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Writing is a Public Act: Take Two

posted: 3.29.13 by archived

When I wrote my last blog post on my “Writing is A Public Act” policy, I didn’t anticipate that it would be a two-fer, but that’s how it has turned out. In that post, I ended up thinking about how having access to student writing via the LMS and Google Docs is useful to me as a writing teacher in the Paperless Writing Class. What I didn’t articulate is why I think this policy is worthwhile for the students and that’s what I’d like to take up here.

Let me say from the outset that the writing I’m talking about here is not of the personal sort–I’m not looking for students to do a freewrite on a significant relationship in their lives and then insisting that they allow me to share that freewrite with the class. That’s not what I have in mind. I’m talking about the kind of writing students do when they’re working through ideas or asking questions or reacting to something they’ve read or we’ve discussed. Let’s take an example.

One day last spring in a Professional Writing course, I set out a series of tasks for students as we worked our way through Anne Beaufort’s wonderful book Writing in the Real World. The first task: get into small groups, read through your groupmates’ homework responses, and choose one, as a group, that will be shared with the entire class. This gave students the opportunity, before we got into a full-class discussion of the day’s material, to get a quick refresher on the reading and to find out what some of their classmates thought about it.

Once the reading and nomination process was complete, each group was assigned one of Beaufort’s five knowledge domains (discourse community, subject matter, genre, rhetorical, & writing process) and asked to address the following prompts and questions:

      a. Explain the kind of knowledge your domain consists of.
      b. What does this type of knowledge allow a writer to do? Why is it important/useful?
      c. Explain how writers at Beaufort’s research site acquired this kind of knowledge.

Finally, each group was to pose one question about the day’s reading. They were to post all of this writing to a Google Doc: a public document which we would review at the end of class.

So, to recap: the day began with students reading each other’s homework and deciding which student’s work to share with the class. Students then got to work on a series of tasks and read each other’s informal writing as it emerged in response to the prompts and questions I gave them. Finally, they all read and discussed the written work of all their classmates once the Google Doc was complete. Via tasks like these, students are able to read not just each other’s finished work but also each other’s work at the point of utterance, at the point of conception.

I have no evidence at my fingertips to suggest that this practice, in itself, generates new learning and/or ways of seeing/thinking/knowing, but my gut tells me that it does. There’s something about listening to another person as they are trying to shape a thought that is valuable. It’s valuable to the speaker/writer in that you have an immediate audience for the ideas you are trying to work through. It’s valuable to the listener/reader in that you have the opportunity to gain access to another person’s thinking process and to potentially contribute to that process. These are the kinds of activities that professionals, academics or otherwise, engage in all the time but which students may not engage in as frequently and probably rarely engage in in the classroom.

Therein lies a second justification for the all “Writing is A Public Act” policy: it allows for kinds of conversation and learning that might not happen otherwise. Students see that, rather than keep their informal writing private, making such writing public opens up new ways of thinking, seeing, and understanding.

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Categories: Michael Michaud
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