We’ve been focusing on education policy – understandable, given the times – but I’d like to shift gears over the next few weeks and return our attention to teaching and learning, particularly to a study of writing that has applications for both the classroom and the tutoring center.
First, though, I’d like to briefly comment on the strong response I got to my last entry questioning the content and rhetoric of “21st Century Skills” initiatives. Thanks to Andy, Roderick, some/one, ArtSparker, Joe, and Candace for your thoughtful responses. A shout-out to Andy who was one of the teachers I profiled in Possible Lives, a smart and decent guy, as you can see. And a reply to Candace. You ask “who or what are you pushing against exactly?” I suppose I’m pushing against the lure of the magic cure, which always comes packaged in the rhetoric of the “new”. (I say more about this in previous blogs.) And I’m concerned about the increased influence of technocratic approaches and corporate-speak on educational policy and practice.
Now to the study of writer’s block. I’ll break it up into two parts: the present entry and a second to follow in a week or so. The study itself is one I did a long time ago, but it has just been reissued with a new preface (Writer’s Block: The Cognitive Dimension, Southern Illinois University Press, 1984/2009). In my experience teaching writing, I still find it pertinent and useful. What follows is a summary of the study, also written a long time back, though I revise it a bit for this blog.
The students in the study are college undergraduates, but I think that the principles underlying their behavior hold true – in different manifestation – across a range of populations, your humble blogger included.
Here's Liz, a junior English major, at work on a paper for a college course. She has been given a two page case study and must analyze it using the ideas contained in a second, brief handout. She has about one hour to complete her assignment. As she reads and rereads the handouts, she scribbles notes to herself in the margins. Liz is doing what most effective writers would do with such materials: paraphrasing the main points in the passages, making connections among them, recording associations to other pertinent knowledge. But a closer look at all these interpretative notes reveals something unusual: Liz seems to be editing them as she goes along, cleaning them up as though they were final copy. In one of her notes she jots down the phrase “is saying that not having creative work is the....” She stops, thinks for a moment, and changes "is the" to "causes” (Later on, explaining this change, she'll comment that "you're not supposed to have passive verbs.") She then replaces "is saying" with "says," apparently following her directive about passive voice, but later changes it again, noting that “says” is "too colloquial." Liz pauses after this editing and looks up – she has forgotten what she initially was trying to capture in her writing. "That happens a lot," she says.
Liz was one of the many college students I studied over a two-and-one-half-year period The purpose of my study was to try to gain insight into what causes some young writers to compose with relative fluency and what leads others to experience more than their fair share of blocks, dead-ends, conflicts, and the frustrations of the blank page. What I uncovered was a whole array of problems that I would label as being primarily cognitive rather than primarily emotional in nature. That is, many students were engaging in self-defeating composing behaviors not because they had some deep-seated fear of revealing their thoughts or of being evaluated or because of some long-standing aversion to writing, but rather because they had somehow learned a number of rules, planning strategies, or assumptions about writing that limited rather than enhanced their composing. We saw Liz lose her train of thought by adhering too rigidly to stylistic rules when she should have been scribbling ideas freely in order to discover material for her essay. Let me offer two further vignettes that illustrate some of the other cognitive difficulties I uncovered.
Tyrrell, also a junior English major, says he doesn't like to sketch out any sort of plan or draft of what he's going to write. He’ll think about his topic, but his fingers won’t usually touch the pen or keyboard until he begins writing the one, and only, draft he’ll produce. As he writes, he pauses frequently and at length to make all sorts of decisions about words, ideas, and rhetorical effects. In short, he plans his work as he goes along. There's nothing inherently wrong with writing this way, but where difficult assignments involving complex materials are concerned, it helps to sketch out a few ideas, some direction, a loose organizational structure before beginning to write. When a co-worker and I studied Tyrrell's composing, we noted the stylistic flourishes in his essay, but also its lack of direction. As my colleague noted, “[His] essay bogs down in description and in unexplained abstractions." Perhaps the essay would have had more direction if Tyrrell had roughed out a few ideas before composing his one and only draft. Why didn't he do so? Consider his comment on planning:
[Planning] is certainly not spontaneous and a lot of times it’s not even really what you feel because it becomes very mechanical. It’s almost like – at least I feel – it’s diabolical, you know, because…it’ll sacrifice truth and real feelings that you have.
Tyrrell assumes that sketching out a plan before writing somehow violates the spontaneity of composing: to plan dooms one to write mechanical, unemotional prose. Yet, while too much planning may sometimes make the actual writing a joyless task, ii is also true that most good writing is achieved through some kind of prefiguring, most often involving pen and paper or keyboard and screen. Such planning does not necessarily subvert spontaneity; in fact, since it reduces the load on the writer's immediate memory, it might actually free one to be more spontaneous, to follow the lead of new ideas as they emerge. Tyrrell’s assumption, then, is inaccurate. By recognizing only this one path to spontaneity, he is probably limiting his effectiveness as a writer and, ironically, may be reducing his opportunities to be spontaneous.
Gary is an honors senior in biochemistry. When I observed him, he spent half of his writing time meticulously analyzing each sentence of the assignment’s reading passages on one of the handouts. He understood the passage and the assignment well enough but wanted to make sure the passage was sufficiently broken down to be of use when he composed his essay. As Gary conducted this minute analysis, he wrote dozens and dozens of words and phrases across the handouts. He then summarized these words and phrases in a list of six items. He then tried to condense all six items into a thesis sentence:
I have concepts…and my task here is to say what is being said about all of those all at once.
Gary's method was, in this case, self-defeating. He worked in too precise a fashion, generating an unwieldy amount of preliminary material, which he didn't seem able to rank or thin out – and he was unable to focus his thinking in a single thesis sentence. Gary’s interpretive and thinking strategies were inappropriately elaborate, and they were inflexible. It was not surprising that when Gary's hour was up he had managed to write only three connected sentences. Not really an essay at all.
This is the first cliffhanger in my blog’s history. Tune in next time to meet some of the fluent writers in the study.