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:
But 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.