Mentor and writer Ethel Morgan Smith said to me several years ago, “In order to write well, you have to read. Read. READ.” Of course, with that statement came pressing weight of context: you don’t just read a book, an essay, a scholarly paper—you read it critically. By investigating the machinery of the text we can find the pieces that fit together, or those that might fight together in different processes. Doing so gives the writer a sense of self-awareness. Without critical thinking, how are we to gauge our own mind’s eye?
More than once I’ve heard a writer mention how she or he had no idea how their work would be received by others. It is my philosophy that if you explore enough through other works – masterful and fledgling, classic and experimental – you’ll begin a binary relationship that joins writing and reading with one another. This exploration process will help you to experiment find your writing voice.
Peter Elbow is renowned for his practice of “prewriting,” but he also expressed, along with other “early composition scholars,” that composing was of a “personal and private nature” (Clark, et al., 2012). Writing (and reading, I would argue) is tremendously private and personal. Often some of us will turn up the volume in a car in order to belt out lyrics with voices that we never reveal to others, although our transparent windows may reveal our enthusiasm. But writing and reading seldom come with transparent windows. We have to build them. To do so we need confidence, and that is where experimentation fits in this scaffolding.
Classrooms are wonderful laboratories to break down boundaries. As a leader, an instructor, lecturer or professor must facilitate these steps. I am never opposed to reading something personal I wrote, especially for publication. Students then learn that my oratory is given with confidence—but I ensure they can also see inside where I was once apprehensive.
Elbow’s prewriting, or freewriting, or other prompt-driven exercises are a core part of my curriculum. I allow students to prime their engines and to get into the framework of moving from speaking and gesticulating to translating that speech into text, and those gestures into punctuation.
When I feel a student is ready, I offer the student a chance to share with the group. And one by one, most of the class follows, eager to be part of the conversation. I allow, initially, “soft comments,” which are generally supportive. To do this, I prompt students with questions like, “What worked for you?” “Where do you see the author taking risks?”
Later in the semester, when confidence and trust has been poured into the foundation, I allow critical remarks – again – under prompts that elicit emotion, feedback, compound responses, and framework-building. Usually this is done under a workshopping model that creative writers use, but pared down for use of students of all disciplines: engineers, scientists, artists, athletes, etc.
Atypically of some of my peers, I believe this replaces the peer review model, where students assess one another via editing and one-on-one work. The collaborative sphere is much more dynamic, and echoes the social networking world and new aesthetics of design thinking—different people of differing disciplines coming together to offer a rounded perspective. In our present world we have special interest groups out-competing, rhetorically, scientists, for example, when talking about climate change. Scientists write technically and usually in quantifiable datasets. Professional rhetors and public relations people can outcompete most scientists when it comes to presenting pathos and perspective-based ethos to the public. Scientists offer logos, and thusly are doomed to a one-dimensional argument, not unlike a peer-to-peer review where an English student works with an engineering student. The outcome is lopsided.
At Northern Illinois University’s Freshman Year Composition Program Showcase (ENGL 104), students have an opportunity to build upon the tenets of a research model. They are indoctrinated with APA style, abstracts, literature reviews, evaluative summaries, and bibliographies/webographies. Finally, they compose a research question that addresses an issue that they propose to answer via implementation and execution. In lieu of national or global issues, I choose to have my students look locally, think locally, and to concentrate on primary sources that consist of interviews and surveys, along with parallel examples that consist of books, news stories, and peer-reviewed research. Although this may be more difficult, I’ve found that this active mode of learning on a localized level offers a tangible approach to research while serving the community.
This philosophy reverberates the core of “The Showcase.” Using my creative writing background from the University of Illinois, and my journalism background from West Virginia University, my position as publications manager for Parkland College, writer for various papers, and developmental editor for Fitness Information Technologies, I have learned that design theory, community involvement, and direct contact with research sources defeats the spatial discontinuity of the Internet, offering students a chance to have a direct experience with people around them, and not just digitally. In an age of copy and paste images and retweets, a primary source is more important than ever.
That being said, I also heavily rely upon technology in the digital world when teaching. My students save all work in the “the cloud,” and learn how to utilize interactive documents such as Google Docs, social media tools on an ethical and investigative level. While the cloud doesn’t offer the tactile artifact of a written paper (and there are certain advantages to handwriting documents), it does keep a perpetual copy available for editing and submission, as well as a record for students to build a website, eportfolio, or keep for employment and education prospects, and future paper submissions.