., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2006). Benefits of expressive writing in lowering rumination and depressive symptoms. Behavior therapy37(3), 292-303.

Grenham, S., Clarke, G., Cryan, J. F., & Dinan, T. G. (2011). Brain-gut-microbe communication in health and disease. Front Physiol2(94.10), 3389.

Merikangas, K. R., He, J. P., Burstein, M., Swanson, S. A., Avenevoli, S., Cui, L., … & Swendsen, J. (2010). Lifetime prevalence of mental disorders in US adolescents: results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication–Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A). Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry49(10), 980-989.

Perrin, J. M., Bloom, S. R., & Gortmaker, S. L. (2007). The increase of childhood chronic conditions in the United States. Jama297(24), 2755-2759.

Watkins, D. C., Hunt, J. B., & Eisenberg, D. (2012). Increased demand for mental health services on college campuses: Perspectives from administrators. Qualitative Social Work11(3), 319-337

The Benefits of Peer Review

As I finalize and submit my class grades, I tend to reflect on class components that worked well and didn’t work so well. As I reflect, I often create a list of strengths and weaknesses for the course and note the chapters and concepts that students had the most difficulty with.

When reading student exam responses, I often find myself frustrated with the fact that a large number of students still had difficulties grasping certain core concepts, even though I felt that I had covered the topic adequately in my lectures and assignments. Over the years I realized that in order to understand certain complex concepts students need something that I can’t provide myself: their critical engagement. I have previously discussed the benefits of in-class exercises to promote critical thinking, and these types of exercises (as well as writing assignments) can be further expanded to include a helpful peer-review component.

As professors and academics scholars we learn so much from our peers. Peer reviews can provide us with some of the most insightful feedback, and help us develop stronger work. The American Psychological Association (APA), for example, reports that a majority of peer-reviewed articles are accepted with contingencies. This means that papers are accepted with the agreement that the authors improve or clarify several aspects of their work based on feedback from peers. So why is it that we, who benefit so greatly from the peer-review process ourselves, don’t utilize this resource more when helping our students grow as professionals?

There are several benefits that students may gain. It can be helpful to communicate these to students as well, so that they know why they are being asked to review their peer’s work.

  1. Students often learn more from people at their level of learning.

Professors feel responsible for their students’ learning, which is great! However, it is okay to step back and have students learn more independently; allowing the student to discover knowledge for him or herself can be very powerful. And one way that many students learn well, is from one another (Boud, Cohen, & Sampson, 2014).

  1. Peer-review can build comfort and normalcy around receiving constructive feedback.

Being able to listen to others and utilize feedback effectively is important to future career success. When writing recommendation letters for students, I’ve noticed that many graduate programs ask that we discuss the student’s openness to feedback, as this is central to student success. To better serve our students, it is thus important that we help them develop their ability to effectively work with constructive criticism early on. With this, it is also important to monitor that feedback remains constructive. The teacher can assist in this by developing a guided peer-review worksheet and by discussing acceptable feedback in class.

  1. Providing peer feedback can strengthen students’ own work.

By providing feedback to peers, students often begin to think more flexibly about their own writing. For example, by taking the grader’s perspective, a student might start to better understand that the writer isn’t always successful in communicating something clearly. This experience may then promote the student’s ability to take the grader’s perspective when they review their own work before submitting it for a grade.

Additionally, by having students review each other’s writing assignments, they have to divide the paper writing process up into at least two stages: the draft and final paper. Scaffolding assignments in this way is known to lead to more critical engagement and learning (Bean, 2011).

  1. Peer review can save grading time.

This can be a nice added benefit! However, implementing a peer-review component may not immediately save you time. It is important to think about the design of the peer-review activity, so that it is designed to integrate well with your current grading system. If you feel that you need assistance with this, don’t hesitate to contact one of our writing fellows for guidance.

How do you develop a strong peer-review exercise?

It is important to lead the students through their own discoveries. This means that you as the teacher want to think about the cognitive steps students need to take in order to come to the appropriate conclusions about the assignment they are responding to. This will facilitate their ability to provide constructive feedback and accurate peer grades.

Here is an example of a peer-review exercise for an annotated bibliography assignment. In this exercise, the teacher uses specific questions to help the student focus on the most important aspects of the assignment: the peer’s clarity in communicating ideas and the quality of the research methods they used.

As you update your class syllabi this summer and think about improving coverage of certain topics, consider developing a peer-review component!

References

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

Boud, D., Cohen, R., & Sampson, J. (Eds.). (2014). Peer learning in higher education: Learning from and with each other. Routledge.