More Writing, Less Commenting

This train of thought started in several places, one of which was the recent visit to our campus of Barbara Walvoord, who is a long-time writing instructor, WAC leader, assessment consultant, and all-around smart person and excellent teacher. During her workshops, she proposed a fundamental paradigm shift in the way we teach. Briefly, it’s this.

The focus is how we teachers make use of our time and our students’ time, in three arenas: students and teacher together in class, student alone outside class, teacher alone outside class.

The standard paradigm (Walvoord was focusing on a typical content course at the college level):

In class: Student receives first exposure to the material. Typically, teacher lectures. Delivers content from the front of the room.

Student outside class: Studying = trying to process the material, understand what it really means. Produces some product intended to show how well the student understands (e.g., does problem sets, writes papers).

Teacher outside class: Writes responses to the products students produce, trying to improve their understanding.

In this paradigm, Walvoord would say, the teacher is running a cottage industry, cranking out those responses piece by piece, alone, and the amount of time it takes is, as we all know, a problem.

The key to the altered paradigm is to shift the student’s first exposure to the material to the time alone outside class. It goes like this:

Student outside class: First exposure. For example, the lectures could be made into videos and the student could watch them at home.

In class: Processing the material, responding to students’ efforts. Now wrestling with understanding it takes place in class, with the teacher present to structure the activity and troubleshoot it on the spot. The teacher’s goal becomes to get the students to give each other responses of the type she would have given them herself. In Walvoord’s words, the teacher gets the students to “mass-produce” the responses instead of doing them all herself in “cottage industry” style; but they are still individualized because students are responding to each other’s individual efforts.

Teacher outside class: Designing the in-class activity becomes the key piece of the work. It is also in part devoted to creating whatever the students use to get their first exposure. This time is NOT all about writing those responses.

To acknowledge what seems like the loudest potential objection: the students won’t be able to give those responses as well as the teacher would. This is true. Answering that objection requires a different theory of what you’re up to as a teacher. That is what I’m trying to articulate.

I don’t think it’s coincidental that Barbara Walvoord has a background as a writing teacher and now proposes this paradigm shift. In part it’s a wider application of what writing teachers have learned to do because they had to. The challenge now is to carry out this strategy all the way. Here’s how I apply this paradigm, not to a content course, but to the teaching of writing. And I mean all kinds of writing, whether “creative” or “not.”

Since writing is the material of a writing course, “first exposure” is the act of writing, and class is about processing and response to that writing. Thus, writing teachers who use the workshop model have already been carrying out Walvoord’s non-traditional paradigm. But crucially, the writing workshop model fails to solve the “cottage industry” problem of how long it takes to write all those comments, which is bedeviling all of us. Walvoord’s proposed solution is to create “mass production” by structuring class time so that your students give each other comments of the type you would be giving them on your own.

This is precisely what in-class peer review is all about, and writing teachers have been working on ways to structure that for decades. I am no exception.

But I haven’t taken the final, radical step: cutting down drastically on the comments I write myself.

Here is my basic procedure for designing what happens in class:

I look at my own comments on the kind of writing we’re working with and then reverse engineer them, by first looking for repeated kinds of comments (patterns) with this in mind: what questions was I asking myself, what was I noticing, that caused me to make these comments?

Then I create for students a list of those questions, and/or directions to notice those attributes, in their own work and others’ work, and have them give each other and themselves feedback based on that questioning and noticing.

The educational argument for this, which I believe is a powerful one, is that they will gradually internalize the way to meta-think about a piece of writing and be able to apply it in the future to their own.

This is where we get to fundamental questions of what a course is supposed to do. Let’s use my beginning fiction class as an example:

Is the point of the course for me to give brilliant comments that will result in a better story than the student could ever have produced on her own? [let’s call this the product goal]

Or is the point of the course for the student to go away with improved ability to generate her own comments on her own writing and act on them? [the meta-thinking goal]

I know I’m making too stark a dichotomy, but please bear with me because I think this clarifies some issues. The question is what the student carries away with her, after the course is over. It’s cool for the student to carry away a story that she’s proud of, but it seems to me it’s even cooler for her to carry away writing abilities she didn’t have before the course started. Plus, this internalization of meta-thinking should produce a better product by semester’s end than she could have written had she not taken the course. Yet the key outcome, in this way of thinking, is not the product, the story she wrote during the semester, but her ability to think story.

Or, if the product the course focused on were instead the idea-driven analytical essay, or the research paper, the outcome would be the student’s better ability to think her way through the writing of those things.

Cool as I hope the immediate product will be, the prize I’m thinking I should keep my eye on is the student’s future writing.

The underlying thinking, the “below the waterline” part of writing, is what I’ve been focusing on for a while now and it is coming to the fore as THE point of what a course does.

I think this addresses the objection that the student’s version of my comments will never be as good as mine. It won’t, but that’s not the point. If the student’s ability to meta-think (comment on) her own work is the goal, it’s important to remember that it does not necessarily follow that receiving my comments will lead to the student’s being able to generate ones like them. What the student makes of my elaborately crafted responses may be quite different from what I tried to convey. And what the student makes of the whole experience is all that matters. This does not mean I shouldn’t try to give the student my best work; it means I should ask, which best work? Best work of what kind?

I’ve operated for my entire teaching life on the assumption that the right, the admirable and obligatory thing to do was to give the student the best possible comments on her work that I can create. I’ve been refining this skill for over thirty years. I think I can write a pretty damn insightful, articulate comment, some of the time, and a solid one just about all of the time. But what if this work, while very good of its kind, is not exactly the best kind?

What if, to use a jazz analogy, my comments are playing bebop when a basic blues would do? In other words, what if I’m overshooting the mark, and thus making a ton of work for myself, more because I’ve learned how to get deep into this act of commenting on writing, and because I know how to get myself interested in it, than because everything I write is necessary to the student’s learning? What if, in fact, I don’t owe my students all this work, I just like to think I do because it justifies all the time I spend?

Human world-views tend to be self-confirming. Why should I be any different in that respect?

This can be seen as a question of how one understands cause and effect in a writing class. Suppose a class worked, in that students’ writing visibly improved, and suppose that in this class I wrote my usual long, elaborate comments on their work. (When I say long, I’m not kidding. As of April 24, 2011, I’ve written 163,000 words of comments this school year, and it isn’t over.) Does this mean that without such elaborate comments, the improvement would not have happened? Or is that the fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc? Are my comments mostly appeasing my desire to feel I did a good job? Or reflecting how interested I am in thinking about how writing works? Rather than being a necessary condition for the students’ improved writing?

One has to make a deliberate effort to see over the mental horizon.

What if the course really could work without so many thousands of words of written comments?

II.

Okay, now let’s collapse the dichotomy I created earlier. Let’s acknowledge that a writing course has both the goal of product and the goal of meta-thinking.

Here is another paradigm-breaker, on the product front: what if the class time in a writing class consisted of writing?

Almost sounds too simple, doesn’t it?

Try this on for size: a blog post by the creative writing teacher Cathy Day, on her blog The Big Thing: http://cathyday.com/2010/11/12/writing-together/ As you will see if you read down to the comments, it made a light go on for me. It might do the same for you.

Here’s another one from the same blog, quoting a different writer/teacher: http://cathyday.com/2011/01/26/this-is-how-you-do-it-1-writeshop/

And yet another: http://cathyday.com/2011/02/27/this-is-how-you-do-it-john-vanderslice-part-2/

Around March 20, the vernal equinox, this stuff converged with Barbara Walvoord’s shifting paradigm and a TED talk by Salman Khan (http://blog.ted.com/2011/03/09/lets-use-video-to-reinvent-education-salman-khan-on-ted-com/), and the light didn’t just go on, it started flashing.

Think about this: in a chemistry class you have lab. In Organic Chemistry as taught at Simmons College, the students aren’t doing cookbook labs, they’re doing research. The basic approach is “Here are the supplies, I’ve taught you some basic techniques, now go do it.” (“It” might be trying to answer some question like “Why doesn’t this compound behave the way it should?”) The same thing happens in Basic Photo in the darkroom: “Here are the supplies, I’ve taught you some basic techniques, now go do it.” The next step in both cases is “and then we’ll troubleshoot what you do as the need comes up.” This is what it looks like to teach somebody to do something. Why not in writing?

If they can have all that scheduled lab time, why can’t we?

Therefore I have a proposal of how to think about a writing class.

There are two fundamental kinds of goals for writing courses. One is to learn to produce a first draft piece of writing of a certain kind; the other is to learn to take what you’ve got (a draft) and make it better.

In a truly introductory course such as my intro fiction class, if you produce a draft of a piece of fiction at all, even if it isn’t very good, you’ve accomplished the basic goal. In the novel-writing courses described on Cathy Day’s Big Thing blog, if you produce a draft of a novel at all, you’ve succeeded. It’s like NaNoWriMo but with serious guidance from someone who knows how to teach writing.

At the college level, courses in academic writing are not truly introductory. Students have been working at the writing of idea-driven papers probably ever since middle school. The first-year college writing course is truly a case of “take what you’ve got and make it better,” both in the sense of moving the student along on a journey of learning that began long ago, and in the sense of learning to revise with certain things in mind. Here the product written during the course may end up being no more than a souvenir, and that’s fine because the ultimate take-away for the student is internalization of the ability to meta-think the kind of writing that helps you succeed in college.

So, a principle: when the job is product, spend class time writing. When the job is taking what you’ve got and making it better, spend class time giving response, so that you internalize the meta-level.

I propose that a writing course should meet for more hours per week than a content course, analogous to science labs and studio art.

I would suggest further that it makes sense to start any writing course (introductory or not) with some, shall we say, recap or reminder in the form of spending class time writing together. Basically a way to say to students, “This is what we’re about here, let’s warm up and work out the kinks.”

A writing class, like writing itself, is a social process. A crucial agenda early in any writing course, at least as taught by me, is for students to learn the social process of the writing classroom, the team sport of thinking together about their writing. This crucially supports everything else the course is trying to do. Going to class becomes an interpersonal experience that satisfies human needs, and this creates a synergy that makes learning far more probable. Intellectual development rides on the back of relationship.

So, roughly, I propose that it could work like this:

If the course is not introductory, but farther down the road:

In the earlier part of the course there should be a bunch of writing together during class, as well as sharing and talking about things students have written, because they’re learning the social process and they’re also producing something that they’re going to learn how to make better. Then as the course goes on, the students should be spending their class time practicing the skill of responding to writing (their own and their colleagues’) in the way the teacher would. But if there comes a time during the course where the real agenda is simply to produce more work, then revert to writing together in class.

If a course is truly introductory, such that producing writing that is recognizably of a certain kind constitutes success in itself, then a significant amount of class time, maybe even most of the class time, will be devoted to doing writing.

Once I had these thoughts, I tried to put them into practice in my fiction class. We’ve had three class meetings (80 minutes) devoted entirely to writing, and most of the students had a fourth. (I met with the rest separately because they wanted to discuss drafts as a group.) I was able to get a classroom we could use for extra writing time, before class meets, for one or two hours depending on the day. One to four students have showed up for extra writing sessions. Everyone seems to appreciate being able to write together in class, having a structured, quiet, undistracted time intentionally focused on this one act. I feel people receive a kind of support from the presence of others who are writing, even though each is writing on her own. And it’s helpful to me and to students that I can talk with them, one to one, about their work as it is developing. I would be spending that much time, and more, writing comments on their work. Talking face to face is more efficient than trading drafts and written comments, and it enables me to know that I’m addressing the writer’s real concerns.

In all of this, it seems to me, as the course goes on the teacher should comment less and less rather than more and more.

Am I succeeding in doing this? Maybe. In the fall I wrote 100,000 words of comments for 29 students; this spring, with two weeks to go in the semester, I’ve written 63,000 words for 24 students. We’ll see how it eventually works out.

What I think is happening in the fiction class, right now, is that because we talk more often one to one, and because the students know that I know their work is progressing, most of them feel less dependence on my written comments. Or maybe the key is that I feel less dependence on writing them. In any case, I seem to be writing comments on fewer stories, because in some cases I feel I’ve already said (aloud, face to face) what I have to say. Because most of the students are writing first drafts, their work is inherently independent in any case. My role in the context of first drafts is different from what it would be if I were trying to guide subtle revisions. If students bring me fundamental fiction writing problems (e.g., should I really do this thing of shifting points of view?) I can give them advice, help them think about those problems. But when a first draft is still in progress, it’s too soon to think about what the story is trying to do or say overall and how to get it to do that better.

I’m not going to claim, yet, that I’ve reduced my written commenting in a radical way. But I am trying to go in that direction, and I don’t feel guilty about trying. That’s a first step, anyway.

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You can download this as a Word document here: More Writing, Less Commenting