writer’s block

A few weeks ago, I met Joanne Buckley* (author and co-author of a number of books on writing, including Fit to Print), who works at McMaster’s Student Success Centre and Student Accessibility Centre. In no time at all I found myself learning a number of strategies from her about teaching writing. What I’d like to share with you today is her strategy for tackling writer’s block.

When I or my students have writer’s block, I usually recommend lessening the pressure by cutting the project down in size. So, for a conference paper, I’ve started it by imagining it as a series of two-page response papers, and focusing exclusively on one “response paper” at a time. Last week I started my dissertation by imagining that, in fact, I’m not writing a dissertation, but that I’m writing a 10-page conference paper that just happens to be related to my thesis. I don’t know if I can write a dissertation– I’ve never written one before. But I do know I can write a conference paper. So I’m now happily knocking out 1-2 pages a day towards that “conference paper.”

Joanne offered another excellent idea, one that I think would be especially effective for undergrads: Begin your paper by first writing it as a powerpoint presentation. I think this might work as a tutorial assignment: TAs could get students to prepare a powerpoint of their proposed essays, and then ask them to bring them to tutorial to workshop with their peers. In any case, writing an essay first as a powerpoint removes a number of scary-ass hurdles from students’ paths. Students may feel more comfortable using powerpoint; indeed, its interactive feel might get their fingers moving. It also removes the pressure that the complications and length of an essay can produce. Finally, it gets students to create an outline! We all know the blank stares that the phrases “start with an outline” or “give yourself time to revise” produces in the classroom. Asking a student to write a powerpoint of their proposed essay might just show them the benefits of outlining a paper before they begin. How cool is that?

*Joanne Buckley  holds a few positions at Mac: she supervises the writing tutors at the Student Success Centre, and is also a Learning Strategist with the Student Accessibility Centre. Yes, fellow-Mac teachers, this means that there are writing tutors available, by appt, to undergraduates. In fact, there are five of them.  Plus a few academic skills counsellors.  Students can make an appointment on OscarPlus. I should add, too, that Joanne is wonderfully approachable and kind, which makes her a great person to refer students to in her role as a Learning Strategist.

the centre for…

I scrapped a number of perfectly terrible domain names for this blog before arriving at “Dry-Erase Writings.” Titles like “The Centre for Learning How not to Be the Worst Teacher Ever”– to be shortened rather eloquently, I think, to CLHBWTE– just didn’t seem to roll off the tongue in the way I thought they would.

The numerous “Centres” that have sprung up in Universities across Canada–for learning, teaching, leadership, excellence, innovation, insert-catch-phrase-here, etc-supply the framework for this project. At McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, teaching and learning support is offered by two “Centres,” the “Student Success Centre” and the “Centre for Leadership and Learning.” Queen’s University in Kingston has a  modestly-titled “Centre for Teaching and Learning,” the University of Waterloo boasts a “Centre for Teaching Excellence,” and, not surprisingly, the University of Toronto outruns ’em all with the longest and arguably swankiest title, “The Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation.”

This blog offers me a site (and others, hopefully) to reflect on what it means to be a Teacher’s Assistant at a Canadian University in the Humanities. I hope to share teaching practices and resources, including handouts and lesson plans that I, as an English Literature TA, have developed and used myself. In my experience, TAs receive little to no training as teachers. This blog is a “centre” for teaching insofar that it attempts to ameliorate that lack of training through an open process of sharing and discussion.

That, however, is where the similarities between this blog and institutional centres for teaching end. Not only can I not profess “excellence” or “innovation” in teaching, but I also cannot so confidently suggest that I could come near to defining either term. What is “teaching excellence,” anyway, when we decide not to measure it by enrollment and monetary standards? What do I want to teach? What do I want students to “take home” from their university classes? And how do I achieve this? What can university educators–TAs and professors alike–learn about teaching outside of the classroom?

Last week in tutorial, students and I discussed how to write an effective conclusion for an English essay. After they finished reading a sample I had written, one student wisely pointed out that it “isn’t exactly conclusive” to conclude with a series of questions. Well, frick, I thought, that’s a bit biting, isn’t it? “You sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about,” another student piped up.  And rightly so, I should add. What the hell am I talking about when I step into tutorial?