Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Writing Exhortations: Achieve Copia

Since the subtitle of this space is “a writing teacher’s blog,” I figured I should talk about my own writing at some point. Well, that point has come. And this will be a brief point that suggests two basic ideas that helped me with my writing, especially academic writing. Both of these ideas (one an attitude, one a practice) came to me through others, so nothing’s original here. Just exhortation.

Almost two years ago, I was working on my dissertation—or, rather, not working it. I was sifting through data, still collecting some, and desperately avoiding writing anything new. Now that I’m “Dr. Geiger” and in my first year as an assistant professor at a teaching-intensive institution (four course per semester), I’ve experienced that “writing avoidance syndrome” to some degree. Not as intensely, but it’s still there. I’ve learned, though, that writing isn’t just hard. It’s work. And that means we must write even when “inspiration” just isn’t there.

Ira Glass makes a really useful comment on this need to labor through writing in this video. Though he focuses on creative work, the need to “do a huge volume of work” is the same.

For disser-tators and job seekers, whatever issues you might have with writing persist, but they might also seem intensified because of the high stakes and uncertain nature of your situation. To those of you early in the process or early in the drafting (and those may or may not be the same thing), it can be useful to have an attitude that gives yourself permission to write—to write a lot, to write stuff you may never show anybody. That attitude may be encouraged by a personally meaningful metaphor or mantra. Mine was “achieve copia.” During one of our dissertation meetings, Rebecca Moore Howard, the Esteemed Director of my project, issued that composing instruction and secular blessing/benediction as a way to get me writing. In Renaissance rhetorical education, copia signaled an abundance of ideas, expressions, and strategies for communication. For me, "achieve copia" offered permission to simply produce; it functioned as a semi-poetic, enabling metaphor. “Achieve copia” became my mantra for a few months. Esteemed Director also followed up with the occasional text message with notes like these: 

Keep writing.

Keep writing.

Keep writing.

To the dissertation writers or others starting new projects: write it down, write it up, write it out—write it all. All of this encouragement is toward the goal of Getting It Done. Ultimately, it must be done well, but done. 

My other suggestion, a specific practice, is the post-draft outline. This one also comes to me via Becky Howard as well as an anonymous reviewer of an article manuscript. It's great to have pre-drafting outlines if you can manage them for chapters or an article, but don't worry too much about wondering. Once a draft is achieved, do an outline of the piece as you actually wrote it with a focus on the claims and evidence. That process presents you with the opportunity to revise, move stuff around, and seek greater coherence once you’ve got something as opposed to worrying about coherence in the first draft. This post-draft outlining or “reverse outlining” was this single most helpful writing strategy I employed during dissertation writing. I swear by the post-draft outline.

Now, back to those article projects I’m supposed to be working on.

Happy writing, y’all! 

Monday, January 13, 2014

We're All in the Right Place

One of my resolutions for this year is to pick up blogging again. I’ve been inspired to pick up the practice again because of my professional colleague Jacob Babb over at Inventing the Professor. He recently wrote about the start of new academic terms. Since I met two of my new classes today, it seems appropriate to (sorta, kinda, unofficially) re-launch this blog with a post about such beginnings. 

Imagine the scene. Five minutes before class began, I walked into the room. I didn’t want to be any earlier (concerned students might think “he’s got nothing else to do, does he?”) or later (imagining that students would wonder “he just wants to show up and not otherwise be bothered, doesn’t he?”). The room was full with twenty-five students seated in rows formed by long, immobile tables--the kind of tables that could crush collaborative efforts with their heft and with the weight of their implied claim that teaching looks like one thing: everybody stays in one place, watching the person up front.

Walking through the break in the middle of those table rows, I ask, while looking side to side, “This is English 1302, right?” A few nods, a couple of smiles in response. Though I knew full well I was in the right place, I wanted to put students at ease, to say, “We’re in this together. We’re all in the right place.” 

Classes, especially English and writing classes, were places I did well as a student. My fondness for stories, my affection for language, my hope for a more humane world—these interests always found affirmation. A few of my students may have the same experience. Many more likely have the experience of writing class as boring class, while others know it as hurtful class. I want to acknowledge students’ past writing experiences—whether painful or hopeful—to honor them. Students will come to reflect on their own writing histories, imagine forward to their writing futures, and think rhetorically about interventions they want to make. 

Together, over the next fifteen weeks, we’ll read, talk, think, hope, laugh, get frustrated, lose faith that the term will ever end, and then be astonished that the end came so fast. But in the meantime, we start. We’re in this together. We’re all in the right place.