Author: Erick Piller

November 2016 Teaching Workshop: Creativity in Critical Writing

It wasn’t too long ago (though, because it took place before the Thanksgiving break, it feels like years have come and gone in the meantime) that FYW held a teaching development workshop on a topic that’s especially dear to my heart, Creativity in Critical Writing. In the workshop, we discussed several important questions, including . . .

  • How has “creativity” been defined, and what different types of creativity can we distinguish?
  • Can creativity be taught? What degree (and what kinds) of creativity can we expect from our students?
  • What do we mean when we say words like “heuristics,” “metacognition,” and “intrinsic motivation,” and what bearing do they have on our teaching?

Here, I’ll touch briefly on the first of these questions. (If you’re interested in any of the others and couldn’t make it to the workshop, you can access my slides here or contact me through email or at the FYW office.) It seems obvious that if we’re going to try to assess the value of creativity in critical writing and in composition courses—and discover how to foster it—we should have a clear idea of what we mean by “creativity.” Unfortunately, most of us don’t have a clear idea, nor can we very easily arrive at one, given the many (often opposed) understandings of and associations with creativity that circulate in culture.

In what follows, I’ll try to parse these various understandings and associations. Bear with me . . .

At the risk of oversimplification, I’ll start by saying that it’s useful to discern three overarching ideologies of creativity:

  1. First, and probably most familiar, is that of creativity as inspiration or Romantic genius, which conjures up images of the artist in the garret.
  2. A second view of creativity understands it to signify progress of some kind, a contribution to a preexisting conversation, the advancement of knowledge—called “normal science” by Thomas S. Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
  3. Third, most recently, creativity has taken on overtones of disruption, innovation, and entrepreneurship: such creativity encompasses revolutionary discourse as well as the discourse of the so-called “creative economy” (see Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class), and it corresponds to Kuhn’s “revolutionary” or “abnormal” science.

In addition, we can divide theories of creativity into another set of three. I’ve labeled these theories individual (cognitive), social (sociocognitive), and material (ecocognitive):

  1. In the first, creativity emerges from the individual: Hamlet sprung from Shakespeare as a product of the writer’s genius. This theory clearly complements the Romantic ideology of creativity.
  2. The second theory, which I call social, builds on the first by adding social forces to the equation—that is to say, creativity emerges not simply from the individual but from the interactions of the individual and society (cultural influences, peer networks, discursive conventions, etc.).
  3. Finally, in a material or ecocognitive framework, all three come together: creativity emerges from the interactions of the individual, society, and material environment. The “material environment” consists of economic, technological, and other constraints and affordances—things like computer software that one can access, or a lack of productive time in the evening due to a punishingly long commute.

I’m partial to this last theory of creativity, as you can imagine. In my opinion, an adequate theory of creativity has to account for the individual and social and material factors—focusing on just one, or even only two of the three, doesn’t cut it.

Finally—and I say “finally” not because I’m approaching the end of the different distinctions that I could parse out, but rather because I’m reaching the limits of how much energy I’d like to devote to this blog entry—it’s worthwhile to attend to the distinction between “Big-C” and “little-c” creativity, to use terminology from the budding field of creativity studies:

  1. To put it simply, little-c creativity refers to the everyday creativity that we all exhibit whenever we confront and solve a minor problem or find that it’s useful for some reason to do something differently than we typically do. Such creativity is subjectively novel: my creative solution may be “new to me,” but not necessarily “new to the world.”
  2. By contrast, Big-C creativity involves that which is objectively novel and, usually, disruptive in some way (in relation to some tradition or convention or whatever else may have preceded it). It is eminent creativity: the creativity of Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, or Marie Curie.
  3. Another type, Pro-C creativity, is objectively novel as well, but it’s contributory, not disruptive—as in the case of “normal science” in the second ideology of creativity described above. I’ll spare you the headache, though.

We could easily go further—the creativity of the artist versus the creativity of the scientist, for example—but I think I’ve made my point. It’s very simple to say, “Maybe I’ll assign a creative project this semester,” or to ask, “How can I enhance my students’ creativity?” or something along those lines. However, if we’re really going to commit to thinking about creativity in (our teaching of) critical writing, we have to first arrive at a clear idea of what we mean when we say “creativity.”

October 2016 Teaching Workshop: Habits of Mind

Educational outcomes in traditional settings focus on how many answers a student knows. When we teach the Habits of Mind, we are interested also in how students behave when they don’t know an answer. . . . We are interested in enhancing the ways students produce knowledge rather than how they merely reproduce it.


—Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick

Last Wednesday, the First-Year Writing Program held another workshop for instructors, this time on “Teaching Habits of Mind.” In individual writing, small-group work, and discussion, those of us in attendance considered an approach to teaching that emphasizes—even more than the written “product” or the writing “process”—the development among students of beneficial “habits of mind”: ways of thinking and being that often prove useful to students in contexts other than the composition classroom. These broadly applicable habits of mind tend to “transfer positively,” unlike a great deal of the learning that occurs as a result of narrow “skills-based” instruction.

Teaching just any set of habits of mind doesn’t cut it, of course. Instead, we must ask which habits of mind would most benefit our students. In our workshop, we compared the list of eight habits of mind highlighted in the 2011 Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing, a joint publication of the Council of Writing Program Administrators, National Council of Teachers of English, and National Writing Project, alongside Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick’s list of habits of mind (quoted in Patrick Sullivan’s A New Writing Classroom: Listening, Motivation, and Habits of Mind). Then, after some thought and reflection, we answered the following questions:

  • If you were tasked with creating a list of habits of mind that instructors should try to develop in the teaching of writing, which would you include? Feel free to borrow from the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing and/or Costa and Kallick’s habits of mind.
  • Which habits of mind do you tend to value most highly as you assess student work? How does student writing evince these habits of mind? (For example, how would a student’s writing demonstrate “openness”?)
  • Which habits of mind does your teaching foster among students? What steps can you take to develop habits of mind more effectively?

I’d encourage all of you to give these questions a try as well: you have my PowerPoint slides here and the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing here. Send us an email to tell us what you’ve come up with!

I’ll start. These sets of habits of mind strike me—not unexpectedly, given that they’re habits of mind—as being very individualistically cognitive, with too little emphasis on the social. (It’s possible to practice different types of “social-mindedness,” with Costa and Kallick’s disposition toward “listening with understanding and empathy” offering one such example.) So I would suggest “generosity” and “always-seeking-out-new-technical-social-and-material-resources-available-to-you” as my additions. Can anyone help me come up with a better term for that second one?

College-Level Writing: Pedagogy and Its Contexts

In his blog, The Write Space, Director of the Connecticut Writing Project Jason Courtmanche thoughtfully commented on Joseph Teller’s recent opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Are We Teaching Composition All Wrong?” Below, we’ve reblogged Jason’s entry (which you can find in its original habitat here)—

College-Level Writing: Pedagogy and Its Contexts

One of the issues I deal with frequently is the question of college-level writing. Pat Sullivan’s two books—What Is ‘College-Level’ Writing, Volumes 1 and 2, the current College Ready Writers Grant we hold at our site, the MLA Working Group on K-16 Alliances, the Connecticut College Readiness Program on the Teaching of Writing at the University of St. Joseph, UConn’s Early College Experience English program are all books, grants, working groups, committees and programs I have been involved in recently that deal directly with this question. And while I feel the work I do in these endeavors is productive, I think all of my colleagues and I still often feel like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in his majority opinion on the first amendment case Jacobellis vs. Ohio: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it …”

Unfortunately, if we want to successfully communicate to students, and teachers, an understanding of college-level writing, we have to define it.

Monday’s edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education contained a wonderfully provocative article by Joseph Teller, titled “Are We Teaching Composition All Wrong?” In this piece, Teller announces that ten years of failed attempts to teach his students how to write effectively have led him to lose faith in a process-based pedagogy, courses that are focused on thematic issues rather than rhetorical modes, and the inclusion of reading instruction in the writing classroom. Instead, Teller advocates a return to a Current-Traditionalist focus on product, teacher-centered instruction, and the nuts and bolts of paragraphing and sentence structure.

Teller does advocate for lots of writing and lots of (teacher) feedback. But he says content should be left to the specialists (history professors should teach history, sociology professors should teach sociology, etc.), reading instruction should be left to, well, he doesn’t say exactly, but not to the composition instructor, and any sort of peer feedback should just be jettisoned. Most students “ignore their classmates’ suggestions. And more often than not, when they do revise based on peer feedback, it’s often unhelpful and inexperienced advice.”

Reading through the article, I disagreed with many things. Teller insists his students will not revise, but I find little difficulty getting mine to do so. He writes that his students have an aversion to reading, and while I find that the digital age has put a serious crimp on traditional reading practices, my students aren’t averse to reading. I also think Teller creates some unnecessary dichotomies that aren’t helpful.

Reading the comments, I’d have to say that a PhD clearly has no correlation with civility in public discourse. (Interesting in light of this other article I read in the New York Times about promoting civil discourse in teenagers!). The meanness and snarkiness was shocking. One of the blandest comments I read was from a man who simply said he’d like to hear more about the context of Professor Teller’s classes.

A little close reading and a little online research will tell you this much: College of the Sequoias, where Teller teaches, is a community college in the San Joaquin Valley, and is the only public college in the area. Many residents are farm workers and almost half are Latinos. Nearly 20% of the population live at or below the poverty line. Teller has about 100 students each semester in four sections of introductory composition. Not exactly compatible with the student population or the teaching load at UConn.

I still disagree with much of what Teller writes, but context truly is everything. One of my principal conclusions is that the man needs fewer students. Even picking up two extra First-Year Experience classes, I only have 47 students this semester. If I were not an administrator and just taught two Writing Intensive courses, my load would be capped at 38. Teller writes that he requires all of his students to submit a short argumentative essay, and receive feedback from him, not peers, within the first two weeks. Even if each of his students writes no more than a page, that’s 100 pages of reading and response in fourteen days.

I suspect that the situation in the local high schools (there are five) isn’t much better.

I think the underlying truth here has less to do with pedagogy’s relationship to college-readiness and more to do with poverty’s relationship to the issue.

September 2016 Teaching Workshop: Assignment Development

The moving force of inquiry is the existence of questions that are posable relative to the “body of knowledge” of the day but not answerable within it. Inquiry sets afoot a process of a cyclic form . . .

—Nicholas Rescher, Process Philosophy, p. 65

Yesterday, the First-Year Writing Program facilitated a workshop on assignment development for instructors. It was a nicely attended event, with a healthy balance of new and seasoned instructors.

I had been charged with preparing materials for the event, a task to which I’d responded with gusto—or, rather, absurd thoroughgoingness. (A deadline for a dissertation chapter was looming, and what better way to procrastinate than to compose several pages of single-spaced text on assignment design? I’ve already watched Stranger Things.) But despite the wealth of handouts that I’d brought, I was quickly reminded that a dozen heads seeking advanced degrees are better than one, especially re: assignment development. Which is all to say, the participants blew me away with their great ideas.

I’d like to share all of them with you. But because workshops and freewheeling discussions don’t lend themselves to clear, concise recounting, and because I’d like to conclude this post someplace south of 5,000 words, I’m going to focus on just one of the many threads that we followed yesterday.

One of the most important points was, perhaps unsurprisingly in retrospect, also one of the most fundamental: if we hope to design better assignments, we must arrive at a fuller understanding of what student writing is, what it’s for, and what the relationship is between student writing and that genre of instructor writing that we call assignments. Of course, student writing is writing by students—but it’s writing by students as students, specifically for occasions occasioned by the instructor (and often by the instructor’s writing, in an assignment sheet, for example). In a sense, then, it’s as much the instructor who generates student writing as it is the student—but only in a funny, PoMo theory kind of way.

Or not? “As much” may be too much, granted. But while it’s often, and obviously rightly, the student to whom we ascribe the “genesis” of student writing, our discussion yesterday brought to light just how central of a role the instructor’s assignment sheet plays in bringing student writing into being—and in influencing the shape that the student’s writing will ultimately take. There’s a call and response relationship between the two genres, the assignment and the student’s academic essay. If, as an instructor, you find yourself grumbling about a poor batch of essays by your students, you might consider revisiting the assignment that you devised; maybe it’s there that the issue began. Equally, a carefully crafted assignment not only tends to lead to more insightful, interesting, ambitious essays, but it also models for students what a good project is. (A couple of participants pointed out during our discussion yesterday that “good” in this case has to do with disciplinary conventions. One field’s criteria for “goodness” will differ from another’s.) This knowledge—what a good project is—isn’t as intuitive as we sometimes think, particularly for college freshmen who don’t regularly read, say, PMLA or College English.

There’s a balance, however, between modeling a good project and allowing room for originality, creativity, movement of thought. (Then too, at a more selfish level, most composition instructors don’t find it thrilling to read twenty nearly identical versions of a single essay.) We discussed some practical aspects of this balancing act: allowing students to select one or more of the texts that they examine, or having them begin with feeder assignments like project proposals. But what seemed most crucial was the rule of thumb that assignment sequences should both be responsive to what’s going on in class (the ideas, the writing, the conversations of the class) and be structured in such a way and with such flexibility that, if a student offers a fascinating and/or useful contribution to the course’s inquiry in an essay, that contribution isn’t born on the page only to die on the page: instead, that great idea or insight (or whatever) goes on to circulate throughout the class, changing the trajectory of the course’s knowledge-seeking.

Consequently, we can extend our little formula from before:

An instructor’s writing (in an assignment prompt) occasions a student’s writing (in an essay)—yet this same student writing should also occasion the instructor’s writing (subsequent assignment prompts, lesson plans, etc.).

David Bartholomae has already taught us, in “Writing Assignments: Where Writing Begins,” that student writing typically does—and, if students are to learn from us, must—spring from the assignments that we write. What was perhaps most vital about yesterday’s discussion was the recognition by many participants that, from a still more encompassing perspective, this dynamic isn’t a one-way street. Rather, assignments facilitate a “process of cyclic form,” to quote Nicholas Rescher, in which every act of writing, whether by student or instructor, gives shape to the next.