Susan Naomi Bernstein

The Roadblock: Changing Practice to Transform Process

Blog Post created by Susan Naomi Bernstein Expert on Feb 8, 2016

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.