Week 1: Writing and Thinking

When I have to talk about the value of informal writing – or scribbling, if you like – I often refer to the notebooks of Charles Darwin.  You are likely familiar with the doodle that represents – or did it generate? – one of the most important insights in the history of knowledge:

darwin treeBut you can also open the notebooks to almost any page, and “see aloud” Darwin thinking the thoughts that will soon turn science on its head – check out this passage for example.   This is a great way to spin “I don’t know what I think till I hear what I say” into “I don’t know what I think till I see what I write.”  If you happen to be one of those people who keeps a personal notebook or journal, it’s easy to supplement this example with a personal anecdote about how writing can pull the invisible and unknown into full view.

This week’s two readings take us deeper into the theory and practice of “writing to learn,”  which is a concept that sits squarely at the centre of the writing-across-the-curriculum (WAC) movement, a current in progressive educational reform that began in the seventies (see Emig for example), and continues to this day.  The idea in a nutshell is that students can learn more effectively in any discipline through intentionally designed and strategically employed exploratory writing activities.  The sister concept is “learning to write” – as in learning to write according to the specific conventions and genres of particular disciplines, an idea that sits at the centre of the writing-in-the-disciplines (WID) approach.  WID is just a later and logical evolution of WAC – just as students need opportunities to explore ideas informally before concentrating on product, they also need direct instruction and practice in the specifics of disciplinary discourse as they learn how to argue and communicate in the genres of their chosen fields.  WID stands on the shoulders of WAC, you might say.  I can sketch in some historical detail on the evolution of both WAC and WID in our meeting next week, if people are interested.   With that, let’s leave off with the acronyms. 

I hope you found Janet Emig’s “Writing as a Mode of Learning” interesting.   Even though her ideas about the relation between writing and learning are relatively old hat, I still get excited rereading, as she maps out the connections so clearly and deliberately.  Plus, anyone who cites Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in a scholarly article is close to kin for me…  How about you?  Was there a passage that produced a moment of insight into the potential of writing to advance student leaning?  Or insight into your own personal experience of the writing process?

 In fact, as I reread,  I look around for a teacher to shake by the ear: “Just get them wrrrrrriting!!”  It’s ALL going on!  The enactive, the iconic, the symbolic; the hand, the eye, the brain (Emig 124).  Writing represents, integrates, creates and/or originates; its product provides an immediate mode of feedback; it forges connection at many levels, via analysis and synthesis; it is personal and ideally, self-paced (fig.1 128). Why do these ideas still seem new?  Because many of us still hold to the common sense notion that thinking is something you do in your head, and writing is simply a tool you use to report (transparently, and after the fact) on that thinking.  The idea goes back to Plato.  For many years, my former office location put me within earshot of a colleague who would regularly hector students who had come to her office to review their papers, “DO NOT WRITE ANYTHING until your get your THINKING CLEAR!!!”  If the views of Emig and Bean are well founded, this is terrible advice, ignorant of the possibility that writing is not just a communicative tool, but a generative cognitive process.

In Chapter 1, Bean introduces a set of steps (pgs.2-10) for exploiting the relationship between writing and thinking in your courses.  Which of these steps do you find exciting to consider – or daunting?  Subsequently, Bean itemizes several concerns that teachers raise at the suggestion that students should do more writing in their courses.  Which of these concerns do you share?  Does Bean allay your fears?

Feel free to riff on some or all of these Qs – or, turn them into other Qs based on your own interests. 




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  1. ah yes, Ian I am definitely with you when it comes to Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance as a point of reference! But I’m not so sure I agree with Emet about the uniqueness of writing. I agree that it is different from the other learning modes, but so is each one different from the others, and I’m not convinced that writing deserves its one “special uniqueness”.
    That being said, I do see how exploratory writing is a very valuable exercise and one that I have not used enough in my teaching. So I used one this week – I’m not sure which of Bean’s 22 strategies this fits into – I was teaching about the beginnings of Buddhism and how Siddhartha, after 28 years of cloistered luxury, snuck out into the world and was bowled over by seeing suffering (sickness, old age, and death). I got my students to write a few sentences about what they imagined their feelings and thoughts would be in that situation. I’m hoping that this personal connection will help them remember the key point of Buddhism, that suffering exists, and the aim of Buddhists, which is to alleviate suffering. From what they write, it seems like they did make the personal connection. (quite a few of them were mad at Siddhartha’s parents for keeping him so sheltered!)

    • @ ” I got my students to write a few sentences about what they imagined their feelings and thoughts would be in that situation. ”

      Nice example, Sonia. Just “a few sentences,” written in just a few minutes, can be the difference between a student who is engaged by a question and one who is not – writing permits her to concretize an idea, feeling, impression; reflect on it (“gee, i didn’t know I felt like that!”); and then potentially share it with others.

    • I love the idea of having your students put themselves in the same situation as Siddhartha and then having to write about it. I did something similar in my War and Peace class where students had to write about characters in the book from the perspective of other characters in the book and it worked really well. Got students outside of themselves and into the world of the novel. They also had fun.

  2. J’ai trouvé l’article de Janet Emig intéressant de plusieurs points de vue. Je suis en général d’accord avec l’auteure en ce qui concerne les caractéristiques qui rendent le processus d’écriture un acte « unique » à sa façon : la complexité du processus d’apprentissage impliqué par l’écriture due aux multiples formes d’appréhension de la réalité qu’elle exige ; sa capacité de suivre le rythme personnel de la pensée, son autonomie par rapport au contexte immédiat, sa capacité de jouer avec le temps, etc.

    Cependant, lorsque Emig tente de nous convaincre que la complexité du processus d’écriture vient par exemple du fait que l’écriture convoque à la fois « hand, eye and brain marks », je suis moins convaincue.
    Est-ce que dans 10-15 ans « la main » sera-t-elle encore présente dans le processus ? Que se passe-t-il lorsqu’on dicte nos pensées à une machine ? Le processus de réflexion est-il le même ? De nos jours, de plus en plus de personnes se servent de logiciels de plus en plus performants pour dicter leurs textes.

    Peut-être que la distinction entre « parler » et « écrire » est-elle déjà sur le point de devenir désuète. Peut-être qu’il faudrait faire plutôt la distinction entre parole (au sens que Saussure lui donne) et parole-écrite.
    Et, dans ce cas, la liste des différences mises en évidence par Emig se réduirait à quelques différences essentielles. La parole serait tout d’abord un acte spontané, immédiat (dans le double sens du terme : instantané et sans medium), tandis que la parole écrite serait un acte de réflexion et une parole réfléchie. La parole écrite, contrairement à la parole tout court serait capable de jouer avec la linéarité temporelle ; lorsqu’on met en forme écrite nos pensées, on peut facilement revenir en arrière, reformuler, effacer, ajouter et cela permet à notre pensée de murir.

    • @ “Est-ce que dans 10-15 ans « la main » sera-t-elle encore présente dans le processus ? Que se passe-t-il lorsqu’on dicte nos pensées à une machine ? Le processus de réflexion est-il le même ?”

      Je suis d’accord, Carmen, celles sont des questions fascinantes et aussi troublantes.

      Je reviens à Platon, qui a son epoch s’est trouvé inquiet a la possibilitie que la technique de l’écriture allait voler de l’etre humain sa mémoire… Et puis, j’ai croisé récemment de recherche comparant des étudiants dans la salle de classe qui prennent leurs notes à la main avec eux qui prennent leurs notes avec un laptop. Les résultant indiquait que les notes écrites à la main aviaent un plus haut niveau de synthèse. L’hypothèse est que les étudiants avec un ordi sont susceptibles, à cause de son vitesse, à prendre les notes “verbatim”, ce qui ne correspond pas avec la pensée critique…

      Voici un sommaire des resultats et de la commentaire – it would be of interest I think to everyone to spend 5 minutes reading this!


      À continuer…

      Et pardonnez-moi, tout le monde, mes erreurs disgracieuses!

  3. For me, the most valuable suggestions regarding informal writing in this week’s Bean reading regarded homework. Since the texts that I assign are often challenging, I tend to worry that students will feel overwhelmed, and perhaps rebel, if I assign writing to go along with the weekly reading. While my students complete their essays and essay drafts at home, they do so after we’ve already discussed the readings in class. I never have had students submit answers to previously posted questions as part of their homework. Instead, to keep them honest, I begin every couple of classes with a reading quiz. I always wondered about the effectiveness of this method and now Bean has convinced me that there is a better way (p.168).

    Even before reading Bean’s critique of reading quizzes, I was always concerned that they didn’t do much to promote deep learning. Since the course texts are tough, I just use the quizzes to find out whether students made a good faith effort to read them. I ask for a summary of the main argument, and if there’s time, the student’s own point of view on the text. I’ve noticed several weaknesses with this approach, which were confirmed by Bean’s analysis. The first is that students can typically provide only a cursory summary of what they read at home. Since part the assignment is to see whether they have actually done the reading, I make the quizzes closed book. As academic writers, however, we tend to have access to the texts that we are writing about. I often think that my quizzes risk becoming little more than exercises in memorization, ones that encourage a superficial understanding of course materials rather than engagement and wonder. There is an additional flaw in the way I give quizzes. Bean calls it the “vicious circle” of the “teacher’s willingness to lecture over reading material” (163). Since the texts I assign are so challenging, after the students have read them, I give lectures that cover them in depth. But because the quizzes are very low-stakes, I suspect that some students come to feel as though they don’t actually have to do the readings at home. They believe it will be easier to just wait to hear the lecture, which will sum up the key points, anyway. I want the students to discover that they can make it through these texts themselves (at the very least get a general sense of their meaning!) without having to wait for me to explain everything to them first.

    This is why I’m so encouraged by Bean’s ideas for assigning low stakes at home writing. I can still “keep students honest” and ensure they are completing the readings, but in a way that is more pedagogically valuable. Having the ability to outline the nuances of a complex argument is a key part of the humanities. But why deny students access to the text before they write their summaries, especially it’s only the first time they’ve read the text? Why encourage students to complete a superficial in-class response, when they could probably go more into a more depth, in around the same amount of time, if they do it at home? Why not have students summarize and analyze s as homework, so that we can then begin class with more engaged activities and discussions? I’m just thinking out loud, but this is something I hope to build on over the next few weeks.

    • Your re-assessment of quizzes strikes me as valid and fair, Julian. I’d just add that in some disciplines, especially maths and sciences where procedural knowledge is critical, quizzes are still justifiable as a way to test for coverage and comprehension. If the objective is to get students reading and thinking, though, I think Bean is right. In addition to being inefficient as a learning activity, let’s also add how tedious they are to manage and read and mark and return… Alternatives that you mention also point in the direction of out-of-class on line writing, which I know you are interested in.

    • I was encouraged by this too. I used to begin each class with a short 10-20 m/c quiz on the chapter for that week… but stopped over time… they either just didn’t care as I was going to lecture and give them the needed info so were willing to take the hit on grades, why put effort into reading something I was going to tell them, and also because I didn’t think I was truly getting them to think about the material in any useful way by using m/c… just recognising some general global concepts, very low on Blooms taxonomy… I need/ed a better way to go more in-depth in their thinking and Bean’s ideas of low stakes writing is giving me the tools to do that better

  4. Je dois avouer que j’avais jeté un coup d’œil sur le chapitre 7 dès le début de l’été. Lorsque j’ai feuilleté le livre que Ian nous a donné lors de notre rencontre au mois de mai, ce fut le chapitre qui attira en premier mon attention. J’y ai trouvé plein d’idées intéressantes et j’en ai déjà adopté quelques-unes dans mes cours de cette session : le journal de lecture, par exemple, ainsi que le « thinking pieces ». J’aime bien cette idée de faire de petits travaux écrits de réflexion (plutôt à la maison) conçus comme des petits exercices préparatoires qui convergent vers un travail final plus complexe.
    Je reste par contre l’adepte des tâches guidées ou semi-guidées. Je me méfie un peu des « open ended » tâches. Je pense que, vu le peu de temps dont on dispose ainsi que le peu de temps que les étudiants eux-mêmes sont disposés à investir dans leurs cours (en tout cas, dans le cours de français), il vaut mieux les orienter un peu au lieu de leur laisser toute la liberté d’écrire ce qu’ils veulent en lien avec le texte à lire ou le cours.

    J’ai déjà tenté les exercices de créativité, pas exactement ce que Bean propose, mais d’une autre manière. Par exemple, pour les sensibiliser au style d’un auteur, j’ai demandé aux étudiants de réécrire un extrait comique en registre lyrique, ou bien de changer le point de vue (passer de la focalisation zéro à la focalisation interne). La plupart des étudiants ont eu du plaisir à faire ce genre d’exercice. Ce serait peut-être bien à l’avenir de leur demander (toujours sous la forme d’un paragraphe écrit) d’expliquer l’effet produit par le changement opéré.

    • Ça vaut la peine de souligner là où tu avais fait référence à la (sur)chargé de travail de nos étudiants. Je suis d’accord que c’est bien apprécié à leur part quand le prof donne une direction ou orientation claire même aux questions et activities informal.

      @”La plupart des étudiants ont eu du plaisir à faire ce genre d’exercice.”

      Qu’est-ce que ca veut dire, la plaisir de l’etudiant… en relation avec l’ecriture – this is an entire subject for reflection, not superfluous or trivial!

  5. So which ones stand out and what concerns do I have…

    Well my 1st concern is that I know a little bit about everything but not enough to generate the critical thinking questions required to elicit the writing I’m going after…I don’t want students to see it as meaningless /waste of time (123). We joke in our office about ‘impostor syndrome’ and think, on a daily basis, that the Dean in going to come and fire all of us because there was some kind of mistake that we got hired in the 1st place and none of us should be there… (my Chair assures me this passes with time)! In addition to asking the right question that isn’t a waste of time, is clearly linked to content and relevant…but doing it a way that doesn’t freak them out and make them think there is only 1 ‘right answer’… thereby negating the ‘exploratory’ thoughts. Word choice here is important.

    Some of the suggestions that stuck out are for me to participate in the writing activity myself and sometimes share those ideas with them… I like that… I’m always looking for ways to connect with my students and feel we both get more out of the course if that happens. I can read entries anonymously and sometimes include my own thoughts.

    #3. Will they do it (well)? Seems it would take more than 5 minutes to summarise 1.5hr lecture.

    #5 both scares and excites me. I feel that the evaluation needs to be meaningful for them to take seriously. I need to justify grades and if this fails spectacularly I can’t create grades out of thin air but feel I can’t penalise then for something I’m trying that might not work… and around the circle we go… and hand in how often?

    I really want to use #9 and feel that every time students can take current concepts and apply them to the world around them or vice versa that the learning becomes more meaningful and real/applicable… not just something they do in class but can see all around them.

    Last concern goes to evaluation. I like the 1, 2, 3 (check, +/-) but often have commerce kids and they will come, every time, asking for you to justify why they got a 2 and not a 3… this is exploratory writing and not a rubric, formal etc… but the anxiety grades create in some students gives me pause. I don’t want to do pass/fail as I think the students who really show ideas, insight and meaning deserve the grade… I’m just apprehensive about how this type of weekly grade will affect them as well as the extra time in office course I’ll spend explaining those grades

  6. A few quick ideas in response, Melanie…

    – Is it possible you could leverage your sense of being an “imposter” as a strength in the classroom? Instead of posing as the “sage on the stage,” rather guiding inquiry as the “guide on the side” – this idea is familiar from your Active Learning Classroom experience, but I know it is still hard for teachers to shake their sense of responsibility for knowing everything, all the time – consequence of the knowledge transfer/banking model of learning. And yet genuine inquiry is motivated by our curiosity about questions which we are not fully able to answer…
    – So #9 on using contemporary issues is a good example: You could assign just about anything Trump-related (if you dare), use a video clip, and ask students to form hypotheses about – gosh, just about anything, from group behavior to causes/symptoms of narcissism, you name it. This is a kind of exercise where the prof can join the student in saying “I have no clue – there is no right answer – but what are the analytical tools that psych gives us that could allow us to map out a inquiry?”
    – The piano lesson example of Task 2 at the bottom of 128 is a different kind of inquiry, maybe tied more directly to several course readings, but still honors the inquiry model.
    – For setting up the evaluation of think pieces, I have found that the following works: Start your semester with a model Q and response. The next class after student submissions, introduce a handout with your plus/check/minus parameters, with a few clear defining characteristics for each category (a kind of holistic rubric) – then circulate three student model responses that you have pre-baked before hand (NOT from the current class) – then ask the students to place them in your one of your 3 categories – discuss their evaluations and any anomalies – then return their first response and have them categorize their own work, adding a few explanatory comments. Allow anyone who is unsatisfied with their result to revise, before they hand into to you. This kind of “norming session” at the beginning will save you from most of those “whydiget” conversations. Continue to refer directly to models of good think pieces that are produced in class throughout your semester – doing think pieces on a blogging platform makes this really effective. I have examples of the above handouts, if you’d like me to share, just let me know.

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