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Writing in Public (in the Classroom)

A few weeks ago my ProfHacker colleague Mark Sample posted a wonderful article on his personal blog, “On Reading Aloud in the Classroom.” In that post, Mark takes on the perception shared by many in our field that “Asking students to take turns reading a text aloud offends our sensibilities as literature professors. It’s remedial. Childish.” Instead, Mark argues alongside Sheridan Blau, “one of the most powerful tools at the disposal of readers is rereading. And reading aloud—reading out loud—is in turn one of the most powerful ways of rereading.”

In this post I want to reflect in a related way about in-class writing, which I think of as writing in public—an idea distinct from, though not always separate from, writing for the public). I suspect that many of us ask students to do some kind of writing in class: whether reflecting on the day’s topic, responding to a brief prompt, or outlining their ideas. I include those kinds of writing-to-learn activities in my classes as well. We may also run in-class peer review workshops when our students are working on longer-form writing, so that they can get feedback from their peers and improve their texts. How often, however, do we devote class time to students actually composing?

I suspect not much. The reasons for this are many. We have no time. There’s so much material to cover (Mark’s ProfHacker post, “Teaching for Uncoverage Rather than Coverage” could perhaps prove instructive here). We want students to take responsibility for their workload. We simply think of student writing as homework, not class work. We don’t want to engage in activities that seem, to borrow Mark’s bogey-word again, remedial.

The past few semesters, however, I’ve been devoting substantial time to in-class work on formal writing assignments. We usually schedule time in a computer lab on these days, so that each student will have access to research and writing tools. Each time I’ve done this, I’ve realized more benefits to both my students and to me. Each time I’ve resolved to think more deliberately about how to bring formal writing into my classes. So what are some of these benefits?

  1. Writing in class forces students to think and plan ahead. Okay, so this is a little bit like handholding. My first-year students, however, really do benefit from being coerced into thinking ahead. If they spend an hour in my class planning and beginning to write their papers, the worst case scenario will be that they don’t return to their work until the night before it’s due—but at least they’re returning to it, rather than beginning it. In class, students engage with their writing in a way many of them (I suspect) don’t in their dorms, etc.—it’s direct, focused. I do see part of my job as helping my students develop good scholarly habits, and prodding them to write early advances that pedagogical goal.
  2. Writing in class gives students direct access to me as they think through their ideas. Students can visit their professors during office hours, but they often don’t take the opportunity, especially if they’re younger students who don’t fully understand what office hours are for. While they’re writing in class, however, students are not shy about soliciting my opinion. I usually spend these hours moving quickly from raised hand to raised hand, helping students both generate and then develop their ideas. These brief interventions are immediately helpful for my students and often fun for me, as I get to watch concepts begin to click in my students’ minds.
  3. Writing in class allows us to address common questions or concerns as a group. Students in the same class often share similar anxieties, but they often believe they’re struggling alone. When we write together, however, we often identify shared questions or concerns and can pause to solve them together. This happens in a few ways. Sometimes I discern a common concern because I hear it frequently as I circulate. Othertimes one student will overhear her colleague’s question and move closer to hear my answer. Whenever I ask students to write together, these conversations emerge organically, and generate discussions that are often more productive—because they’re so closely connected to what students are doing at that moment—than typical classroom discussions.

In short, the change of pace and setting required for in-class writing generates new observations, questions, and interactions that I’ve found useful to my classes. Writing in public allows students to benefit from that public in a number of ways. I’ve surely sacrificed some content to in-class writing—the few extra poems or short stories we could have read—but the exchange has been worth it. How about you? Do you ask students to write in class? Tell us about your in-class writing in the comments.

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user Wiertz Sébastien.]

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