A Teacher's Writes

One teacher's thoughts on life, literature, and learning

Tag: writing

Writing without Self-Absorption

Writing demands a certain amount of introspection. But introspection doesn’t have to become self-absorption. In my own writing life, I have found that writing can be a means toward blessed self-forgetfulness. As I get absorbed in a subject I’m writing about, find that I am freed from self-absorption–and I am able to do good work. When I stop asking “What will my reader think of me?” I start asking, “What will my reader think about this person or event or idea I’m writing about?” And good things start to happen. I don’t live in that place all the time. I don’t even live there most of the time. But I don’t get much good writing done when I’m not in that place.

Jonathan Rogers

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Artists need to live modestly

It takes time. This means that you need to find that time. Don’t be too social. Live below your means and keep the means modest (people with trust funds and other cushions: I’m not talking to you, though money makes many, many things easy, and often, vocation and passion harder). You probably have to do something else for a living at the outset or all along, but don’t develop expensive habits or consuming hobbies. I knew a waitress once who thought fate was keeping her from her painting but taste was: if she’d given up always being the person who turned going out for a burrito into ordering the expensive wine at the bistro she would’ve had one more free day a week for art.

– from Rebecca Solnit’s tips on how to be a writer. Many of them are good, but this one is the one I haven’t heard elsewhere. And she’s right.

The act of writing as a shaper of complicated thinking

One of the wonderful things about writing, for me, is the ways in which the world becomes more complicated once it starts coming together on a screen, on paper. Actually most times I write by hand first, and then type after, for a variety of reasons. One of which is there is something very tactile about the experience, the act of holding something in hand, and moving across a page, the actual movement in which I’m more intimately bound rather than just typing away. That does something to me creatively in terms of ideas coming, in terms of even the architecture of a project. But also it gets me away from perfectionism or the self-loathing that too often hovers over and hinders and even smothers my work. The screen brings the constant illusion of perfection. I have notes on concert programs, napkins, restaurant menus, scraps of paper, newspapers . . . I always date them and I love looking through them. Partially it’s to protect myself, so if I stumble on a piece of writing where it’s echoed I know I haven’t taken it, or if I have I would have to give acknowledgment.

With the act of writing, the world can sometimes become so complicated that many times I’m not sure what I believe about something. Time and time again, my beliefs will change as I begin writing. For instance, when the election happened, I quickly said, “Oh these are the reasons for Trump’s win,” and as I began writing—just writing to a writer friend or friends who asked me to explain to them what happened—as I began writing, I began to recognize that it’s a lot more complicated than I thought. And people are more complicated than I thought. Suddenly, the pen outpaces the emotions or the mood. I feel that so often that my immediate response to something is a mood, whereas once I begin writing my response becomes more than mood. It becomes, in a thought, more engaged emotions. So writing becomes a way to remind myself that human beings are irreducibly complex and that they’re deserving of much more than the reductionisms that are often given to them.

Garnette Cadogan

A bit of why I enjoy writing for a little magazine

The Curator hopes to embrace how little magazines tend to treat their writers. Little magazines aren’t just an experimental playground removed from the larger culture, but can operate as a writerly gym, a place to train a writer’s artistic and critical muscles. As Michael Anania, former editor of Audit/Poetry and director of the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, has said:

“Little magazines have always functioned primarily for writers. Readers are desirable, sometimes even actively sought out, but the impulse behind most magazines is the writer-editor’s conviction that there are writers who are not being served by existing publications. At their best, little magazines draw together groups of writers and, however marginally, find them an audience.[5]

Being small, The Curator can care about its writers, serve them, stretch them, train them, receive gifts from them—provide a community to work on how you work with words. Every little magazine hopes to publish the best of what it can, but small magazines like us have the capacity to say: Give us your poor, your tired, your hungry, your zombie-ish words. Let’s work on them. Let’s see if they can be resurrected.

Adam Joyce, at The Curator

Alan Jacobs hopes all his writing has a similar feel

I have tried for a long time to write academic works that are vivid, interesting, challenging …  Of course, I’ve tried to do the same thing in my nonacademic writing; in fact, I’d like to believe that as my career has gone on there’s been a kind of convergence on a similar impetus, a similar character, a similar style or feel.

What is it that all of my writing has in common, or that I would like for it to all have in common? I think primarily it’s that it should offer some of the same structural, organizational, and linguistic pleasures – yes, pleasures – that fiction has, or the personal essay. Even in my most theoretical work, I’ve tried to think of my task as that of attracting and keeping the attention of thoughtful readers, telling them stories, doling out fascinating details that make them want to read more, keeping them to some degree in suspense until the end of any given tale. Storytelling is, for me, the fundamental mode of writing; it’s the foundation on which everything else is built. In that sense I don’t think of writing works of literary theory as being different altogether in kind from writing a personal narrative. It’s all about trying to reach human readers, writing to them as their fellow human being. Insofar as I have had any success as a writer, I really do think that it is primarily due to my keeping that goal in mind.

– Alan Jacobs – “On Writing for Readers

An unexpected mission: Newspaper adviser

I didn’t mean to become who I am. Not that anyone else means it particularly, but sometimes you come across a person who seems to have figured out their future at the end of kindergarten. Take Dr. Jack Bacon, a NASA engineer who spoke at the TIE Conference this year: in elementary school he carried a lunch box with a picture of a rocket blasting to a space station. Now, he carries his headset in that same lunch box when he heads to work–for the team that created the international space station.

Not meaning to become who I am does not mean I am disappointed with the results, however. Early dreams of playing baseball, talking on the radio, and coaching died away as I grew up and learned more about those jobs and my own life.  They were good dreams, but they are not as important as I thought they would be.

As I grew new dreams emerged–like noble fatherhood, for example. It’s not something a young man dreams about, but it is something a young dad can envision. Yet there are also things that pop up in life that one never expects, things you pick up along the way not because you dream it, but because it just happens.

I happened to pick up the label technology expert, a label achieved by knowing a few things about blogs and wikis that my colleagues did not know. I don’t particularly like computers, but communicating is awfully cool and these were tools of communication, so I’d thrown myself at them–immersing myself in their workings, over-committing my time and energy to their development, eventually growing tired of it all and settling into a normalized use of them as tools. The formula was strangely familiar to the ones I applied to my childhood dreams: baseball was fun so I obsessed over it until baseball was life; eventually I realized it wasn’t.

Earlier this year another little surprise emerged. The colleague who puts together the school newspaper took a job elsewhere and I was asked if I was interested. I was presumably asked because I like to write and because it was thought I might enjoy the software side of things (they use InDesign, which I’ve never touched). At no point had I pictured myself as the newspaper guy. The thought never occurred to me. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I liked it, and now I am the newspaper guy.

Within days I’d wasted entire planning periods cooking up ideas with a colleague, threatening to destroy myself by repeating the same ol’ plot of total immersion, enthusiastic overcommitment, exhaustion, and pull back. Realizing that I want to break that formulaic story, that I want to focus my energy, and that I want to prevent extraneous ideas from drawing me into good but non-essential activities, I spent a bit of time considering what my mission, or objective, will be for the newspaper. Not only is my hope that a mission statement will keep me focused, but that it will help me to communicate to others what we are trying to do and why.

So far, this is what that mission looks like.

As an adviser, I am convinced that the newspaper’s main goal is to provide students an audience for their work. When I say work I mean it in a broad sense, wanting it to include many forms of communication, be it reporting-style writing to short stories to poetry, to photography and art work. Perhaps it can include work I have not fathomed or considered. For me, the genre or type of work is far less important than the audience. I want to seize upon the opportunity to create audience, because there are forms of work at which students are engaged where audience is a fundamental necessity. One writes that others may read and snaps a photograph that others may see. A classroom, unfortunately yet understandably, struggles to capture audience, even as within its walls these audience-dependent forms are taught. The newspaper thus compliments the school’s endeavors by providing opportunity for some students to be heard.

With that goal in mind, one of my first and biggest priorities is to work out a way for the print edition of the newspaper to be distributed to the student-body free of charge. Currently it is sold for 50 cents a copy, and as beautiful and well assembled as it is, it is read by a shockingly small audience, consisting, to my unofficial observation, mostly of staff members, who each receive a free copy of it. Even if this would require us to resume printing on newspaper print, I think it would be worthwhile (currently the paper is printed on fairly nice paper stock, in color). In college our student-newspaper came out every Friday about mid-morning, free of charge, and everybody I knew grabbed a copy of it and had it mostly read by Friday night. If we can nurture an effect like that here, we will have created a relevant compliment to education.

For students on my staff, when it exists (and I’ll need to recruit one), this will be their mission as well–to gain an audience. Yet for them, the goals they will be setting to pursue the mission will be different. They will not be worried about the printing costs or the budget as much as about their content and presentation (at least at first–if the staff grew large I could disperse business responsibilities as well). In that way, the second mission of the newspaper enters.

The staff of the newspaper will seek to provide for the school’s community relevant and interesting content. Like the work mentioned previously, the content is broadly defined to mean anything that can be conveyed in a printed format for an audience to consume. Relevant ends up being the crucial term here.

Relevant means timely, for example. Printing an article about how the football season ended up is not relevant if printed weeks after the season ended.

Similarly, relevant also meets a need. If the audience for the most part is fully aware of something, like what the plays will be this coming year, there is no need to re-publish it in the newspaper. The readers of the paper do not need to read such an article, because they already know what it says. It’s a newspaper, but such items are not new; if the paper wants to print such things, it should fight for the chance to break those stories, so the audience has a need to read the paper.

Relevant also encompasses perspective. This is a school newspaper, which means the readers are concerned with students’ perspectives and concerns. Students have a unique angle to provide on events and can cover things from state elections to school events to American Idol competitions with viewpoints that their audience wants to hear.

Personally I am bubbling with ideas for the paper. To compliment both missions, I would like to create an online version of the paper. The purpose of the online edition would not be to republish online that which is already printed, but to publish exclusive content that we otherwise could not bring to the audience in a relevant manner. Activities and breaking news are primarily what I have in mind: 250-word summaries of sporting events published within 24 hours of their completion; previews of upcoming matches including interviews with coaches and players; activities’ announcements and current events (like, “Hey, in three days the construction company is going to close off the parking for the next year and a half”). Such content, because relevant, will bring readers, and for me, the adviser and teacher, providing that audience is the point.

Fittingly, I say to you as always, thanks for reading.

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Newspaper on Flickr by: jamesjyu

Questioning foundations: The note card method

We teach what we know. After all, how can you give something to someone that is not yours to give? I think of this today because my sophomores are in the midst of their research papers. We have just finished note cards—well, some of us have just finished our note cards—and we are constructing the outline before writing the first draft. It’s a familiar process and I have been a champion of it for many years.

I champion this process—in particular the use of note cards—because I see it as a scalable method of note taking that allows students to manipulate information from sources in ways outside the organization of the original articles.

A few years ago I heard a colleague question the use of note cards, wondering whether it was just a time-honored thing that we do simply because it was done to us. I jumped to their defense, citing the things I noted above. I liked the way note cards could be shuffled and mixed; how once mixed, the original source became less important than the information on the card; and how, no matter how big your paper got, the method’s process held true. These things, I argued, were things to which students needed to be introduced. Once introduced to the traditional method, they had earned the right to manipulate it to their own whims. They could see the importance of tracking the source, of categorizing information, and separating notes into bites, and if they could apply those methods to an improvised version, then so be it. At least they had seen the underlying principles.

That was my argument, and I am still fairly convinced of it. On my desk is a student’s outline and in the first paragraph she plans to cite three different sources. Shuffling note cards helps her to do this, helps her avoid writing a source-by-source recap of the information she has read.

In my own experience, I have found the method useful on research projects, even through graduate school. The biggest problem I had with it regarded the way it wasted energy in a computer age. I was copying by hand what I was seeing on a computer screen and later typing that information back into the computer—a terrible waste that would not be tolerated in another industry. The problem was not that much better when reading books or paper sources—again I was copying something by hand only to have to type it later. Acutely aware of this, I searched the web during graduate school for a program that would allow me to skip the pen work.

I experimented with note programs, Google Notes, text boxes in Word, and online bookmarks, but was not happy with any of them until I stumbled upon Zotero. I have praised Zotero before, but the heart of my praise is that the program mimics the note card method. With it I was able to use the method I loved without the extra step.

Yet when it came to my students, learning Zotero was not an option. I would have had to teach the students the software, and the learning curve’s steepness and the difficulties with shared computers were substantial enough that it could never be justified.

Thus I have settled into a basic default with note cards. We find our sources online, print them, and write note cards by hand. Then they type their papers. I teach the note cards because I know them, and because I cannot see a less energy-wasting method that teaches the skills I want to inculcate.

Then, while perusing Bruce Ballenger’s book The Curious Researcher for something else entirely, I was attracted to his section on note taking techniques. He describes two methods, neither one involving note cards. In fact, he described note cards in the first edition of the book but refused to include them in the second edition, admitting that

in good conscience, I can’t do it anymore. I no longer believe that 3” x  4” or 4” x 6” cards are large enough to accommodate the frequently messy and occasionally extended writing that often characterizes genuinely useful notes. Little cards get in the way of having a good conversation with your sources.

Clearly, Ballenger is not opposed to the note cards for their waste of energy as much as he is opposed to the way they allow the sources to dominate the conversation. This is certainly a weakness of my students’ work, and with that declaration he attracts my attention.

His first method was a take on the Cornell note taking method, or double-entry journal. With it, students write on the left side notes from their source and on the right side comments on those notes. He calls the comments the “fastwrite response.” I like the idea but cannot see that my students would have that much to say about each of their notes. It also does not solve the wasted-energy problem, as hand writing the notes would be the easiest way to work with the columns unless students did some slick work with tables in Word (something I find unlikely that my students would do well). If this were the only thing Ballenger had to offer, I would probably not change my ways–though I would feel a bit worse about them, knowing his criticism of note cards has merit.

The second method he describes, however, caught my attention. It is a research log where students create an entry for their notes with each source. At the top of the entry they put the works cited citation and the day’s date. Then they head a section, “What strikes me most.” After they have read the entire source, they take 7-10 minutes to write a paragraph in this section. Ballenger again calls this a fastwrite, and he suggests questions the student might ask to get going:

  • What strikes me as the most important thing the author was trying to say?
  • What surprised me most?
  • What do I remember best?
  • How did it make me feel?
  • What seemed most convincing? Least convincing?
  • How has it changed my thinking on my topic?
  • How does it compare to other things I’ve read?
  • What other research possibilities does it suggest?

I like the evaluation of the research that these questions embed in them—students are looking not only at the usefulness of the information, but at the trustworthiness of it.

After the fastwrite section, students write down specific notes from the source, carefully noting the page number for each note. After the notes section, they head a paragraph called “The source reconsidered” and complete another fastwrite.

I admit this method attracts me. It can be used easily with a computer and clearly demands that students interact with their sources instead of copying bland notes onto the page. The initial problem I see is that this method would make it more difficult for students to mix and match their sources when organizing their paper. It puts a lot of pressure on the outlining process, which I suppose could be a good thing, since it makes that step essential and relevant.

If I had a pile of these kinds of notes, I could print them out and lay them before me. Then I could reread them and look for the common subject headings, just like I do with my note cards. With this method, instead of physically moving my note cards, I would have to write the subjects and headings on my outline and then apply some sort of strategy for checking off the notes I had used. Personally, I would be tempted to number my notes and then on my outline jot the numbers of the notes I wanted to use for each section, so I would not forget about one while writing the paper.

The downfall with this method is that students may not mix their sources much, but the upside is that by the time they have completed six fastwrites on three sources, they will be much more familiar with their research than my students have ever been with the note card method.

I do have a few lingering questions and plan to seek input from others. First off, is the method properly scalable? In this I cherish the opinion of my college buddies, who have all completed graduate school. Somehow I doubt they all used note cards for their research, and I wonder if this research log more closely resembles what they did than the note cards.

Also, does this method teach the pieces as clearly as the note cards—the importance of tracking the source and integrating the different sources to make a new statement? Another concern: will students fall into copying and pasting large sections of text they do not comprehend?

Some of these questions I cannot answer on my own, and some I cannot answer without trying the log. I think this year I will try this research log with my freshmen. Perhaps at the end of that unit I will have a better feel for the possibilities of note taking for research.

Ultimately, I teach what I know. In doing so, however, I do not want to hold anything back. One thing I know is that the note card method has weaknesses, so it appears to me that it’s my job as a teacher to learn something new, if something better is available, so I can teach that to students too.

Thanks for reading.

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