Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Scaffolding and the Writing Process

So one of the things that I'm doing this semester is I'm putting together an online course (for the first time) that will serve as a capstone to an interdisciplinary program on campus. This will be the very first time this course is offered in any form, so other than having to meet the requirement that it's writing intensive and that students do their own research, and that it's online, I can do whatever I want.

I've been working on this course over the past week or two (conceptualizing it - I'll be dealing with the tech stuff once I've got the other stuff going a bit) and most of my time has been spent thinking about how to foster conversation in a class where we will never meet. Also, given the writing intensive requirement of the course, I've been thinking about how to structure writing assignments and link them together so that the course builds to a crescendo in terms of sophistication and difficulty.

One of the things that I've spent the most time thinking about in this context, though is how informality and conversation are essential to strong formal writing. In the material classroom (as opposed to the virtual), it is rare that I lecture in more than 5-minute increments, and I think that one of the things that I do best as a teacher is to get a conversation going in a classroom, in which students are responding to one another and not just spitting out answers to questions that I ask. I do a lot of small group discussion and activities that get students jotting down ideas so that they can then bring those ideas to the larger group. On the one hand, a benefit of this sort of teaching style is that it makes the time in class fly by for them and for me. On the other, though, students are getting practice with taking risks because in these situations, they can't labor over each sentence, ponder the consistency of their responses and eliminate anything that offends consistency, think about what I want to hear from them and then produce it. There just isn't time for all of that, all of that which I think we typically associate with written - as opposed to spoken - language.

As I've taught more, I've come to really see these sorts of informal forums for analysis (whether it's group work, participating on a class discussion board, trading incredibly rough drafts in peer review) as crucial to pushing students beyond competent and yet somehow stale writing. I've built more "levels" of writing into my syllabus, so that students are doing some writing that is no-stakes (in-class, not to be turned in); some that is low-stakes (informal but to be turned in for credit though not assigned a formal grade); some that is medium stakes (more formal, assigned a letter grade, but worth only a small amount of the final grade); some that is high stakes (conventional analysis essays or research papers, worth a substantial portion of the final grade). By building in these four "levels" of writing activity, I think I've provided my students a framework within which they've become deeper thinkers, more complicated thinkers, and stronger writers.

And in thinking about this, I've also been thinking about the ways in which I practice writing or do writing (notice: I'm not using the word "produce" here, which I associate only with the most formal writing) and I think that most frequently I write at the first three levels, and only rarely do I engage in the fourth. If I were to break it down, I'd say that no-stakes writing would be my journal; low-stakes would be emails to friends; medium stakes would be my blog, syllabi, other work-related documents like emails to colleagues and students; high stakes would be reserved for publication-type writing. All of the other kinds of writing that I do contribute to the high stakes writing, but they aren't as pressured, and I am much freer in those forums than I am in my high stakes writing situations.

I suppose the point, though, is that I see each of these "levels" as part of a whole and I don't tend to value one over the other, not really. Sure, as the levels increase the difficulty becomes greater, and that should be acknowledged. When I'm writing in a high-difficulty medium I don't deem the others in which I write valueless. And I definitely think the lower levels of writing in terms of what I do in the classroom are much more important to me than the higher levels. I see my students thinking in levels 1-3, and I see their process. So no, I don't blast them for being inconsistent in that kind of writing, and I welcome inconsistency not because I'm uncritical but because to me that's where new ideas happen. It is possible to enter into conversation with those ideas, not uncritically but with generosity and a willingness to explore where the other person might have been coming from or what they might have been trying to articulate. Those conversations allow students and me to explore inconsistency and in trying to resolve the dissonance between inconsistent ideas we come up with new answers to old problems. So when my students offer inconsistent or ambivalent or confused responses outside of Level Four writing situations, I ultimately think it's a good thing. When *I* do so outside of Level Four writing situations, I think it's a good thing. Or if not a good thing, I certainly don't think it's a failure.

The thing that attracts me to blogging is its flexibility. That it operates for me as a space in which I can do Level 2-3 writing, a space that otherwise wouldn't be available. I know that other people conceive of blogging in a much higher-stakes sort of way, because it is writing that is public. I wonder, though, if we conceive of all public writing as high stakes writing what that means in the online classroom. When conversation is written, does that mean it's automatically ok to blast one's peers for something like inconsistency? When conversation is written, does that mean that one can't risk speaking an idea that might be off the wall or that one can't offer an idea to which one isn't whole-heartedly committed? I'm sure you can guess my answers to these questions. Obviously I think there's something great about the notion that one can think through writing and converse through writing without having it be a high stakes activity. And that, I've got to say, is my biggest goal in the online class: to facilitate that kind of medium-stakes and low-stakes conversation and to take steps to foster engaged conversation as opposed to dogmatic debate or silence from the students while I pontificate. This is what happens in my classroom in real life, and I don't want to lose that when I teach online.

And, in fact, it's this desire for a new way of thinking about writing and through writing that led me to blogging in the first place. I was excited by the freedom of movement of this genre, and the ability to operate in writing outside of discursive conventions that drive my published academic writing, conventions that don't really feel natural to me (because they are masculinist? because I'd rather talk less formally? Because I tend to like writing that's a bit messier than the finest that the PMLA has to offer?). It felt like a form of writing that not only allowed for conversation but also that generated it. There are times when I wonder whether I was an idiot for thinking that I'd find all of that in this medium. Because there are many out there who aren't really very interested in conversing. Not that they're not interested in commenting or debating or critiquing - for they are - but they're not really interested in conversing. And I think that is because they see this medium as one with much higher stakes than I do. I think that they don't see it as flexible or as offering an opportunity to chat with friends. So does that mean I'm an idiot, because I see it differently? Nah. I think that it means that I've found the right niche for what I want from the blogosphere. Because I find all that 99% of the time on the blogs that I read. It's only that 1% that makes me question the possibility of such exchange.


k8 said...

Yes! Comp/rhet k8 concurs!! I prefer the conversational tone in blogs. I don't particularly admire much of the writing in PMLA - so much of it seems to be written in a way that alienates/creates borders between academic classes, if you will. Maybe it's the librarian in me, maybe it's the comp/rhet part of me, or maybe it's both, but I prefer accessibility much in the way that bell hooks discusses the potential and possibility for accessibility in academic writing that most academics ignore.

I don't know that I've ever assigned levels to writing in the way you just did, but it really makes sense. I'm all about scaffolding writing in the classroom and providing space for unassessed writing. My students have blogs for journals, which allows them to converse with their classmates online (ok, I do require them to respond to at least one classmate). Typically, by the end of the first couple of weeks, they are clearly writing for and to each other and not for me, the teacher. Definite tone shift! I love it! And the space to do this type of writing is so important.

The online course sounds like a great challenge. I've always wanted to have the opportunity to put one together.

Jenny Davidson said...

Yes, the right niche! I too am an avid conversationalist, and find my blogging voice (I hope productively) affecting my literary-critical one for sure...

Now that I read blogs through Google Reader, I rarely find myself commenting, but just wanted to take this moment to say how much I've been enjoying your thought-provoking sequence of musings on these topics around academic writing and thinking and teaching. Very interesting and rewarding!

Sisyphus said...

it is rare that I lecture in more than 5-minute increments, and I think that one of the things that I do best as a teacher is to get a conversation going in a classroom, in which students are responding to one another and not just spitting out answers to questions that I ask.

Ah, I wish I had this skill! It's probably my weakest point as a teacher.

This is another great post working through such great ideas about risk and practice and building scaffolding and whatnot! Heh, I wonder what _possibly_ could have inspired you to contemplate informality and inconsistency in writing!

Seriously, all this thinking about teaching and writing and voice is great and really making me think through it too.

Dr. Crazy said...

One thing that I think works really well for getting an actual conversation going - well, actually two things:

1) Get them into small groups to come up with their own questions about the material - for maybe 10 minutes tops. Then, when you open up discussion, they're the ones asking the questions. Usually another group will have had a similar question, and so I say, why did you guys both come up with that do you think? And they're off!

2) Also, remember that close reading exercise that I mentioned a while back? That, or any sort of warm-up writing or warm-up thinking helps. The idea is that a lot of times students won't respond cold - instead, you need to give them time to think of some things to say first, which makes them more comfortable. Also, if you do the thing where the rest of the class is responding to what was written - not to the person speaking - it can make the class more comfortable to converse because it distances the ideas from the person.

Dr. Crazy said...

Oh, and another idea - just moving them into a circle makes them more likely to talk back and forth to one another. Sometimes the room won't make that possible, but if you can do it, it's a good trick.

dr zombieswan said...

Dr. Crazy: point 1, the "your own questions about the topic" sounds wonderful. I hadn't thought of that option! I will definitely use it. Probably NEXT WEEK. :)

Thanks. :)