Tag Archives: writing process

Assignment Design and Making Your Grading Sessions Less Mind-numbing

Tenured Radical has a fantastic post up today about designing assignments in a way that encourages students to write scintillating analysis instead of boring dreck:

Whose fault was this?  My fault, that’s who.  I had given a highly conventional assignment that signaled to the students (correctly) that they were being tested (without being honest about saying so), and so the vast majority of them stayed in the right-hand lane and drove slightly under the speed limit (metaphorically speaking.)  Furthermore, I had failed for years to attend to this whole business of what students were talking about when they referred to a “prompt”:  hence I had given one assignment, and they had essentially received a different one than I intended.  So the next time around, lest I should be tempted to drive a pencil into my ear while grading, I gave them complete and utter freedom.  I asked them to choose their own document and to choose it based on something they were passionate about now.  I asked them to compare their own enthusiasm for this topic to the enthusiasm expressed in the document, and to use the document to understand better how their own passion was rooted in a history of other people who cared about this thing too.  When students asked me if it was OK to write about something they didn’t really care about, I said no.  Then I took the time to talk with them about what they did care about, and urged them to write about it.

I’m probably stating the obvious, but the way an assignment is designed and presented will, for better or for worse, greatly impact the quality of student’s output.  As TR argues, a rote, conventional assignment that suggests that a student is being tested on course content will inevitably generate rote, conventional regurgitations of that content.  If the major objective of that class is to get students to memorize and apply content, then that may be perfectly fine.  But if the major objective of your class is to get students to practice the analytical skills relevant to your discipline–as it is with many introductory humanities courses–then it pays to allow a bit more room for creativity, and it can be a good thing to get students to practice those skills on objects that appeal to them.

I’ve been using a literary studies version of this assignment for the past two years, and I have been thrilled with the results.  Since the Writing Flag program at my university requires me to assign a variety of assignments with varied lengths (which is something I would probably do anyway), I determined that reading one hundred odd essays on course texts would probably bore me and my students to death, so I have them produce a conventional literary analysis on a course text at the end of the semester, but before that, they write three short (1000 word) analyses of artifacts they find outside of class employing one of the critical methods we discuss.  They can pick a painting, a song, a poem, a novel, a film, a television show, a video game–pretty much anything is up for grabs.  And the results are not only twenty entirely unique essays for each assignment but essays that are actually fun to read.  For one thing, while many students feel intimidated by Literature with a big L and mistrust their abilities to even understand them, much less say something new and interesting, many of them are capable of producing erudite readings of texts and artifacts with which they are more immediately familiar.  And no, I do not receive sixty essays on television shows each semester.  In fact, current pop culture makes up a surprisingly slim percentage of the topics chosen, and even when it is the selected topic, we’re usually talking about sophisticated and original assessments of the movie Pulp Fiction from an RTF major who bothered to do secondary research.  Last year, I also had a student who wrote three essays on paintings from the escuela cuzquena school, a student who wrote about a Czech shrine, and a student who compared an Obama speech to John Winthrop’s A Model of Christian Charity.

My class is actually a topics course in Literature and Religion, and other teachers frequently express surprise that I’m willing to talk about religion in my class, since the potential for controversy is so high (made a bit worse due to the fact that our state legislature now reviews our syllabi).  However, I have yet to encounter a problem, and I suspect that this assignment is part of the reason.  While I insist that their analyses avoid confessionalism or polemic, there appears to be something both cathartic and educational about getting them to talk about cultural productions that are important to them and allowing them small space for sorting out their own beliefs relative to a much bigger world of ideas without ever having to debate Biblical literalism in class or argue about whose god can beat up all of the other gods.  In other words, while the essays are academic essays, they allow some small space for self-expression and creativity as well as critical thinking.  And that’s pretty much what any assignment in a course like this should be designed to do.

Finally, while there’s no way to scientifically prove it, I do think that making this the dominant writing activity for the lion’s share of the semester makes the end-of-term essays on a course text more original and more interesting.  The short essays do seem to make students more sensitive to the context in which texts are produced and build confidence in their own abilities to tease out an author’s agenda.  At the very least, the short assignments seem to demystify the whole notion of authorship and of Literature as a monolithic, impenetrable body of signs by encouraging them to use the same tools of analysis that they use to unpack more familiar, more accessible cultural products.

A Writer’s Time

I want to take a moment to say thanks to SKM from Shakesville, who so thoughtfully includes me in the blogaround from time to time.  I’m consistently shocked and flattered when I find out that such well-respected bloggers read this site and actually think enough of it to recommend it to others.  The Shakesville blogaround has also introduced me to some other kick-ass feminist and academic bloggers, and I was thrilled to find out about this post by Maud Newton on the “tricky valuation of a writer’s time.”  I was particularly struck by this quote from E.B. White:

[T]here is nothing harder to estimate than a writer’s time, nothing harder to keep track of. There are moments — moments of sustained creation — when his time is fairly valuable; and there are hours and hours when a writer’s time isn’t worth the paper he is not writing anything on.

This is a much more succinct and, I think, poignant statement than the many posts I’ve made on this subject.  I am always fascinated and surprised when I learn about the writing processes of authors whose work I consider to be transcendent.  On some level, I’ve long believed that they wrote effortlessly and continuously, never wanting for an idea.  Of course, that isn’t true.  I’ve been reading the Ron Powers biography of Mark Twain (who Maud credits as a source of inspiration), and while the guy obviously wrote prolifically, he also went through long periods where nothing got done.  The well of inspiration would go dry, and the only solution was to set the project aside until the well filled up again (Twain used this actual metaphor).

Theodore Dreiser experienced the same problem.  After the publication of Sister Carrie, it took almost ten years for him to complete another novel, and he nearly starved to death and had to resort to manual labor (for which he was completely unsuited) until he eventually got a job as an editor.  Even as established and famous authors, both men regularly missed publisher’s deadlines and endured long periods of total unproductivity.

I’m not sure if that’s reassuring or depressing.  At the very least, it perhaps points to the need to keep a day job.


Being a “Real” Writer

comic frame from Hyperbole and a Half depicts a girl typing happily on her computer at 3:17 am
Eerily accurate portrait of myself at this moment.

Ok, so sometimes I’m late to the party.  I just came across this two month old post at Hyperbole and a Half, which hilariously depicts what happens when we try to get our lives together and act like “real adults” (cleaning the house, buying real groceries, going to the bank, etc.), take on way too many responsibilities, start to slip a bit, plummet into a guilt spiral, and wind up indulging in shameful, non-adult habits like surfing the internet at all hours of the night (ahem).

This is a cycle I also tend to go through with my writing.  I’ll have a backlog of projects (blog posts, prospective articles, dissertation chapters, etc.) that I haven’t been able to finish, so I start setting schedules.  Actually, what usually happens first is that I read something like this and feel terrible that I’m not churning out a certain number of pages or staring at a Word document a certain number of hours of the day.  Writing advice columns are toxic for me.  No matter how benign and common sensical that advice might be, my brain interprets it like this:  “There are people out there writing so much more than I am.  I WILL NEVER BE A SERIOUS WRITER OR ACADEMIC OR EVER HAVE A REAL JOB OR BE ABLE TO FEED MYSELF UNTIL I GET MY SHIT TOGETHER!!!1!1!1!!1111 My therapist and I are trying to sort out why this is.

So I then start making promises to myself about how I am going to rise much earlier than my body would like and begin WORKING in all capital letters just like that.  I will get wildly optimistic about what I can accomplish and even–because why?  I’m not sure–start bragging about my ambitious schedule to my advisors:  “Oh yeah, I’m going to have a draft of that chapter I still have to read 20 books for by the end of the month!”  God bless these people.  They seem to know that it’s delusion but indulge me anyway.  So yeah, I’ll plug away at my writing for several hours a day for a few days.  I’ll read and take notes on stuff.  I’ll organize my bibliography and format the margins.  Then eventually I’ll realize that the actual text isn’t really going anywhere and I’ll start to panic.  I realize that my self-imposed deadlines, which were ridiculous to begin with, are going to be blown.   Then I start falling asleep at my computer because my circadian rhythms are all screwed up.  So I sort of say “eff it” and start distracting myself with West Wing reruns.

Eventually, the chapters do get done, but it never EVER looks like the advice dispensed in those writing advice columns.  I always spin my wheels like for weeks on end working in fits and spurts with the best of intentions until I discover the Alpha and Omega of ideas, the idea that unlocks the whole goddamn problem.  Then I’ll spend two to three weeks in a kind of writing fugue state, churning out massive chunks of prose in record time, working 7-8 hours a day and forgetting to eat, waking up in the middle of the night to write some more.  During these periods, I don’t need “motivation.”  I need chemical sedatives.  Last April, an epiphany struck while I was casually reading on my way home from a conference and nearly had a panic attack when I was asked to please turn off my electronic device.  Then I’ll emerge from this process exhausted and worn out.  I’ll send that project off to someone for feedback and then indulge in some World of Warcraft or Spider Solitaire or whatever, since my brain is by that point a wrung out piece of mush.  Then I’ll start that process all over again (it’s conveniently timed for maximum productivity in the months of November/December and April/May, so at least it’s attuned to the academic calendar).

Part of me sort of hates this.  I wish I wrote more like writing advice columns told me to.  I wish I were able to keep a meticulous writing log or commit to writing between the hours of 8 and 12 for more than a few days at a time.  I like to think that I would be even more productive if I did, but it’s not working out, at least not yet.

Part of me also wonders if those bits of advice so ceremoniously handed down are, in fact, little fictions in and of themselves.  Perhaps, instead of the sort of “here’s how I write and how you should too because I get columns published in The Chronicle of Higher Education,” Moses atop the mountain, handing you the keys to the kingdom wisdom nuggets I imagine them to be, they are in fact stories about how the author would like to write.  Perhaps they document how they think other people write, the inflated expectations they impose upon themselves after selectively watching their successful colleagues only during their best, most productive moments.  Or, you know, maybe I just need therapy.

I’m considering the notion of embracing my own process and making it work rather than trying to adopt someone else’s.  That’s a little bit scary, because I have issues with self-trust.  I would start with acknowledging that there is something sort of valid about the way I do things, that I do, in fact, get writing done and that the end product (once that first draft produced during the fugue state rests for a little while and gets a thorough revision or six over the course of the next few months) tends to be good.  All I would like to do is speed it up a little bit.  So instead of shaming myself for being one of those people who requires a moment of divine revelation in order to really get a project going, I can study the conditions under which those epiphanies occur.  They happen when I’m reading, actually.  So I need to read and read widely, even stuff that doesn’t seem to be 100% relevant.  They also happen when I’m not feeling harried and exhausted, so I need to create the conditions for calm to the best of my ability.  And yeah, sometimes that will mean a West Wing episode or two.

But accepting my own process also means setting aside my fantasies about how other, more successful writers do things.  The truth is, it probably isn’t as neat as it looks on the surface.  And it’s worth noting  that I’ve never actually looked at the name of the author of one of these columns and said, “Oh yeah, he wrote that groundbreaking article on the theory of blahdy blah blah blah.”  The world isn’t made up of just good writers and bad writers, successful writers and unsuccessful ones.  Most of us are just writers, puttering along, trying to figure shit out on our own terms, sometimes doing well at it and sometimes doing less well.

It’s the same with being a “real adult.”  Most other people over the age of 22 aren’t doing it nearly as well as you imagine they are.  I’ve long been insecure about not having a “real job” yet, a real job being defined by me as an arrangement in which you show up at a workplace at predefined hours and perform Work (whatever that may be).  Then my sister told me about her “real job” at a major accounting firm, where she sometimes did client work (sometimes late into the night) but also spent an awful lot of time reading ESPN.com.  She now has her own accounting business and recently told me that she does her most boring work on a dual monitor setup so that she can watch Glee on another screen.  She makes a  lot more money than me, too.  My other sister, who works the night shift on the reservations line for a major luxury hotel chain also surfs the internet between calls and is encouraged to bring a book to read to help stay awake.  In other words, I have learned that a big part of having a “real job” is showing up, performing the work that needs to be done but also just being there in case work needs to be done even if what you’re doing at any given moment looks decidedly not like work.

So yeah, I’ll own it.  I’m on fellowship, and my job looks an awful lot like vacation, especially to my father in law (therapy!).  But I can “show up.”  I can create the conditions that are likely to produce good writing.  I can learn more about how I write and potentially turn that knowledge into higher productivity.  And the thing is:  no one’s watching, not my parents, not the people who dispense trophies for being a “real writer/adult,” not the people who write the advice columns, and not even my advisors.  As long as the diss eventually gets done, who really gives a crap how it happened?

Image credit:  Allie Brosh