The Good Company of Fellow Writers

april_lidinsky
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Paperback book flatlay on wooden table open to McPhee's piece Draft No.4.jpg

Instructors have different views, understandably, on how much of themselves to disclose in the classroom. I hope, though, we all see value in revealing ourselves as fellow writers, rather than the people who simply create assignments and respond to them. 

I’ve played the song “Tub-Thumping” by the band Chumbawamba in class sometimes, with its rousing and danceable chorus, “I get knocked down, but I get up again …” That’s certainly how the drafting and revision process can feel, even to those of us who have, well, been knocked down plenty. Students should know that is what it’s like to be a writer. How often have you spoken with your students about your own writing process and the inevitable struggles that come with it?

I appreciated a recent “Tiny Teaching Story” by Xinquang Li, in which the classroom is re-imagined as a “tea house.” Li describes the way students’ eyes “light up” when we really engage them as people. Consider those golden moments in your classroom when a conversation achieves “lift-off.” Usually, that happens when students stop lobbing comments just to you—the artificial ping-pong of question-and-answer—and start really engaging with one another. And that can only happen when we are humble enough to share power in the classroom. When I achieve that conversational magic in the classroom, I thank bell hooks, whose inspiration to consider the classroom a “radical space of possibility” is the wisest teaching advice I’ve ever received. 

At this point in the semester or quarter, most students are deep into revision, and are probably new to meta-cognitive reflection on this process. That takes practice! Channeling our best bell hooks and Xinquang Li, we might reflect, ourselves, on whether our classroom revision conversation is a substantive discussion that values peers as fellow writers rather than the old instructor → student dynamic of “correction.”  

In our book, From Inquiry to Academic Writing my co-author, Stuart Greene, and I offer steps for peer-workshop groups, easily adapted to online formats, to empower students to take ownership of this process:

  • The writer distributes copies of the draft to each member of the writing group (ideally, the group should not exceed four students.)
  • The writer distributes a cover letter, setting an agenda for the group. For example, the cover letter might describe what the writer believes the strengths of the paper are and what could use some improvement.
  • The members read the cover letter.
  • The writer then reads the draft aloud, while members follow along, underlining passages and making notes to prepare themselves to discuss the draft.
  • Members ask questions that help the writer identify concepts that need further elaboration or clarification.
  • Discussion focuses on the strengths and weaknesses of the draft, appropriate to the state of writing and the writer’s concerns. (Even in the early stage, readers and the writer should sustain discussion for at least ten minutes before the next student takes a turn as a writer.) 

While what happens in peer-workshop groups may not unfold as organically as a conversation over fragrant cups of tea, these guidelines move students through the dynamics of engaging with one another seriously as thinkers and writers. To me, this is the essence of bell hooks’ vision of the classroom as a “radical space of possibility.” 

On revision days in class, I conclude with a talk-back session to hear that patterns that emerge from peer workshops. Just as students find they are in good company with their struggles (Why are opening and closing paragraphs so challenging, for example?), I often reveal my own writerly struggles in those discussions (I also struggle with openings and closings and lean on trusted friends and editors for help).

Since we all enjoy good company, I recommend reading or re-reading John McPhee’s classic “Draft No. 4”  (perhaps with “Tub-Thumping” playing in the background). If a prolific writer of McPhee’s caliber can “get knocked down” but “get up again”—with humility and wry humor—so can we all, as fellow travelers on the writer’s journey.

 

Photo by April Lidinsky (2023).

About the Author
April Lidinsky (PhD, Literatures in English, Rutgers) is Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Indiana University South Bend. She has published and delivered numerous conference papers on writing pedagogy, women's autobiography, and creative nonfiction, and has contributed to several textbooks on writing. She has served as acting director of the University Writing Program at Notre Dame and has won several awards for her teaching and research including the 2015 Indiana University South Bend Distinguished Teaching Award, the 2017 Indiana University South Bend Eldon F. Lundquist Award for excellence in teaching and scholarly achievement, and the All-Indiana University 2017 Frederic Bachman Lieber Memorial Award for Teaching Excellence.