Encouraging Garbage

In our cMOOC planning meeting yesterday, we spent a bit of time discussing the frequency and nature of the blogging that our students will do during the course.  Although the full syllabus isn’t camera-ready, we are all committed to the idea that students will write a lot and read each others’ work a lot.  Furthermore, the expectation is that the writing will primarily be generative given the student’s particular inquiry projects.   Although, the expectation of writing frequency isn’t precisely pinned down for the course.  While it is true that we will ask students to write and comment on others’ work during punctuated moments of the course, the understanding is that students will go beyond these posts to reflect and write.  A lot. This sparked two (perhaps obvious) questions: How do we get students to write more than mere responses to prompts?  What do we do if they get stuck in the doldrums?

An idea we played around with is to give students optional Daily (or Weekly) Thought Vector prompts, where students would be tasked with a loose assignment–something like, look at the thing we selected on the web for the particular exercise and provide a meaningful interpretation of it.  I like this activity for several reasons.  In particular, it helps enhance the shared experience of the course for students: they would be writing on these if they elect to do so.  Moreover, they can elect to do so–a sort of side bar for students to have when on pause (or not) with their burgeoning inquiry projects.  This would help keep both student work and class engagement fluid, even when students feel blocked, buried, or however else they may feel while researching and writing.

Though, I also agree with Gardner about this kind of assignment when he wrote to us after the meeting: “If our students find they have nothing to write about without a prompt, we’re likely not communicating the spirit of the course as well as we could.”  We are looking for “robust and relevant” work, so the idea is to guide students in such a way that writing will be obvious and inevitable.

It seems best here to pause on “robust and relevant.”  Sophisticated, focused work is the end goal with student projects.  Though, getting there through individual and collaborate inquiry processes will be messy.  And that’s a good thing.  The course will require students to blog and tweet, as well as to comment on blogs and reply/retweet often: to look at their own work in light of others and frequently make connections as they continue.  In order to get ideas out in writing to cohere with other ideas, students should be encouraged to write errata–what they may think of as garbage.  I’m kind of a hippie when it comes to talking about the writing process.  I’m not a big fan of deadlines (although I understand their importance), and, like many of my colleagues, I privilege revision and reflective writing in the classroom.  In the same hippie ballpark, I side with Peter Elbow on the importance of error and freewriting.  What we may think of as garbage writing–the unpolished stuff that we would never submit out into the world–is important to do in order to further one’s process of making meaningful, polished work.  As he writes in Writing Without Teachers,

There is garbage in your head; if you don’t let it out onto paper, it really will infect everything else up there.  Garbage in your head poisons you.  Garbage on paper can safely be put in the wastepaper basket.

Encouraging students to write out the garbage in their heads and sift through it can provide a way for them to have a paper trail of their thinking that they are always creating themselves.  Moreover, it provides us as instructors material to sift through to make associations and connections:  material that can help inform the guidance we wouldn’t be able to give otherwise.  It provides students a way to do the same connecting for each other, as well.  If students get stuck, they could write a garbage dump to help figure out what is worth preserving and what other students may find worth salvaging from the bin for themselves.

Including “garbage posts” in the course may help students formulate their own thoughts and categorize/conceptualize what has been done.  They may also help students understand that it’s fine to make messes, so long as they’re not always messes.   Garbage writing doesn’t have to be bad writing, unless if it was all that one did.  Or, as Elbow writes, “If you gave up all efforts at care, discrimination, and precision.”  By encouraging dumping garbage at times, it may help students get at more of the robust and relevant work we expect they will produce.

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