Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Schooling Myself: A Lesson in Global Revision for the Teacher

For the past few weeks, I have been working on my very first article for publication. While I'm super excited about having something in print, I am really struggling through it. I do not typically have a hard time producing papers, but I know that I also care much more about this piece than most things I have written, as it will be put in a collection of essays for other academics to judge. I want it to be well-written, well-researched, and well-argued.

The problem is that it took me three weeks to write 14 pages, and I didn't even like the 14 pages I wrote. They seemed disorganized, full of loosely connected ideas. They didn't really seem to focus on anything in particular. I kept trying to rework the piece, to move things around, to add more research, or to rewrite awkward sentences. I was trying to merge narrative with research with other narratives in places where they just didn't mesh. My margins were filled with MS Word comments to myself about answering questions or transitioning better. The truth is it wasn't getting any better. I might even say it was getting worse.

So today, despite a deadline that is just a few days off, I decided to scrap it. I kept my two page introduction that laid out a framework for my argument, and I cut a few paragraphs here and there that I could work with. For the most part, though, I started from scratch. By the end of the day, I had 12 solid pages that, though they still needed work, were much better and usable.

Learning My Own Lessons

It seems silly in hindsight that I wouldn't have done this sooner, considering that I preach these exact lessons to my students. How often do I say, "Revision isn't just changing around a few sentences. It's about changing ideas"? Yet, I sat around tinkering with a very broken paper, rather than just overhauling it. I was so worried about not having enough time to finish the piece that I kept playing with the same mess of words. I probably wasted three days on the same ideas, not knowing where to go. If I had just sat back and said, "Ok, Nicole. What do you really want to say? What's the journey you want to take your readers on?" I would probably have been done by now.

I was trying to edit rather than allow for global revision. The piece was so disorganized that it needed restructuring. It didn't just need a few paragraphs to be slid around; it needed a whole new core. Losing all of those words was scary, though. We're constantly told that wasting time is the worst thing that you can do. I had put hours into those words, days even. Watching them disappear felt like a sacrificial ritual. 

Shitty First Drafts

One of my favorite pieces, and one of my favorite pieces to share with students, is Anne Lamott's "Shitty First Drafts," a chapter from her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. In the chapter, she says:
The first draft is the child's draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the char­acters wants to say, "Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?," you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you're supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go--but there was no way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.
Now that I'm half way done with my piece and still full of ideas, I'm glad I chose to commit to writing and sacrificing what Anne  Lamott would call a "shitty first draft." In the end, even though I deleted nearly all of what I wrote, it wasn't a waste of time. Those ideas were still circulating as I wrote, and I had more fully come to understand my position.

The experience has definitely given me a better insight into my students' brains and their resistance to my lessons on revision. If I, a theoretically experienced writer, have a hard time making the necessary changes, I know it must be even more difficult for a student who knows little about the potential for better writing to come from global revision, chopping bad writing, and allowing themselves to write terrible drafts. I guess sometimes the teacher has to learn her own lessons the hard way.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Summer Classes: 4 Weeks to Teach 3 Months Worth of Lessons?

photocredit: 1000 Unlucky Days
This summer, I'm teaching my first online course. It also happens to be a summer course. It doesn't start until July 9, but I've been trying to figure it out since the middle of the Spring semester. I have created about 4 different syllabi at this point and am not really happy with any of them. I love the idea of teaching writing online, and I think, though different, it's a very feasible thing to do. However, teaching writing online in a time period of just 31 days is beginning to seem borderline impossible. I'm having a hard time figuring out how to include all 8 program learning objectives into such a brief amount of time, especially when I can't explain and interject as I would face-to-face.

Most universities offer summer courses these days, and typically, they run more than one "session." At one of the universities I attended, there is a 2 week pre-session, two month-long summer sessions, and a 2 week post-session. In theory, you have four mini semesters running over the course of just three and a half months. I'm not sure about other disciplines. I suppose one could learn some formulas in a few days or memorize a short length of history (maybe), but writing is not a science. It takes time. A short summer session isn't enough time for most students.

Furthermore, I've noticed that many of the students who take summer courses are taking courses that they want to separate from their typical workload, and often, this is because these are "weak" subjects for those students. They want to be able to dedicate their full attention to the subject so that they can succeed. It seems counter-intuitive, then, to push them quickly through subjects that they really need at which they need extra practice. 

For now, I am dealing with the challenge the best I can. I realize that my students are going to miss out on some of the biggest lessons that come from my three-month-semester course. They will only get to do multiple drafts of one major piece, so the importance of revision will likely be lost. They won't get to do many of the fun multimedia tasks or write in alternative genres like my three-month-semester classes do. Not to say that they won't learn anything, but I do think the integrity of the class will be greatly influenced by the shortened time span. I'm trying to negotiate my priorities, though, and make it the best course possible.

I'm wondering if any of you have taught or taken short summer courses, especially online ones. How did you cope with the tight time frame? Am I missing the benefit of having only 4 weeks?

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Summer Slacker in Need of Motivation

image from bettermondays.com
It's been a while since I posted a new post, and before that, it was a while before I posted a new post. I am the quintessential summer slacker. Just before summer began, I passed my comprehensive exams, putting me into (what should be) one of the busiest summers of my life, but I'm just find it so hard to get and stay motivated or focused. Living on the Jersey Shore doesn't help. The sun comes out, and all I want to do is be out of doors, doing anything but reading and writing. I'm beginning to feel like an undergrad all over again.

I'm supposed to be doing research, reading through my archive of FYW portfolios, studying French, writing an article, and figuring out my dissertation topic. I should be putting together three new syllabi for three new courses I'll be teaching-- one of which begins in July-- but I haven't solidified a single one. I pick a book up, I put it down 10 pages later. I can't remember what I read. I start writing and get through a paragraph before my mind is elsewhere. For whatever reason, I just can't get it together this summer.

So, I'm turning to you, dear readers. What are your tips for getting focused and staying motivated?