Next Time, Fail Better

I wanted to share this commentary from the Chronicle of Higher Education
“Next Time, Fail Better” By Paula M. Krebs (May 6, 2012).

I think the point that Krebs makes in this article is worth noting for our own Writing Program pedagogy.  Krebs compares the way that we think (and talk) about writing in the humanities to the ways that other fields characterize their learning processes as “failing (in order) to succeed.”

Krebs explains that while in a great many other fields (like computer programming) students learn fairly quickly that they will have to make multiple tries to succeed, but that in the humanities students still often feel that writing should be an activity that flows, logically and effortlessly from their ideas.   Good thinking = good writing.  But in fact writing, like any consciously “built” process, requires experimentation (and thus failure).

This idea is something that writing process proponents have been saying for years, of course.  Many drafts are needed to get one product that succeeds.  But the point that I’d add here is that in our program we’re (I think) moving beyond admitting that failure is necessary or saying that writing is a “messy” process.   We’re seeking ways to train our minds to DO the experimentation successfully.  Not just to struggle, and write drafts, and erase and then think some more; but to look carefully at how writing is put together in a particular situation. To understand the WHY — why this and not that, why this practice and not that practice.  Why this skill in this setting, but not in this setting.

So rather than saying, “you have to fail to succeed,” we’re trying to lay down a framework that explains how to do the experiments that can help to lead to success.  AND we’re saying, “that work of learning not just to experiment but how to SUCCESSFULLY experiment is the content of this class, and it’s what you’re being graded for.”  But that also means that our rigor in grading comes from the quality of the experimental process (the learning to learn), which, although it can (and will) still lead to failure-of-the-product, can represent a successful learning experience.

That’s an understandably complicated idea — not always easy to explain or act out.  But it’s interesting that it puts us in a location where we can step away from what Krebs seems to feel is a real problem with how folks in the humanities approach their learning.  I also wonder if it’s not that humanities people have trouble failing productively — it’s that they seem to feel that the acts of failing should always take place in the mysterious, dark places in our souls and hearts and minds (in front of the computer screen in the middle of the night).  So we know we have to fail to succeed, but we can’t actually look at how to fail successfully (i.e., to learn), because nobody is supposed to see that man behind the curtain.

The Complexity of Individual Learning

This article from the Chronicle of Higher Education includes an interview with Todd Rose that discusses the complexity of information about individual learning styles.  The article itself is short and moves into discussions of sharing data generated by large-scale learning systems like MOOcs.  But the TED talk embedded there does have relevance for our writing program, as we work to not only individualize and understand individual learning trajectories, but to help students unpack and document their literacy acquisition trajectories.

Confusion is a good thing?

This article, From Inside Higher Ed, might be an important idea for the ways that we teach some of the complicated concepts in our courses.  It talks about the idea that confusion can possibly be an important way to get students to learn:

Program Philosophy

The Illinois State University Writing Program is a progressive organization that works to directly address long-enduring attitudes about writing. With the knowledge that these attitudes are often based on misinformed perceptions of how writing knowledge is actually learned and applied, we hope to constantly question and re-think our goals as students and teachers to create an enduring infrastructure in which the investigation of and research into writing practices is the center of our teaching and learning. Many areas of theory and research—including rhetorical genre studies, systemic functional linguistics, English for Specific Purposes, activity theory, cultural-historical activity theory, actor network theory, theories of community and identity, and writing and cognition—impact our work.

These sections of our Writing Program Instructor’s Guide offer a short overview of the philosophies and concepts that actively shape our pedagogy.

Introduction and Overview:  This document is a basic overview of the courses we teach and our approach to teaching.

Program Philosophies and Concepts: This slightly longer document outlines the important theories, terms and concepts that shape our pedagogy.  It also includes bibliography for further reading.

Within the Writing Program, we strive to meet the following core goals:

  • students learn to produce writing that represents the kind of reflective and critical inquiry necessary to serve responsibly in civic arenas and to succeed in academic and professional contexts;
  • instructors from different areas of English Studies and academic levels prepare to teach writing, continue their education and experience professional growth;
  • members from the local community and the state gain a better understanding of the complex processes and products referred to simply as “writing”;
  • research and creativity thrive;
  • technology is integral, with the Program being the first nationwide to offer all writing classes in computer classrooms;
  • people are friendly and supportive.

White Papers on CHAT and Genre

This page offers links to a variety of documents design to assist instructors in developing a genre studies and cultural-historical activity theory pedagogy for writing instruction.  Some of these documents are designed primarily for instructors to use as they work to better understand and incorporate terms and concepts we use in the program. Others are at least partially designed for students (as handouts) to help them understand or practice important concepts.

Continue reading