Topics in Writing Podcast: Linda Adler-Kassner

I was busy Tuesday night with another mandatory presenter as part of my BA 200 class. From the class discussion it appeared everyone enjoyed Heather Ann Thompson. I alternatively listened to an episode of the “Topics in Writing Podcast,” choosing Linda Adler-Kassner, a Dean and Professor of Writing at the University of California – Santa Barbara. The discussion revolved mostly around students’ experience in writing classes and the challenging, educational process which is learning to write. Here’s some takeaways:

  • Good writing isn’t one thing.

Adler-Kassner spoke towards the idea that students often search for a definition of what good writing is, when, in reality, that definition is malleable, shifting across cultures. Different ideologies, expectations, and audiences all influence how a piece of writing is received and analyzed. This gets back to a major part of this course which has been our discussion regarding the importance of understanding audience. A piece of writing can be incredible in the writer’s eyes but if the audience doesn’t connect with the writing in the same way, it will be negatively-received.

  • learning writing is about building a framework that is transferrable across topics, courses, and situations.

The process of learning how to write was also discussed heavily. The skills a student learns in a writing class should be applicable to the other subject matters they decide to take. In this way, learning how to write is more about building a framework, and understanding of the skills and structures employed in strong writing and applying them across different academic situations.  In this light, more connections need to be made across disciplines both between instructors and in content to solidify student’s understanding of what is expected of them.

  • Writing is a subject not an activity.

Students often see writing as an activity, something they do in the process of learning other subjects. Writing students, however, understand that writing is a skill that can be learned just like any other subject they are studying. Successful learning in writing is measured through the application of skills learned continually through writing. In other words doing it. Another part of learning writing is realizing progress—understanding growth in writing—because it helps build a better understanding of good writing.

  • Reflection is crucial. in understanding your learning and writing, accepting struggle, the more you know the harder it becomes

Reflection is a crucial part in understanding your relationship with writing. A common misconception students have is this belief that you can grow as a writer to the point where it is no longer challenging. Linda Adler-Kassner dispels that notion explaining how it actually gets more difficult as you become an expert. The more you know, the more techniques, skills, and knowledge you can employ, the more complex the process becomes. This is important to recognize because it will change students’ understanding of the craft as a whole.

A Semester in Review

Being accepted into the Minor in Writing program was so exciting, but I honestly had no idea what to expect. I remember coming to class the first day worrying about how intense the program, and my instructor, would be. I can honestly say this class (and the minor) surpassed my expectations, and has only assured me that this is the right direction for me. While I’ve probably done more revisions in the past 3 months than I have in my entire life, I’ve loved every second of it, and truly believe that I am progressing as a writer. One thing Ray said to us that has really stuck with me is that every year we grow. Senior year we wrote English essays that we thought were incredible, only to turn around freshman year of college and think “dear god, how did I ever put my name on that?” Then freshman year we wrote even more essays and thought we had nearly perfected our writing capabilities, only to realize sophomore year that we hated what we produced the year before. The cycle goes on. This really stood out to me because, while I’ve never recognized it, the pattern is true, and it was comforting to know that everyone, even people writing dissertations and working towards their doctorates, feel the same way. This realization has encouraged me to use every year as a stepping stone; although I will never think my work is perfect, it will always be better than whatever I wrote the year before, and that’s a really exciting and encouraging fact to recognize. In this way, I could probably spend years working on my site and never be truly satisfied, but what I’ve produced this year is definitely way better than what I’ve produced in years prior, and I can see how much I’ve grown as a writer. I’m excited to see what my future in this program (and beyond) will look like.

the promise of growth

This semester, I have the privilege of being in two courses that are not into grading and are more into growing. The Minor in Writing gateway course is my first game-ified class that seeks to remove the stresses of grades and instead urges students to try a wide range of activities in the pursuit of being a better writer. My English 225 course on the Syntax of Sports also does not grade papers in the traditional sense. Rather we have a certain amount of writing tasks to do in numerous subcategories like “Gratitude” and “Conscientiousness” that will put us at an B, B+ or A- level. The syllabus is titled “Most Likely to Succeed,” off of Malcolm Gladwell’s article of the same name, and proposes a model that if you write every week and have the time to sit down with someone to talk about your writing in that same week, you will become a better writer. While Shelley employs a peer-to-peer interaction with her students, Mr. Barry has us refer to him by this name, and in the classroom and my interactions with him, I am Ms. Ring. I definitely prefer the elevated status received when referring to a teacher a little more formally, but the personable-ness of Shelley is also worth a lot, too. While the teaching styles of Shelley and Mr. Barry differ, their approach to giving their students access to their writing expertise and the high levels of enthusiasm they instill in their students is un-matchable to any of my previous English teachers.

At first, I was really scared of having not one, but two classes that threw away traditional grades in exchange for allowing students to develop as long as they put in the hard work. My Upper Level Writing Requirement to fulfill the Minor grades traditionally, a political science class on Latin American politics. It requires four short papers and one long paper that are weighted into our overall grade. While we are lectured and talk about the effectiveness of arguments and logic for the articles we read and our papers, this is my least favorite class to attend or do work in. It’s no so much that the subject is dull, but the rigid grading structure and general lack of peer editing really plummets my interest on a class and writing level. While political science is more difficult to write about than sports, I think the role of the course structure also solidifies my opinion on this issue.

The greatest strength of Writing 220 and my section of English 225 is that since our grades are dependent on the effort we put in, it allows us to be more proud of what we do with the models given to us. Many times this semester I have wanted to share my Syntax of Sports papers with my parents and friends because of how excited I am by how it turned out. Also, I am able to notice that even though writing came fairly easily to me before when I didn’t have a strong writing toolbox, I still write fluidly while employing the many stylistic writing techniques I have learned and adopted in these classes.

While I am on track for top grades in both classes, that grade will do little to represent how much more confident I feel as a writer after dancing through the hula hoops Shelley and Mr. Barry have put me through throughout the term. While in January I was still feeling out just how useful the game-ified and effort model would work, I can report now that these grading structures fully delivered on their promise of growth.

growth and me: an e-port plan

As I delve further into the Minor in Writing program I have become more comfortable in talking about my writing while in the process of writing. That being said, glancing over the e-portfolio prompt I have an overwhelming feeling of anxiety towards it. While gathering the elements required to construct a complete portfolio won’t be too difficult, the presentation and aura of the site will certainly prove to be challenging. Essentially, the e-portfolio is asking us to represent ourselves, our identity as writers in a digital space that can be accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Similar to my attitudes towards blogging to an audience of everyone, this e-portfolio puts those sentiments into a larger context.

As I browse the very specific questions asked of us on the prompt page, one draws to me particularly, “How do you want to present yourself as a writer?” I think on a subconscious level I am always aware of how I present myself and how I sound to others, that is someone who chooses her words wisely and likes to write. To explicitly answer this question by way of a portfolio will be a little more daunting. I want my portfolio to act as a springboard and parallel my writing style and personality. I want the reader to walk away with a sense of my writer’s identity through the materials I present to them.

This will be my second time constructing an e-portfolio, as I was required to do one for my Environmental Journalism class. We did a lot of metawriting on our sites but nothing to advanced as far as layout and theme. Like the minor portfolio, many components go into the overall product which enhances the experience of showcasing the work of the course.

This time around, I think starting early in my ideas will only be beneficial to me in the long run. Even this post is making me excited to play around with content and layout during spring break next week with all the free time I’ll be having by staying in the polar vortex. I know the words I put on the page are as equally as important as the layout. I want my site to be exciting and something that I won’t get bored of looking at or updating (similar to how I want to feel about my re-purposing and re-mediation projects).

Since I’ve decided to do a re-purposing piece that involves me talking about my relationship with drinking and how that has evolved since college has started, I want my guiding thesis for the site to be that of personal growth. The person I was in September 2011 (when I started college) might as well be a different person than who I am today. I want to take my readers on a journey through writing and exploring this growth theme. Perhaps too I could incorporate the subtheme of what’s involved in growth, like failures, triumphs, and learning, with sample pieces to illustrate them.

My exploration of this theme through my portfolio stems in part to my philosophy on life and education. I frequently ask myself, what is it I’m doing today that makes me get better, learn? My biggest error in life would be to go through not quenching my thirst for knowledge and desire for growth. Hopefully I can capture these feelings in my e-portfolio.