Recently, I was invited to the 2012 Survive & Thrive Conference and Festival in St Cloud, MN. It was an event dedicated to the medical humanities, with its theme this year being centered on the heart. It was a fabulous event, and it provided attendees ample opportunities to explore various medical humanities topics. A diverse crowd attended the conference: from medical doctors, to college professors, to writers, to business people, and so on.
I was originally going to read an excerpt from an essay I’ve been working on about suicide and teaching titled, “Red Ink.” However, I was asked to run a workshop, and I jumped at the opportunity to give attendees a safe space to write about healing.
Those who’ve worked with me know that I’m easy going and often accommodating with collaborators. I’m that way not because I like to acquiesce; I’m that way because I find collaboration to be a dance, an odd polka; sometimes you have to give, and other times you have to take.
But, I digress.
Anyways, I put together a workshop focused on writing and healing. It was well attended, and I was told later during the conference that my workshop created quite a positive buzz. I’m always happy to hear that people enjoyed their time with me as co-learners.
Writing is an inherently expressive act. We can’t escape it because at the root of every text is a human, and humans are expressive creatures. It seems current writing pedagogy and theory spurns expressivist thinking. It’s mostly a reaction to the great expressivist movement in the 70s and 80s; from that, we got cognitive writing theory, then we got a combo, and now we’re coming back around to current traditional style writing theory, where grammar is the only thing of importance.
Drawing on the spirit of scholars, like Peter Elbow and Donald Murray, I focused the workshop on the theory and praxis behind writing and healing, identifying experiences on which to journal and why, and continuing practice with the aid of prompts. Importantly, we did lots of writing.
I provided two handouts to the workshop participants. First, I gave them a short bibliography of relevant sources for them to explore about the workshop topic; and, second, I gave them writing prompts clustered around certain themes related to the workshop topic.
Co-learning with these workshop participants reminded me of how powerful writing is in many contexts. Whether it is for healing, for business, or for the public, writing has power, and it can do great things. We should never forget the power of writing because it is an act that can free us all.
For those interested, here are the slides from the workshop:
Last Saturday, I spoke at the 3rd Annual Minnesota Blogger Conference (MBC12). It was a wonderful experience, and one I will treasure. I spoke on building credibility through writing. I had an engaged and fun audience, I had a wonderful space in which to present, I received awesome questions about rhetoric, writing, and online discourse, and I had tweeps actively tweeting about my talk via #MNBlogCon.
I’ve been fortunate to present at both academic and non-academic conferences. MBC12 definitely falls into the latter category, though there were a few academics present. The conference is truly one to which academics should pay attention.
There is a divide between academic and professional discourses. Many who know me know I value practicality equally with theory. However, this isn’t always the case with those employed in academic fields. Many of the issues with which my audience was concerned focused on how and why to do something. Understanding writing equals action seemed of paramount importance to my audience, and I was thankful for it.
Bloggers, or at least the ones in my audience, use their blogs to do something. They want actionable discourse and are satisfied with the writing process when it leads to an action. This action can be minute to grand. For example: just returning to one’s blog (minute) or planting a tree to help the environment (grand). Either way, action occurs.
Every academic should learn how to speak to audiences of varying cultural, societal, and economic contexts. This was, perhaps, the most rewarding aspect of my engagement with my audience: I got to talk with people of various interests about how to do things with writing. As a rhetorician and writing teacher, this is my joy.
I am grateful for such an engrossed, inquisitive, and comfortable audience. We soon found ourselves laughing and speaking candidly about writing in online environments and how to do things with blogging discourse. A relaxed atmosphere soon settled in, and like most of my talks, I danced around the front of the room with the giddy excitement of a child with his first lollipop. Speaking with such a wonderful audience about writing is a sweet tonic for me.
Even more so, I felt immense value as those in my audience focused intently on one aspect or another of my talk. My room filled up to the point where members of my audience were sitting cross-legged on the ground steadying their laptops on their knees as they took notes or tweeted.
I want to be clear: I am not suggesting my audience wasn’t academic or being a non-academic audience is something lower than an academic one. In many ways, my MBC12 audience was academic in the loveliest sense of the word: They were concerned with knowledge of writing and implementation of writing in concrete contexts. I firmly believe higher education should be concerned with the marriage of the academic and the practical. Academics without practicality lacks action, and practicality without academics lacks a knowledgeable base on which to build action.
My experience with MBC12 has reinforced my conviction to continue working on bridging the academic and professional worlds. Both worlds can benefit from mutual consultation and collaboration. I look forward to next year’s conference, and I can only hope for the privilege to present again.
For those interested, here are the slides from my talk:
Image by Flickr user cambodia4kidsorg (adapted by author) // Creative Commons licensed: CC-BY
We recently completed our first peer review session in my summer first-year writing course. I was really impressed with my students because they quickly understood what needed to be accomplished. Many of my students this semester are directly from high school. That is, they graduated from high school two or three weeks ago, and then they started taking summer classes at the University of Minnesota (UMN).
I’m sure the culture shock between high school and the university environment is startling, but I couldn’t imagine how startling it must be for students who only graduated high school two or three weeks ago. My own college experience allowed me six months respite between my high school graduation and beginning college coursework; I’m glad I had that respite.
So, I was impressed and immensely proud of all my students for picking up the pace and timber of the course. Peer review is not always easy. Many students don’t know how to do it, and many teachers don’t know how to explain it or don’t see value in it. I’m of the mind that the latter is more pervasive than the former (but that’s for another post!).
As we prepared for peer review, I instructed my students to bring two hard copies of their current assignment (a literacy narrative) to our class meeting. One copy was for their peer review partner(s), and one copy was for me, so I could see how far along they were with their writing. My students paired up or formed triads for peer reviewing. We worked from two main questions. I wanted them to keep these two questions in mind as they read through their peers’ work:
What is the writer attempting to say in their work?
How engaging and effective is the writer’s message?
These questions are obviously quite broad, but they are good guiding questions that allow students to explore their peers’ work without being boxed in by, for example, a worksheet.
We separated the peer review into two parts.
Part One: The Reader’s Stream of Consciousness
For part one of peer review, I asked my students not to write on anything and to simply read their peers’ work silently to themselves. But, instead of just reading or simply digesting, I asked them to say out loud how they were feeling or what they thought as those feelings and thoughts came into their mind. The writer would listen to the reader saying what comes into his mind as he is reading.
This way, the writer could get an honest gut reaction to their work. It’s important for writers to understand the gut reaction of their audience. (For those who know me, they know I encourage and appreciate appropriate bluntness, so this strategy is in keeping with my general stance.)
Hopefully, after part one of the peer review, the writer has honest and direct feedback, which they have jotted down, from the reader.
Part Two: The Reader’s Mark Up and Detail
For part two of peer review, I asked my students to mark up their peers’ work as they read through it. They needed to read through their peers’ entire document, and then they were to offer constructive feedback through mark up. However, they couldn’t just mark up work and leave it; they had to explain in detail why they were marking something. Thus, if they didn’t know how to explain something, then they couldn’t mark up their peers’ work.
This way, the reader could review and mark up the work, and the writer would only get feedback if the reader could explain why they were offering said feedback.
Hopefully, after part one and two of the peer review, the writer has both verbal and written feedback from their audience that they could incorporate during revision.
Four Guiding Thoughts for the Peer Reviewing Writer and Reader
I love doing peer review in my courses. I think students get a lot out of it (if it’s done correctly), and I think the instructor gets a lot out of it. I usually walk around, offer feedback, and help my students as they peer review.
With every session of peer review, I write the following four guiding thoughts on the board to remind my students and myself how we should act when we peer review:
Read and listen.
I never want my students to feel attacked as their work is reviewed by one of their peers. It is unacceptable, and I do not tolerate such behavior in my courses. As much as I do give my students a lot of control over the class, there are just some things I need to mediate to ensure everyone has a productive and fun time.
My students follow these guiding thoughts, and it helps them remember how to treat their fellow peers. College is difficult enough, and peer review, no matter how useful, should not be a source of difficulty or anxiety.
I have had success with this approach to peer review, and my students seem to get a lot out of their peer review experiences.
Several months ago, I submitted a six-word memoir to the Six Words About Work contest held by noted memoir publication, SMITH Magazine. The goal was to see how people understood their work in six words. It was an amazing idea on many levels. It allowed people to express themselves in memoir form, while those same people had to engage in brevity (which isn’t always easy for memoirists!).
The magazine’s editor, Larry Smith, chose the six-word memoir I submitted to be included in a small collection of 400 six-word memoirs he considered the best: Six Words About Work. I certainly never thought my short memoir would make it into the book publication. Indeed, I was just happy to participate and to see so many others writing about their work. Some submitted memoirs highlighting negative aspects of work, and some submitted ones highlighting positive aspects. Such is the nature of work, no?
For my part, I submitted something positive, and the editor subsequently labeled it as “inspirational.” As a writer and writing teacher, it is a lovely feeling to see my thoughts and words published in formats people can enjoy. I don’t know if my pittance will help someone, but it serves as a good reminder that I am dedicating my life to something I truly believe in.
Here is my six-word memoir with a short backstory:
I’d like to thank the book editor, Larry Smith, for the opportunity to contribute to his project encouraging people to write about their lives and experiences. It’s important for people to recognize they often have stories relevant to others in the world. Their stories matter, and no one should ever be told their story doesn’t matter.
Brenda Ueland, the famed writing teacher and feminist, once wrote: “This is what I learned: that everybody is talented, original and has something to say.” Perhaps the bit about originality could be debated, but the heart of Ueland’s sentiment conveys a clear message: People often see, even if only slightly, the world differently than the person standing next to them, and their perception of the world is as relevant and valuable as anybody’s.
Ueland is right, and writing is an inherently intimate act. It is an act that carries our voice, our class, and our culture to various audiences, and we should all remember that what we have to say is important, even if it’s important to only a few.
Above all else, we should keep writing, keep living, and keep on keeping on.
(This post is cross posted on the HASTAC site, where I am a HASTAC Scholar)
I wrote a few days ago about the fear of writing: “Don’t Fear Writing. Just Write.” I’m writing this post as a follow-up because there is a wonderful outtake video from the film Derrida, where Derrida addresses the question of fear and writing. It’s a wonderful scene of Derrida discussing fear and writing in French (with English subtitles).