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Advice, Reflection

Ruminating With Our Mouths Open, a Good Habit?: Modeling the Reading/Thinking/Writing Process Over Time


Bear with me as I try not to mix any metaphors.

Most of the time, digestion-related metaphors for (teaching) student writing fall on the negative side of things, showing what we don’t want students to do or produce (see regurgitation, crap). But this semester I have found myself using digestion in a much more positive way in my classroom talk. I have asked students to sit and digest a piece of reading material; I have collected their homework and told them I would digest it over the weekend to see what work we need to do. This was not a conscious metaphor at the time—it just came out of my mouth, so to speak. After using it maybe three or four times, I realized I was saying something to my students that I haven’t said in quite that way before, though I have often suggested it.

When we set up writing assignments to be conducted over the course of several weeks (say, three or four), part of our thinking is that this span of time will allow for a more thoughtful writing process, time for students to think about their ideas, play around with support, organization, phrasing, test things on another reader, etc. I have talked to students about the value of getting started early, of taking time away from their writing so they can come back to it with fresh eyes, but most of the time, unless I “make” them do this work in class, my suggestions do not change the way they actually work. We know that some of our students will gorge themselves on information in one short sitting, right before a deadline, but we want them to spread it out, to eat small meals, to work sensibly. Scaffolding assignments is one way that we can ensure this healthy approach to a larger writing assignment, but I will also encourage us to think about how we can model to students a slower, more thought-full approach to writing.

One of the ways we might do this is by talking to students about our thinking and writing processes. This of course means keeping track of our thinking for a while, maybe jotting down a timeline of sorts, like:

Today, reading for my exam, realized the simple phrase I am looking for in my proposal is ‘literacy development’.

This morning, rethinking what I can do with the KWL: could I interview a new teacher over the course of the semester in order to understand his/her developing understanding of the course curriculum? Is this too much or just right?

Find and examine inquiry text Gwen emailed me about; perhaps relevant as course material for teaching the section I will be studying.

Started cobbling together a draft this morning, pulling from my notes. I need to re-read parts of Wallace and Ewald.

I do this kind of thing already, in various word docs, in the margins of my books, in my class notebooks, but I might think about what such a smorgasbord of thinking could show to my students, even if I just lay it all out for them, if I show them how, for me, the process of working on a writing project really is like eating slowly, letting it sit, and digesting. Sometimes it’s like eating a conservative round one of Thanksgiving dinner, when everyone has brought a dish to pass and some things look questionable, and knowing that I’ll probably want round two in a little while.

This semester, my students have been posting much of their work on their blogs, developing a record of their thinking about their projects over the course of the semester. But this is bigger stuff: responses to readings, major questions, drafts. I want to think about how all of the little stuff could find its way into a useful record for them, too. One of my past students would keep a “brain dump” document while she worked on a paper, so she could save all of the ideas she wasn’t sure she would be using for that assignment. This method may be promising if a student goes back to that “dump” and forages, reflects. But, as Annie Dillard says in The Writing Life, “In those early pages and chapters, anyone may find bold leaps to nowhere, read the brave beginnings of dropped themes, hear a tone since abandoned, discover blind alleys, track red herrings, and laboriously learn a setting now false” (6). We know that process is what gets us to where we end up, so although Dillard suggests “Process is nothing” (4), that it’s not worth savoring, we know it is actually really important. Although we cannot equate a worthwhile process to time, it seems to me that time makes things settle a little better.

Last week, in a class discussion on his experiences teaching a pilot section of 3010, I asked Derek Risse what he hoped incoming 3010 students would be able to articulate about writing. He said he hoped they would be willing to take the leap into research to find out genuine answers, and that they would see their work is sustained and situated in an ongoing conversation. What it takes to be ready to sit down at this proverbial dinner table, to get students to be able to see their work in these ways, might be an important part of our work in 1020: not just getting students to be able to analyze and argue effectively, but to reflect on how their ideas take shape over time, to understand what is feeding these ideas, who else is writing about these same issues, what can be trimmed away, what is worth getting a second helping of.

(I might have covered a whole menu of eating/writing metaphors here. If there are some useful ones you think I have missed, please come post them on my door. Really. There’s a spot there. Happy Thanksgiving.)

Adrienne Jankens is a lecturer teaching ENG 1020. She is interested in teaching composition via the inquiry method and in working with students on reflective practices.

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