Reflective Writing

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If you had to pick one learning goal for students in the writing classes you teach that is most important, which would it be?

  • Rhetorical awareness?
  • Critical thinking and composing?
  • Knowledge of conventions as it relates to genre, purpose, and audience?
  • Something else entirely?
  • All of the above?

Of course any approach to a question like this absolutely hinges on a deeper philosophical question at the core of composition studies. Simply stated: what is the purpose of a writing class?

I’m a novelist. My wife is a scholar. Many of our dinner table conversations (arguments? debates?) can be traced back to this very question.

At its heart, the seven years she and I and Roy Stamper spent co-authoring An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing (or “IGAW,” as I like to call it) was a quest of sorts to answer this question. We asked scholars from across the spectrum of higher education to talk about writing. We searched within our own experiences in the classroom, drew from examples of student work, asked ourselves tough questions regarding our own teaching philosophies. I know Susan constantly thinks about the place of first-year writing in the broader mission of a university and as part of public discourse as a whole.

I’ve come to realize if you don’t process what you’ve studied, if you don’t pause to make meaning from experience and knowledge gained, can you ever truly say you’ve learned anything?

When I’m working on the draft of a novel, I keep a file running with my notes in it. In the earliest stages of my process, this file often takes the form of a section simply titled “Notes” at the end of a working draft. The audience for the “Notes” is me. It’s where I try to make sense of what I’m doing. Sometimes I’ll freewrite for five or ten minutes reflecting on what a character has done previously and what that might suggest about her motivation and the decisions she’ll make later to come in the novel.

It’s a messy bunch of scribbling, but it’s kind of beautiful in its way, too, because it is where logic is pressed, where optimism and pessimism battle, where life and death and who I am and why I am here vie for attention. And no one else will ever read those notes other than me.

So why do I do it? Why do I scribble and sketch and believe that it somehow matters?

Because it does. It makes me better. It contributes to completion and happiness. The act of reflecting on what I’ve written and what I’ve learned and what I should do moving forward is the most important way – I’m inclined to argue the only way – that I can see that I can improve my writing. It’s what I’ve tried to do book after book: examine my life and the choices I’m making and how those choices reflect in the prism that is a novel.

We’ve all heard published novelists espouse the belief that you can only get better by reading and writing a lot. And it’s true. Reading and writing exhaustively is essential.  But the cognitive process that contributes most to improvement during the act of reading and writing is reflection.

In the writing classroom, reflection takes many forms big and small. This semester I’m book-ending my English 101A classes at the University of Arizona with a literacy narrative as the opening project and an end-of-semester reflective essay at the course’s conclusion.

In between, we’ll examine writing in the disciplines via a research topic proposal, a primary research logbook, and an academic poster session. All of these will be supported by rhetorical principles with a keen eye on the WPA Outcomes Statement along the way.

Susan asked me last night for a quotation about writing. It was a Tuesday night, and she was working on something important on her computer. The kids were in bed, and we had a fire burning in the fireplace of our living room.

“I need something fairly famous that is inspiring,” she said.

“Well, I don’t know about famous, but you can quote me on this: Writing is life.”

She snorted. It might’ve been a guffaw. I’m pretty sure she wasn’t overly impressed.  I should have quoted something pithy by Mark Twain, perhaps.

But the reality is, to me at least, writing is life. The two are inextricably linked like the threads and dyes that make a tapestry. To examine and reflect on your writing is to examine your life.

When I began my professional career as a teacher of writing, I used to dread reading student evaluations. It hurt. Students can use those things to vent. Over time my views of student evaluations have changed. I look for consensus. I look for ways to improve. I confess to my students on Day 1 that I will try to learn at least as much from them as they’ll learn from me (and from one another) in the semester to come.

And every semester I do learn. I add an activity or an article I’ve discovered or a lesson plan or, best of all, an unanticipated exchange with a student to the three-pound synaptic storm residing between my ears. I write in discussion forums alongside my students in low-stakes reflective ways throughout the semester. I’m sometimes encouraged to write a blog about it.

And through it all I think I’ve improved. I think my craft and voice as a writer and as a teacher have seasonally aged into something approximating worth and value.

Yesterday in my afternoon English 101A class I asked my students how many of them had ever kept a journal or diary. Only one hand shot up.

We’d been discussing an article titled “Reflective Writing: a Management Skill” that reported the findings of an empirical study measuring reflective writing against a list of eight outcomes using a statistical model of analysis. The data was pretty clear. Reflective writing contributed to development of students’ skills with the outcomes.

I had one of those moments where I realized reflective writing was not something my students had practiced much. Too often first-year students view academic writing as a singular genre: a five-paragraph essay, a thesis statement, a few citations thrown in for good measure. What else is there to learn?

I said to them, “I think the big take-away for me from reading this article is just how rich and varied reflective writing is. It’s a skill just as much as any other, and the more you practice it, the better you’ll get.”

A few heads nodded.

“So what I want you guys to do for today’s discussion forum writing is take a look at the list of outcomes discussed in the article and choose one you feel you will improve on the most by way of writing your literacy narrative. What does the outcome mean to you? And why is that particular outcome the one you feel you’ll improve on the most?”

It took them a couple of minutes. They had to read over the list closely and really think about what the outcomes meant. Things like critical review, actual self-development, knowledge of one’s own mental functions, decision making, academic learning, empowerment and emancipation.

I could see in a few of their eyes a sort of fixed gaze as their brains considered what the outcomes meant. Some of them froze there for a moment as if reflecting on a spot on the wall ten feet away.

And then they began to write.

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Stacey Cochran is the bestselling author of Eddie & Sunny. He has taught First-Year Writing for nearly twenty years at East Carolina University, Mesa Community College, North Carolina State University, and most recently the University of Arizona. He lives in Tucson with his wife Susan Miller-Cochran and their two kids Sam and Harper. He is currently at work trying futilely to overcome his impostor syndrome.

About the Author
Stacey Cochran is a Lecturer teaching academic writing at the University of Arizona. Before that, he taught for nine years in the First-Year Writing Program at North Carolina State University. He has also taught academic and creative writing at East Carolina University and Mesa Community College (AZ). He earned his M.A. in English from East Carolina University in 2001 with a concentration in Creative Writing. He was finalist for the 1998 Dell Magazines Award, a 2004 finalist for the St. Martin's Press/PWA Best First Private Eye Novel Contest, and finalist for the 2011 James Hurst Prize for fiction. He is an experienced videographer and interviewer who was the host of The Artist's Craft, a television show in Raleigh which featured interviews with many bestselling authors and literary scholars.