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Version 4.jpg“Let’s consider beginning the writing process not with the introduction, but with drafting body paragraphs,” I suggest to students in the third week of class.  “Imagine that you have taken the same route every day in your commute to school. But one day the city announces a long-term construction project on that route. So you need to change your public transit stop, or you must leave the freeway before your usual exit, or you have to come down a different path to reach this classroom building. At first this difference may feel unusual or awkward, or even very uncomfortable. In a sense, I am inviting you to do just that, to change your route to writing, to learn new practices to move from process to product.” Indeed, some students responded as if they had encountered just such a roadblock, one that is not just inconvenient but disorienting, and were feeling frustrated with an unanticipated change of plans.

 

Adam Grant, in his essays on creativity in the New York Times Sunday Review, has explored similar roadblocks. In “Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate,” Grant considers that the right kind of procrastination can lead to “divergent,” and more creative thinking. Most of Grant’s examples in this essay focus on experienced writers, such as graduate students or professionals. Andrea Lunsford’s January 26th Bits post On Procrastination summarizes the reactions of respondents on the Writing Program Administrator’s listserv to Grant’s thoughts on the topic.

 

However, in a subsequent essay, “How to Raise a Creative Child: Back Off,” Grant points to another issue that has recently arisen in my introduction to academic writing courses: the problem of too much practice. “The more we practice,” Grant offers, “the more we become…trapped in familiar ways of thinking.” The insights that Grant gleans from recent research seem especially pertinent to observations of my students’ writing processes over the last several years.

 

That is, many students now insist that the introduction and the thesis must be composed first before the body paragraphs can be written. The students’ prior knowledge of the writing process seems to have become a kind of checklist to complete in lockstep, even as they are presented with new strategies for writing, and even when the old process no longer worked for them.

 

As students undertake the difficult work of preparing for standardized testing in writing, they may have had all too much experience with practice in using a checklist or formula to shape their writing processes. By the time they reach our classes, students’ writing processes may resemble the format of the written product: introduction and thesis must be completed first, followed by the body and the conclusion. If students encountered a roadblock en route to completing their introduction, they often would stop writing completely, relying on procrastination and the pressure of deadlines to force their essays to completion. Students resist not for the sake of resistance, but from a deeper sense of cognitive dissonance and frustration. Some students made the difficult discovery that this practice of procrastination did not lead to their best work.

 

So this semester, we are experimenting with taking a different road. I posted a letter to students on my course website, offering the following suggestions for reconsidering the differences between the processes and products of writing in our classroom:

 

  • Do not expect to write five-paragraph essays on conventional subjects. Instead, expect that your writing will develop in bits and pieces—sometimes fast and easy, other times slow and challenging.

 

  • The projects are designed for complex thinking and writing, so that your subject unfolds over several weeks. If you attempt to begin with a perfect thesis and introduction, you may find yourself struggling much more than necessary.

 

What is the point of all this? If you have seen Star Wars: Episode VIIThe Force Awakens, think about what appeals to you about the film. Characters? Plot? Setting? Special effects? How much effort was involved creating this appeal? Think about the length of time and the number of difficulties that the originators of the Star Wars series have faced since the mid-1970s, when the first film began production. Despite those setbacks, in 2015 The Force Awakens was released, and record-breaking audience attendance followed.

 

Also consider the work of Marin Luther King, Jr. and the historic figures and everyday people who created the US Civil Rights Movement. King, Rosa Parks, John Lewis, Fanny Lou Hamer, and many others endured deep resistance from a majority of Americans and faced deadly violence from a strong opposition. The Movement’s defeats outnumbered the victories. Yet history celebrates those victories, and the victories offer inspiration for working toward achieving human rights in our current time.

 

Later in the term, we will consider one of King’s most stirring refutations of his opposition, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” For the moment, as a class, we are experimenting with a change of practice, drafting the body first instead of the introduction. As this unconventional process takes hold, the hope is that students will gain comfort from having multiple strategies for approaching their writing.

Dockter+Jason_Thumbnail.jpgToday’s guest blogger is Jason Dockter  (see end of post for bio).

 

When I teach the first semester of first-year composition, I include a few larger multimodal writing projects (one project was the subject of another post: Multimodal Mondays: Composing the Multimodal Interview). In the four years that I’ve been teaching these projects, one of the constants from year to year is the uncertainty that students have for thinking about writing as anything other than words on the page. When we begin to consider what it means to compose with an abundance of media, tools, and genres, students’ uncertainty becomes more apparent. They struggle with the idea that it is okay to include other images or other elements in their writing, let alone develop an entirely different sort of text in a composition class. This, of course, is one of the reasons why teaching multimodal projects is important. This in-class activity aims to help increase comfort and rhetorical thinking.

 

Objective

To give students in-class, guided experience in using modalities beyond the linguistic to communicate an idea(s), helping students to gain comfort with multimodal composition.

 

Background Reading

The selected readings below span a range of topics, including rhetorical thinking and choice, composing multimodally and with other media, and design. This activity encourages students to think beyond satisfying the teacher’s expectations and instead, considering a specific audience and how to better communicate the message to  that audience.

 

  • The St. Martin's Handbook - Ch. 16: Design for Print and Digital Writing; Ch. 18: Communicating in Other Media
  • The Everyday Writer - Ch. 22: Making Design Decisions; Ch.24: Communicating in Other Media; Student Research Essay (pages 509-18)
  • Writing in Action - Ch. 8: Making Design Decisions; Ch. 6: Multimodal Assignments
  • EasyWriter - Ch. 4: Multimodal Writing
  • Student Research Essay (from your own class or the student essay from David Craig in The St. Martin's Handbook pp. 441-9; Everyday Writer pp. 508-518; or Writing in Action pp. 444-53)

 

Class Activity

Bring an argumentative text to class that someone has published, and ask students to find supportive materials in other modalities to enhance the argument. For this activity, using a sample student text, such as David Craig’s research essay “Messaging: The Language of Youth Literacy” can work well, as it communicates through a single media and emphasizes the linguistic mode (found in Lunsford’s Everyday Writer on page 509). You could also decide to use a student-written text from another class, or create your own. Divide class into groups, giving each group a specific supporting point of the argument to work with. Ideally, this activity would take place within a computer-classroom, where students have access to the Internet so students can find online resources to complete the activities. I envision students working in small groups so they can easily discuss the rhetorical choices inherent in the class activities discussed below, helping each other consider how a different compositional choice may result in a different experience for the audience.

 

How this is actually done can vary quite a bit. But here are some possibilities for adapting the assignment to your course goals:

 

  • Limit the types of media or the specific modalities that students should locate/use to support the written argument. You might choose to limit them to images, audio materials, or video segments. What can students locate that can help to support specific ideas that the author has developed?
  • Take the same argument in the activity above and recreate it using different modalities. Discuss the advantages/disadvantages of the multiple modalities used.
    • For instance, how would this argument change if the author emphasized the aural mode and relied heavily on sound?
    • Or if the author used the spatial mode to design the text differently, how would the argument change? What aspects might be improved? Would any be weakened?
  • This text is written to a general audience, but what if the audience was specifically concerned parents, or school administrators, or local politicians? Consider this argument (or different aspects of it) aimed at one of these specific groups. What multimodal elements can students find to enhance the argument to that audience? How do these elements add to the argument? Why this modality/these elements for this specific audience?

 

While these are just a few possibilities of how a teacher might frame this sort of activity, the hope for this activity  is that students can focus on the work of communicating a specific message without the usual pressure of developing the message. By inserting students into an existing argument, aimed at a specific audience, students can focus on the choices of how alternate materials and modalities can help a reader to make meaning from the text and how different compositional choices can result in different readings of a text. In that way, this classroom activity serves as an excellent scaffolding exercise, leading to a full multimodal assignment that allows students to focus on their own message and rhetorical delivery.


Jason Dockter teaches first-year composition at Lincoln Land Community College. He completed his Ph.D. in English Studies at Illinois State University. His research focus is primarily on rhetoric/composition, with specific interests in online writing instruction and multimodal composition.

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