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Revisiting Reflection: Take 2 on Defining Reflective Writing

posted: 8.14.13 by Nedra Reynolds

As I prepare for a couple of professional development workshops coming up soon, I’m revisiting a question that has been bugging me for years:  what exactly do we mean by reflective writing?  I’ve taken one stab at this thorny question in a previous post, but I don’t think I got very far with it.

By now, most of us take reflective learning and reflective teaching for granted. Donald Schon and Kathleen Yancey and many others have convinced composition instructors to build teaching practices on the foundation of reflection.  While I feel pretty confident about my ability to reflect, I have less confidence about what my expectations are when I ask others to reflect (in writing).  As I face a room full of earnest teachers interested in incorporating more reflection into the classes they teach, how will I respond when someone (inevitably) says, “What exactly do you mean by reflective writing?”

Hmmm.  Maybe I’ll say, “Good question”!  And then I’ll try to distinguish between reflection (as an act or as a habit of mind) and reflective writing, which is . . . what exactly?  That’s where I’m stuck.  I have plenty of questions of my own:  “How do we recognize reflective writing when we see it?  If students ask about expectations for their reflective writing, what do our rubrics say?  How do we describe exemplary, competent, or `still developing’ examples of reflective writing?”

I’m a firm believer that reflection does not have to involve writing.  I think that people can be thoughtful, contemplative, and analytical about their own choices, learning, or behaviors without an act of writing–or before, after, and during an act of writing.  Reflection might take place internally–in our minds and hearts–or in talking with others, or in the form of a poem, a video, or a drawing.

A quick survey of some of the composition textbooks on my shelf, all published quite recently, says that reflection is classified as a genre, but it is also treated under narrative.  The advice for students about writing a reflection includes using details, “telling a story,” making a point, and/or having a voice.  From this all-too-limited survey, which might suggest a need for further digging, I suspect that reflective writing–examples of reflection that are written–have evolved almost exclusively from or within a literary tradition or as part of the expressivist tendencies in our discipline.  But are these the only ways to write reflectively?  How can reflective writing be described or classified outside of or beyond narrative?  Other way of asking this might be, is narrative the only way to engage in reflective writing?

We want students to tangle with contradictions (teach the conflicts!), so maybe it would be productive to ask for narrative reflection in writing classes that have emphasized argument, academic discourse, scientific writing, technical writing, and/or multi-modal texts. But then again, helping students to do their best work in writing reflectively might mean that an assignment or rubric should “match up” with the forms of writing the class has focused on.  If you replace details with evidence, for example, reflective writing can be categorized as argument, where students need to support a claim.  Engineering majors are going to grasp the assignment more quickly if you call it “analysis” rather than reflection, and students who have practiced the scientific method will appreciate that they should dig into the data in order to make connections between their learning and the work of the class.

The importance of reflection in the teaching of writing, particularly in portfolio-based courses, is indisputable.  But there is still considerable work to be done, in my view, to define reflective writing.  I’ll keep thinking!

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