revisionspiral reboot!

balancing-stonesThis blog, the third iteration of revisionspiral, is devoted to “balancing” the demands and whims of being a professor at a teaching-focused institution. I used the scare quotes around “balancing,” but I might as well have also used them around a few other words in that sentence . . . it’s complicated! Let me explain.

Balancing. Some people think “balance” means giving equal attention to multiple things, while others conflate it with the concept of “everything in moderation.” My take is that things are in balance when you’re not collapsing from too much or not enough of anything (too many meetings or not enough sleep, for example), and the things you value–work, family, community-engagement, whatever–are all getting enough of your attention that you are not plagued by feelings of guilt.

Demands. This can be a tricky term with faculty, who I think, often confuse what they wish they could do or what their colleagues are doing with demands of their jobs. For example, I may have an over-achieving colleague who publishes three articles a year or a chair who is leaning on me to join a work-intensive committee, and I may feel a lot of pressure to publish more to keep up with the over-achieving colleague or to join the committee to placate my pushy chair, but the fact is, in this example, neither publishing more nor joining another committee are true demands of my position. I think one of the keys to “balance” is recognizing when something is really a demand of our job and when it is something else.

Professor. Adjunct instructor, lecturer, professor . . . there are lots of terms. Do you profess? In front of others who have paid for the privilege? Does an institution of higher learning issue you a paycheck for this activity? If you answered yes to these three question, you are who I’m talking about.

Teaching-focused institution. It seems like all institution presents itself to potential students as teaching-focused, but I’m talking about the institutions in which faculty are expected to put more energy into teaching than into research. The more might mean a tiny bit more or it might mean that the expectation is that all your energy goes to teaching.

Here are some of the topics I anticipate covering here:  

  • Making and defending time to research and write
  • Finding ways to integrate your teaching and research
  • Keeping email, meetings, and other tedium to a minimum so you can focus on more meaningful things
  • Noticing the differences between Demands and demands (capital D versus little d) so you can make deliberate decisions about how to focus your attention
  • Resisting the culture of academic elitism that often makes those of us at teaching-focused institutions feel defensive about what we do
  • Teaching strategies that promote social justice

Responding to Student Writing

Responding to your students’ writing is one of the most important responsibilities of a writing instructor. Thoughtful, specific, and focused instructor comments can help students improve their writing as much, if not more, than your lively, engaged presence in the classroom.

Some things to keep in mind:

  1. Consider your commentary part of your teaching practice. As such, it should be consistent with your classroom instruction. For example, if you tell students in the classroom that they should prioritize higher order concerns, such as focus and development, over surface features, such as grammar and punctuation, then you should make more comments about focus and development than you do about grammar and punctuation.
  2. Time your feedback so that students receive it in time to process it and apply it to their next piece of writing. To make this work, you’ll need to take into account your response time when scheduling due dates for assignments.
  3. Limit your comments to no more than two—or at most three—significant items so that students will not be overwhelmed and discouraged. Research shows that most students cannot prioritize instructor comments, so that a comment about typos gets the same amount of weight as a comment about an unclear thesis statement; limiting your comments to no more than two or three significant items helps you focus on the most important features that need your feedback, and this in turn makes it more feasible for students to process and use your feedback. Nancy Sommers recommends that instructors ask themselves, “What are two things I can teach this student in my comments on this paper?” Think of your comments as “teaching moments” rather than “corrections” or merely grade justifications. To do this, you’ll need to first skim the paper in its entirely before writing anything.
  4. Restrain yourself from editing the student’s paper. Most students learn very little—if anything—from having their papers edited. Instead, edit one paragraph and write a comment in the margin about the patterns of error you’ve noticed. Avoid simply labeling errors as most students don’t know what our jargon means. Remember that the audience for your feedback is students, and use language they can easily and quickly comprehend.
  5. Make your comments specific, descriptive, and clear. The irony of the marginal comment “be specific” (without any explanation) is not lost on all students. Once you begin to see your comments as part of your teaching practice, you’ll want to make your comments more closely mimic the kind of conversation you would have with a student during office hours about a piece of writing. It’s easier to write fuller, more specific comments when you comment on fewer things, too.
  6. Create a handout for the entire class that comments on features that the class as a whole did very successfully or less than successfully. This will help you reduce the amount of time you spend writing the same comments on each student’s paper. This is tip that can only really work if you first skim the entire batch of papers without writing any comments.
  7. Reframe how you think about responding to student writing. Instead of thinking of it as “grading” (which foregrounds grade justification) or correcting (which foregrounds student errors), think about it as “reading,” “responding,” “giving feedback,” or another more positive term. You may be surprised to see what a difference this small shift can make in your attitude toward responding to student writing, which will likely make it feel less like a chore and more like another part of your teaching practice.

For more ideas, read Traci Gardner’s “Ten Ways to Respond to Student Drafts.” 

How to Read Student Writing for Content

I encourage instructors, tutors, and education students to train themselves to read student writing for content (or Higher Order Concerns) rather than error (or Lower Order Concerns). After reading Joseph Williams’ “The Phenomenology of Error,” in which he observes that “if we read any text the way we read freshman essays, we will find many of the same kind of errors we routinely expect to find and therefore do find,“ they usually agree with me that reading for content is a good idea–“But how can I do that when there are so many errors?” they ask.  

You have to train yourself. This is something I learned from Janice Neuleib, who told me to learn to read at two levels, which she called “ground level” and “25,000 feet.” Ground level is where you notice the grammar, usage, mechanics, etc. and 25,000 feet is where you notice the big picture stuff. As I’ve trained myself to read at these two levels, I’ve added a third, which I call “10,000 feet”; at this level, I notice stylistic aspects of a piece of writing, such as sentence structure (not grammar! I mean aspects such as whether or not sentences are hypotactic or paratactic, running or periodic, noun-based or verb-based).

Here are some steps I suggest you take if you’d like to train yourself to read at Neuleib’s two levels or my three levels:

  1. Begin by asking students to format their writing in a way that suggests it should be read for content—i.e. single spaced.
  2. Think of what you are about to do as “respond to student writing” rather than “grade papers” or “correct papers.” Frame the task in terms of responding rather than fixing or judging.
  3. Read student writing under conditions that are similar to those in which you read for pleasure. For me, this means at a coffee shop or at home in a comfortable chair.
  4. Read the paper once for each level you are reading at, so that your brain can focus on one task—reading for content or reading for surface error (or reading for style, if you add the third level). For the 25,000 foot reading, I read fairly quickly, picking up ideas and concepts and noticing how they are developed throughout the piece of writing. For the 10,000 foot reading, I read fairly quickly, stopping at a random point on each page to read sentences carefully. For the ground level reading, I read one page carefully (yes, only one page, because I am looking for patterns of error to highlight for the student, not proofreading—which, after all, is the student’s job, not mine).

If you try to build this habit into your practice, give it at least 30 repetitions before it feels even remotely natural. Like all habits, it takes time to make it feel “normal.” (And by 30 repetitions, I mean responding to 30 sets of papers).

Time Management for Writers

Time management is a skill often overlooked by writers, and oddly, many writers I’ve worked with not only lack time management skills, but take pride in their lack of time management skills. It seems to be a badge of honor among writers to be able to produce a good piece of writing at the last minute, fueled by deadline pressure and a near-lethal combination of caffeine, alcohol, and insomnia.

A former student told me recently that he loves that crazed feeling he gets when the deadline is looming and he just pounds out a draft in a few hours—he actually chases it, he said, like an addict chases down a fix. “But now that I’m getting older and am married and thinking about starting a family,” he confessed, “a less insane writing practice is becoming more attractive to me.”

Enter time management skills. I’ve had phenomenal results with David Allen’s Getting Things Done program and Julie Morgenstern’s Time Management from the Inside Out, but I think what matters more than the specific time management or productivity plan that you choose is that you choose one. Any one. Any plan is better than no plan.

For writers, I recommend the following as non-negotiable aspects of your time management plan:

  • Keep a calendar. It doesn’t matter if it’s on your phone or computer or a hard copy. Don’t clog up your valuable brain space by trying to remember your schedule, deadlines, and appointments. You won’t.
  • Break writing projects into small, measurable chunks. For example, “write story” can be broken down into sketching out particular characters and the setting, writing a shitty first draft, revising the shitty first  draft, getting feedback from readers, and revising again. Plan a specific time to work on each chunk and put an appointment in your calendar to work on that chunk—and then, honor the appointment. Let me repeat that, because it’s crucial: honor the appointment.
  • Keep a log of when and where you write, what you work on, and how productive you are. Every couple of weeks, look over the log for patterns, and then make changes to your habits based on the patterns you notice. For example, if you notice that you seem to be more productive at a certain time of the day, plan to write more during that time of day and less at other times. For some more information on keeping a writing log, read Pearl Luke’s “A Writing Log Marks You as a Professional.” 

Read to Improve Your Writing

The most important piece of advice I offer aspiring writers is to read widely in the genre in which you want to write. If you want to write novels, read novels. If you want to write poems, read poems. If you want to write travelogues, read travelogues. Read them as an apprentice, an idea Jack Rawlins describes in early editions of his book, The Writer’s Way. By “read like an apprentice,” I take Rawlins to mean reading with an eye toward noticing and figuring out

    • How does the piece work? What holds it together? What moves it forward?
    • What are the techniques and strategies the author uses?
    • What are the effects of these techniques and strategies?
    • How could I use these techniques and strategies in my own writing?

One way to understand deeply the techniques and strategies the author uses is to actually copy the piece, either by hand or by retyping it. Copying allows you to begin internalizing the word choices and sentence structures of the author. Fiction writer Donald Ray Pollock discusses this technique in an interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air (listen to the interview).

I like to take the apprenticeship idea a little further and have students do imitation exercises. After you’ve read something like an apprenticeship, choose a passage you particularly like and write an imitation of it. Here are instructions for writing an imitation.

It doesn’t matter which genre you want to write in–poetry, fiction, academic essays, whatever–reading like an apprentice, copying, and imitating can help you improve your writing.

Do you have trouble getting started? Overcoming Writer’s Block.

Beginning a piece of writing can cause so much anxiety that we freeze up and feel we have nothing to say. If you have trouble getting started, try these tricks:

Lower your standards. I know it seems strange for a writing teacher to tell you to lower your standards, but the beginning of your writing process is no place for perfectionism. Anne Lamott reveals that “all good writers write . . . shitty first drafts.” What she means is that productive writers know that an initial draft is for you, the writer, not for a reader, and so it is a place to be messy, experimental, ridiculous, playful, and silly. You may have heard that a good brainstorming session should ban the word “no,” allowing all ideas, no matter how seemingly ridiculous, to be considered. An initial draft should be treated similarly—don’t shut down any ideas or words that find their way onto the page or screen. Turn off your inner editor. The time for editing will come, don’t worry—but don’t start editing until you have something to edit.

Form a writing habit. If you engage in “binge writing”—going for days or weeks or months without writing and then trying to fit all your writing into one long session—consider that Robert Boice’s research into creativity indicates that writing in regular, short sessions is more productive than writing in occasional long sessions. Aim to write for 30 minutes a day rather than 3 hours a week, and keep in mind that forming a habit takes discipline and commitment.

Work with your nature. If you are a morning person, schedule your daily writing to occur in the morning, if possible. If you are not a morning person, planning to write at 7 a.m. every morning is sure to fail. Try to find a fairly consistent time that will work for you. Another approach is to find something that happens regularly that energizes you and piggy back your writing time on that. For example, I always feel positive and energized after working out, so I schedule my writing time to immediately follow my work outs. If you can’t do that, try the opposite approach: figure out what drains your energy and do NOT schedule your writing time to follow that. For example, if you have a regular meeting that leaves you cranky and demoralized, do not plan to write after that meeting.

Don’t start at the beginning. Many people—including me—find introductions difficult to write. DO NOT BEGIN DRAFTING YOUR PIECE BY WRITING THE INTRODUCTION. There is a fairly obvious reason for this: since you haven’t yet written the piece, you don’t really know what you’re introducing. Write the introduction last. The introduction itself will be easier to write and you won’t begin your writing session with an impossible task. Start with something easy, like an anecdote about how you got interested in the topic.

Utilize ass power. You can talk about writing all you want, but the only way the writing will actually get done is if you spend a certain amount of time with your butt in a seat (or, if you’ve embraced the standing desk craze, with your butt near a desk), writing. Yes, writing. To get writing done, you must actually write. If your daily writing time comes around and you’re not in the mood, put your butt in the seat anyway and write. Maybe only gibberish will come out, but maybe you’ll surprise yourself. Force yourself to write for 15 minutes and see what happens.

About me

I teach writing theory and practice courses in the English department and direct the Writing Center at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Before joining the MSU Denver faculty in 2008, I taught at Red Rocks Community College for thirteen years.

In addition to teaching and directing the Writing Center at MSU Denver, I work with writers on all aspects of their writing processes. I enjoy working with groups of writers in a workshop setting and presenting to groups on subjects such as

  • overcoming Writer’s Block
  • using writing to improve your thinking
  • being a more productive writer
  • moving from draft to publication
  • tackling a large writing project, such as a dissertation, article, or book

I also work with teachers on teaching writing and teaching with writing, presenting and conducting workshops on topics such as

  • teaching with web 2.0
  • improving feedback to writers
  • using writing as a thinking tool as well as an assessment tool

You can see a list of recent presentations and workshops I’ve done here.

Contact me.