Monthly Archives: May 2013

Writing through (and after) the dissertation

At the beginning of April, I resolved to start each morning by writing at least 750 words. 750words.com explains the practice, which is based on the idea of “Morning Pages” from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I neither write my pages longhand, as The Artist’s Way recommends, nor use 750words.com’s online site (I use Day One, a well-designed journal app that syncs across all my different devices), but the concept is the same: start the day by writing, and focus on getting words on the page rather than making them perfect. The Artist’s Way emphasizes stream-of-consciousness writing, though without the explicit prohibition against lifting the pencil from the page that I’ve seen in some free writing exercises.

Sometimes I do use my 750 words for stream-of-consciousness free writing. I’m getting ready to write my job materials, and I’ve begun several mornings by just writing out all the reasons I’m a good teacher, or all the reasons someone should hire me. I’ll probably do that a few more times, re-treading the same ground in different ways, before I actually sit down to write a polished set of letters.

Sometimes I use my 750 words for a sort of narrative to-do list. I walk through all the things in my task manager and write about how and when in the day I’ll get them accomplished. I work out a plan for things that need to get done in the next few weeks. I reassure myself that I can get everything done, that I’m on track. On those days, writing about my tasks for the day helps me feel prepared for work I might otherwise find daunting. It’s a longer, more sustained version of the pep talk I give myself when I open my task manager and blanch at the volume or difficulty of things that need doing that day.

Other days, though, I ignore the stream-of-consciousness, just-keep-writing instruction and use that morning writing time for more formal composition and drafting. On those days, my rule for myself is that I can’t use those words on my dissertation or other research. Instead, I give myself some space to write something polished, focused, and having nothing to do with my academic writing.

The practice has some obvious benefits: it means I keep the writing habit, in some form or another. Most of my energy in the last month and a half was focused on teaching and grading, so writing every day made it a little easier to get back to the dissertation once the semester ended. Even now that I’m back, I’m working on revisions, so it’s often a small-scale business of adding footnotes and clarifying or re-writing individual sentences. Producing several pages of text each morning, even if it’s text about how much I don’t want to finish the grading, helps me hang onto the drafting habit when most of my efforts are focused on a different stage in the writing process.

It also reminds me that writing as an activity is separate from the dissertation–that is, that writing is not by definition chipping away at this document I’ve been working on for years. Uncoupling writing from dissertation-writing may seem obvious, but it’s easy to get a bit myopic this late in the process. Now that I can see the light at the end of the dissertation-tunnel, I’m getting myself ready for all the other kinds of writing I’ll be able to do.

Education reform and the college classroom

This article on Brooklyn-based education organization Blue Engine is worth a read. Blue Engine works with teachers to place recent college graduates as teaching assistants in high school classroom, lowering the teacher-student ration to 1-6. They also track a whole bunch of stuff about student learning, as is the trend right now.

I really like the idea of using high-achieving recent graduates as teaching assistants. It gets more folks in the classroom and avoids the sink-or-swim Teach for America approach, while giving grads the chance to find out if they like teaching in a lower-stakes environment:

One of the BETAs, Kym Scherbarth, is a recent graduate of the University of California, San Diego. Scherbarth had considered going into teaching out of college, but she didn’t feel ready to lead a class. “I figured this was a good way to learn how to be an effective educator and decide if it was something I wanted to pursue,” she said.

I also like Blue Engine’s founder’s explicit acknowledgement that education reform doesn’t always work the way we think it will, and we can’t just dig in our heels in the face of disappointing evidence (cough, Michelle Rhee):

Blue Engine was born in the wake of a disappointing eight-year educational intervention led by its founder, Nick Ehrmann. And it shows. There is a refreshing humility baked into its model — particularly in the core idea that teachers need lots more support than they are given to do what they are expected to do. Ehrmann got his own start in education as a Teach For America corps member, teaching fourth and fifth grades at Emery Elementary School, in a tough neighborhood in Washington, D.C. He wanted his students in class 312 to make it through college, so working with the “I Have a Dream Foundation,” he raised over $1 million to provide them with tutoring, mentoring and scholarships over several years.

After he left teaching to pursue a doctorate in sociology at Princeton, Ehrmann’s Project 312 became the basis for his thesis. For years, he tracked the students’ progress against a comparison group from the same school. “I fully intended to arrogantly study what our nonprofit was getting right,” he recalled. “After six years, I found that our work had not had a shred of impact on academic achievement.”

Ehrmann focuses on increased rigor in high school classes to better prepare students for college work (he notes that there’s a difference between college-eligible and college-ready), as well as increased individualized support. From my position working with college freshmen and sophomores, these seem like essential and obvious elements in college preparation. One thing I wish my students were better trained to do is to use me as a resource–to work with me to improve their skills. All too often, when they do take advantage of my office hours, it’s to improve their grade–something that’s best addressed by focusing on skills and not treating the work in the class as a means to a grade. The added bonus is that an improvement in skills leads to an improvement in grades, but as a teacher, I don’t care about their grades, I care about their learning. The grades are just the carrot and the stick to get them to grow as readers and writers.

I have a hunch that if high school students had more opportunities to work closely with instructors whose sole purpose was to help them develop skills, and who could devote far more time an energy than an overwhelmed teacher of 30 students, they might arrive in my classroom better prepared to see me as a resource for their own learning and improvement, rather than as a giver of grades. A pipe dream, maybe, but I’m glad to see education reform that begins to address it.