Saturday, September 05, 2015

Experiments: Writing to Teach

The title of this post tips its hat to the late William Zinsser's influential book, Writing to Learn, a tome that helped instill of a love of writing and learning in me at an impressionable age. Along with the work of Peter Elbow and the wonderful experiences I had at the Bard Institute of Writing and Thinking in 2012, Zinsser's ideas have changed the way I approach my writing--or, to be more honest--try to approach. Freewriting, too, has become central to most of my teaching, and I hope to recharge this blog with posts about writing in the music history classroom, among other topics.

As anyone who works with freewriting knows, one of the core dictums is that the professor should always write with the class. I admit that I sometimes forget to do this, my mind otherwise preoccupied with the best way to manage the ensuing discussion. I always feel guilty when I forget to write with my students because then it feels like I've assigned a chore, rather than an activity. That's not to say I have to participate in every in-class activity, but I think cooperative engagement is generally the best pedagogical model for my classes.

I've re-conceptualized my seminars over the years, and I'm particularly excited about my upcoming Orpheus and Music seminar this term. It is an expansion of a seven-week course that I have taught both at the conservatory and as a community programs course.  While having fourteen weeks does allow us the chance to cover more repertoire, I've decided to keep the core repertoire from the shorter version of the course and to spend the extra time creating a hybrid teacherless writing class instead.

Peter Elbow's Writing without Teachers presents a model that, in its purest form, is not logistically possible within the confines of most curricula—an ideal teacherless writing group of eight people requires 2 to 2 ½ hours per week (Elbow, 84). Short class periods and departmental expectations hamper the instructor’s ability to devote hours to peer responding, particularly when integrated into a subject matter that is not strictly Composition/Rhetoric.  That said, it does provide a worthwhile philosophical approach that can easily be applied to courses in a variety of ways.  I've decided to integrate more peer-responding—as opposed to "peer-editing”--into my graduate seminars. Students will have several opportunities to freewrite and discuss in-class the different stages of their term papers. I've found, as I'm sure many professors do, that "choosing the topic" can be the most laborious aspect of a term paper. I do not give exacting prompts for graduate seminars because I want them to be intellectually curious enough to pick a topic that actually interests them. For many students, however, being confronted with an übertopic like "Orpheus and Music" and then being asked to come up with a research proposal in a few weeks time is a daunting task. This is absolutely understandable. So I've decided to bring in "teacherless" peer writing groups from the initial stages of the project--starting with determining a topic all the way through to the final draft stages.

This is all an extension of peer-review/peer-responding activities I have integrated into my courses throughout my teaching career. But this year brings a new twist: I'm going to write a seminar paper with my students. Essentially, I'm going to join their "teacherless" writing groups. I have a head start on my proposal, but I'll present it to them for their feedback, bring in my drafts, etc. The obvious advantage of this is that I will get some writing done. I hadn't planned on doing any professional work with "Orpheus and music," but if I'm going to spend hours upon hours prepping the material for the seminar, why not turn it into a paper? I realize this is not a revolutionary idea, but it is certainly the first time I've decided to work with my seminar in this way. My hope is that it will reinforce writing and research as process—a means, not just an end. The students will receive a grade for the proposal, annotated bibliography, and the final paper, but are also responsible for two separate "draft sessions" wherein they bring in a two-page portion (first session) and then a five-page portion (second session) to share in their peer-responding groups. I will be there too, sitting anxiously among them--sharing, reading, writing, learning, and teaching.

Stay tuned!


Elbow, Peter. Writing Without Teachers. Second edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Zinsser, William. Writing to Learn. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993.

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Mostly Musicology, Teaching, and a bit of Miscellanea