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Writing is a Public Act: Take One

posted: 3.15.13 by archived

Over the past several years, I’ve added a new section to my course syllabus or User’s Manual called “Writing is a Public Act.” In The Paperless Writing Class, all writing is public. As in most writing classes, I ask students to share formal papers in small groups and occasionally I ask individual students to allow me to discuss their writing with the entire class (they can, of course, decline). Nothing revolutionary here.

I also reserve the right to share students’ low-stakes, write-to-learn writing with the class at any point in the semester. This second bit, about sharing informal or write-to-learn writing is, to my way of thinking, the more innovative and perhaps risky practice, so I offer students an “out,” if they want it, by letting them know that if this policy absolutely creates a problem for them they can talk to me about it and we can find a solution. No one seems to care, though. They’re either too busy to give this policy much thought or too accustomed, already, to seeing their words, even their tentative, unpolished words, hanging out there in public, online.

I’m not too surprised that so few students express concern about the fact that their informal writing might be made public. In the early days of WEB 2.0, when I started blogging about my children and wanted to post a photo of someone else’s kid playing with my kid, I would always talk to the other kid’s parents first, just to make sure they were cool with it. These days, it seems that it’s just assumed that photos of your kids are going to show up on someone else’s…blog, Facebook page, Twitter feed, whatever. The same probably goes for writing. There’s that video out there, A Vision of Students Today, in which one student claims that she reads 1281 Facebook Profiles a year. Someone has to write those profiles (to say nothing of the wall posts!). In sum, I suppose the fact that writing is a public act is not something new to most college students today.

However, school is still a place where writing is largely a private act. To write a short response to a prompt one has been given by a teacher is a different activity than to post an update to one’s wall on the activities of the day. The former is about sharing; the latter is about thinking. Outside of composition classrooms, my sense is that very few students are asked to share their thinking-via-writing with one another. Even inside of composition classrooms, where sharing one’s formal writing is fairly standard practice, sharing one’s writing-to-learn writing – writing that is essentially thinking-written-down—probably happens less frequently.

For many of my colleagues, I’ve found, writing is largely a two-way street: the students write, they (the faculty) read and/or grade. But since write-to-learn activities are largely about thinking, when they are kept between just students and teachers, a whole lot of thinking is not being shared. To me, this is a shame, as school is supposed to be about thinking and about sharing thinking. Many students aren’t up for this kind of sharing if it means raising their hand and contributing to a class discussion. How many times have you heard a faculty member complaining that he/she can’t get the students to engage during class discussions, or that they can get some of the students to engage, but its always the same 2-3 students who are putting their hands up? These faculty are not assigning writing as a tool to facilitate thinking or they’re not thinking about creative ways to use the writing they are assigning to facilitate discussion. And since they don’t have access to the writing, don’t have it at the tip of their fingers when they need it, it doesn’t matter anyway.

For me, though, things are different. Because I ask students to post all of their writing online somewhere, usually in the learning-management-system (LMS) or in a Google Doc, I have access to all of my students’ writing all of the time.  I can use it to do things in the classroom – to spur discussion or raise questions, to summarize a reading or share the views of the class on a question or problem related to the running of the class.

So goes my first rationale for the Writing is A Public Act policy: I need access to students’ writing at all times, because I am in the business of encouraging thinking and the discussion of thinking. I can’t (often) do these things (well) without some thinking-written-down to draw on. By going paperless, I’ve found a way to ensure that I always have access to some thinking-written-down when I need it. And I’ve saved a few trees.

Next week: Why the Writing is a Public Act policy is good for students.

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Categories: Michael Michaud
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