First day of class yesterday, and all in all I think things went pretty well! The mood was upbeat and by the end of the hour students were beginning to interact with one another as actual peers. As in, people with names who think thoughts that are worth discussing. Success!
The big takeaway for me was a better sense of the impact of apparently minor details in the instructions I give. Even a single word added or omitted can make quite the difference. Here’s what happened:
I decided to begin class with some writing. So, I wrote “Writing is…” on the board. Then I asked everyone to take a piece of paper, begin by writing “Writing is,” and continue that thought in whichever direction they wanted, for 7-8 minutes. I suggested making an analogy, or describing an emotion that reflected their sense of what it feels like to write. I stressed that they might very well take things in a more positive or negative direction, depending on their own experiences — no judgment. Once everyone was done, we went around the room and read our paragraphs out loud, and then discussed what we noticed.
I had expected to hear some funny comparisons, and some feelings about the difficulties or challenges of writing (and perhaps here and there an expression of satisfaction or discovery). And this happened, to some extent. One student described writing as “an interminable road trip” (exhausting, tedious, but some hidden gems here and there along the way), one compared it to “a dark night, but a bright morning,” and another compared it to an obstacle course he hoped to master. But the majority of students came out with statements more akin to definitions: writing is an expression, a communication, a kind of speech you can’t do in-person, a process of self-reflection, an attempt at understanding, an artform.
This probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise. In retrospect, I think I was so concerned with giving students a wide enough playing field that I hadn’t really considered how I might end up inadvertently narrowing their sense of what I was going for. Of course they’d try to put together something like a definition of writing — I asked them to write down what “writing is,” and they’re good students trying to do what the teacher says! If I were to do this again, I would make a small change, and instead of telling them to begin with “Writing is…” I’d say begin with “Writing is like…” I bet that would make a big difference.
I’m happy to say, however, that the repeated emphasis on definitions and processes (revising, editing, and the like) ended up becoming an opportunity for us to talk about the fact that we all seemed to be thinking of writing as something that eventually takes the form of print media. Writing, in this academic setting, was essentially academic. Given the shared sense of writing as a form of expression, was there any particular reason why we weren’t thinking of the many other forms of communication that we do on a daily basis as writing — texts, emails, comments, etc? When I raised this question, one student reported that lately she found herself using a particular emoji (😂) in messages to her friends, because it just seemed to express her feelings best. This resonated with a lot of students, led to a discussion of the way different forms of writing are suited to different audiences and capable of expressing different things. All of which is to say that what I initially felt was a flaw in my instructions actually ended up producing a pretty worthwhile conversation about the very thing we’ll be spending the semester exploring together. 😂.