I've got nothing.

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This blog almost didn’t happen.   I came to 8:45 on the evening it was due with no clue what I wanted to write about.   I was not particularly stressed about this; after all, I knew the editors at Bedford Bits would understand.  I could just email them—I’ve got nothing this week.  There would be no consequences to my pay or a grade.  Maybe my vanity would take a hit when I admitted I had no insights worth sharing, but I knew I would recover in a couple of weeks.

I had spent much of the prior week working on an analysis of reflective writing, a project that my colleagues Jackie Ridley (Kent State University) and Madison Dashner (independent scholar) and I were taking from conference poster to journal article.   We were befuddled by some of the language choices that students in our study had produced in assigned reflections, regardless of the context (writing tutors, pre-service teachers, syntax students):   Their word choice and syntactic structures appeared to work as hedges, keeping them distant from their learning experiences as well as conclusions about what happened during those experiences.

We wondered if the pressure to produce a reflection (with a required word count) by a specific deadline might actually be working against the kind of reflective practice we hoped to inculcate.  In their efforts to produce “insights on demand,” perhaps students resisted more direct language choices.  And I wondered how we would have responded if, instead, students had submitted a single line: “Sorry, Dr. Moore.  I got nothing on this right now.”

Of course, the reflective questions we asked made such answers unlikely, and our questions were made with the best of intentions—to push students towards habitual questioning and a consistent reflective practice. 

I have to ask, do we expect more from students than we expect from ourselves?  I had no problem telling my editor that I had nothing.  In contrast, when one of my advanced syntax students “reflected” that he had found the exercise straightforward and easy, I badgered him about making connections and meeting the wordcount.  In short, I demanded that he be “more reflective.”  Looking back at his answers to the exercises, I found his initial response was completely appropriate—he knew what he was doing.  I am working with that same student again this term in a different context; he stops by my office regularly to talk through what’s happening in his work as a supplemental instructor.  He clearly practices reflection. I wonder what might have happened if I had trusted his initial response in my syntax class?

Most of my corequisite writers compose bland reflections.  In her classic Reflection in the Writing Classroom, Kathleen Yancey speaks of a writer who does not know her own text, who cannot assess her own text. I often see this lack of knowledge in my corequisite writers: their reflections become springboards for conversations about texts.  When they tell me they don’t know how to answer my reflection questions, I usually ask more.

My advanced students, however, generally use reflections over the course of the term, not so much to talk about their understanding of content but to assess their own learning.  Many of them conclude the term by talking about the need to trust the process, trust themselves, and to not overthink or panic.  So yes, I think reflections are valuable teaching and learning tools.  But I have questions about when and how I assign and respond to them.

If “I’ve got nothing on this right now” is a legitimate response (and I think it is), what, then, is a teacher’s best answer?

I’ve got nothing on that right now.  Give me a little more time to reflect.

About the Author
Miriam Moore is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Georgia. She teaches undergraduate linguistics and grammar courses, developmental English courses (integrated reading and writing), ESL composition and pedagogy, and the first-year composition sequence. She is the co-author with Susan Anker of Real Essays, Real Writing, Real Reading and Writing, and Writing Essentials Online. She has over 20 years experience in community college teaching as well. Her interests include applied linguistics, writing about writing approaches to composition, professionalism for two-year college English faculty, and threshold concepts for composition, reading, and grammar.