Free Writing About Pedagogy

Posted in: digital humanities  pedagogy  praxis 
Crossposted to the Scholars' Lab blog.

We’re in the thick of our unit on teaching and learning in Praxis, where students discuss a range of teaching topics including buttonology, minimalist pedagogy, and critical digital pedagogy. As outcomes for the conversation we ask the students to produce two things:

  • a minimalist, speculative digital humanities workshop on a topic of interest to them as a teach-to-learn activity
  • a teaching statement that might intersect with their new thinking on digital pedagogy

The context for the two assignments is that all DH involves teaching at some level. Graduate students rarely receive adequate training in teaching, and they often teach under very specific departmental constraints. The two activities are meant to give them experience thinking about a range of teaching possibilities that they might not otherwise get to experience. I would wager further that most departments don’t offer much training in writing about teaching, either in formalized teaching statements or otherwise. Ashley Hosbach-Wallman, UVA’s Education and Social Research Librarian, gives our students a wonderful introduction to writing about teaching. I pair Ashley’s workshop with a free-writing activity to help the students move past fears they might have about writing correctly on the topic. The only way to begin is by beginning, after all.1 I couldn’t actually be there in person to run this activity for the students, so I’m sharing these slides and the context for them in the hopes that they will run it at home.

Free Writing About Pedagogy

The spirit of this activity is heavily inspired by a workshop that Sean Michael Morris ran at Digital Pedagogy Lab on writing about teaching. All the good here comes from Sean - I merely adapted it for my own particular context. The gist is that the activity gives students a topic, a set amount of time to free write on it, and some rules to guide the process. The rules Sean gave for that writing process are mostly about self-criticism:

  • Don’t judge what you write.
  • Feel free to use first person.
  • Keep writing.
  • Be honest. Don’t write for someone else.

Keep writing, and don’t let your own internal voice get in the way of putting words down on the page. With those guidelines in mind, students move through a set of curated topics you give them. As facilitator, my job is mostly to encourage them to use the whole time saying things like “if you think you’re done keep going because you’ll go somewhere unexpected.” Mostly I just watch the timer. The activity is quite flexible and can be adapted to any circumstance: just change the prompts. In my experience, graduate students find it quite transformative and request the workshop a second time later in the year. The first time I ran it one of the students exclaimed, “I wrote 2000 words in an hour! My dissertation feels like it will be no problem!” For students accustomed to working towards perfection, free writing offers a radical reorientation towards what the writing process can feel like.

I start the workshop with a slide of my cat on a piece of paper just because I can. I usually offer some point of entry to the effect of…Pepper loves boxes. But they can also be scary? And what can make you feel more boxed in than a blank sheet of paper? Here is Pepper surrounded by frightening sheets. Free writing can help us get past the fear of the page and just put words down. But this has also just been an excuse to share photos of my beloved cat.

my cat Pepper just because

Moving on to the first free writing exercise. At this point in the curriculum, our students have done a mind mapping exercise that encourages them to free associate different linked concepts related to teaching and learning. I haven’t written up that activity just yet (I will!), but you can find the slide deck on the Praxis site if you wanted to run it on your own. To get started with our free writing:

What are the most important values that you bring to teaching? To digital pedagogy? Write for eight minutes on this.

Free write 1 that connects to mind mapping

When designing your speculative DH workshop, how might you craft it in such a way that it reflects the values you just wrote about? How will you teach digital methods in a way that honors the things you care about? Write for eight minutes.

Free write 2 about connecting pedagogy to their workshops

What activity are you planning for your workshop? What are the actual nuts and bolts of what you might do in the room? If you’re struggling to come up with an idea for the workshop, how might you explain the concept you’re interested in to a third grader? Write for eight minutes.

Free write 3 about generating workshop ideas

What sorts of anxieties do you have about teaching and learning? What fears do you have about digital pedagogy? What sort of things can you do to mitigate those concerns? Eight minutes again.

Free write 4 about anxieties

I usually close the workshop with another photo of Pepper. Now, having written, he is happily asleep and at peace. He’s moved past the box.

A closing picture of my cat again, just because I can

And that’s it! The activity is very flexible–add topics or take them away. Add time or subtract depending on the amount of time you have. Run the activities for yourself or others. If this approach to writing feels completely anathema to the way you work, you might find yourself pushed in new directions. If this all feels familiar, maybe the slides will help give you more material for what you’re already doing. I’m really grateful to Sean for the workshop that got me going in this direction. His workshop on writing about teaching really taught me a lot about both.

  1. Ashley’s workshop also incorporates free writing as well! She does a great job linking formal and informal ways of writing about teaching.