Writing Is Social

We all know the stereotypes of the writer: the introvert with cats hiding away with coffee and alcohol, scribbling away in a notebook (ok, minus the coffee and wine, it’s true for me). “Writing is a lonely profession,” people say. We see it as a soloistic endeavor: the grand aloof maestro spinning mesmerizing tales out of nothing but words. We see it as a creative endeavor: the inscrutable creator writing whole worlds into existence ex nihilo.

But writing isn’t really a solo thing, just like language doesn’t belong to any individual. Language by its very nature is a social thing, with meaning only existing in the spaces of agreement between speakers and listeners. By extension, writing is a social endeavor, inherently an attempt to communicate using language with audiences far flung across time and space. Stories are not built from nothing, but rather they are built of the pieces that writers expect readers to recognize, rearranged in novel patterns for the delight of the reader. Stories live or die in the reader’s mind more so than the author’s mind, and no text is complete until it has been received by an audience (this is true even of writing where the author is the audience, such as journaling). Writing isn’t creative; it’s innovative. Writing isn’t lonely; it’s social.

A group of people gathered around a table. They are conversing and have pens in their hands over an arrangement of pages.
Writing is social, even when it’s solo.
(photo via StockSnap)

When I was deciding what I wanted to do for a major in college, and thus a career (in the slightly too-simple logic of teenagers everywhere), I was considering two paths: botany or literature. I envisioned botany as long hours in a greenhouse, collecting data, inspecting plants, etc. I chose literature because, among other reasons, it seemed like the more social option. In retrospect, I should have realized that the sciences are often done in teams, but I don’t think teenage-self was wrong at all about literature being a social matter. Nearly two decades of study later on the matter has made me realize that perhaps I didn’t anticipate just how social it can be, and how much my introvert soul may be holding me back in some ways (there are definitely days I think I should have stuck with the plants).

Writing is social at every stage except. We can use social energy to fuel our writing, no matter what part of the process we’re engaging in.

Invention

We write in response to something. Rhetoricians have known this since basically the beginning of rhetoric. Exigence is the concept of a thing that’s pushing us to speak, and kairos is the concept of our opportunity (time and place and context) to speak. These combined push and pull factors shape our text from the very beginning, and they’re socially situated.

When I first decided to write a novel, it was the idea of authors as people that struck me in a lightning flash of inspiration. If authors were people, and I am a person, I can be an author (I know it sounds absurdly simple, but I was in 6th grade and hadn’t given much thought to where books come from before that). My first inclination when I decided to write a novel: I had to tell my best friend. I had to talk about it! Then I had to tell my brother later that day. All I wanted to do was talk about it.

These days, I use an invention process called “oral drafting” and encourage my students to do the same, usually with myself as the sounding board since I’m the real audience in most cases anyway. Oral drafting means talking about your ideas and getting some feedback from your audience and from yourself as you hear them out loud. It means speaking before writing, because speaking is a more natural and less intimidating way to communicate. It’s a conversation where you can “beta test” ideas without having to have a whole draft.

The motivation to write, and the idea of what to write and why, comes inherently from interacting with people. We write because we read, we write because we want to reach someone we might otherwise not reach, we write because we want to preserve a memory, we write because of something social.

Drafting

This is the stage most people consider most lonely. You lock yourself in a room and hammer out words. And, at some level, I’ll concede that this is the stage where, yes, it’s you and your screen or paper, and that connection matters most.

And certainly, right now, I’m writing without any social engagement (apart from an imagined audience in my head, and a cat on my lap). But alone at a desk is not the only model for drafting, nor is it even the most productive for many people.

NaNoWriMo is an excellent example of how important social engagement can be in drafting. The entire reason it works for so many people as a tool to generate raw drafted content is because of the social side of it. Write-ins, challenges, writing buddies, deadlines, and the sense of being in a community. These are the magic ingredients that make it work. Wait, what’s deadlines doing in there? Deadlines are social. Deadlines are a promise to someone that it’ll be done at a certain time.

There isn’t much research on the efficacy of NaNoWriMo, in part because it can be a very difficult phenomenon to study (trust me: I’ve designed studies several times and none of them ever worked). However, there’s some reliable research that shows that write-ins are effective at generating a boost in productivity. A write-in shouldn’t work if drafting requires locking oneself away and being alone! Write-ins are simply where writers come together in a space (physical or virtual) and work in proximity to each other. Distractions are common, because people get into conversations and enjoy each others’ company. And yet words happen too, much more than might have otherwise happened.

Part of this is having people immediately available for some social input when you get stuck. But much of this is simply the accountability that other people provide. I’ve been writing quite a lot lately on my Twitch channel. This is largely because of the social pressure: I said I would write on screen, people are watching, so I must write. And it feels good to do it in a community. Writing is social; we should build writing habits that support it as such.

Revision

Revision has always been inherently social. We use peer criticism, editors, and all kinds of other social exchanges to make sure our words mean what we want them to mean. After all, the only way to know what words mean is to put them in a social space, because words only have meaning as agreed upon by a group of people.

There’s a term that’s entered mainstream fiction writing in the time since I started writing: “beta readers.” The concept, though, is very old and has always been important. I could be wrong, but I believe that the term “beta reader” for the people you trust to read your draft and give you feedback is derived from the practice of “beta testing” in video game design and seeped into fan spaces as a concept for social revision, and then, because fan spaces are a common and productive place for writers to learn their craft, it seeped out into mainstream discussions of writing. I’m not 100% sure about this etymology, but it makes sense; still, feel free to correct me.

My point about beta readers though isn’t the term itself, at any rate. It’s the concept that we need feedback from other people in the revision process. The amount of feedback we need varies from project to project, of course, and depends very much on our goals. I don’t seek feedback on these posts in most cases, because they’re low-stakes and I know I’ll get some feedback based simply on clicks and views and any ensuing discussion. But I learned to write in critique circles, not in a classroom, and certainly not merely by doing my own homework alone in my bedroom only to receive a letter grade and a “Good work!” scrawled on my paper. I learned to write listening to other writers critique each other, and by engaging in social spaces online where feedback was part of the culture.

Too often we model writing as a solo thing, the writer alone, the master of their universe. Writing is a social act: a gift, a service, a conversation. We who write need to think of our own work in terms of how the social shapes it, and we who teach writing need to emphasize that writing isn’t about the student’s work in isolation, but their work in social contexts.

What I Miss From Last Semester’s Contract Grading Experiment

Last semester I tried to finally make the hard switch to contract grading, motivated by a number of reasons. My motivations were good, and my policies had been gradually trending that way anyway, but (as I have explained before) the experiment didn’t go well, with a much higher fail rate than I’m used to seeing in my composition courses, and students generally expressing that the unfamiliar grading system was confusing rather than empowering, possibly because of the course’s dependence on the LMS Canvas.

So, this semester I reverted back to using rubrics on major assignments, although most exercises are still graded on a complete/incomplete basis. I imagined this would feel familiar, as I’ve used these rubrics for years. And yet I am finding that I miss the contract grading, to some degree.

A single red apple on a stack of books.
Oh hey the educational apples are back!
(Image via StockSnap)

As I go through stacks of these assignments, I find that while I’m still happy to comment extensively and provide individualized feedback, I am not enjoying clicking those boxes on the rubric. It feels punishing now, and it feels like deciding which boxes the work fits best is taking up time I should be commenting.

This is increasingly making me suspect that the problems last semester were a mixture of the interference by Canvas and my own lack of confidence with a system that, honestly, I’ve never really been able to envision as truly revolutionary or different from more traditional grading systems. (The fault is almost definitely mine: I have always seen connections between ideas more clearly than distinctions.)

What this resistance to returning to rubric grading is showing me is that grading and responding to student work are very distinct actions. Responding to student work requires seeing the work in the context of the student and the work’s own goals and merits. This is the teaching I was raised to do by my art teacher mother, who taught me things like “There’s no such things as a problem student, just a student you haven’t figured out how to teach yet” and “You have to assess students based on their own improvement.” This is the teaching the most closely mirrors how I learned how to write outside the classroom, attending critique groups and analyzing published fiction and engaging in informal communal storytelling in online fan spaces. This is the fun bit. It’s also, unfortunately, the place where my efforts are most likely to be lost because my students have been trained (traumatically in some cases) through over a decade of standardized testing and aggressive grading to look at the score first and, maybe, notice some comments here and there.

Three red apples arranged in a close triangle on faded wood planks.
They’re very nice apples. What grade would you give them?
(image via StockSnap)

Grading, however, is a different mental process. Responding to student work requires the analytical reading that I’ve been trained to do through three English degrees, but grading requires thinking about balancing rubrics, assessing according to standards that were made apart from the student completely. It means assessing the work based on the program goals rather than on the work’s own merits. At some level, this does become necessary, in as much as the courses I teach are a required checkpoint, and the appearance of a passing mark on a transcript signals that the student demonstrated certain skills that are expected for their other coursework. There is a pragmatic side to this skill, but it’s a different mental process than the process that considers each student’s work individually and responds accordingly.

And the requirement to use both skills simultaneously to process the same assignment does become burdensome, and they conflict with each other somewhat. The rubrics mean that, while my comment might express enthusiasm because the assignment shows very valuable skills or improvement, the score may suggest the assignment does poorly because it wasn’t what the assignment design “wanted.” Because there’s two different skills involved, but students perceive it as one unit, the conflict between the skills can cause confusion and leads to students constantly asking, through their years of conditioning and even trauma related to grades, “What do you want here?” And that’s not the best way to teach writing or cultivate strong authorial voices.

So what do I miss from contract grading last semester? Clicking “complete” instead of marking a score. Checking things off feels good. But, although checklists are a wonderful tool, even they may not be the best way to respond to students as individuals. It’s definitely something that needs to be considered carefully.

Finishing A Dead Draft

Anne Lamott famously gave us the concept of “shitty first drafts” as the key to “good second drafts and terrific third drafts,” and even that seems overly optimistic for many writers—my process for long fiction takes at least four drafts. But if we are being generous with ourselves, as Anne Lamott argues, we embrace the idea that our first drafts will be “shitty” and give ourselves permission to fail in that space. This is important.

But what do we do when we can see the shape of the “good second draft” emerging from the mists of imagination, so close we can almost touch it, but that “shitty first draft” isn’t done yet? When all we want to do is leap the fence and graze that greener, fresher pasture?

Black and white cat grooming its face with its paw while sitting on an open notebook.
I’m being lazy with my images these days, so here’s a random literary-looking cat I found on Stock Snap

If your mind works like mine at all, you stay the course and finish up that godawful first draft. You make notes along the way—don’t lose sight of that sparkling new draft’s shape!—but you finish the draft in front of you.

In my experience (disclaimer: there is no one-size-fits-all writing process!), if you abandon the first draft before it’s complete, that just means that when you get to the bits you didn’t draft in your second draft, you’ll have first draft parts running in a second draft model. Like a poorly applied base coat of paint when you’re rushing to get the finished color on the wall, it’ll just make more work for you later and show through in the form of uneven texture when you’re revising.

The other thing that happens is you start to doubt your own ability to finish anything. There’s a satisfaction in finishing a first draft of a novel; it was hard and long and a mess, but you did it. Finishing is a thing that needs practice and discipline as much as starting, but it’s a lot easier to get practice starting than finishing. Things like NaNoWriMo can give us the motivation and support to take being a “some day” writer (“some day I’ll write a novel…”) to being a “today” writer (“I’m writing a novel right now”). That’s very empowering. But finishing that first draft is even better, taking you from “today” to “yesterday” (“yesterday I finished a draft!”).

And finishing a draft sneaks up on you; unlike starting, you can’t put it on an exact timer. You can estimate when it’s going to come based on your sense of the story and, if you have one, your outline, but like giving birth, it’ll happen in its own good time and no matter how prepared you think you are for it, it’ll burst into being when you least expect it. Endings are not a precise art, especially not in first drafts. How do I know when I have finished a novel? When I can’t write anymore. That sounds flippant, but that’s exactly my experience. When the plot’s basically wrapped up and the climax is done, there comes a point where I try to add another sentence and I delete it, over and over. And then I know I’m done. The novel rejects addition, at least for that draft.

I’m not just pontificating that my current way is best here; this is a hard-won knowledge of my writing process from years of doing it differently. When I first started writing in earnest, I followed the flashes of inspiration. I skipped around and wrote the scenes that interested me, expecting I’d stitch them together later. I endlessly reworked those scenes, honing my revision skills in microcosm, but they never stitched together into a novel. But the one novel I wrote in order, over two years, until it was truly finished, even though that draft disgusted me so much that I literally threw it down a hallway once, that novel was the only one to get any progress. All the rest were just scraps, like quilt squares that wind up at the bottom of a fabric bin instead of adding up to an actual blanket.

colorful pens lined up side by side on a speckled blue surface.
You gotta have a draft to revise before you can break out the pretty colored pens to mark it up! (Photo via Stock Snap)

It was NaNoWriMo that taught me the discipline it took to finally turn that first novel draft into something truly useable, to write that second, third, fourth, draft. But even then, it wasn’t enough. Too often I hit 50k only to abandon the draft in exhaustion, and then I return to it and read it and—well, generally there is much grumbling and self-loathing about authors who can’t be bothered to put endings on their stories because I need to know what happened to the characters. It’s like checking out a book from the library only to find out someone’s torn out the last forty pages. Which leaves me stuck back in Draft #1 if I ever want to finish out Draft #2. NaNoWriMo gave me a start, but it’s on me to persevere enough to finish.

Right now I’m in that space where I just want that first draft out of the way. I can see already many of the changes in my work-in-progress that I want to make for Draft #2. I’m excited to try them out. This first draft is already basically dead to me. I know it’s going to be scrapped almost entirely. It seems pointless sometimes to keep working on it.

But I also have no idea how this story ends. I have to see this thing through, so that my future self will have something to build that “good second draft” on. Otherwise I’m just going to be first-drafting the ending without any foundation anyway.

I often describe my fiction process as being at least four drafts: One to figure out what I want to say, one to figure out what I actually wanted to say, one to say it, and one to say it right.

Finish that dead draft. Figure out what you want to say.

Drafting as Rehearsal

Writers often express pain at cutting or changing things in revision. It’s very easy to get attached to your work. It’s personal, it’s private, and it probably took you a lot of work to write it. We get attached to the things we made. This is sometimes called the “Ikea effect.” Our labor is precious to us, as are the memories we make as we work through that labor. Your writing is your companion; you had a deep conversation with it while you were working on it, and that thrill of discovery of being the first person to read it made you strongly attached to it.

Yet, we also know as writers that drafts must be disposable. That is simply their nature; they’re transient things we make along the way toward the final product. They can, and should, be thrown out without regard to sentiment as needed for the betterment of the project overall.

These feelings, both very important to the writing process, are fundamentally at odds with each other and can stymie writers midway through their projects. It requires a little bit of reframing to learn to let go of drafts and accept their temporary nature, but at the same time honor their importance as foundational parts of the writing process.

a hand holding a sharpened pencil over a lined spiral-bound notebook. There are pencil shavings on the blank paper.
Writing is messy. This is important.
Photo via StockSnap, as usual

To that end, I like to envision drafts as rehearsals. There are some significant differences, which I’ll discuss here, but it really helps me to get into the right emotional mindset to both respect the labor of drafting but also let go of the drafts themselves as needed.

You see, although a lot of people don’t know this about me anymore, I spent a third of my life mostly in band rooms and rehearsal halls. As an undergraduate, I spent more time in band rehearsals for several ensembles than I did in the library or the English department halls, despite being an English major. In the time between seventh grade and finishing my PhD, a time spanning over 15 years, there were very few times that I was involved in fewer than two musical ensembles. The intensity of rehearsals diminished significantly after undergraduate, when I mostly laid aside playing trombone and shifted to casual choir and bell ensembles, but rehearsal time is still sacred to me. Writing was something that happened in between rehearsals and performances.

One key feature of rehearsal is that the performers know that they’re not only improving the piece itself and their performance of that piece, but themselves. Every hour spent in rehearsal is also an hour spent improving their own skills, getting better as a performer, knowing their art and their tools more intimately and expanding their repertoire. Rehearsal isn’t just about the piece you’re playing, it’s about the performer playing it, and writing drafts is much the same.

But here’s the most important thing about rehearsals: you don’t get to keep them, but you have to do them to improve the product. Musical performances can be recorded, but while you can remix stuff in post for professional recordings, most performances still have to be done in one sitting after several practice runs to make sure it’s going to work. It’s true that professionals often have very few rehearsals, being able to throw a piece together by practicing on their own and in pieces and then putting the pieces together at the last minute, but generally at least one run-through that will be entirely discarded is necessary to make sure everything’s working right and that all the pieces fit the way they should. And even professional performers—or perhaps especially professionals, who understand the value of such things—require warmup and preparation before they perform even their most well-known repertoire.

Performers in a line. A saxophone is the only thing in focus.
It takes practice. Practice is not wasted.
Photo by Jens Thekkeveettil from StockSnap

When I write fiction, I go into my first draft knowing that it’s just a sight-reading of the piece. I’m learning the “road map,” as my directors used to call it. I’m identifying the key points, working out which parts are going to be difficult and need more focus, and exploring the general feel of the piece so I know what kind of tone and technique it’s going to require. Often in a sight-read, I would learn that a piece required a tool (such as a straight mute) or a technique that I didn’t have available. That got circled, and sometimes noted elsewhere so I’d work it out before the next rehearsal. And that was ok! It was just a sight-read. An introduction.

When I write a first draft of a novel, usually for National Novel Writing Month, I’m getting my first introduction to that novel. It’s discovery. And it’s rehearsal. I’m making mental notes about what to do in the next run through.

And then I scrap it and start over.

Because that’s what you do in a rehearsal. You do a sight-read. You mark the difficult stuff, make notes for next time, maybe run through a few difficult figures, and then, following those notes, you do it again.

Sometimes a sight read sounds pretty great and you can just do the same thing over again with minor changes and work on sections at a time. Sometimes I can write a second draft with the first draft beside me, and literally transcribe whole scenes with a few minor edits as I rework the thing.

Sometimes a sight read crashes and burns and you take what you learned and go at it completely differently. Those times, I write the second draft blind, just remembering what worked (or working off a skeletal outline). This happens when I realize that I need to try a completely different perspective, for instance, or a different genre entirely.

There is, however, one significant difference between a draft and a rehearsal: you get to keep the bits of the drafts you like. While I generally like to retype the whole thing so that I’m processing each sentence again for flow and style, you don’t have to, and I don’t always. You can simply copy/paste sections. You can edit in the previous draft. That’s something the musician can’t do. They can record rehearsals for later reference, but ultimately the final performance is live (studio recordings work a little more like drafts, but even then not quite, and I don’t have intimate enough experience with studio recording to make that comparison exactly).

Sometimes in a rehearsal, there are rare, beautiful moments in which you long to be able to can what you just did and release it onto the stage. And that’s the key advantage we writers have: we can. But for everything else, it can help writers to think of their drafting more as rehearsal for the final version: not merely improving the project, but improving their own ability to write the project, so that the next time they write it, it will be better.

Time in rehearsal is never wasted, even if it can’t be kept. Drafting is never wasted, even if you keep nothing from it.

Paper Vs. LMS: Tech Tradeoffs

A few years ago, I abandoned paper in my classroom almost entirely. First I stopped taking major assignments in paper form, but a while after that I also started encouraging my students to bring their phones, laptops, and tablets to class to participate in class activities via a Google Doc instead of collecting class activities on paper. I’d put students in groups so that students who didn’t have a device with them could still participate via their partners’ devices, and generally it was beautiful technological chaos.

But something else happened that I hadn’t expected: I started getting sick less often. Just colds and sniffles and sore throats, the usual school year stuff that can happen to anyone, and it wasn’t a big deal, really. I was still floating around the classroom, interacting closely with students, but I wasn’t necessarily touching things they touched, or taking things they touched into my office with me for marking. And I was healthier for it.

Woman writing in a notebook
I miss my grading pens, yes, but I also don’t miss getting sick every time I collected a major assignment.
Photo via StockSnap

We’re almost a year into a pandemic, in which the roles and relationships of educators and students has been a question of near constant debate. Legislators are loudly concerned about “reopening schools,” parents are eager to put education back in the hands of professionals, and educators are, understandably, hesitant to work in traditional classrooms when there’s been no abatement in cases and there’s not enough vaccine to go around for everyone who wants it.

There’s absolutely no question that online teaching is safer, health-wise. Just like how in pre-pandemic times the simple shift from paper to online interactions reduced the number of colds I caught from my students, we can protect ourselves and our students by shifting to online spaces. That’s both anecdotal and scientifically supported. It really is that simple, and I fully endorse doing what is best for everyone’s safety and moving fully online in every possible way.

But I also have to acknowledge that there are tradeoffs in moving online. Learning Management Systems (LMSs) such as Canvas, Blackboard, and Moodle make managing these online systems easier, but, as I’ve discussed before in this space, they also shape the learning experiences in ways that may not be best practices or compatible with how we want to manage our own classes, and that’s a cost we have to account for.

When I used paper submissions for major assignments, I wrote all over my students’ papers. I playfully drew illustrations of concepts, diagrammed out ideas, used boxes and arrows to help them think about restructuring their work. There’s freedom in pen and paper that lets the mind work in a thousand creative ways. End comments were short because the margins did most of the talking, and I struggled to teach my students to read end comments first because end comments are the Big Picture while marginal comments are the details.

When I shifted to digital submissions, I delighted at how students could receive feedback immediately upon my completing the work with that individual submission (as opposed to waiting until whatever class period I had the whole section finished by) and how students missing class on the days I passed materials back was no longer a major logistical hurdle. I loved that I no longer had to carry a big bookbag around campus full of student work, but rather just a small laptop bag, or even just my tablet. I no longer felt the pain of watching students throw out their work, so meticulously marked up by my hand late at night, as they left the classroom. Online submission fixed a LOT of problems, including problems I didn’t even realize were problems.

But it also shifted the actual procedure in other ways. Now, I no longer had to coach students on how to read end comments first, but instead had to coach them on how to see comments at all. Canvas and Blackboard have some truly lovely marginal comments systems, but I couldn’t draw all over papers anymore, and neither delivers marginal comments in a way that I can trust that students will even see them. Generally, LMSs show students their grade in a notification, but hide comments behind “see more” type clicks that signal to students that all that matters is the grade (which we know is the least important part). End comments are easier to see than marginal comments now, which meant a shift in how I interacted with student work.

A laptop with a notebook and pen on one side and a smart phone and espresso cup on the other side.
Digital isn’t as much fun sometimes, but it’s MUCH SAFER for everyone!
Photo via StockSnap, as usual

As the years went on and I got more familiar with how my students were interacting with the digital feedback systems, the way I interacted shifted as well. I’m not currently doing any marginal comments unless students request it. Instead, I make a list of notes as I’m reading and drop that at the end of my end comment, with an explanation of “here are my reading notes.” I have to frame my comments with fewer arrows and “this” pointers, and instead describe where in the text I’m responding: “In the second paragraph, you say…”

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I miss the freewheeling drawings, of course, but it also forces me to think about my feedback from a student perspective rather than from an editor’s perspective, and the frame things in terms of what’s most important to say, since I also know that a very long comment is likely to be ignored by the student.

Obviously, I would love for LMSs to stop prioritizing grades and percentages over feedback. I would love an option where students have to view feedback first. However, I think in the balance of things, having the feedback stored in a central location and not subject to the many problems paper submission can cause, including problems in my own health, is a good thing.

LMSs, while designed by teams of people, are just tools. It’s up to us instructors to figure out how to use them well. But I think in the balance, although it’s certainly not how many of us were taught, we should be using them right now, and we should be thinking about how to optimize their use to reach our instructional goals.

In my case, this has meant shifting away from the creative multimodal feedback paper let me give students, but the reward is that I know that students can access feedback on their own terms as soon as it’s available. So it’s on me to make sure that feedback is of the best quality possible within the affordances of the LMS.

Promoting Student Choice

When I was a graduate student, I routinely had two sections of the same class. As a rule I generally kept them on the same syllabus and schedule, and I still do that now that I have four sections of the same class most semesters. It makes less work for me and lets me focus more on the maintenance of each course, which is still substantial labor.

However, this doesn’t always work, because, as most educators can readily tell you, every class has its own character. One semester in graduate school, it came to a crisis moment: I would run one section on the plans and everything went perfectly, students learned and applied concepts, and I would come out of each class floating on a balloon of satisfaction. Then I would teach the same lesson plan to my other section, and the balloon would pop, I would crash, and a bad time was had by all. It just wasn’t working. I couldn’t figure out what was broken. It couldn’t be my lesson plan, because it worked perfectly in one section, but I also refused to believe that I just had an entire class of inept students either. It wasn’t me, and it wasn’t the students, so what was wrong? And more importantly, how could I fix it?

Stock image of a notepad inscribed with "Today" and a blank numbered list underneath it.
What was wrong with the lesson plan?

At some point, as I was trying to work it out and analyzing my lesson plans for what was broken, my sister suggested something to me that should have been ridiculously obvious: make two lesson plans.

Initially I balked. That would double my prep load, and I had homework for classes, and it seemed like too much. That lasted about fifteen minutes before I realized it would work. So I made two lesson plans that day for my next class session: one continuing what I had been doing for the class it was working with, and one that completely flipped the structure of the lesson around for the other one and did everything slightly differently.

And, of course, it worked.

The second class immediately started responding better. So much stress around lesson planning disappeared. Sure, I had to make twice as many plans, but I wasn’t dreading the popped balloon feeling, so it got easier overall. I was teaching to the students I had, not the students I wanted.

This semester, as I have said, I am focusing on streamlining my courses, to make as few moving parts for my students to navigate as possible. We all need the break. They just want the credit for a required core course and to survive a pandemic. I just want them to learn the basic principles of the course and stay alive in a pandemic. We all just want it done, with as little friction as possible.

But there is one fiddly bit in the middle of the asynchronous online clockwork that I’m keeping: the students have two lesson plans to choose from each week, basically. They get to choose their course participation activity each week: either a synchronous Zoom session with me (with multiple sessions offered for scheduling ease) or an asynchronous written exercise.

Stock image of an open notebook and pen next to a laptop computer with a coffee cup in the background.
Write something or do yet another Zoom session? Your choice.

We’re about at the end of the first week, so I can now report how that’s going with a little confidence. And it’s going! There was, as there often is when students are given choices, some confusion about the whole choice thing. Students aren’t used to being given freedom and agency in their school work, which is a major failing of our entire education system and its conventions that needs addressed and is, in fact, being addressed in a thousand ways by educators all over the place. But by and large, student choice is an exception, not a rule, so that made them pause, and I got a lot of emails asking for assurance that students really did get a choice. Yes, yes they do, and I don’t mind answering all of those emails (those are the fun, easy emails).

On average, I’m seeing about 15% of my students choosing the Zoom lectures. I expect that number to vary over the course of the semester, as the rhythm of the semester makes stress levels ebb and flow. That’s similar to the numbers I was seeing using the recorded video lectures when I presented them with full transcripts as an alternative in previous online semesters. Some people want to see a face; most people, evidently, are ok with just reading at their own pace. That’s ok. What matters here is that students have a choice for whichever kind of instruction works best for them in a time when it probably feels like they have little control over their lives in general.

Is there a tradeoff in the choice? Yes. I am finding I’m getting more input from the students who chose the written activity, which means I feel like I actually am getting to know them better as individuals. However, the students who attended the lectures are getting an added benefit of immediate feedback from me and additional explanation of concepts. I think, overall, it’s pretty balanced and fair.

The semester will tell how effective this specific strategy for promoting student choice has been. However, I stand by the decision because giving students choices is very important to promoting a good learning environment. Choices matter. Agency matters.

Make It Simpler! Advanced Course Design

Despite all my best intentions, and no matter how early I get started on course prep, I’m at the last minute and still caught basically scrambling to put my courses together. That’s ok. I know what I’m doing. I’ve got over a decade of experience teaching college courses—in particular, these first year composition courses that I’m currently teaching—so I can trust that it’ll work out one way or another. But in the past few years, I’ve realized that there is one thing that makes classes better, every time: simplicity.

stock photo of three apples on gray wood boards.
One apple might be enough. Why do we need three?

Fashion icon Coco Chanel is often attributed as saying that you should take off one accessory before you leave the house. I’m thinking that the same kind of principle applies to your course design. We’re often tempted to add stuff: if I just add this, it will improve engagement, it will finally explain this concept, or whatever we want it to do. But I’m arguing today that instead, we should focus on what we can remove from our courses and still meet the course goals. This will make things easier for students and instructors alike, and let the quality stuff that’s left shine through.

I was occasionally teaching asynchronous online pre-pandemic, and as I’m prepping this semester, I’m looking at those courses for resources and inspiration to see what worked. Summer 2019 was a pretty successful semester; the students found it well scaffolded (they didn’t use those words, but in their evaluation comments, they remarked that the assignments built on each other and seemed relevant, which is a win). Something that struck me about the design of that course is how simple it is: almost no video lectures, nearly every assignment is directly contributing to the larger projects, and the expectations are repeatedly and openly stated in bullet point lists. I love it!

As I’m working on my current course design, I’m realizing that I could just use that course design, except it was made for 10 weeks and not 15. However, that’s not a bad thing! It met the same requirements and goals! So, I’m working on making the course as minimal as possible, and there’s a part of me that wonders if I’ve gone too far. The first week looks a bit… small.

But then I remember that this is my goal: simplicity. I’m clearly stating my goals not just to myself but to my students. And what’s there seems to meet those goals, including assessment and opportunities for feedback.

We’re all overworked and overstressed and undersupported. So, take one thing off your lesson plan before you call it done. See what happens. Think simple. You might even look back on it like I’m doing now with those Summer 2019 designs and think “That worked well. I should do that again.”

Fall 2021 Postmortem + New Semester’s Resolutions Spring 2021

As I’ve said before, I actually don’t consider the Covid semesters my “worst semester ever”; that honor is forever reserved for Fall 2019. However, although Spring 2020 was actually ok (all things considered), I will start by saying that Fall 2020 went badly for reasons that I probably could have prevented, and it is my intention to prevent it from happening again.

Normally I’d make my postmortem and my new semester’s resolutions two separate posts but these are very deeply connected topics this time, and also I needed to take a hiatus from the blog because, well, 2020 was a handful. So you get a double-header.

Stock photo of a red apple on a book.
Hey, it’s time for those apple pictures again!

Fall 2020 Postmortem

I was allowed to teach the past semester entirely online, at my request. I’m very, very thankful for this, and I can’t stress enough that my department has done a lot of excellent advocacy for us in small and large ways. I disagree with my university’s decisions with regard to the pandemic in a number of ways, but I have always felt like my department is putting its faculty, staff, and students first.

In my request to teach online, I argued that I can’t in good conscience be a potential vector for up to a hundred students, each of whom I would have prolonged contact with over the course of a week. It would be different if I were teaching, say, graduate seminars with perhaps ten students in each section, but I teach four sections of a first year writing course with 25 students enrolled in each. The numbers just multiply too quickly. And I feel entirely justified by the events of the semester; several of my students did get Covid-19 and, even though I only leave the house for essential errands such as groceries and medical appointments, I wound up having to quarantine because of exposure via my husband’s work. I only didn’t get Covid-19 myself this semester, despite literally doing everything in my power to abide by CDC guidelines, by some miracle (and probably my husband’s diligent mask wearing and social distancing). If I had been teaching in person, things might have gone much worse for me and my students.

That being said, most of the problems that I can identify with this semester did have to do with the online asynchronous nature of the course. I refuse to regret moving the course online, but there are things I might have done a lot better.

I’m not inexperienced with online teaching. I’ve taught asynch online on and off since graduate school, and I’ve generally been successful with it, to the point that I was beginning to think I was better at asynch online than in-person classes. However, I have always taught asynch online courses just one or two sections at a time, where I didn’t really notice the extra labor I was putting into them. This was the first time I had a full slate of four fully-enrolled sections at the same time. As it turns out, my feeling that I’m better as an online teacher than an in-person teacher might have been entirely about course load and class size, rather than modality.

I had a large number of students fail the course this semester. That’s not entirely surprising, with a pandemic going on, but it still hurts. Normally, I have a failure rate of perhaps 10% (2-3 per section), but this time it was over 25%. I’m not taking this personally, though, although I admit there may have been certain actions I could have taken that might have reduced that rate somewhat. I suspect part of the problem is that these students didn’t sign up for an online course. It was converted to online more or less at the last minute. This was per my request, but also because our administration was playing chicken with the semester and trying to limit the number of online-only courses, so I refuse to take sole responsibility for that decision and, as I said, I insist that it was the right decision. And, of course, much of the attrition is probably simply because of pandemic stressors of varying kinds, most of which I will never know about because students often simply stopped logging in, with no notification to me.

However, I think part of the failure of the semester had to do with relying too much on Canvas as a delivery portal when I was trying to do something that Canvas doesn’t like at all: namely, contract grading. I am not saying contract grading is bad; it’s certainly a good and tested model. I am saying that Canvas is not optimized for it, and there were certain aspects of the Canvas user interface that gave students wrong impressions, which might have been prevented in an in-person format where I might have been their first point of contact instead of the LMS.

I used reading quizzes, as I’ve done before in online classes, because they’re a quick and immediate way to reinforce key comprehension points for students. Even if they don’t do the reading, the quizzes are teaching tools that highlight the main points for them. However, I didn’t realize until the end of the semester that all my “complete/incomplete” marks on everything else were each being considered by Canvas as 1 point and the quizzes, designed to be the most insignificant part of the course, were being regarded by Canvas as 5 points each. This meant that I had students who literally did only the quizzes and believed that they had an A in the course because Canvas lied to them, despite my constant reminders in the syllabus, weekly emails, course announcements, etc. Because Canvas by default shows “current grades” to students without them even having to log into the course page itself, they believed Canvas before they even saw my messages. Without using a weighted grade system with points, the way that Canvas is optimized to do, there was simply no way to make my messaging about contract grading primary over the noise that Canvas’s system was blasting.

The other failure, which rests entirely on me and needs to be my primary focus going into the next semester, is that I didn’t prepare enough ahead, and as a result I wound up getting bogged down in course planning when I should have been grading, so feedback to students was not done in a timely way. This also likely decreased engagement, and definitely hurt their development as writers over the length of the course, because, while my assignments were well-scaffolded, they depended on utilizing feedback as well. I know that when my to-do queue on Canvas hits “99+”, I struggle to stay motivated and keep up; with over 100 online-only students doing 2+ assignments per week, it hit that number quick and never really went down until the last week. It was rough for me, and it was probably just as bad or worse for my students.

So, there are three things that were in my control that contributed to the failures of the past semester: failure to optimize the grading and feedback systems to the user interface of the course, inadequate preparation, and too-slow feedback to students on assignments. And that leads us to:

New Semester’s Resolutions Spring 2021

While there is more hope in general this semester, in that there will be a new administration and there is a vaccine getting distributed, the basic challenges of this semester will be very much the same as they were last semester. I’m still teaching all asynchronous online courses. But I believe this will go better, because experience is a good teacher, and I’m learning hard and fast.

I will be returning to my more traditional grading scheme this semester because I know how to make Canvas report that accurately more or less in real time, which will help the students. This is not an endorsement of traditional grading; far from it. However, it’s an acknowledgement that so long as I’m working within the strictures of Canvas, I will do well to optimize the user experience according to the platform’s affordances. It’s also an acknowledgement that this is not the time to force my students to relearn everything they know about education when they are already having to learn new instructional formats just to keep up, and their institutions aren’t giving them nearly enough breaks. What’s familiar or intuitive to the student here is probably what’s best.

I’m not sure that I’ll be able to do it, but my goal is to have more preparation going into the semester. I will balance this by having fewer required assignments per week. I am also offering students an option to attend Zoom synchronous “lectures” (discussions, really) in lieu of submitting certain exercises; this will reduce the grading load for myself and allow students more possible points of contact for engagement, to compensate for the complaint several students had that they felt like they had to “teach themselves” in the asynchronous structure.

Reducing the number of graded assignments will also help me with getting feedback to students in a more timely manner, which is a major priority. I will set clearer deadlines for myself about when which assignments need to be returned to students as well. For all those jokes about 2020 planners being a bad investment, I have found it even more necessary to use a planner to structure my life now that it’s all at home, so I will be doing even more of that. My planner is ready.

Finally, I’m optimistic because I’m teaching the second course in the series, for which we have a better online textbook and which I’ve generally been more successful with in scaffolding the assignments. The flow makes more sense.

Last semester I tried to experiment with my grading systems and it didn’t really work. This semester my resolution is simply to do what I know how to do better, really. I think it’s realistic, and I expect good things to come out of it.

Post NaNoWriMo Report: Accountability Matters

Final word count: 52,683

yellow cartoonish castle on purple background with text that says NaNoWriMo Winner 2020
The official 2020 winner banner

I have often emphasized that writing is not a solo endeavor, but an inherently social activity. In fact, this is one of the reasons I chose to study writing instead of botany: I wanted something a little more social (I was very naive when I made that choice, so please forgive me, botanists with active social lives). And, despite the irony of not being able to have the usual fall writing-related social events, I think my relatively easy success with NaNoWriMo this year really reiterates the importance of the social aspects of writing, even and especially in the early stages of the writing process.

There isn’t much research on NaNoWriMo, despite its having been around for twenty-one years (and my best efforts, which have generally failed for procedural reasons), apart from mostly anecdotal personal narratives on the topic. The best study I’ve read on NaNoWriMo is a small study on a single write-in at a university library1, and its findings are pretty modest: write-ins result in words written for the participants. This is unsurprising, but nevertheless important.

This year, because of Covid-19, the NaNoWriMo Headquarters mandated that all events had to be virtual. However, from what I could tell in my position as ML, the result was about the same: participants who attended events had large spikes in word counts on the days of events, and generally were more likely to win. The write-ins for my region were held in an old IRC chat channel set up for NaNoWriMo use years ago, and that worked really well, both to facilitate some general chatter and to run word wars.

This year, I kept above par every day, even the one day I wrote less than a thousand words. This was, in short, an unusually easy year for me. I attribute this to three things:

  1. I was an Municipal Liaison for the first time this year
  2. I streamed my writing sessions live on Twitch
  3. The rhythm of writing a novel in the fall was comforting and escapist
Graph showing pretty steady writing progress over the month, approximately one day ahead of goal most days
My writing chart for the month. I make this look easy.

There are municipal liaisons who do not finish at 50k, of course, and winning isn’t a requirement for the job, but I do think that there’s an added pressure to “lead by example” in this position. One of the requirements, of course, is that you attempt NaNoWriMo yourself. The position is strictly volunteer, but part of its role is encouraging your local writers (which is really fun!), and one of the consequences of encouraging other people is that you wind up encouraging yourself. Another aspect is being available for events; I am the only one in my region who attended every single event our region had, because obviously I was “hosting” them. Since we know that attending events has a positive impact on word count and winning, then obviously attending every single event would have made it far more likely for me to do well.

Likewise, the streaming on Twitch created additional social pressure to do well. It was a commitment to the novel: stream every day, write every day, let people know when you’re writing. Sure, most days no one was actually watching, but there was always the possibility that someone might be watching. It’s a similar effect as happens when I’m writing in a café or library (in non-pandemic times), where the social pressure of being caught distracted results in more focus on the task at hand. In essence, I was turning my own home into a public space; that is, socially situating my writing process by sharing it with, potentially, anyone. In practice, just like in a cafe, no one really cares if you’re distracted, but the public nature of the setting still applies such pressure.

Finally, I do think in a weird way the pandemic made me more willing to write. I found myself looking forward to it every day. I’m working asynchronously and I’m struggling to stay motivated with no clear schedule or really any social pressure to work (at least in my office, I had an office mate and a sense of guilt if I got too distracted on university property). But the writing gave me a clear permission and schedule for breaks, as well as something to do that would have, honestly, been no different than if there were no pandemic. Every November, I write 50k of a novel. That’s not negotiable. Not even Covid could take it away from me.

I will note that all three of these things resulted in feeling very supported this year, too. I’ve heard horror stories and known too many people, especially women, whose partners actively discouraged writing and especially things like NaNoWriMo where the writing doesn’t seem to have any purpose (you don’t win prizes, you don’t get published automatically, and you don’t even necessarily finish the story). Along with the friends I’ve made through NaNoWriMo and the friends who know me as a writer and support me in that role, I have to give some credit to my husband, who every day asked “When are you writing today?” and made sure to stay quietly out of my way for that time each day, and also taught himself how to use streaming and image editing software to make me streaming assets for my Twitch writing streams.

Chart showing daily word counts, ranging from slightly under a thousand to about 2500.
My daily word counts for the month. Notice that I didn’t actually write 1667 words per day; some days I didn’t even hit 1,000 words. It’s ok.

Novels don’t happen on their own. Inspiration certainly does, but novels require regular commitments and various kinds of social support and pressure to happen. Getting big projects done requires some kind of accountability. Internal drive often isn’t enough to make significant progress.

I’m going to keep streaming this novel until it’s finished. It’ll only be 2-3 times per week now, but having put it on a schedule means I’m making renewed commitment. Is it the best novel I’ve ever conceived? Nah. But I like it well enough I want to see it through to the end. And because I’ve truly come to appreciate accountability in the past month.

Citation:
1Watson, Alex P. “NaNoWriMo in the AcadLib: A Case Study of National Novel Writing Month Activities in an Academic Library.” Public Services Quarterly No. 8, pp. 136-145, 2012.

NaNoWriMo 2020 Update #3

Par today is 31,673 words.

As of writing this, I’m at 31,865 words. I haven’t written for today yet. So it’s still safe to say I’m doing all right this year.

Today i want to ask: Why do you write?

Everyone writes for different, often deeply personal reasons. I’ve been thinking about these reasons a lot in the past week, in conversations with other NaNoWriMo participants.

Some people write merely because it’s fun. Some people write because they’re reclaiming their voice after trauma or abuse. Some people write because they are working through mental health conditions, and the writing helps in some way. Some people write simply for love of words or the genre that they’re working in.

Whatever the reason for writing, it’s valid and it’s important. And it’s important not to lose sight of that reason for writing.

When I was in high school, I read an essay by Isaac Asimov in which he wrote “I write for the same reason I breathe: because if I did not, I would die.” [I don’t know if that’s the exact quote but I know it’s close]. It’s the kind of words that stick with you, and especially for someone like myself, who writes in part as a way of managing mental health problems (as I’ve written about before).

I don’t think it’s that dramatic for most people, of course. And most people will never be as prolific as Asimov, and that’s ok. He’s an outlier. But I do think it’s important to acknowledge that for so many of us, storytelling is how we feel human, and it’s how we have fun.

But I think it’s also important to acknowledge that sometimes the fun disappears, and when that happens, it may not be worth forcing the words either. If we started writing to feel better, perhaps we should stop writing when the writing makes us feel worse. Or at the very least, take a step back and try to remember why we fell in love with words in the first place.

Imagine, for instance, you had a sport you really loved. Let’s say basketball? That’s a sport people love, right? You play basketball because it gives you life. It makes you feel human and helps you work through stuff. It feels good.

But you get caught up in your numbers and stats, and you join a team that pushes you to play all the time. It’s fun for a while. Then, imagine you get an injury. Maybe one of those injuries that isn’t really dramatic at first, like tendonitis. Doing layups now hurts sometimes, and it seems to be getting worse, not better. Your teammates push you to “drive through it”. If you keep pushing, though, you’re just going to keep making it worse. You need rest. You need to work through the tendonitis, take some time away from basketball and focus on getting better. But you listen to your teammates, and you keep playing, even though it hurts, even though you’re ignoring what your body is telling you. Pretty soon, instead of basketball being your place of solace and fun, it becomes another locus of trauma.

I’ve had tendonitis (for all my performative “I don’t know sports,” it’s actually an old ice skating injury that comes back now and then) and while the solution isn’t to stop being active completely (that can actually make it heal slower), it does require being aware of when things hurt and taking a break when your body says to, and doing certain exercises and treatments alongside gentle activity to keep you in tune with your muscles and joints rather than fighting against them. That’s why I chose it for the metaphor, really; it took me literally a year to get it treated because I thought it was just a bruise or something and thought I could just push through it. And sometimes it comes back, and that means taking bodily inventory again and returning to the treatments.

My point is that writing can, if we don’t tend to it carefully and respect what our emotions and word counts are telling us, become as much pain as the things we use writing to escape from or manage, and I think it’s worth acknowledging that.

For me, NaNoWriMo is an important part of the year’s rhythm, a time when I reconnect with fiction writing and it just feels wrong not to do it at this point. But I have a nagging feeling that there’s something about NaNoWriMo that doesn’t work for a lot of people, and I think it may even be deleterious to some people. And I wonder if it isn’t some of the same effect that certain traditional pedagogical strategies have had on so many student writers who come to me damaged, saying “I’m not a writer” and “I can’t write.”

I don’t know if the year will come when I have to sit out NaNoWriMo for a writing-related injury (to extend my metaphor). I don’t know if the day will come when it hurts. But I do know that there are people for whom NaNoWriMo feels like trying to keep playing when you have an injury, and I think their perspective here matters.

If the writing isn’t fun anymore, if it’s not giving you something back, then it isn’t worth doing. Write because you want to write. Your reasons are your own, but if those reasons are no longer being served, there is no reason to force yourself to keep writing. I’m not saying that you should quit entirely; the reasons you started writing are likely still there. I’m saying that it’s ok to take a step back and gather yourself together; not everything needs to be done in 1,667 word increments.

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