I Think, Therefore I Write.

Today I spent the afternoon in the company of Dr. Richard Miller and Dr. Paul Hammond from Rutgers University.  I had asked Dr. Miller to come speak to our English Department regarding the shifts they saw in writing, composing, and learning.

In my conversations leading up to today with Dr. Miller, I found out that the Expository Writing Class at Rutgers is a course that nearly 85% of all Freshman take, with only those testing out via AP exams the exceptions.  Miller and Hammond have a unique advantage in that the changes they make to that class are ones that could have a profound effect on the quality of the writing experience that the students have in their undergraduate years.

I am really into the styles people use when they present after witnessing the excellence of the speakers at TEDxNYED, so I paid close attention when the two of them started today.  Miller used the backdrop of the Geocentric View of the Universe to introduce the idea of saving appearances; when the data coming in to astronomers was no longer fitting a clean model of the Earth as center of the universe, the scientists simply changed the models to fit the data, thereby increasing the complexity of the Geocentric system.  They had no choice–there was no way to save the appearance of the system without completely blowing it up.  When Copernicus’ Heliocentric model of the universe arrived, it was a paradigm shift entirely: new model, new ideas, new M.O.

Miller compared this to what is happening now.  We are seeing industries that have long been immune to changes in market or information flow completely decimated by what is occurring now.

Newspapers.  Automakers.  Education.

Our systems are not set up to handle the types of thinking and information flow that are occurring or will occur shortly.  Not our physical structures, not our time structures, not our curricular or assessment structures.

The ground beneath our feet is shifting and we are clinging to the idea that we must save the appearance of credibility.  It’s flawed thinking to believe that we can design school buildings, curriculum, school schedules, and syllabi in a manner that is best described by saying “it was good enough for us, why shouldn’t it be good enough for them.”

A few years back, Hammond and Miller set out to rethink they types of writing that were focused on during the Expository Writing class at Rutgers.  Their goal: “get behind the writing.”  Taking the philosophy that we’ve also latched onto here of writing as thinking, the two decided there needed to be more focus on getting students to think deeply and do so in an active capacity through writing.  How do you do that?

It was at this point in the presentation that Hammond and Miller broke out four case studies of student writing and peer editing via Google Docs.  In a move that I am truly going to steal for any one of my future presentations, they used the revision slider in Google Docs to illustrate how students built drafts, and how their editing partners added comments.  Essentially, they were showing the progression of thinking in the students’ writing.  One student plainly just wrote straight through to the end of the draft (until, as Hammond stated, he hit the number of words he needed) without any recursion to earlier points of writing.  Others, he noted, without prompting from peer editors, continually made edits as they wrote, jumping from later parts of the writing back to earlier parts.  Each case study brought forth a clearer picture of what goes on in the minds of young writers today.  We are no longer holding on to the idealized image of the solitary writer plucking ideas from his own imagination solely towards a much more social and conversational form of writing as thinking.

We can use the technology we have to get behind the writing to see the thinking that constructs it.  (at this point, the slide rotated from a screenshot of a completed Google Doc to a an image of it’s negative, thereby revealing that we were literally and figuratively, behind the writing–a truly great effect)

There’s more to come from this presentation, as I haven’t even touched on the conversation that ensued when one of our teachers asked about the relevance of the 5-paragraph essay in the college environment, but the length of this post is rapidly becoming offensive.  Soon to follow…

5 thoughts on “I Think, Therefore I Write.

  1. Wow. Thanks for sharing their presentation. Wish I had been a fly on the wall to hear it!

    Love Miller’s approach to these changes, and that example using the Google Doc revisions was brilliant.

    Thanks again for sharing this experience. Lots to think about.

    1. Carolyn,

      We desperately tried to live stream it, but that room is really bad, plus our network was up and down due to a DoS attack.

      Their ideas really got me thinking, and this past Saturday presented at a conference where I found myself using much of their thinking to describe how we can use tools like Google Docs and the many iterations of etherpad that are coming out now. We really can get behind the thinking that student writers are doing.

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