• April 18, 2014

Gun-to-the-Head Writing

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

I hated in-class writing assignments when I was a student, which is why I never assign them now as a faculty member.

I understand that a lot of pedagogical literature and anecdotal experience would suggest that my view is misguided. This column is not an argument against anyone else's choice to make students write in class with a gun to their heads. I just don't like it. I want my in-class time to be interactive and useful, and I want my writing time to be for writing.

Sure, it can be helpful in jump-starting class discussions to have students write down a few ideas. So, on occasion, I pose a question in class and ask students to record their answers—in bullet points, not in paragraphs. But it pains me to do even that. In the past, when I've had to sit through in-class writing exercises, I could see people straining for language that they thought was poetic, concentrating on trying to be writerly and crafty, instead of focusing on generating ideas. I'd rather have a bunch of jotted notions than a pile of tortured prose that gets applause because it sounds the way some students think it should.

I do, however, love sending students home with short written assignments. Years ago, one of my graduate students in creative nonfiction—who also happened to be a professor of physics—gave a name to what I consider to be one of my best practices. Computer scientists, she said, set aside a place to play with bits of code and called it a sandbox—an area to try out the untested, or even to segregate the questionable.

Each week I give students a writing prompt as homework and ask them to treat it as an in-class writing exercise. They post their essays online in a place we've come to call "the sandbox." They aren't expected to produce a polished piece of work; I tell them to spend about 30 minutes on it. Because it's available online for other students in the class to read, it's more public than a journal entry but less stressful than a graded paper or an essay submitted for critique. The sandbox allows students to play, to take risks, and to show off for their peers.

Sometimes I'll ask students to imitate a certain writing style in the sandbox. Sometimes we'll focus on a particular skill, such as ending a piece with a periodic sentence or managing different time frames. And sometimes I'll just give them a topic and let them have at it. Students never complain about writing for the sandbox, and they often spend far more than 30 minutes on it. Many of my students have published essays that started out in the sandbox.

I use other tactics to avoid in-class writing assignments as well. For example, I ask students to post all of their critical and analytical essays online. They read one another's work, and by the time we meet in person we're already engaged in a conversation. Often, at the beginning of class, one student will say to another, "I really liked what you said about ... " or "I totally don't agree with you, dude," and we're off and running.

In my experience, when students know they are performing for one another, and will have to defend their ideas in class, it provokes them to do better work and harder thinking. While I am late to pretty much every technological development, I cannot now imagine teaching a course without a Web component. I love using the online discussion section to allow students who are more comfortable writing than speaking up in class to "out" themselves as smart. And some of the big talkers in the classroom expose their weaknesses in posting on the discussion section.

In short, I can see how writing in class stimulates thinking and catalyzes discussion. It's just that I don't want to do it during my class time. It feels like babysitting, or like being shushed in the library. I can also understand why teachers find the practice useful: It can lower the temperature of the room. But in undergraduate classes, in graduate courses, and in professional-development seminars for faculty members, I want the in-person time to be boisterous and lively. The more sophisticated and advanced the audience, the more this kind of exercise rubs me the wrong way.

A while ago I attended a talk about academic writing and productivity. I am sure that many of the faculty members in the audience found it helpful, and much of the general advice aligned with my own ideas. But when asked to spend 15 minutes of the hour we had writing a dialogue between myself and whatever I had determined to be my writing problem—procrastination, perfectionism, impatience—I could not bring myself to put pen to paper. I bridled at being told to write a script that began, as the speaker suggested, "Hello, Perfectionism" to see what my perfectionism had to say to me. Like Bartleby, I preferred not to.

One of the things we want to inculcate in students, it seems to me, is the ability to marshal thoughts in order to engage in discussion. The "how will I know what I think until I see what I say?" method of writing before responding verbally probably works well for those students who are reticent, or uncertain, or shut out by the big talkers. That's important.

But I use other ways to handle that, too, than an in-class writing task. When I first started teaching I learned a great trick from a colleague. At the beginning of each term, I ask students to wait until three to five (depending on the size of the class) other people have had a chance to contribute before they speak again. Rather than sit in silence while the chatty ones wait their turn to speak again, even the most reserved students will jump in to fill an uncomfortable conversational lull. The big talkers begin to police themselves, and sometimes one another, which allows those who are not as quick on the draw to have a chance to talk. It's just a different way to change the temperature of the room.

And so I continue doing what I can to avoid in-class writing assignments, both for my students and myself. What, I wonder, is it that so bugs me about this common practice?

Perhaps it has to do with my own ideas about process. At every public reading I go to—and in my field, I go to a lot of them—when the audience is laypeople rather than other writers, someone always asks the process question. When do you write? Where do you write? What do you write on (computer, legal pad, etc.)? How long do you write for?

Each writer gives an answer all her own. Sometimes the answers sound similar (mornings; at a desk facing a window), but I know that copying someone else's habits—or their teaching strategies—is about as useful as trying to get the same haircut. It's always going to look and feel different.

Rachel Toor is an associate professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University's writing program in Spokane. Her Web site is http://www.racheltoor.com. She welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com.

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