Alone…Writing

It’s almost November 1st and the start of AcWriMo will soon be upon us. That’s “Academic Writing Month”—a time when some academics volunteer to write every day, in order to advance their research projects.

I started AcWriMo at my former institution when our newest (at the time) iteration of a teaching and learning center began in 2014. For four years, 25-30 faculty pledged—mostly to ourselves—to make progress on a writing project during the 30 days. There was (supposed to be) a requirement (that most ignored) to post daily or at least weekly progress to a shared accountability spreadsheet. No matter—most of us kept writing, even if it was not every single day of the month.

Picture of individuals sitting at one table, writing and sharing writingAcWriMo was the only time of year I’d write every day. (Here are a few  where I discuss my journey as a writer: here and here.) Partly it was the pressure I felt as the titular leader and partly it was because by November, I would be ready to make the winter break productive and daily writing helped set me up for December success. One of the things I liked about our campus’ AcWriMo was that I could always stop by our teaching and learning center and find another AcWriMo-er there, writing. Even though we wouldn’t talk, the friendly glance as I settled in to write was comforting. It helped, knowing someone else was there, writing or struggling to write. There was an energy in the camaraderie that provided the focus needed for my moment of success.

But since retiring, that feeling of community writing together has dimmed. Even when I still lived in the same town, I didn’t have access to the center and my favorite chair in the corner of the living room. So writing occurred in my home office—where I also paid the bills, worked for my editing clients, and browsed the Internet. Every Saturday, I would go early to Starbucks, where I met my best friend for coffee and conversation and I would get about 30 minutes of productive writing in there.

A friend who has moved on to another school has created an informal AcWriMo, done over the Internet and other than her, I usually don’t know anyone else personally in the group, so it is harder to experience that camaraderie I was used to having. Now, in our new mountain-top home, my companions are the leaves turning gorgeous colors outside my window; they fall down silently, floating on the wind.

Corkboard with paper pinned to it. Paper says, "No more excuses."So here it is, the end of October and I am ready for AcWriMo. I have two writing goals—the first is to continue to write this weekly pedagogical blog and the second, to begin a book on the decline of civility in the US. The “skeleton” of the book will be comparing George Washington’s 101 rules for civility and tweets from President Trump. I want to outline the entire book and write at least two chapters by the end of AcWriMo. I’m aiming for first drafts, with lots of room for improvement.

But that means—after being out of my writing rhythm while we packed, moved to a different state, and lived in a temporary cabin while the house was being finished—exploring what writing rituals will work for me now, when I just look up and spend lots of time leaf-watching. So I am going into my toolkit—TimeDoser, 25 minutes of writing and a 5 minute break, repeated twice for one hour, each day. For the first week, I just want to “brain dump” all the thoughts I have about the book. The next few weeks will be beginning to write the first few chapters of the book.

Pile of notebooks and resources, and few pensWriting feels like more of a solitary activity again—even though in a way, it always was. I have to find the internal desire to write, because the act of writing is always solitary, at least for me. While I write with a typical reader in mind, a notebook or blank document in hand, a cup of hot tea, and my wealth of resources, ultimately the journey that is writing is one taken alone, until there are enough words to share.

I’ve found the journey to be worth taking—books, articles, chapters, even blog posts. I hope that you will take your own AcWriMo journey for the next 30 days. Write—because you have something others need to hear. Write, even it all you can commit to is 15 minutes a day. Know that others are out here, writing alone but together in spirit. Share how it’s going in the comments.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing, or coaching about writing.

Need to Alter the Energy in Class? Try Changing Things Up

Two rows of college students, all asleep in classIt’s that time of the academic term where the end isn’t quite in sight yet but everyone is exhausted. Students struggle to concentrate, are easily distracted, and everyone seems on edge. This isn’t a good environment for learning to happen, so it’s up to faculty to figure out how to figure out how to change things up.

For me, I find that such a moment happened the second class day after the first test. Many were not happy with their grade, and so the disappointment (and sometimes anger) were palpable on that Thursday. Over time, I learned that one topic in particular re-energized my students and changed the class dynamics. What was the topic?: “How Groups Work.”

I am a firm believer that—while we all have been in many groups during our lives—actually partaking in group activities which we then analyze in class is the best way to learn the sociological insights about group behaviors and group dynamics. So I ask students to get into groups and for about two-thirds of the class, they work in groups, accomplishing the tasks I take them through.

Lifeboat full of people, all wearing safety vestsThe first one is my riff on “The Lifeboat Game.” It went like this: “You and your group are taking a winter cruise to Alaska (it’s all you could afford) and the cruise ship hit an iceberg and is sinking. Your group is safely in a lifeboat and can take just 2 more people into the boat. Then I give the entire class a list of ten individuals, some “real” and some fictive. All ten are swimming in the freezing water and will die from hypothermia soon. I offer a range of people, from a Latina maid, to a physician who has discovered the cure for the common cold but not published it yet, to the richest person in the world (then, it was Bill Gates, now it would be Jeff Bezos); to a movie star, her infant (the baby counts as a full person), and the wet nurse/nanny who cares for the baby. There’s also a stowaway and a bus driver who has saved for this trip for years.

Each student takes a few minutes to decide which two individuals he or she wants to bring into the boat. Then I give the group just two minutes to arrive at consensus on who to save. While they are deliberating, my graduate assistants and I are walking around, gathering data on how the groups are interacting. For example, I deliberately did not use a pronoun to identify the physician and the graduate assistants and I took notes on if groups did use a specific pronoun. I would circle back and discuss this later in the class.

The next group activity was to solve an algebraic equation, first individually and then to arrive at group consensus. After about four minutes, I gave five answers on a PowerPoint slide and a representative of the group had to click in the group’s answer. One of the behaviors that I and the graduate assistants noticed is that is group activity had much less group interaction than the other tasks; usually one student would say “I’m good at math” and solved it and that answer became the group’s answer.

Alligator sunning self on rockAnother group activity was to listen to a fable and decide its best and worst character, first individually and then again, to arrive at group consensus. The fable involved two heterosexual lovers who wanted to see each other but were on opposite sides of a river and the sole connecting bridge had been washed out and there were teeming alligators who lived in the river. Other characters were a river boat captain who offered a free ride across the river in exchange for sex with the female member of the couple; a friend who said “it’s none of my business, I don’t want to get involved;” and another member who beat up the river boat captain. This activity made students analyze their personal values about sexuality, friendship, and fidelity.

After completing five group activities, the students were laughing, enjoying meeting new people, and were very relaxed. The post-test tension was broken. Then I transitioned to analyzing the dynamics of group interaction. I had each group identify the one or two people who they felt were the leaders and then we discussed instrumental and expressive types of leaders. They easily identified who was which in their group and then we discussed how—at least in the US—often these are gendered statuses.

I circled back to the Lifeboat Game and asked why it was that 2 of the 3 people I identified by race or ethnicity, were not saved by any group (in fact, in 12 years of doing this exercise in class, they had never been saved by even 1 group). Only the wealthiest (white) man was ever saved—and often by every group in the class. Many only took him into the lifeboat after negotiating a payout, though. And then I mentioned that only one group out of over twenty in the class did not identify the physician with the cure for the common cold as male. Usually an audible gasp occurred in the room when I said that, and students demanded that I go back to the PowerPoint slide which described the ten individuals in the water–only to be shocked when they read the non-gendered language.

Picture of five rows of wire. On half of each wire are about ten or more birds. On the other side, only on the 2nd wire, is 1 solitary birdWhen I asked how often did each group actually arrive at group consensus, the class erupted in sustained laughter. They mentioned that the time requirements I imposed made it difficult to arrive at consensus. Other times some members talked about feeling pressured to arrive at consensus—and since “it didn’t really matter”—they went along with it. I then teased about the next class’ topic: “How Groups Influence Individuals’ Behavior.” They wanted more information right then, even if it was after when class should have been dismissed. An educational win!

But the most crucial lesson I learned was how important it was to schedule in some “fun” or “relaxing” activities throughout the semester. This group activities day restored the class’ energy; in fact many students stopped by after class to ask if we could have more days like this (we would) and said that it helped them to refocus on learning sociology.

Faculty need to assess the “temperature” of each class and know when being flexible—perhaps not about the content of the day, but about how that content is delivered—is the best learning strategy. So think about gamifying one or more days or get students up and moving–anything which gets you and your students out of the traditional rhythms of the class–and watch the learning happen.

Please visit the Pedagogical Thoughts website to contact me about institutional or individual consulting, dissertation editing or coaching about writing.