Your Writing Process: Reflecting and Modeling for Students

From TE(A)CH with Purpose

Last week, yes, just last week, I began thinking about my own processes of research and writing and what my responsibility was as an instructor to model these practices for my students. In the week since, a series of articles, blog posts, tweets, late night flashes of insight, etc. has left me with the realization that this can’t all be settled in a single blog post (darn!). I would, however, like to get a conversation going that has three prongs: 1) what do you use to aggregate digital information; 2) how do you engage in writing, from quick jots to assembling full manuscripts; and 3) how do you or should you share these with your students?

Each of these “prongs” warrants multiple blog posts on their own. But my point here is to delineate my process and consider how I could/should share this with students (and even faculty) that I work with to help them develop and understand their own process of gathering information and writing about it. I think one common pitfall in using technology in the classroom is that we just assume we’re dealing with a group of “digital natives” who are skilled in all things tech. However, I think a major responsibility in using tech in the classroom is to discuss process in order to help your students achieve greater technology and information literacy.
1. Keeping track of it all (RSS, GoogleReader, Del.icio.us, Evernote, Instapaper)
The process of keeping track of the constant flow of digital information, much less organizing it into coherent thoughts, is a bit of an ongoing and ever-changing mystery to me. Rather than investigate the millions of options out there, I’ll outline a bit of my own process. It sometimes feels redundant, but I’ve tried to streamline it as much as possible by making sure that much of it stays in the cloud and syncs across devices. For subscribing to websites I use GoogleReader and have sites sorted into folders. Many journals provide RSS updates that I have in specific folders as well (but more on keeping up with journals in a future post). GoogleReader is available from any internet connection and it syncs to my phone through Reeder. When I find something useful I tag it in del.icio.us. Admittedly, I’ve been playing with Evernote lately and am thinking it might eclipse this step, but the tagging features in del.icio.us are hard to beat. For those things I know I want to read but gosh they’re just too long (!) I send them to Instapaper and save them for long commutes or the rare transfer-to-Kindle (which is admittedly a bit wonky but I don’t have my hands on an iPad…YET).
2a. Writing Helpers: Assembling and Jotting (750words, Penzu, Evernote)
As a former faithful user of Journler I was dismayed to hear it had ceased development. Forced to find another simple but flexible software for collecting my thoughts, meeting notes, scribbles, etc. I began looking around the net, hoping to find something that was cloud-based. For personal writing and journaling there’s 750words.comwhich counts down the words and then provides a loose text analysis when you’re finished. It is premised on the idea that simply sitting in the chair and forcing out 750 words can do wonders for your writing process. Penzu, premised on a similar idea, also touts the claims of improved mental health. Penzu’s approach seems to be a bit more flexible and organizable compared to 750′s minimalist approach. Both are private, which can be particularly reassuring to students who may want to write online but aren’t quite ready for the public leap of the blog.
I’ve recently been exploring Evernote (I know, late to the party) and it is proving helpful in bridging the above processes (keeping track, assembling, and jotting, and the next step, actual writing). I like that I can plunk links in my little notebooks, sync them across practically ANY web-enabled device, access it from my home Macs and school PCs, and, when the mood strikes, compose little sentences and summaries around my snippets of digital info. I’m still getting the hang of it, but this Evernote thing might just be where it’s at.
2b. Writing helpers: For those thoughts longer than a jot (Scrivener)
But what about when you’re ready to actually compose thoughts into paragraphs or — gasp — pages? I began exploring these options when I started writing my dissertation and found the glare of a blank Word document particularly horrifying. And crippling. I’m actually composing this (lengthy) blog post in Evernote, but I’ve found my dissertation, job market materials, and article manuscripts to come together well in Scrivener. [Note: Mac only (Update: Windows Beta available and official launch in January!  and not-free, though educational license available.] Originally designed for screen-writing (but updated recently to include APA and other templates), Scrivener provides movable and sortable pages, split screen viewing, full-screen writing mode and — to the delight of my school-girl-writing-a-research-paper-with-index-cards-and-Encyclopedia-Brittanica days — a corkboard with index cards! I’ve been using Scrivener to take the notes and scribbles from the other services and assemble them into somewhat flowing documents. When it seems to make enough sense and actually totals a fair amount of pages, I can easily export my scrivener file to a Word document. All of a sudden that white page is not staring blankly at me but is filled with words that, if I’m lucky, reach a healthy page count.
3. From Process to Practice: Reflexivity in Teaching
So, those are my ways of weeding through information, keeping track of those half thoughts that might develop into full thoughts and bringing them together into a coherent whole. But now to the crux of the matter. If it has taken me years of practice, months of trial-and-error, and (at least) a week of very concentrated thinking to suss out my own process, what do we expect from our students? What is our role, as technologically engaged and savvy instructors, to help our students find their way through not only the plethora of information available but the tools that can help them organize and *write*? I’ll never forget showing my students GoogleReader and explaining to them what an “RSS” was. I thought some of their heads might explode — they were so excited! I was stunned they didn’t know about this basic technology, but if you’re primarily using Facebook and iTunes and occasionally wrestling with EbscoHost, then why would you?
This served as a lesson for me: that I shouldn’t assume my students are engaging with current events or academic material in any certain way or that they understand how technology can help them keep up and keep track.
From that point on I tried to model my steps, when time allowed, to help them see my own process.
Which leads me to my concluding questions: Do you model your own practices/processes for your students? How have they responded? Do you think it is your responsibility to do so? Please feel free to answer in the comments, pose more questions. And, as always, tips on how to streamline my process or other techy-helpers are appreciated.
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