Making transitions when writing in new media

I have been procrastinating about some revisions I need to do recently on my own PhD thesis and also on a paper I have been writing with colleagues. One of the forms this procrastination has taken is looking back at some of the early posts on this blog. I was struck by how formal they are – so ‘academic’ in tone and style. The later posts are different, more humorous in some ways, and also more relaxed; more like what I now think blog posts on this kind of blog should be – conversation-starters or think-pieces there to stimulate discussion and thinking and conversation in a more relaxed or informal way. They should be engaging – of the writer and the reader, and be fun to write and read. Well, this is my opinion of them anyway.

But I got to thinking, ‘what changed? Between now and then, why did my style shift so?’ There is also a bigger question here about transitions writers make in their own processes of growth and learning, and how and why these transitions happen. We in writing centres are, I think, quite focused on these transitional moves, because part of our work is to enable them to take place and also to make student-writers more aware of the need for change and transition and growth and how to achieve this.

In my own blog-writing I think my learning has been quite tacit. As I got more comfortable with the blogsphere, and as I started subscribing to and reading other blogs, I started to learn about what I liked to read, what kinds of tones and styles were used in blogs that I identified as being like my own, and I began to play with this genre a little more boldly, although I didn’t try things out very consciously – rather I just began to write a little less formally, and with a little less planning and careful thought. I tried to just let the ideas come, and then edited and organised retrospectively. If I think back, I cannot pin-point this strategy or that which worked, although I could show you posts I liked writing more, and less, and probably the ones I liked more were funnier and more fun to write, and also more personal and about my own writing and how my learning is carried into my conversations with students and tutors. They felt more like the kinds of texts that tend to count as relevant or authentic in the blogspheres I think they fit into.

So, I suppose I have to ask myself, now, ‘what learning from this experience of changing my own writing style in my blog can I take into my tutoring of students and writing tutors?’ You may say that this is an easier space to play within than perhaps a university course where the assessment of the students’ writing is high stakes. After all, no one is marking my blog posts out of 100 or judging the posts to pass or fail against some preset criteria. However low-stakes this space may be in terms of the formal understandings of assessment of writing in higher education, it is not all that low-stakes for me. I am putting my ideas out into a very public space, sharing them with many people I cannot meet or see, who do not actually know me the way a lecturer might, or be able to give the benefit of any kind of doubt. This has made me feel quite vulnerable, and open to possible critique and misreading. While I know, as an academic, that critique is good if it can help me grow and learn, it is not always easy to hear. So each post feels a bit like an act of bravery, and each post is another step in my learning process about writing in this space, in this medium.

I think that each essay and assignment must feel to many students like an act of bravery, as they open their work and their selves expressed in their work up to critique and correction. Students also need to learn to write well in new media and new genres, and often the rules and conventions of these genres are not explained or opened up for discussion and deconstruction in lectures or tutorials. Many lecturers assume that students can work these rules and conventions out on their own, and struggle to see the tacit-ness of their own learning and growth as writers. If they could see this, as I can try to see my own tacit learning and growth, then they could start working with student writers from a place of empathy, because writing in new media and new voices is risky and does feel vulnerable, and support and feedback is needed. They could also begin, as I have tried to do with my tutors, to explain their own processes of learning, making the rules and conventions that govern what counts as the right tone or style or voice in these different media more explicit and easy to see, understand and also challenge where necessary.

Writing never stops being work, and even when we stay with one or two media we are comfortable with as writers we still need to make transitions and change and grow in order for our writing to remain engaging, current, relevant to our audiences. But it doesn’t always have to be painful, unpleasant work. I think that reflecting on our own journeys as writers, trying to pull out and explain our own transitions and what enabled them or made them happen could be a useful and creative starting place when we approach working with student writers who need our feedback and guidance.

Advertisements

An ode to freewriting

It’s been a while since I have posted something here. That is mostly because I have been very focused on writing Chapter 4 of the Thesis, and have had little emotional and mental energy to do much of any other kind of writing and thinking. But this post has been floating around in my head for a few weeks, and Nvivo10 is frozen, so now is a good time to get it down and put it up.

I want to write about freewriting. This is tool that many of us who write and teach writing and work with writers use in different ways, and much has been written about it; notably, Peter Elbow’s seminal text Writing Without Teachers, published in the 1960s and republished in 1998. In essence, I understand freewriting to be a tool that enables a writer to unlock their thinking by creating a space free from second-guessing and judgement and fear where they can just put ideas and thoughts down on a page, in writing, in whatever form or language they take.  This is, at any rate, the way I use it in my own writing and in workshops with students and colleagues. All writers get stuck, or blocked. There are so many ideas in your head but you don’t know where to start in order to organise them and write about them coherently and sensibly. For many students, this happens when they have heard a lot about the writing topic in lectures, and in tutorials and in conversation with peers, and they have done some research and reading, and they are not sure how to start or where to start writing in response to the task. Freewriting, in these cases, in an excellent tool to get past the fear and doubt, and get the  ideas flowing  and the writing started.

The method is fairly simple. Set a time limit – 3 or 5 or 7 minutes. Set a timer – on your watch or cellphone or on your PC if you are near one. Create a topic. ‘I want to write about the link between the concept of framing and the data about teachers’ pacing of their curriculum (this is from my own research).  Then write. In pen, in pencil, on a PC – the main thing is not to stop and think and wonder and delete and rephrase; don’t stop at all until the timer goes ping! If you do stop, I tell students, write to yourself about why you stopped. This also them becomes a way to learn something new about yourself as a writer, and your writing process. Maybe you are thinking too much, or scared that your ideas are wrong, or that your grammar is clumsy. You can work on these fears and doubts if you know they are there.  When the timer goes ping, finish the sentence you are writing and stop. Read what you have written. You may be surprised at just how much you could write in a few short minutes. Now you need to move to the next step, and think about which pieces of your freewrite are useful for the bigger thing you are writing, like a section of a chapter or a paper. Which pieces fit the topic you are responding to and which do not? What claims have you made that want to use, but need to find evidence for? Do you have the evidence or do you need to do more reading and research? Have you only written about the data and the evidence you have found? If so, what are the claims you can make, and how will you express them?  From this first freewriting step, you can move on to do more structured and thoughtful writing and thinking, and this is possible now because you have freed your thinking a little, and have opened the way to more thinking and writing.

I wrote the first draft of Chapter 4 last week. 50-odd pages. It was a huge task and a very, very daunting one when I started. I didn’t know where to begin, so I started with a series of  freewrites. I set as topics or headings my conceptual tools and wrote about what stood out in the data and what I was trying to claim under each ‘heading’. I pasted that all into a new file, and I started building: adding evidence from the data, writing, rewriting, shaping and reshaping. It was really tough, and I am kind of dreading having to do it all over again with the rest of the chapters I still have to write because there is so much to think about and write about. But I’m not worried about finding my way because I have tools in my writer’s toolbox to help me. There are many tools I use in my own writing, and freewriting is one of my favourites, and one I use often with many different kinds of writing tasks. I use and enjoy it because I don’t have to second-guess and doubt my ideas while I’m writing about them, which I often do. When I use freewriting the ideas flow, and I feel productive and I feel like I am moving forward. There is no judgement when I write freely, just me, my pen, and my thoughts and ideas. If you’ve never done it, give it a try. If you are a freewriter like me, keep writing 🙂 – I hope your next writing project is easier because of it.

Why I enjoy blogging, and why students could too

I started this blog for the Writing Centre in April last year. I was very new to blogging at the time, and wanted to find a way of writing about what we do and who we are and the issues we are concerned about as a writing centre team that allowed us to connect to readers and interested people more immediately and more informally. I also wanted the tutors to begin to write some of the posts and find a less daunting way of thinking about some of the aspects of their work with students and as writers, and share these thoughts in this informal space.

Academic publishing is a tough field. In South Africa we are encouraged to publish in accredited journals, and many of these have high rejection rates and it can take more than a year for your work to appear in print. Many of these journals make papers available only to those with subscriptions, so your work is not available openly to all who may want to read it, for free. Writing for these journals and at this level is also challenging, takes time, needs to conform in specific ways more often than not, and is not always enjoyable, especially when a paper you hoped you were done with comes back with reviewers’ reports requesting significant rethinking, revising and rewriting in order to be publishable!

I love blogging for these reasons. It’s online, it’s free to read and anyone can sign up to follow your blog and read and think about what you have to say. There is a sense of a more immediate community in some ways, as people ‘like’ posts and can comment on them quite informally, and that is always encouraging. I don’t have to reference, and find lots of evidence for all the claims I make. I can wonder, conjecture, provoke and think in this space, and just leave questions out there without immediate answers. I don’t write just any old thing and I do think about what I want to say and the relevance it may have for readers interested in writing and academic literacy in education – as an academic it all comes from spaces in my head and work-life that have theory and thinking within and behind them. But this space feels freer than my other academic writing, and it takes less time to do. I can adopt a more relaxed and even humorous tone, and I can play with words and phrases in ways that academic publishing does not often allow.

I enjoy blogging because I enjoy being free to write without second-guessing what I write, and because it gives me a space in which to form ideas and think about things I am not quite ready to research and write full journal articles about. I gives me, and hopefully also my tutoring colleagues, a place to write about ideas we may never write formal articles about but which are still interesting to us, and hopefully others, and which should be put out there, perhaps for others to take up and carry further. Many academics ask students to blog now as part of ongoing assessment, as a way to get them to think about and reflect on what they are learning – not necessarily for lots of marks, but definitely for lots of learning. As a form of low stakes and formative assessment, I think blogs are an excellent teaching, learning and writing tool. And they make writing fun, which for students ( and academics) is always a good thing :).

Writing for yourself – writing as a form of thinking

Image from Coming Unmoored (comingunmoored.com)

Image from Coming Unmoored (comingunmoored.com)

This is a very personal post because it is linked to my own writing. I am currently working on my PhD thesis (hereafter ‘the Thesis’) and this issue of writing for myself and writing for others, like my supervisor and examiners, is very much a current affair. Lately I have been quite focused on the former kind of writing: writing for myself, and the value of this kind of writing as a way of thinking through often complex ideas and concepts.

My supervisor has long been telling me that it is really important to find time to write just for myself every day. But I am a part-time student and am working and parenting full-time, so writing just for myself often seems overly indulgent. When I can make time to write I need to Produce Writing that can be Read and Commented On and go into the Thesis. I can’t just scribble. That’s a waste of precious writing time, right? Actually, wrong, as I only very recently worked out for myself.

I found my way to a website called 750words.com, and signed up after being given the link by a colleague. It looked like a fun way to get a bit of writing done, and was similar in intent to the research journal I have been keeping sporadically. So I gave it a try. I wanted to write every day for as many days as I could, and also had the added bonus of being rewarded with point and badges on the site – just for writing! Initially it was a chore. I had to write ‘Do your Words’ on my ‘to-do list every day for a week to remind myself, and everyday for a week I sat down and started with ‘I’m not sure I even have anything to write about today but…’. But, I would start with something I had been thinking about and before I knew it half an hour and 800 words had flown by. And I was not just writing, I was thinking quite productively, making connections between the first little idea and all the other ideas that connected to it and flowed through me and onto these pages. And every day I did it it got easier. I have not kept up with the website, but I have gone back to my pen-and-paper research journal and have started scribbling and drawing in there more frequently. And it does actually feel like I am moving forwards, even if what I am writing about is not all going into the Thesis. I am moving forwards – and the writing is the thinking and this is useful work, and not at all a waste of my precious PhD time.

I think it would be valuable to encourage all students to find time to write just for themselves about things they are reading, a problem they encountered in a lecture, something that is puzzling them, a new concept or idea that has got them excited… there is so much that they can be encouraged to write about. And they can write about all of this in any language they choose to and in any form – with words or picture or both. Too often writing in academia is made to seem separate from all of the other academic activities that are part of it, like reading, speaking and thinking. We don’t only think before we write; we think while we write and after we write, and we need to try to open students’ eyes to the process that is writing, and help them see beyond just the ‘product’ that they are writing. If we only focus on the destination we miss so much of the richness in the journey. Well, that has been my learning, and I am going to be spending far more time with my scribbles, as well as my formal chapters in progress, because the latter won’t be quite as good without the former.

Writing centres as rehearsal spaces: part two – who is rehearsing and what for?

In our previous post, we discussed some ideas we have had as a team about writing centres as rehearsal spaces in the university, and who the participants in those rehearsals might be and what their roles may look like. In this post, we look at the second part of our discussion – who is rehearsing and what they could be rehearsing for, and some of the limitations of this metaphor.


As promised in Part one, the two questions we will look at here are:

2. If we think about the writing centre as a rehearsal space, who is rehearsing and what for? What role are we playing in helping students rehearse, and what constitutes the ‘play’ or the polished ‘product’ that will be viewed or read? What forms could these rehearsals take? Are you, as writing tutors, in rehearsal? What for?

3. Is this metaphor useful in thinking through the different roles we take on in a writing centre? Where are the limitations or constraints?

2.
In the first instance, the students who come to talk about their writing are rehearsing. They have tried out a piece of writing, which they bring as a draft to discuss with the peer writing tutors. In working with them we are, to delve into the metaphor of stage and plays, ‘workshopping’ the piece with them. We ask questions and draw them into discussions that try to get them to think about their writing, and whether or not the audience will receive it well; to think about themselves as writers, and what they want to say, or show, to their audience; and about the audience itself – who are they writing to, and what do they need to put into the ‘play’ to show their audience that they have achieved what they were asked to achieve? Students, perhaps, are rehearsing for a range of things. Students want to pass, so they write for the approval and marks that will ensure this. Students also write to develop knowledge and appropriate stances towards that knowledge; they write to gain recognition from the experts and insiders in their field of study; and students write to give evidence of learning, and whether they have achieved certain standards or levels of learning set by the disciplines, departments and faculties they are part of.  It can be tricky, then, for peer writing tutors who take on the roles of coach, or in some instances where additional support is needed, director, to guide the rehearsal and writing process such that students are empowered both ontologically and epistemologically – so that they can rehearse for a multitude of roles and for an appropriate audience with increasing confidence and skill.

I read somewhere that there is no such thing as a ‘final’ draft. There is only a draft that we work on until we have to hand it in for comments or assessment. There will always be work to do on that draft, and we could revisit it over and over down time and make numerous big and small revisions. So, what is the final ‘product’ or ‘play’ that the students produce for their audience? And how do we, in this more hesitant and developmentally-focused rehearsal space, help students to appreciate the process that goes into becoming a more capable and proficient writer (and through that knower) in their fields of study when so much of the focus is not on the rehearsal (and the value of those conversations and false-starts and duffed lines and missteps in developing the ‘play’ that the audience gets to see), but is rather on the polished and finished ‘product’? There is altogether too much focus on product in academic writing, and not enough on process and on mistakes and not-knowing and trying things on and out to get to knowing. This is why this metaphor of writing centres as rehearsal spaces is valuable and why the metaphor of rehearsing for students writing in academia can be a productive and liberating one for both students and lecturers in other contexts as well.

The forms rehearsals could take are many and varied, and in our writing centre we ask students to workshop their assignments using free-writing, conversation, debate and even visual representations of their writing. We draw them into conversations about their writing in a range of ways that we try to vary and play with as we get to know the students a little, and we try to find ourselves in their anxieties, struggles and also triumphs, because we are all writers too, and remembering that is important.

Finally, on this point, the peer writing tutors are also rehearsing. In every tutorial we are rehearsing for future tutorials with students, trying things out and evaluating what works and what doesn’t so that we can keep growing as tutors, and as actors in this space we occupy. For many peer tutors, the rehearsals are also developing their capacity as future academic lecturers. The rehearsal process tutors experience in working with student writing shapes and changes their thinking about the process of learning, and requires them to be reflexive about the role of writing in learning – their own and other students’. As we teach, we also learn, and this constant reflexivity and evaluation creates a process of ongoing development and growth, and insight into writing as a learning and thinking process.

3.
This is not a perfect metaphor for the way writing centres work and what we do every day, or for thinking about a more process-oriented approach to student writing in higher education. Most metaphors tend to fall apart somewhere along the line. However, in spite of the limitations of this metaphor which I don’t have space to delve into here, such as who the audience really is in academia, and thinking of writing as a ‘play’ or ‘act’ (which becomes quite complex), I think that this is a productive, creative and provocative way in which to think about what writing centres, as well as academics, can do in teaching students how to think differently and through writing become different and more proficient kinds of knowers in their chosen fields. If all the world is a stage, and if we are all players on or in it, and if students need to be proficient in certain ways to win accolades, recognition and jobs, then what are the kinds of things we could be doing to create more spaces to make the thinking and writing practices, rules and expectations of the disciplines clearer to novice student actor-writers? What are the ways in which we could turn other spaces in the academy into rehearsal spaces for student writing?

Writing centres as rehearsal spaces: part one – developing the metaphor of writing as rehearsing

This post, divided into two because it is long, and detailed, comes out of a discussion with the peer writing tutors I work with. As we all work as peer tutors, I will refer to us as a team in these posts, because this is how we work, even though I also play the role of coordinator of the team. These two posts reflect their ideas and inputs on this notion of writing as rehearsing.

I got the idea for the discussion from Lucia Thesen at the University of Cape Town, who is working with the notion of writing as rehearsal in her own work with postgraduate writers. I really liked the idea of a writing centre as a rehearsal space, and wanted us to explore it in relation to our work at UWC, so I set us as a team of peer writing tutors the task of  coming up with this blog post, unpacking and fleshing out this idea. The questions on which the discussion was based are as follows:

1. Think of the metaphor of the writing centre as a theatre – the stage, the actors, the director, the script and the scriptwriters – who else is involved in the production? If we extend this metaphor to writing and a writing centre in a university, who plays these various roles? Who is involved in the writing process?

2. If we think about the writing centre as a rehearsal space, who is rehearsing and what for? What role are we playing in helping students rehearse, and what constitutes the ‘play’ or the polished ‘product’ that will be viewed or read? What forms could these rehearsals take? Are you, as writing tutors, in rehearsal? What for?

3. Is this metaphor useful in thinking through the different roles we take on in a writing centre? Where are the limitations or constraints?

In this first post we will unpack and expand on the question in part 1, and in the second post we will comment on parts 2 and 3.

1. In thinking about the Writing Centre in which we work as a ‘theatre’ or as a ‘stage’, we think that often we are in the cast with the students. We have multiple roles here: we are in the cast ‘directed’ by the coordinator and ‘produced’ by the higher levels of administration that set our budget and define our role – write a part of our script so to speak. But within that space, we are also rewriting and revising our roles and our script, so we are also scriptwriters, and directors to a certain extent.  In addition to these two roles, we are also members of a different kind of cast, where the directors and producers are outside of the Writing Centre in the disciplines and departments from which the students come to us for help. Here the scriptwriters, directors and producers are the lecturers who set the assignments and the departments and wider university who set the standards and requirements that the assignments must meet. So we, along with the students, must work with the script they are given to produce, in collaboration, a performance worthy of the praise from the audience.

This also raises the question of audience, and the multiple roles that peer writing tutors can play in this rehearsal space, and also who the rehearsing is for. When we are reading and commenting on the students’ work, before they come and see us if we have a draft, and when we are in the tutorial session with them, we are the audience. We construct ourselves as readers, and as critical friends, and that is, by necessity, the role of an audience. But there are layers of audience here, and these all influence the writing tutorial, and the rehearsal space created there.  There is the person or people the assignment is being written for, usually a lecturer or tutor; this is a largely visible audience, because these are real, tangible people. However, there is also an invisible audience invoked by this visible one; that of the wider academic community into which students are wanting to gain admission. When we write, we write to the person assessing our work, but they represent a discipline, and a community of knowers or ‘insiders’ whose voices and ideas we may be drawing into our work, and whose recognition we want, so that we too can be seen as ‘insiders’, as belonging. This brings to mind Lillis’ point about students inventing themselves through their texts, playing with voices and identities, trying them on to find one that ‘fits’ or feels like them. Linked to this is a point she makes about students also inventing their audience – their tutors and lecturers – and trying to work out how to find the right voice or stance in their writing to gain the approval of the tutor or lecturer in their heads (2001). This highlights just how complex the task of working out who we are writing to (rehearsing for) can be in academic and disciplinary writing. As writers of journal articles, and PhD and MA dissertations, we are all experiencing this process of ‘becoming’ and taking on new identities and a new voice as we write, while also trying to work out who we are writing to and what that audience will want from us so that we will earn standing ovations and calls of ‘Bravo!’ rather than boos and, even worse, silence.

Finally, we thought about the notion of the script – what defines or influences of shapes the interactions we have with students? Again, the notion of multiple layers is at play because there is more than one script involved. Firstly, there is the assignment, and the expectations attached to that assignment; this is the lecturer’s script. Then, there is the conversation the student wants to have about that assignment and their difficulties, questions etc; this is their script for this part of the rehearsal. Then there are our scripts; our plans for the writing tutorial and the advice we think the student will benefit from in (re)writing their assignment. We could probably add to this the wider scripts of the departments and disciplines that impact on the assignments the lecturers design and the criteria they write for students, and these also shape and influence this rehearsal space.

These are complex issues, and the discussion out of which this post and the one to follow have come has highlighted this. In any dialogic space there are a multitude of voices speaking, and silenced, and there are several roles which the participants can play. In the next post we turn to consider what we are rehearsing for and why, and some of the limitations of this metaphor.

Reference:
Lillis, Theresa M. 2001. Student Writing. Access, Regulation, Desire. London and New York: Routledge.

To post a comment, just add your name and the comment below – we’d love to hear from you.

Our first posting – is anyone out there?

Welcome to our new blog!!


This is the first of what will hopefully be many postings, and the start of a new online community interested in talking and thinking and writing about academic writing in higher education. There are so many angles from which teachers, tutors and academic literacy practitioners approach the teaching and support of academic writing – for their students and their peers. We at the UWC Writing Centre hope that those of you reading this blog who are interested and involved in working with student writers (or any writers, really) will find these posts helpful and thought-provoking, and we hope you will add to the conversation and help us create this online community. We hope this will be a very vibrant, challenging and also supportive space where we can all share our thoughts and ideas about writing.
 
If you would like to find out more about the UWC Writing Centre please visit our Facebook page (The UWC Writing Centre) or our website (http://www.uwc.ac.za/writingcentre).

Happy writing in the meantime – more news and scribblings soon!