Author Archive for



09
Jun
12

Encouraging collaboration & effective brainstorming

Photo credit: Flickr user KatieTT

Having written about brainstorming and group work in three of the more recent posts here, you can imagine I was alarmed to see the blurb, “Brainstorming Doesn’t Really Work,” promoting Jonah Lehrer’s article Group Think: The Brainstorming Myth. After reading the article, I see there’s a lot to learn in thinking through setting up effective collaborations.

The blurb in question focuses on a very specific type of brainstorming that has been proven empirically to provide less creative ideas. When groups are told to throw out ideas without criticism, they tend to come up with a lot of ideas, but those ideas are more predictable, less varied, and ultimately less successful than groups that are free to criticize each other’s ideas. The criticism leads to a reconsideration of ideas, which ultimately makes them better.

Lehrer’s asssertion that this type brainstorming doesn’t work does not mean that groups cannot be creative. In fact, he introduces several studies that show that they can be more creative than individuals under the right conditions. The most compelling parts of the article are those that consider what those right conditions look like. Continue reading ‘Encouraging collaboration & effective brainstorming’

05
Jun
12

The spaces of innovation: Where Good Ideas Come From book review

Image Credit: stevenberlinjohnson.typepad.com

It takes a bit of hubris to write a history of good ideas. Good ideas are those which separate themselves above those that come before, so to attempt to provide insight into a wide swath of those ideas means you must fancy yourself fairly insightful. That generally yields books like Harold Bloom’s Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Minds, which crafts a complicated kabbalistic schema to organize brief biographies of one hundred great minds from the history of literature. The results read like a well-crafted reference book that leaves the reader with a sense of awe for these authors. What we don’t get is much insight into where these good ideas came from, which I should add Bloom never really promises. He’s just fine with us being in awe.

The difficulty inherent in choosing to write about good ideas is partly what makes Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation such a darn clever book. Instead of focusing on the good ideas themselves, which out of context leave us with a sense of awe, Johnson focuses on the places where good ideas come from, finds patterns in the conditions that foster creativity, and suggests ways we can create those spaces in our own creative endeavors. The results are both insightful, inspiring, and extraordinarily useful for anyone interested in coming up with good ideas themselves. Continue reading ‘The spaces of innovation: Where Good Ideas Come From book review’

31
May
12

Workshopping peer workshops

I was at a conference last year where the idea of using writing workshops in class came up in conversation. A teacher from an education department commented, “I used to do workshops, but both my students and I thought they were a waste of time.” I brought up the fact that several studies support the idea that peer workshops work to produce better writers, and she shrugged her shoulders unconvinced. That experience made it pretty clear to me: workshops need a better PR department. They’ve become one of the most maligned forms of writing instruction, which is sad because they also have the potential to be the among the most productive.

I’m sympathetic to those teachers and students who deplore workshops. When I started teaching writing, I’d get student evaluations that said they found the process unhelpful in fixing their papers, and after reading their drafts, I could see the truth in those statements. Only later did I realize that we were both missing the point of workshops. A closer look at the structure of workshops shows us that focusing the goals of a workshop on the quality of papers produced invites these feelings of failure. Workshops can show us a lot of the weak points in our own papers and a lot of points that we need to work hard to fix, but they can’t solve those problems. Only the original writer can. But workshops do create better writers when they are assessed over time. Even though that’s cold comfort to someone wanting immediate improvement, a dedicated approach to workshops will help your writers improve, and there are several things we can do to help us tweak our approach to workshops that can allow that to happen. Continue reading ‘Workshopping peer workshops’

24
May
12

Top 50 Creative Writing Professors on Twitter

I  found out earlier in the week that WorldWideLearn.com put me on a list of the top 50 creative writing professors on Twitter. I’d never even consider myself in the same stratosphere as some of the other names on that list, so I’m extremely humbled. Given that and the mention on BoingBoing last month, I’m feeling like a real blogger. By which I mean, I feel a tremendous amount of guilt about not writing more.

23
May
12

The Mythbuster Philosophy of Education: Failure is always an option.

Pop culture does teachers few favors. Most teachers on television are either boring busybodies who lecture ad nauseum (think Ben Stein’s character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) or energetic zealots who inspire students to learn through sheer force of charisma (Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society.) Perhaps I’m naive, but I think a lot of new teachers go through a stage where they feel like developing their own teaching style consists of finding a way to lecture without putting students to sleep and inspire without telling students to ritually sacrifice the introductions of their text books. I say this because in the beginning of my teaching career, I felt like I was navigating this dilemma: how do I deliver content while still being interesting?

The longer I teach, the more I realize that neither of these models is anything to emulate. Lecturing as the sole means for delivering content is a bit like trying to build a sandcastle by tossing mud at a pile of dirt at twenty paces: some of it sticks, some misses the target, but most washes away in the next tide. Charisma is nice to have and can certainly be a tool, but it only gets you so far; without a solid structure to the lesson being taught, you’re not maximizing your assets.

That’s why the best teachers on television are on the show Mythbusters, and if you’re looking for a philosophy of education to emulate, they offer a lot.

Image source: tvclash.com

Continue reading ‘The Mythbuster Philosophy of Education: Failure is always an option.’

07
May
12

Welcome to new readers and my greatest hits list

I feel incredibly fortunate to have had my blog mentioned on the internet king of all miscellanea, BoingBoing, last week when they published an email I wrote to one of the co-founders. That single mention has brought more readers on the blog, which is always a good thing in my book.

If you’re new or just finding this for the first time, here’s a greatest hits list of some of the most popular posts and among the posts that I am most proud of:

Since one of my jobs is helping students transition from the widely taught five-paragraph essay into a more fluid format, I also constructed a series of posts called “The Five-paragraph Fix.” Here are some of the better posts in that series:

I should also take this time to mention that I’m eager to talk to readers and to develop a community here where others have a voice. If you have specific topics you’d like to seen written about or you have topics that you want to write about, please comment or drop me a line.

04
May
12

A sense of an ending: writing conclusions

Photo Source: Flickr user bennylin0724

If all’s well that ends well, then something’s seriously rotten in the state of essay writing. Even the some experienced writers seem to struggle with conclusions.

Suspect conclusions come in one of three varieties, all of which leave something to be desired. The worst of these is simply leaving the ending off. Others write the thesis again and then say the same things they said in the introduction. (I’ve even seen some papers where the conclusion is literally a copy and pasted version of the introductory paragraph. Please don’t do this.) The third strategy, summarizing the points of the paper in one paragraph, is only slightly better than the other two strategies. Continue reading ‘A sense of an ending: writing conclusions’

12
Apr
12

Writing is like magic: only not in the way you expect

A few months ago, I overheard one of our peer consultant, Chris, speaking excitedly about the end stages of a paper. “I just love that moment when it all comes together,” he said. “It’s like magic.”

I agreed that those end stages of a paper can feel magical. When connections between

Image Source: Flicker user Christophe Verdier

different ideas appear and the work you put into research and writing starts to pay off, it can feel exhilarating. I recall Seamus Heaney noting these feelings at a reading some years ago. An audience member asked Heaney what his favorite part of writing a poem was and Heaney said that it was when the poem could get up on its own two legs, move around, and surprise him, showing him ideas or meanings he hadn’t thought of before.

When I tell that Heaney story to classes, some students struggle with the idea that any piece of writing could surprise them. For these writers, that magical moment seems impossible. The end stages of a paper seem at best a relief of stress and frustration. At worst, they confirm the writer’s feelings of self doubt and failure. In these cases, the idea that there is a magic to writing can have a negative effect. If writing is magic, then those writers who don’t feel that mystical exhilaration may give up too soon, imagining that they just can’t cut it.

For all, writing can be like magic, but it won’t be the kind of magic that appears in fairy tales. The magic in writing shares much more in common with the magic you might see on stage at a Vegas nightclub. It may look slick, as if it defies the laws of physics, but it’s all a well practiced illusion. As writers, understanding the basis of these illusions provides us with a lot that we can steal to improve on our own texts. Continue reading ‘Writing is like magic: only not in the way you expect’

29
Mar
12

Hurrying the eureka moment: smarter brainstorming

I’ve heard the story of how J.K. Rowling came up with Harry Potter about a dozen times, and every time it changes.  In some versions, the boy wizard comes to her while sitting in a cafe, and she jots down the essentials on a napkin. Other times, she’s waiting for a train, and she muses over plot for the rest of the rid.

What never changes is the drama of the eureka moment. Rowling recognizes immediately the value of the idea and the direction in which she’ll take it. That moment takes on a mythic quality, a moment that changes the world of literature forever. And like most good myths, I’m confident it has a small germ of truth surrounded by a whole bunch of window dressing.

Screen shot from Steven Johnson's RSA Animated talk. Source: norweiganshooter.blogspot.com

I’m sure there are some who want to protect the genius of Rowling and sanctity of the myth of Harry Potter’s divine inspiration. They probably take my skepticism as snark. We all like to believe that inspiration might strike at any moment and an idea that will make us richer than the Queen of England will materialize from the ether.

Looking at the history of good ideas tells us a different story though. Behind every good idea is a story that looks quite different from the one where a genius plucks inspiration out of thin air. Instead, good ideas usually come from a combination of musing over a topic and exchanging ideas with other thinkers. That’s good news because it presents a process writers can follow for smarter brainstorming sessions. Continue reading ‘Hurrying the eureka moment: smarter brainstorming’

13
Mar
12

The courage to screw it up: Made by Hand book review

I can’t say that I’ve ever envisioned myself raising chickens, keeping bees, or building my own guitars, but then neither had Mark Frauenfelder. Then he did it, and wrote a book about it. Frauenfelder is the author of Made by Hand: My Ad

Image source: boingboing.net

ventures in the World of Do-It-Yourself, which floats somewhere between the genres of memoir and how-to. Frauenfelder, one of the co-founders of the blog Boing Boing, recounts how he came to DIY world as part of his job as the editor-in-chief of Make magazine. The book divides into nine chapters plus an introduction and conclusion. Each chapter recounts a new project Frauenfelder takes on from the beginning stages up through the finished product (or nearly finished project anyways; one of the book’s lessons is that there is always some tinkering and learning that can be done.)

Those lessons partly account for why Made by Hand shows up here on a blog about writing. Writing itself is as much of a DIY process as there is out there. Yes, we are made to believe that we “learn” to write in school, but really we just learn the structures of writing and some specific strategies for putting them into practice. The real work of learning to write is done by the individual him/herself, and it takes years to really develop the craft. Even then, the learning process never stops. With that in mind, there is plenty that Frauenfelder has to offer that can be used by writers, beginning and experts.  Continue reading ‘The courage to screw it up: Made by Hand book review’




Good Writer, Bad Writer

Good writer, bad writer reflects the philosophy behind the first writing lesson I attempt to teach students. Too many of them come into college believing that their writing abilities are set in stone. The bad writers continue to struggle, and the good writers don't take enough risks in their writing, figuring that any misstep will throw them back into the "bad writer" category.

Good writer, bad writer is my attempt to break the power of that dichotomy. On here, I share the lessons and attitudes that I teach, but I also talk about the attitudes I have towards my own writing since many of those have informed my own teaching. Thanks for visiting.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 359 other followers

%d bloggers like this: