Writing is a Process, Right?

“The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” Mary Heaton Vorse

Bash bash. Bash bash bash. Bash.

This is the sound of me bash-bash-bashing students over the head with the vacuous refrain: “Writing is a process.”

I might as well add  “my dears” to the end of that one, because it’s hard not to utter the words “writing is a process” without “my dears,” “sweet children,” or a baleful sighing of “oh, the naivete of youth” hanging unspoken in the air–so sickly-sweet is the condescension this simple phrase can muster.

So, when I think about how to teach a class how to write, I inevitably take a step back and ask, “How can I first teach them that writing is a process?”

“Lunatic, Architect, Carpenter, Judge,” by David Meadow; adapted from Betty Flowers’ model.

The Madman, Architect, Carpenter & Judge

Strategy #1: Turn to others for help. Some people specialize in teaching writing. Share their insights with the class. Yet others are, you know, actual writers. I mean, people pay them for what they write. And with money comes authority. Borrow it! The words of established, well-known authors and artists might carry more cultural capital than you in your loafers at the front of the class ever could.

I recommend turning to Betty Flowers for the explanatory power of her view of writing. She envisions the writing process as a series of roles–madman, architect, carpenter & judge–rather than steps or stages. Share this model with your class; it’s an effective explanatory tool and does well when prefaced with a discussion of how students go about writing a paper.

And you might add to this an attempt at de-mythologizing the work of writers. Writing ain’t always (if ever) about chanelling some sort of artistic genius. Consider Julia Cameron’s thoughts on the likenesses between sex and writing, and I think you’ll agree:

“Being in the mood to write, like being in the mood to make love, is a luxury that isn’t necessary in a long-term relationship. Just as the first caress can lead to a change of heart, the first sentence, however tentative and awkward, can lead to a desire to go just a little further.” –Julia Cameron, from The Right to Write


Strategy #2: Unpack that unwieldy crate called the writing process into lighter, more manageable parts.  Which parts do you consider important to teach? Thesis statements? Of course. But what about citation rules, the art of paraphrasing, the art of quotation integration, brainstorming, outlining, transitions, topic sentences, conclusions, introductions, revisions, research, writing research notes, and critical reading?

Repeat As Needed

“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. ” —Octavia E. Butler

Strategy #3: To really grasp that writing is a process involving different types of activities, it’s important to get students writing often and in different modes.  Consider:

  • Weekly Response Assignments. Weekly homework assignments are a good way to get students writing on an consistent basis. To avoid landing yourself in marking h—, mark these one-page assignments on a pass/fail basis. Response assignments can change each week: students might answer a discussion question one week, a Works Cited entry another week, a draft outline the next, and a thesis statement the week after. Response Assignments might also follow no particular order: a thesis statement one week, a concept map the next, criticism of a text the week following and even a tweet or a blog post after that.
  • One-Minute Papers. Give your students a topic or a question, and let them “free-write” for a minute, or a time that you set with the class.
  • Fan Fiction. Joseph Frank, a TA at McMaster, asks his students to write fan fiction when teaching Moby Dick. I hope to cajole him into writing a guest post on the subject in the near future. In the meantime, check out his blog, Verba Americana, where he discusses all things American-Lit, and explores what makes American Literature relevant today, beyond the walls of the University Literature classroom. Continue reading

Mapping Kinship

Perhaps you have noticed a trend here at DryErase Writings–a multi-coloured, infantile trend (see previous posts involving colour & drawing here and here). Today I’d like to continue that trend by sharing with you yet another way you might introduce pencil crayons & drawing to your classrooms.

Have you ever considered having your students draw kinship maps?

Kinship maps are interesting from a teaching perspective for many reasons:

1. They can translate textual narratives into visual, spatial ones, and therefore provide another way of knowing a text, concept or history.
2. They can function as time-keeping devices, like a timeline might. But unlike timelines, kinship maps can translate linear time into something more complex. They can translate a linear history into something multi-directional.
3. Like any map, kinship maps are good mnemonic devices. They help you remember sh–, er, I mean stuff. And the relationship between stuff.

Asking students to draw their own kinship maps makes active all of these important processes. Drawing a kinship map in class might facilitate the analysis of a narrative, the recording and interpreting of a particular history, and the memorization and comprehension of how different concepts, moments, people, etc. relate to one another.

Beyond Pretty Colours

Cut and paste your face! It’s easy!!!

But kinship maps are also interesting teaching tools because they represent a particular way of knowing, and a particular methodology. And, both are tied to a particular history: to European history and, as we shall see, especially to European colonial history.

Consider this: the ubiquitous family tree found at the beginning of many a memoir or available to any with the inclination and the money at genealogy.com has its own particularly European family history. In her article, “Family Trees and Their Affinities,” anthropologist Mary Bouquet shows that the genealogical maps with which we are familiar today–picture here a simple graph in the shape of a tree, or perhaps in the shape of an upside-down tree–have their roots in Judeo-Christian family trees that recorded and regulated lineage, reproduction and the inheritance of property. These semi-sacred, semi-regulatory roots later branched in the nineteenth century into the sciences: into philology (the study of the history of languages) and evolutionary theory. From the sacred domain of the Church, then, to the no-less sacred domain of Science, and from a concern with class pedigree to a concern with biological heredity, genealogy carries a lot of baggage. Add to this their more recent use in anthropology at the turn of the twentieth century, when anthropologists relied heavily on the study of kinship in their ethnographic work, and we can begin to see why borrowing the kinship map for a tutorial or a class might involve more than just getting your students to play with a box full of pretty colours.

Bouquet explains that at the turn of the twentieth century, understanding a culture’s kinship system–how a community defines social relationships amongst one another–was deemed of primary importance for the study of any “foreign” culture. This is because how a culture or community defines relationships tells a great deal about that culture, and understanding this can allow an anthropologist to recognize just how large the gap might be between how he or she views the world, and how another culture might. In the West, kinship has historically been defined according to specific, so-called “natural” biological ties. But ethnographic studies of non-European cultures have made any such claim to the “naturalness” of defining kinship in these terms untenable.

This, I think, is the magic of anthropology: it allows you to recognize that systems and ways of living thought natural or intuitive are in fact often constructed and arise out of specific cultural conditions. Despite this, what I find really interesting about kinship maps is that while they might try to capture non-European ways of understanding social relations, the map itself, and its tree-like appearance, reflects a particularly European understanding of kinship and family. The kinship map can easily misrepresent what (or whom) it seeks to describe, and it has historically been tied up with colonial projects to understand, document or assimilate colonized peoples. Bringing kinship maps into your classroom therefore introduces a rich teaching moment to a lesson: it get students actively involved in a meaning-making project, and simultaneously gives instructors the opportunity to draw attention to the ways in which meaning is, indeed, made, framed, or, as it were, mapped.

Back to the Box of Crayons

By way of conclusion, I would like to share with you a possible application of this idea. Last week I drafted a sample lesson plan for a second-year Canadian Literature class. First up on our list of readings for tutorial was one of my favorites of the year: Brian Maracle’s “The First Words,” a re-telling of the Iroquois creation story. Warren Cariou, Professor at the University of Winnipeg, describes it as “an act of living, historical memory” and stresses the importance of “[s]eeing this narrative as a kind of history, rather than as a myth or a legend” (Globe and Mail, Dec. 2004). I love reading and re-reading Maracle’s text. And I love discussing it.

So, I leave my draft lesson plan with you. And along with it, a few questions, too, that jostle around uncomfortably in the back of my mind:

Are exercises like these too juvenile for the adult classroom? Do you think they undermine the seriousness and importance of the subject matter?

Draft Tutorial Lesson Plan: Brian Maracle’s “The First Words”

Materials Needed: pencil crayons and scrap paper.

Intended Learning Outcomes: By the end of this tutorial, students will…

1. Have a clear understanding of the relationships between the personages described in Brian Maracle’s interpretation of the Iroquois creation story.

2. Consider how those relationships are described by Maracle, and the values they might speak to.

3. Recognize and question the assumptions a reader familiar with settler culture and history might bring to their understanding of the relationships in the text.

Explain briefly what kinship maps are: like genealogical trees, they indicate who descends from whom, and what relationships people have with one another. As an example you might draw your own family tree on the board. This could be a traditional family tree, but it could reflect non-biological kinship ties.

Explain to students that they can decide how they will indicate what type of relationship different people in the map share (ie, brother & sister, parents & children, friend, etc). They could colour-code, for example, or simply draw lines connecting people, or they could write captions explaining relationships.

Give students 15 minutes. Then check in:

1. Who is represented in your kinship maps? Is there anyone missing?

2. How did you indicate the relationship between the First Woman and the grandson of the sky woman? Is she like a daughter? Or is their relationship different? How did you represent the relationship between First Woman and First Man? Why?

3. Did you include any animals on your kinship maps? Why/why not?

4. What about the land? Is the land related to some of the people in the story? How so?

Ask students to return to their kinship maps and make any final revisions that they would like. They might want to add/change things after the discussion you just had. If you like, let students know that you are collecting them, and that next week at the beginning of tutorial there will be a contest: the class will vote for the what they think is the best kinship map (most creative, most robust, etc).

Teaching Depression

H.E.A.R.T.: An Introduction to Human Rights at McMaster

“There are many types of disability,” she explained, “including visible disabilities and invisible ones, like mental illness.”

This was a brilliant, (seriously) amazing, articulate, and engaging Program Officer talking; she works for the office of Human Rights & Equity Services here at McMaster. I had attended a presentation that she and a colleague gave a few years ago. In only an hour or so she was able to engender in her listeners a deep understanding of the difference between accommodation & accessibility, the difference between focusing on accessibility vs. disability, and with both words and body language was able to communicate the important point that rather than being based in fear (of giving offense, or of looking bad or closed-minded), in pity (for people with “problems”), or simply in trying to avoid awkward or tense moments, accessibility is about creating a positive, open culture, wherever you are.

So I emailed her when I knew I had a week to prepare for a workshop I had volunteered to lead, titled, “Creating Safe & Open Discussion Environments in Tutorials.” (Catchy, eh?). I wanted to communicate that sense of positive excitement to workshop participants. I wanted to be able to emphasize that working towards greater inclusion is a positive, creative process, and not just a question of fearfully avoiding exclusion.

Isn’t that nice and warm and fuzzy? The people at Human Rights & Equity Services do the topic better justice than I do. In any case, this is all by way of explanation for my involvement in a discussion of visible and invisible disabilities. Not to mention my response to the statement that opens this entry.

That response was: “Huh.”

With that  sage utterance, my eyes slid from respectful, attentive eye contact until they hit the ceiling–the point at which my eyes could not have gotten any shiftier without rolling right back into my head. So yeah, they kinda just slid to a stop there, staring vacantly at the perforated ceiling tiles.

Let me try to transcribe the incisive analysis that was going on inside my head at that time:

Visible and invisible disabilities. Got it. Check. Mental illness can be seen as a form of disability. Right. Makes sense.

Hey, isn’t depression a mental illness?

Wait. I have depression.

Sitting there slack-jawed and all thoughtful, all I could come up with was:


Protected Grounds

Everything the Program Officer was saying made a lot of sense. She did not offend me. She did not say anything offensive, or exclusionary. In fact, everything she said was helpful, and insightful, and she was able to effectively and carefully communicate that the protected grounds that Ontario & McMaster recognize in their anti-discrimination policies are in many ways limited and limiting.

It’s a familiar catch-22. Recognizing “difference” creates space for those who might otherwise be excluded. But it also implies that there are those who are “normal” or “average,” who are the norm from which all others who are different deviate. Difference becomes deviance. Thinking about difference in this way is problematic because it requires accommodation on the part of so-called normal, healthy, regular people. However, creating labels or categories surrounding identity allows some people to be legally or professionally recognized for who they are, at least in part. It gives people the legal framework by which to assert themselves as whole persons, as legal subjects, as worthy human beings. But, labels are also notoriously ill-fitting.

If I understood the Program Officer at HRES correctly, I think her point was not only that people need to recognize difference and protect it, but that we also need to recognize that difference is everywhere and ever-present; difference can be small or invisible but it can also be noted and stigmatized; that we are different people, even, from one day to the next; and that, finally, difference doesn’t exist so much as ubiquitous diversity does.

So what made me go all strange, then? I did not feel like I was being called a name, or was being forced into a category. I did not chafe at the idea that having depression might be thought of as a disability. Because there are times when I am most certainly disabled by depression. There have been times in my life in the past few years where I have literally been unable to emote. At all. Happiness, anger, interest, gratitude– I recall meetings where eye contact was nearly impossible, and where focus certainly was unattainable. This was the case only last week. In fact, the past few weeks have been a bit difficult. At times in the past few days I’ve felt great. At other times, I feel alien in my own body. When I get feeling like that–foreign to myself–it can be incredibly uncomfortable being with people. I can recognize the people around meke as people I like, and as people I would like to engage with. I can also recognize that I’m in a social or professional environment, which demands certain behaviours from me–smiles, nodding, uh, you know, all those tricky things like verbalization, acting like a human being, whatever. I can recognize these things, but I cannot act on them. My body seems to disconnect from my mind; at the same time, my mind disconnects from my body and the moment it’s living in; it might decide to take a wander or go ’round in squirrely circles much like this.

People with more severe depression may experience it in a way that is much more disruptive to their professional and personal lives than this, to be sure.

So recognizing mental illness as a disability does not irk me. That’s not what threw me off during my meeting at HRES. What got me was that in order to ensure that my depression might not become grounds for discrimination, or feel confident that I can seek accommodation for having a rogue mind or a vacant automaton body at work, it’s not just that I would have to claim a disability–that I might be less or differently-abled than those around me, say–it’s that I would have to first claim to be mentally ill.

Not mentally different. Mentally ill. Unwell. Unhealthy. Mentally not-good.

Teaching Depression

It’s funny for someone with I-dunno-how-many years of formal education to be deemed mentally not-good. Eff you, medical system! But why I’m writing today is because talking with the kind and knowledgeable Program Officer at HRES about accessibility has allowed me to recognize both that I’m excited about the shifting discourse surrounding accessibility and equity in North America,  and that there are aspects of this discourse that make me uncomfortable. I think this is what people in the biz (the teaching biz, of course) call “productive discomfort.” I also think this is whay we might refer to as “good teaching.”

My meeting at HRES reminded me of what a strong, competent teacher is capable. She is able to teach and inform, lead and guide, but she is also able to make that learning process open–open in the sense that it becomes multi-directional and open-ended. The Program Officer at HRES  showed me that a strong teacher has the ability to give you the space and the authority to feel discomfort, and to feel it comfortably, if that makes any sense. I left that meeting ready to explore something that has nagged at my for quite some time: not why being called mentally ill might be problematic (that one’s self-explanatory, I think); but why education projects aimed at destigmatizing mental illness make me feel creeped out, and perhaps a little bit angry.

And that’s the point to which I hope to return next week: how could I possibly be against the destigmatization of mental health disorders?