(try this in class at your own risk!)
(Updated Feb 19, 2020)
So I tried something a bit unusual (even for me) in my Advanced Writing course at USC. As I walked toward my classroom, I was planning to have students do a short timed writing at the beginning of class, a zero draft, freewrite, whatever, but then… a strange thought hit me. What if instead of writing, I just had them try thinking?
Crazytown, right? Here were my thoughts.
It began with a reflection on my own writing process. The previous week I had written something, a little children’s story, that was fairly well received, and two different people had asked how long it had taken to write. Thirty minutes, I replied. And they laughed. (I am still not quite sure why.)
But that answer wasn’t entirely honest, I realized a few days later, upon reflection, that the process had actually started months prior when a friend asked me to write this story. So it started then, but that initial catalyst led to a bit of reading at the library while I waited for my son to pick his books, followed by a phone chat with the friend. All of this incidental work that goes unaccounted. Oh, wait — and I had read this genre years before to my kids and had always liked to think about it, so I guess it started then, 10 or 12 years earlier. Not to mention my journal entries about the story and some notes on various napkins. Wasn’t all of this part of the writing?
But by far, the largest amount of time in writing was spent thinking.
So why not have my students just think?
We already know how stressed and overscheduled this generation has been. We already know how they suffer with anxiety and other mental and emotional challenges in part brought on by the 24/7 work and FOMO devices that are never far from them. Horrid taskmasters.
So again, why not just think?
Only one reason: it doesn’t seem like enough if a class activity. It doesn’t require a handout or a PowerPoint or even board work. It is going to be IMPOSSIBLE to put in my merit review file!
Well, despite my fears, inspired by my yoga instructors and what I know off mindfulness and meditation. However, unlike some meditation, the goal was not to clear our minds but to actively think about our individual writing topics. This activity was also born of my newly launched campaign for nonproductive educational activity and to teach writing as I truly know and love it, rather than have the students produce something gradable, stackable, learning outcomeable, I just asked them to think.
I can see the headline in The Onion: “College Students Stop Class to Think.” Ridiculous. So easily mocked.
I’ve read The Clouds.
I know how easily it would be for someone to shout, “The Professor’s exercise has no content!” This exercise would have zero measurable outcomes, zero outputs, zero documentation. Free writing yields streams of pen-scratched words. Mindmapping, bubbles upon bubbles (even if they are Chains of Dependency!) But I also know the relief my students experienced earlier this semester when I gave them 20 minutes of free time to write whatever they wanted (tied to their larger analytical question they had chosen for the term). So…an exercise in timed thinking could do even more…
First: We stopped writing.
We closed laptops, tucked away phones (except my timer), closed notebooks, dropped pens.
Second: We started the timer.
That is the key.
Only 6 minutes of thinking, in fact, after which they could jot a few notes down before continuing for 3 more. Not even 10 minutes!
But that was a start, and that time limit — that time fortress — was a bulwark against all the other assignments and pings and texts and demands and obligations and that sense that they really should be doing something else or several things; the anxiety that distracts them to death, that saps them, that traps them, making them forever struggling with the mostly mythical multitasking.
This, by contrast, was delicious monotasking!
And it worked! Students reported relief, discoveries, ideas. They said they wanted more time. They suggested adding some stimuli, so I told the two subsequent class sections to add the idea of “change” to their reflection if they were stuck (which helped). Struggling at first as in all early encounters with meditation, their minds eventually settled, began pursuing thoughts, making connections, discovering something to write about …..
A second go round suggested the following alternative versions:
- Let students jot down notes as they’re thinking
- Allow movement, particularly walking around
I plan to keep experimenting and hope to generate a wave of thinking in writing classes. Purposeful, intentional, unmeasurable thinking!