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.
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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.