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The Crazy Quilt Theory of Process

posted: 6.30.14 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

Many years ago, I gave a conference presentation entitled “Piecing Together an Academic Life.” At the time, I was making a quilted pillow of my clothes from graduate school, and of pieces donated by family and friends from different parts of their lives. My presentation focused on how we take the different pieces of our experiences to quilt together a new configuration, an object that values each piece separately—but also a piece in which the whole eventually becomes greater than the sum of the parts.

This summer, I am quilting again, and I note over time that both the process and the eventual product have changed. I envision a flat crazy quilt as the final product, rather than a pillow. As before, I am not using a pattern, but this time I did consult craft sites on the Internet to learn how others made crazy quilts and t-shirt quilts. The most important change, however, comes with the work of actually piecing the patches together in real time. In previous quilted pillows, I hardly ever pieced everything together beforehand. This time, I began by placing the fleece blanket backing on the floor, and then arranging and rearranging the different t-shirts prints, patches, and pieces of old clothing. I pinned down the prints and patches, because those pieces made up the majority of the quilt.

As I pieced and pinned, drafted and redrafted, I also began to see the quilt as a revised meditation on academic life. Crazy quilts are not designed at random or by accident: like a course, they offer beginnings and endings. To create a course, we need to cover a certain amount of time and space—whether virtual or physical. The crazy quilt also provides these constraints. While space remains largely tactile and material, I find that taking photos of the process helps me to see my progress, as well as to plan the next steps toward completion of the project, within the limited timeframe of a summer’s hiatus from teaching. Additionally, while taking and viewing these virtual photos, I recalled the significance of spontaneity in our work, and found inspiration for this blog post.

The design element of spontaneity plays an important role, for example, as we create our Basic Writing classes. We piece together assignment and class activities across different courses, different schools, and different periods of our lives. Increasingly, our work offers opportunities for collaboration, vision, and revision. Even if we begin with assignments mandated by administrators or committees, our students and their writing create the shape of the essay and make meaning from required assignments. Our courses, through student-centered participation and involvement, may come to resemble crazy quilts.

Consider, for example, the literacy narrative assignment, for which writers are invited to address an aspect of their education that stands out to them.  Many writers may not yet have gained experience with critical analysis of education, of pointing to specific moments in their schooling that would offer enough material to create a detailed narrative with a beginning, middle, and end.  Teachers and peer reviewers might encounter drafts written as a list (in paragraph form) of the most basic activities of one or more years of school. In other words, the writer might have created a bare outline of structure, but not yet developed connecting threads of details.

How might the crazy quilt theory of process prove particularly helpful for revision? In other words, how might writers repurpose the fabric of a literacy narrative draft to create revision?   How might writers foster spontaneity of process to work toward a more realized final project? In class, I present variations on the following practices for revision:

  • First, individually or with teacher or peers, writers can identify the blank spaces in the draft, spaces where details seem very general.
  • Next, pull out a specific generic sentence. Writers can begin revising by using this particular sentence as a topic sentence.
  • Then, invite writers to free write more concrete details from the same years as their schooling. For this activity, the details would relate more directly to writers’ lives outside of the classroom. Such details would encompass sights, sounds, and smells that writers might remember from time spent outside of school, including eating meals; playing outside in natural settings or in home communities; listening to particular genres of music, artists, or songs; wearing clothing that may or may not have followed current styles; taking part in sports, artistic pursuits, or gaming; etc..
  • Moving forward, ask the writer to share or describe this free writing in conference or peer review. The writer or the reviewer can read aloud or offer the electronic device or paper where the writing was composed. For online classes, the writer can post the free writing to social media or the class’s course management system.
  • At this point, the job of the reader/reviewer would be to find details that best fit with the topic sentence, and to explain why those details offer an appropriate fit. The job of the writer would be to consider this critique, and then to revise the paragraph.
  • Finally, the writer would focus on writing independently by moving through the cycle himself, pulling out paragraphs and inventing more specific detail. Ideally, at any moment that the writer finds herself uncertain, she could return to a reviewer for more feedback.

Our academic lives include moments when we feel frustrated by circumstances that we did not anticipate. For students in Basic Writing, as in our own academic lives, the steps of our systematically arranged scaffold can collapse under the weight of unplanned events. Yet, if we cannot stop what we could not have predicted in advance, our designs can at least foster the time and space for spontaneity.  Through spontaneity, we may experience more fully the Crazy Quilt Theory of process—and appreciate the end product all the more.

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