Reflective Writing Projects

Apparently I am temporarily ready to get back in the blogging groove.  We’ll see if I can keep this up for any extended period of time.  It’s the week after finals, and I just finished my first semester back teaching after a year off for a dissertation fellowship.  I was teaching a composition course (Seminar in Academic Writing through Literature) for the Women in Math, Science, and Engineering (WiMSE) Learning Community–and it was only the second semester of composition I had taught since having two years off while working as the assistant director of our first-year composition program. Our program has changed quite a bit in the eight years since I started teaching, and I’ve had to do a bit of adjusting, even accounting for the fact that I was working on many of the various teams that were designing the changes and making decisions about how they would be implemented. One such change was the formalization of a Reflective Writing Project as the last assignment of the semester, and I’ve been thinking quite a bit about it’s use to students (and to me as a teacher) ever since I finished grading them last week.

The reflective writing project was meant to fulfill one of the course goals that, for many years, had appeared in our courses in implicit rather than explicit ways: students were to achieve “self understanding as an academic writer.” Some instructors incorporate lots of short reflective writing pieces over the course of the semester, sometimes with every draft, asking students to write a little bit about their process, revisions, areas the students think need work, etc.  This culminates in what is the standard form of reflective writing, I think, which is a full essay that asks students to look over the body of their written work from the semester (originally the project was envisioned as a formal portfolio, but I don’t think many instructors actually implement this), and reflect on what they have learned and what they are still struggling with. Some instructors have the reflective project go through the whole standard revision process, which at UConn includes either a small group tutorial or an individual conference, but this is optional, depending on how many other pages of revised writing students have done over the semester.

I will admit to a bit of skepticism when we first introduced the reflective writing project, especially the idea of a culminating essay.  I had often done an in-class reflective essay in place of a final exam back when we were required by the university to give a final exam, even when they did not make much sense given the type of writing and thinking our classes taught.  These in-class final exam essays I usually found to be trite, unduly flattering or insulting to me as a teacher (and sometimes, quite accidentally, both), and rarely did I see students actually learning something about themselves as writers. Rather, students regurgitated what they thought they should have learned by the end of the semester, based on what they had been taught but perhaps had not yet mastered.  It demonstrated to me that something I was teaching had gotten through to the students as a general concept, but not that students had actually achieved “self understanding as an academic writer.” This was most obvious when students would say that they had really learned how to write a focused paragraph that advanced the central ideas of their papers… but then proceeded to meander all over the blue-book page without ever making a point.

My first attempt at a reflective writing project two years ago didn’t go much better.  I had many of the same problems, despite having a statement that said, very clearly, that this was not a paper in which they were supposed to convince me how good or bad a teacher I was, or how good or bad a student they were, and that they did need to back up their claims about what they had learned with evidence, both from the other papers they had written, and in the form of the paper they were writing. The students didn’t seem to buy into the assignment, either. That semester had been a bit of a disaster from the very beginning, however, and it’s hard for me to tell if what went wrong was the assignment, or if what went wrong was the class itself.

So, I walked into this semester’s reflective writing project with a lot of pessimism and trepidation. I scaled down the assignment quite a bit, however, removing the research component and asking student to just reflect on their own writing. (I know, some of you are thinking, this is a scaled down assignment?) Here’s what it looked like:

Step 1: Re-read all your work, including short responses, rough drafts, and final drafts.

Step 2: Write a paper in which you reflect on the process of writing this semester. Your final paper should be at least 4 full pages (1400 words, roughly) but can go longer.

The emphasis here should be on reflection.  I want to see you thinking carefully about the purpose of academic writing, and how it is connected to the material we read and wrote about. Here are some questions to help you brainstorm possible avenues for reflection:

  1. What is the purpose of academic writing?  How did this class and the papers you wrote fit or challenge your expectations? (You may want to go back to Joseph Harris, and think about what he says the purpose of writing is, and how your papers and learning fit with the definitions of academic writing that we talked about at the beginning of the semester.)
  2. What was hard for you, and why?  What was easy, and why?  What started hard, but became easier?  What do you think will always be hard?
  3. What did you learn or figure out about writing that you didn’t know before?  What did you learn or figure out about the topics we wrote on that you wouldn’t have if you hadn’t written the papers?
  4. What parts of writing are still a mystery to you?  What do you think you could or should continue to improve on?

You won’t (and shouldn’t try to) answer all of these questions in your paper.  You may want to choose just one set of questions, or even piece together bits from several of these. Also, don’t spend time trying to impress me. If you haven’t perfected some aspect of writing, that’s fine.  I’m much more interested in an honest reflection.

As with your other papers, you need to be sure to:

  1. Make an Argument.  It doesn’t have to be as complex as in your other papers, but you should have a central, controlling idea that guides what you choose to include in your paper. It should be evident to me from the introduction what that controlling idea is.
  2. Provide Evidence!  If you say that you really improved at figuring out a “so-what” factor, then you should walk me through the process of discovering your “so-what” factor in one or more of your papers.  If you got better at using ideas from other writers while giving them credit, quote a part of your paper where you do that, and explain why you did what you did with that quotation. If you discovered something about power or surveillance or spectacle that you wouldn’t have learned without writing your papers, quote a part of your paper as you explain what you learned. If one of your classmate’s comments on a rough draft really helped you see something in your paper that you didn’t see before, quote the comment.
  3. Have a So-What Factor.  Draw some conclusions about what you’ve learned over the course of the semester and where you still need to go.
  4. Revise, Edit, and Proofread.  Just as you know that your papers have all improved when you had the chance to revise once or more than once, you should give yourself the time to revise, edit, and proofread.  You may want to exchange papers with another student in the class, and give each other feedback and editing help, or visit the Writing Center.

I was really very pleased with most of the reflective papers I got this time, in a way that redeemed the reflective writing project for me.  In the case of one student who had struggled all semester, by reflecting on what she had been struggling with, she actually managed to do it in her reflective paper for the first time. This made the difference between failing the course, and passing. Another student realized that her fear of making her papers worse was actually preventing her from doing her best possible work, because she wasn’t able to bring herself to truly revise. There was a consistent pattern of students identifying something that they had worked hard on all semester, and honestly reflecting on whether or not they had actually *learned* to do it.  A lot of my students said that they had improved in a particular area, but also were able to tease out what still wasn’t working, and often times why it wasn’t working (and, most gratifyingly, all of their ideas about why a particular aspect wasn’t working were their own and not just parroting my comments, and they made sense). That kind of reflection, to my mind, is the most important step in figuring out how to fix a problem, even if it takes time well beyond the confines of a single semester.