What We Talk About When We Talk About Revision

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

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

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

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

Revision: A User’s Guide

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

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.