Writing practices: mine, theirs, ours

I read about writing, perhaps more than I should, when it’s the writing I ought to be doing. In the end, all the writing advice – academic or not, pedagogical or not – is pretty much the same: write every day. Write all the time. You’re not a writer unless you write, and you don’t write unless it is a habit.

There’s some tinkering to be done around the edges: write when you first wake up; make sure your writing diet is accompanied by movement (running and swimming are favorites); write at the same time every day; keep a journal; break it up into discrete chunks; make small deadlines; turn off the internet; one project at a time. The list goes on.

I’m trying to write every morning, in a practice I established this past summer. It’s hard. I forget. I feel guilty.

But when I manage it, particularly when I get there for many days in a row, it does something. It changes the brain. Things start to flow.

As I was feeling pretty confident about this, I tried to see what effect it would have on my students, just in a small way. Indeed, the pedagogical research says a different version of the same thinking: students improve their writing (and thus, their thinking), more than anything, by writing.*

In my graduate course this term, we wrote for about ten minutes at the start of each class, by hand, based on a prompt I gave. Students did not hand in the writing. Prompts went from the future-facing – how will the people who present you with your lifetime achievement award talk about your work? – to the very immediate – what’s on your mind today? The point was to establish that flow.

We went on like this for 12 weeks, and yesterday I asked them how it went. Based on their (very thoughtful!) feedback, this is how I will proceed in future terms:

– I will continue with this exercise, at least in some courses. This is a useful transition between the noise of outside and the inner space of the classroom. We all need a reminder of the value of quiet. In order to work, I think, this practice must be consistent.

– We will start smaller. Ten minutes is a long time to write (by hand) especially if you are new to this, and really especially if you haven’t chosen it for yourself. Maybe five minutes, and maybe I increase over the term. Not sure.

– Prompts should relate, in some way, to the course, even if in an abstract way. Next term, I’ll teach qualitative methods, where the governing question is how do we know what we know?  Prompts should relate to big ideas about the course, and their education.

– At the same time, I’ll make prompts optional. If the point is to focus the mind, some of us need a prompt and some need to shake out our feelings: our distractions, our anxieties. This is how it works for me, and that was true for some students, too. No prompt would be too stressful for many, but it has to be optional.

If they aren’t handing it in, what does it matter?, you may ask. My hunch is, students generally want to feel like they are doing what is being asked, even if the option not to do it is part of that.

– Finally, I ought to write too. I have been using that time to set up for what comes next in class, but in order to align the energy in the room, theirs with mine, we have to practice together.


* In fact, marking papers up, while it seems intuitively like ‘good teaching,’ tends to have a lesser effect than writing more often. I am still working on believing this.