One of my colleagues, in a workshop for new graduate student teachers, suggested an in class exercise that I’d never heard of. Get your students to draw a picture of their ideal reader, he said, then get them to draw a speech bubble on that reader: ask them what the reader is saying to them about their writing.
Students have so much trouble imagining a real writer, particularly in an academic context where producing an essay often feels like a performance in showing the teacher you read the right number of books and journal articles, and hit the right word count, and used X number of transition words, and underlined your thesis statement. This exercise concretizes the idea of a real reader, and asks students, as well, to think about what they want that reader to come away with after.
I tried it with my first years. They’re writing a short research paper, a persuasive essay where they have to craft an argument for a particular interpretation of one aspect of our contemporary digital lives–I’ve got papers for and against online dating, social media, video game aesthetics, normative sexism and racism online, and more. So far they’ve written a proposal that briefly described their topic and articulated a provisional thesis they were interested in arguing. Then they produced annotated bibliographies of primary and secondary sources. Then they wrote a draft of the introductory paragraph of the paper. This week they’ll do a draft editing workshop on a first draft of the full paper. Next week they hand it in.
At the very first, though, when I handed out the Research Paper assignment, I had them do this exercise with the reader and the speech bubble.
The results astonished me. In among the hilariously poorly-drawn stick figure renditions of readers (most of them imagined me as the reader; only one imagined PacMan) and the comic descriptions of writing awards bestowed, most students imagined two kinds of feedback. First, a strong majority asked for substantive feedback on both mechanics and structure. Second, and this was surprising, nearly half of them imagined me saying something along the lines of this:
“I never thought of that before, but you’ve convinced me!”
My students were actually focused on persuading me. On generating new, surprising knowledge. Somehow they’ve actually got the idea that their writing matters, generally, and that it matters to me, particularly, and that they can use their words to meaningfully interact with culture, ideas, and interpretation.
Right now I’m just so grateful to get this little sign that somehow, somewhere, this group of students has had some kind of little spark lit. I’m grateful my colleague taught me this exercise. Yesterday I graded 35 quizzes and 36 intro paragraphs and got to work on 20 SSHRC Departmental Appraisal Letters and assorted other ranking tasks. This was just the reminder I need that there is a purpose beyond just a rank or a grade or a credential. That my teaching, sometimes, matters and makes a difference. That my students can surprise me, that they’re trying and they care.
Have you had any nice surprises lately? Something to help us get through these last few weeks of term?
|Honestly, my students this term are the BEST|