A Few Thoughts…

Hey folks,

Just thought I’d share some of my thoughts this week.

A benefit of being able to do this project, one that I didn’t really think about before, is that I have more time to devote to the one class I am teaching this semester: Nonfiction Writing. When embarking on this project, I thought about the time I’d have to research and think about alternative genres, but didn’t necessarily consider the impact of being able to focus on preparing for one class more intensively.

My Nonfiction Writing course, as I’ve expressed before, is really the thing that got me interested in WID in the first place. It is essentially a creative writing course. It’s my favourite class to teach. It’s also the one I’ve taught the most times, so I’m really settling into a state of grace with it where I can really fine tune the thing.

One thing I’ve been really focusing on a lot this time around is getting students excited about the process of working on one feature article throughout the semester. I’m heavily front-loading the course on ideas of how we feel about writing plays perhaps the biggest role in how our writing turns out. I’m trying to reinforce the idea that the most important thing about writing is to be excited about the process of creation. Yes, there will be a final draft that will count for grades, but that’s really just a part of it. I’m trying to show them ways to tap into the joy of creation, and to reinforce positive thinking about the work itself, rather than the result of the work.

I think it’s working. I think it’s working because there is an energy in the class. People are sitting up and paying attention and engaging. The work I’ve read so far has been great. The classroom just feels alive.

And it occurs to me that I’m attempting to do what Sullivan and others I’ve read so far have stressed: I’m teaching creativity. And creativity, by definition, is exciting. I think the extra energy that I have to pour into the preparation and delivery of this class is allowing me to experiment with leaning even more heavily on the creative aspect of students’ writing than I have in the past.

Another key thing is the blog. We’ve been looking at student writing more in this class that I’ve done in the past. They’ve done some lab exercises, and the following class we read some of their work in class. This allows me to teach them specific lessons by showing them exactly what they’re doing, and as a group, we can offer thoughts on how it can be improved. I’m also trying to instill a sense that writing is not something to be tucked away and hidden. It’s a living thing, to be shared. So far, they’ve all been willing participants.

Again to return to a common theme in my WID musings, teaching creativity in Nonfiction Writing has always been easier for me because it’s not a literature class. It’s more creative by nature. But, the elements that are really working–making students excited about writing as a process, teaching them how to have fun with writing and how to keep moving when they feel stuck–can be applicable to any type of writing. I guess what it all comes down to is that in Nonfiction Writing I teach writing as a human activity. Often in other classes, I teach essay writing as a school activity. One key could be to put the genuine human qualities of writing at the forefront of my classes. Allowing the students to make deeper connections to their own lives and own interests, as well, seems important. Again, in 101, 102, and 103, I tend to have the write insular essays where they’re meant to find patterns and connections within a work of literature. In the way I’ve designed things in these classes, when they stray from talking about the literature, they usually divert to platitudes, generalities, and things that don’t really demonstrate any creativity or critical thinking. But, this raises the possibility of designing assignments that inspire students to make connections between the literature we’re reading and the rest of the world in interesting, profound, and creative ways that simultaneously demonstrate an engagement with the material. It mostly requires a shift what skills I want the students to take away from the class, as we’ve been saying.

Of course, the blog is something that can be done in any class. Making their writing public, sharing it with each other more, etc.

Anyway, this post is a bit all over the place. And I feel like some stuff here repeats ideas I’ve already expressed. But, at the same time, my experience of reading what I’ve read so far about creativity is in some way influencing the emphasis I’m putting on creativity in my classes this semester. And the results are very promising so far, and I feel inspired to start thinking of more precise ways this approach can be applied to my more literature-based classes.

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  1. OK, now you’ve got me excited, Jeff! I like the formulation “teaching writing as a human activity” – this highlights the social dimension of writing whose purpose is to communicate to an audience – which is arguably obscured or distorted in the school paradigm of writing for teacher-as-examiner. As you point out, the blog is an amazing tool because it provides the forum for a public audience, and collaborative creation and discussion.

    I think you will be interested in the WID portfolio that Karla just published. She looks into how we can purposefully design activities that help college writers become more self-aware in their choices, first by exploring some of their unspoken personal feelings and ideas about writing and the writing process, and then by encouraging the emergence of a kind of “best self” in writerly form. There are some significant commonalities with your own concerns – maybe we can draw Karla into the conversation once you and Susan have had a chance to look at her work.

  2. Thanks for this, Jeff! I especially like this distinction between writing as a human activity and writing as a school activity. Except for perhaps a few really keen academic types, writing as a school activity is a chore. So figuring out ways to humanize writing is the way to go — and as both you (and Karla) seem to be saying, we do this by making connections between the writing task and the world, our own lives. I use my course blog for this too: that’s where they write about their own thoughts and experiences, and make connections between the literature and world we live in. It doesn’t feel like “school writing,” and the students don’t seem to resent it at all. I’m often surprised, in fact, at how much they invest in these assignments, given their low value in grades. But this is where they are making meaning.
    I’m also excited about the success of your focus on creativity. Unfortunately I can’t try any of this out this term, except with myself. I’ve been writing a big grant application for the past few weeks. That’s pretty much the opposite of what we normally think of as creative writing, but it still requires a creative process, very similar to what students go through with essays and research papers (it even comes with a rubric and grade breakdown for the criteria!). And it certainly has a real-world context. I was extra aware of my own focus on audience and purpose to guide the writing, both for content and style. In fact I found I had to develop a style that was quite different for me (shorter sentences than for a research grant, simpler language, subtle persuasive tactics). I was also particularly aware of how messy the process was — especially when others kept asking to see drafts! I hate showing work in progress! I guess because I anticipate criticism for things I just haven’t had a chance to take care of yet.
    Anyway, that grant-writing task is almost done, and I’m looking forward to more time for reading and thinking about creativity — and maybe even practicing it a little more!

  3. Just had a look at Karla’s portfolio. Very interesting. I actually used her ERW Essay Project in my ERW class last semester. I approached her about it after hearing her talk about it at a WID get-together last spring, where current fellows were discussing their work. I had mixed results, as can be expected when trying something new for the first time. But I’d like to chat about it with Karla in more detail.

    Sue and I had a look at the survey results. 20 respondents. Some interesting stuff which we’ll share next time we meet. The most common themes were:

    Advantages of creative assignments: student engagement.

    No surprise there, but how various people worded these concerns brings up some interesting ideas for discussion.
    Challenges: Grading it fairly.

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