A Serious Function of Writing

[This post is a continuation of an overly-long post I wrote on the WPA-l. I am arguing for using portfolios not to evaluate students but as a lens through which we (students and teachers) can collaboratively see how we’re doing in the class, given what we had hoped we would achieve. Below is an example item from the current mid-quarter portfolio–the student describing herself as a writer.]

“Initially, I thought I was too introverted to write. I overthink and bottle up thoughts until they are too messy to write down in a coherent, logical paragraph, so I feared my writing would reflect how

scatter-brained I am. I even hinted that fear to the class in my very first post, saying “I realize this is scattered and that I am scatter brained, but hopefully this says what it needs to in order for you to get a sense of who I am.” (autobiography, Slater, April 11, 2015). 

Now, I realize writing is not the product of a method of clear thinking; writing is the method. I have practiced this in the private journals. I write multiple drafts in that ten minutes. The first minute or two I spew every major event of the week onto the screen. Then, I reread it and more thoroughly word the bullet points, adding my opinion to them as I go. By this step, I have already done self-reflecting and have benefitted therapeutically from the activity. If there is time, I rephrase certain events, usually the negative ones, to look more pleasing. Something about having control over how an event sounds written down makes me feel like I have some sort of control over the event itself. 

Obviously, writing is not a tool for time-travel, and I have no control over the past. However, writing is a tool for attitude-adjustment, and if I can phrase things in a way that makes me more comfortable confronting the past and overcoming it, then I have changed the past- at least from my perspective (and my perspective is the closest thing to reality I “have,” so this control over my mind is major.) 

Basically, writing has helped me practice and apply “mind over matter.” I have already started catching myself thinking negatively about situations I find myself in- in the present, while they’re happening- and saying “written down, this is going to sound so cliche and banal. I don’t want to invest emotion on something so insignificant.” Writing has started to filter into my daily life, making me a more peaceful individual, and it has not only benefitted me, but anyone around me who could have potentially been hurt or negatively impacted by my negativity
They say change starts with a conversation. Usually this is meant on a societal level. However, it’s the same thing to say that having a conversation with myself- through journal writing- will bring change at the level of the individual and community. I thoroughly believe that this change, however small, has the power to ripple to a larger scale. Is it a coincidence that history recognizes societies that use language, art, or any other form of communication as the most advanced and civilized societies? The individual artists had to start with writing, painting, and singing before the “conversations” they were having with themselves grew outwards.  This class has given me the tools and time to start the conversation with myself.”

Maybe we should look at where Annelise was five weeks ago–On the first day of class, I ask students to tell my about themselves as writers:

“Writing has been a long and varying process for me since it became a major part of my learning, in seventh grade. My seventh grade English teacher was very passionate about his class and created fun writing prompts, often requiring song lyrics, to answer. I think there was a strong tie between my overall t enjoyment of the class and how good my writing was. Eighth grade and onward into high school, I began to become less interested in my teachers’ class styles and the essay topics they assigned. As a result, I put less effort into my writing, and the quality of my writing deteriorated. It might also be note-worthy to mention that in my senior year, the only essays my English teacher had the class write were in class essays, given as the last question of a test. Due to the stress I was under to write an entire essay in a short amount of time, I have developed the habit of spewing out everything I am thinking all at once onto the paper. While this has helped me develop honest outlines of essays and create a clear sense of why I am writing, it has not helped the actual phrasing of my sentences, so I feel like it has done little to strengthen the sound of the final drafts of my essays. 

As for writing outside of the classroom, I have never kept a diary or journal. The closest thing I have is an idea book from middle school, and I’m honestly not interested in re-opening it because I don’t want to rediscover what it’s like to be in a thriteen year olds head. However, I don’t think I have to re-read anything I have written in order to do it justice, and I don’t think my middle-school aged self would care that it has been left unread. I believe things that are written and unread still do enough for the writer to benefit from it, and because of that, I would be open to starting something similar in the future as a way to clear my head sometimes.

I am curious to see that the style of this class is. Judging by the music, it’s already like my seventh grade class, so hopefully that means I’ll get back to enjoying writing!”

[As part of the portfolio, I ask the students to look at the announced objectives of the course and to analyze how we did in meeting each one. We had five.  Here’s a link to the portfolio instructions. And here is Annelise’s response — note she decided not to write about a couple of them because we have ignored them, at least explicitly.]


“1. Communication:

-Building a community since the very first class helped establish an environment I felt safe and eager to participate in.

This was accomplished in class through the naming exercises and by splitting into smaller groups when discussing more personal experiences. Even spending ten minutes to write at the start of class helped establish a community. While no one is interacting with one another during the activity, we are all going through a developmental process side-by-side, which does form a community of self-improving students. These are the types of people I want to have intellectual conversations with, so the communication between my peers and me is greater than it would be if I didn’t view them as self-reflective individuals.

Outside of class, both writing our autobiographies and frequently commenting on one another’s works improved communication.

2.Self-Directed Learning:

-Writing Can Heal:

 My major is in Health Science, particularly in the pre-physical therapy track. I like physical therapy because, unlike medicine where an outside force (drugs) are covering up the symptoms and the patients themselves are not creating their own path to recovery, the patients in physical therapy are teaching themselves to be stronger people as they go through the treatment process. The transformation happens from the inside-out, starting with the decision to get better, followed by the commitment to working past your physical limitations, and eventually ending with a physical change.Taking the initiative to write for yourself gives you power over your own mental health. Like P.T., the change happens starting from within, and you grow as your writing grows. The way physical exercise heals physical wounds in my future profession, mental reasoning and conversation heals mental wounds in writing.

Because overall health is physical and mental, I think it is only logical for me to apply my beliefs in PT to writing, and to carry it with me my whole life.

Specific Goal 5. Encouragement 

This entire term, I have been emailing, and emailed by, Dr. Peckman in a series he titled “Insight.”  These emails are basically personal notes of motivation and appreciation. They have really pushed me to write to my best ability, knowing that if the work is of quality, someone will see that. In past classes, I felt like no matter how I phrased my thoughts on paper, the teacher would just skim through it with a rubric in hand just to make sure I covered the criteria of the assignment. In fact, sometimes I feel like the way I word thoughts as they naturally construct themselves in my head comes across as unorganized to many professors, so I have started writing with a rubric in one hand. Now I have evolved to not only disregard rubrics (although there are none in this class anyway, for the most part), but I have also stopped worrying about whether my writing will be good enough to receive an email of recognition. I have ascended to a state where everything I write, I genuinely do with my best effort. Thanks to the emails and to Dr. Peckman for believing in me, I see a writer in myself, and I want to write posts to be proud of. This ties into the idea of self-directed learning as well.”
Caveats:  Annelise is a great student, but I have many other insightful, wonderful students in this class. I picked on Annelise because of some very interesting things she wrote–like how she had to get outside rubrics, how this focus on teacher expectations were working to her disadvantage as a writer. Annelise is learning to write for herself–and I think she’s doing beautifully. She’s on a voyage of self-discovery through her writing. Yes, I gave her some encouragement in the beginning, but now, after five weeks, she’s taking off on her own–that’s what she said when she talked about “ascended to the state . . . .”  

Here’s an  quote from Kevin, a mechanical engineer in the last paragraph of his introduction:
“Being that this is an English 103 portfolio, I should probably mention some of my thoughts about writing! I feel like I have always enjoyed writing to some extent. However, until this year, I’m not sure I knew exactly what real writing was. English 102 and 103 have opened my eyes to what writing can be. It’s self-expression, it’s digging deep into one’s thoughts, it’s fun! The following is a collection of my work for the past 5 or so weeks and it showcases how I’ve grown and progressed as a writer in 103. ”

I have two dominant objectives in this course (others as well): improve students attitudes toward writing and themselves as writer; promote self-directed learning. I can look at Annelise here and say we’re doing ok. I feel very good about Annelise, and I feel very good about what we’re doing in the class and about myself as a writing teacher. We missed on a couple of objectives, and maybe we’ll hit them later to some extent, but they weren’t the most important ones to me–I more or less inherited them when I came to Drexel. Frankly, the ones like “Critical Reading,” I could do without.

I am also going to say that I’m not into any false modesty here. I’ve been teaching writing for forty years. I love what I’m doing, and I’m good at it–if I weren’t after forty years, I would have some questions about myself. I keep my objectives few and simple, and I know the students come out of the class learning something about themselves, about writing, and about themselves as writers that they didn’t know when they came in. That’s good enough for me.


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