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Monday, January 20, 2014

Another Reflection on Reflection… with Proof (!)



A kind professor once told me that the most insightful ideas, the most profound projects always develop out of “openings,” points in our lives where “we become interested in, attuned to, involved with, and perhaps awed by other things, other people, and, in moments of reflection, our own selves” (Michael Hyde, Openings, 3). Not only did this professor teach me the truth of this matter—through conversations, lectures, and example—he wrote an entire book about it. For our intents and purposes, though, it is enough to know that openings are everywhere, but they are never noticed unless reflected upon. It is for this very reason that I start each and every one of my final papers the very first day of class—fifteen weeks before their due dates. No I don’t start writing—that comes later—but I do start thinking; I start looking for openings—for people, ideas, experiences, news stories, songs, even, that speak to me. I start noticing how things (a purposefully vague word) relate to the courses I am taking. Most importantly, though, I start thinking.
                Two young professors, both now at different universities but trained in the same PhD program, also taught me to tackle my assignments in stages, not just drafts. Rather than assigning a final paper due date, the professors assign (much earlier) due dates for different parts of papers. The proposal, the context, the analysis, the discussion and conclusion are all due on a series of dates that begins just a couple weeks into the semester. The result? Not only does the writer (in this case my classmates and I) spend eight weeks writing (and drafting) their final project, the writer also by default spends ten weeks thinking about their project—assuming standard lengths of college procrastination that’s at least eight extra weeks of thinking! The result is a project that is often much deeper, much richer, much more profound than the standard one-due-date assignment. But, then again, these are just my observations and experiences. Let’s see what the experts say.
. . .
                For the history buffs out there we can start with Augustine, Saint Augustine that is, who wrote about reflection in the fourth century. Augustine advanced the idea that by reflecting on “the narratives we live,” read, and interact with, we can “relate the parts to the whole”—we can begin to see the interconnectedness of everything we are involved in, including our writing (our grammar mistakes patterns!), our experiences, our values, etc. (Brian Stock, “Ethics and the Humanities: Some Lessons of Historical Experience,” 12).  Augustine didn’t just suggest this idea, he modeled it, became a founding father of reflective and interpretive practices, and, of course, wrote several books about it.
                For the number lovers out there, let’s turn to some cold hard data. A recent study on the educational benefit of reflection journals tested 3460 students (Duan Lew et al. “Writing to Learn”). The findings? Even though the reflection practices were forced, not the ideal organic approach, they did lead to improvements in the students’ learning. Also interesting is that the study found students tended to reflect on different topics, namely their previous educational experiences, learning strategies, and content learned. If these (relatively narrow) reflection topics were statistically significant and beneficial, imagine the educational benefit of reflecting on a broader array of topics and doing so not just when an assignment is due. You don’t like imagining? That’s okay, too. I have more evidence.
                For the teachers out there—yes, you, the peer writing consultant—let’s take a look at the work of one last scholar, a professor and, again, author of a lot of books, George Hillocks. Throughout his work, Hillocks repeatedly brings up a point that, I believe, is under-stressed in college classrooms: the importance of helping students acknowledge and reflect on what they already bring to the table before they begin writing (George Hillocks “Students: Disaffected and Engaged?”). Students aren’t blank slates when they walk into a classroom and are handed a syllabus. They may know nothing about organic chemistry, medieval rhetoric, or business models, but they do know a little about themselves and the “things” they encounter in everyday life. Thus, by helping students acknowledge what they bring to the table, make organic connection between life and course material, and recognize the openings around them, we can help them become more critical thinkers, more insightful writers, and more thoughtful individuals.
. . .
                While all this support and evidence of my assertion that “reflection is important and can be taught” is nice, it doesn’t exactly help explain what reflection taught in a writing center might look like. Fear not. With a little reflection ourselves, we can visualize such a scenario. This is fairly easy because consultants often already practice reflection by writing notes after consultations about the subjects covered. An additional reflection practice (that benefits consultants and future clients) is to also individually reflect about how the consultation proceeded—the approach, strategies, and teaching/learning methods employed, what worked and what didn’t, etc. Kudos to consultants and writing centers who already do this frequently.
            But what about teaching reflection? How might consultants help clients learn to adopt reflection practices? For one, consultants can incorporate them into consultations; give clients time (literally) to digest and reflect on the information covered in the consultation as it’s covered, to write their own notes or reflections about their writing, or anything of that nature. In addition, why not simply talk about the value of reflection in writing and the various stages in which it (should) play a role? Many clients likely have never thought of reflection as a part (let alone an ongoing part) of their projects. Recognition of the breadth and benefit of reflection just may be the most rewarding (and novel) gift we can give a writer.

Monday, January 13, 2014

A Reflection on Reflection



                Josh Turner’s baritone voice quietly fills the interior of my car. Outside the window, old field goldenrods gently dance in place. I have noticed, lately, their shade is growing deeper, richer, more desperate for attention. The fall sun has taken its toll on them—given them life, given them color, but given them a crispness, too, that signals an end. In a given semester, I don’t have time to notice the Texas wildflowers. I notice other things—the traffic patterns, the characteristics of my colleagues’ footsteps, the tendency for deadlines to draw ever nearer—but not the wildflowers. This semester is different, though. This semester I’m taking supplemental classes at a university ninety miles away—ninety miles that I have to journey across four times a week.
                Ideally, I could spend my time on the road catching up with homework; after all, as a grad student I have just four months to read approximately eleven thousand pages and write four (according to one professor’s requirements) “brilliant” research papers, publication quality of course. The US Department of Transportation, however, has made it quite clear that setting a laptop on the dashboard and typing while driving is illegal, dangerous and, well, completely idiotic. So what to do with my time on the road? Write it up as lost, sacrificed time? I think not.
                Or, rather, I think.
                Sometimes I think about my never-ending (literally) to-do list. Sometimes I think about the career and education choices I’ve made. Often I think about the lunch I packed and how many more miles until I reach my arbitrarily designated meal mile-marker. Sometimes I think about the differences between the giant research institution I attend now and the baby-ivy I attended before. I think about my research. I think about speeches I read that struck a chord in me. I think about papers I am writing, or should write, and why they matter—how they connect to my interests, my personal values, my private aspirations. Most often, though, I think about how can I relate these reflections to my papers whose deadlines are nigh.
. . .
                As a student it is my responsibility to learn and to write papers. As a TA it is my responsibility to create and grade assignments. As writing center consultant it is my responsibility to help students. In any of these descriptions did I ever mention any form of the word “think”? How about “reflect”? Not once.
                A given student, in a given class, at a given university is not taught how to reflect—in any sense of the word. The process is never listed in syllabi, rarely listed in project requirements, and only occasionally mentioned in classes. How do I know this? Well, I have reflected on my own education and observed that of other students around me. My notes from these experiences have led me to a single conclusion: Professors, instructors, and often even tutors assume that reflection is innate—that everyone can and knows how to do it. But this is just not true.
                What is true is that reflection is important and can be taught. Sure there are different types of reflection. One can reflect critically or personally; one can reflect on processes, events, content, or concepts. On can reflect to deconstruct or to construct. And the list goes on.
As writing center consultants we should encourage our clients to adopt reflective practices (whichever kinds best serve them) in order to improve clients’ long-term and immediate writing, their engagement with their own ideas and experiences, and their holistic development as (analytical and insightful) persons. Although this assertion is based on my personal opinions, experiences, and observations, it is practically and scholarly supported by others. In my following blog I will expand upon (and support) the three-pronged profit of reflection practices. Until then, give thoughtful reflection a try and enjoy the wildflowers.