Time and Space for Meaningful Invention
In my first-year writing course, the most important and heavily weighted assignment by far is the research paper. We spend the most time on it in class and student-teacher conferences, and the students invest far more time and energy into the paper than they do in anything else they write. Because students spend so much time thinking about their topic, plumbing the depths of online library databases for scholarly sources, and articulating their stance on the issue they choose, you would think that I and other writing instructors would be more concerned about how they arrive at this topic that they will be married to for the better part of a month. Instead, as I rushed to an early first draft of the paper, I found myself falling into a trap which I had experienced time and time again from the student end—the instructor tells students to choose a topic out of the blue and then just a few days later makes them write an eight- to ten-page draft about it. There are thousands of potential topics that the students could write on, and even if the teacher narrows the prompt down to two or three subfields there are still hundreds of possible angles on research areas such as the Syrian refugee crisis, social media and politics, etc. How then do we help students arrive at a topic which they are interested in as we walk the fine line between allowing unlimited choice and assigning the same topic to everyone (knowing half the class or more will push back against it)? Invention, broadly defined, is foundationally important to their entire experience writing any given assignment. We as instructors cannot meaningfully invent for our students, so we have to find a way to draw it out of them.
Invention in the writing classroom is widely discussed by rhetoric and composition scholars because success at this beginning phase of the writing process underlies success throughout the process. But much of the conversation limits itself to rehashing the same basic activities with minor tweaks and semantical differences—is it an outline? A prewrite? A throwaway first draft? When outlining should students use Roman numerals, bubbles, or index cards? Though quick outlines and low-stakes first drafts are undoubtedly helpful, the common pitfall they share is that uninterested writers can complete these assignments without much thought and without spending hardly any time on them. A meaningful invention process always takes more than thirty minutes to an hour, especially for an inexperienced writing student fresh out of high school. We as instructors encourage students to look within themselves to find a topic that interests them, but we take for granted that students know how to enact the kind of introspection which bridges the gap between personal interest or passion and the academic setting in which such interests can lead to meaningful commentary on an ongoing critical conversation. Judy says that “the best student writing is motivated by personal feelings and experience” and that “students of all ages have a wide range of experiences that can serve as the starting point for writing,” yet we rarely give students the tools to draw from the experiences they have (39). I suggest the implementation of an invention journal, a regular at-home assignment taking place over multiple weeks prior to the beginning of the research paper unit and wherein students practice prolonged introspection and conduct initial research into an area of interest, culminating in a topic which they have come to themselves and of which they have already begun to develop a nuanced understanding before they even complete a traditional draft or paper outline. I focus on the research paper genre in this discussion because it is so common in writing programs generally, however, the invention journal may work towards the development of a topic for virtually any genre. Furthermore, in a syllabus in which assignments are weighted in terms of increasing difficulty, I recommend using an invention journal on the most heavily weighted assignment of the course, which in many cases is a research paper.
Glenn and Goldthwaite offer a helpful (albeit short) summary of journal writing as invention process, including a snippet on research journals during the drafting process, it seems, and not specifically for topic invention. I wish to expand the conversation by turning to ideas and concepts advocated formerly by the expressivist school of pedagogy which reverberate today for their focus on the student writer and his or her engagement with the writing process. As Fulkerson notes in his survey of the school of thought, the central value of expressivist practices lies in their aim to lead to “greater self-awareness, greater insight, increased creativity, or therapeutic clarification of some sort” (668). Unfortunately, sometimes as instructors we do little to provoke self-awareness in the invention or outlining phases of the writing process, choosing instead to hammer on hastily chosen topics which the student may have no motivation to see past its initial inception. In Burnham’s influential chapter on the subject, he claims that “expressivism places the writer in the center, articulates its theory, and develops its pedagogical system by assigning highest value to the writer and her imaginative, psychological, social, and spiritual development and how that development influences individual consciousness and social behavior” (Fulkerson 667). If we sanitize writing projects to the point that we are more concerned with introductions and topic sentences then with the writer himself and herself, we have go beyond the mark. I assert that as students pursue their interest(s) over a period of time, they will be better situated to research for and write a ten-page research paper which 1) they feel actually invested in, and 2) can help them forge their academic/professional identity and begin to find their place in their area of interest.
I was already toying with the idea of introspective writing when I began to notice my students’ struggles with topic invention at the beginning of the research paper unit. Intending to direct my students to genres of writing which they could continue after our short sixteen weeks together, regardless of their academic and career path, I required my students to write in a personal journal, four times a week for four weeks. I discuss the students’ engagement with this assignment because it brings to bear on my proposition of keeping an invention journal. Their response to the personal journal assignment was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. The most frequent feedback I received was that they enjoyed the opportunity (or requirement) to reflect on their day and their life in a way they would not have done on their own. One student said that he became “more aware of [his] surroundings” and “liked reading thoughts that [he] didn’t want to forget.” Another said that it was a “good way for [her] to put things in perspective and get things out on paper,” precisely what we want from any invention activity. Finally, another student said that keeping a regular journal “helped [her] get more analytical of art—I dedicated part of my journal to comic reviews to try to be… a better producer.” This student had seized upon the practice of a consistent writing habit to develop her analytical skills in an area in which she harbored a great interest (and she used those analytical skills in another major assignment that semester). In every case, students became more reflective about their lives and more mindful of the way in which they responded to various life situations.
I wanted to harness this regular introspective power to help students invent a topic which they considered to be worth writing about and worth investing time in. In consulting with my students about potential ways I could do this in a future class setting, I changed and honed my idea and my expectations into a format that I thought would be most serviceable to students. My initial vision for the assignment as a current events journal proved to be ineffective in the drafting stage for a variety of reasons. For one, I was reminded of how tedious such assignments always seemed to me, and my students echoed my concern. As Glenn and Goldthwaite point out, in journal assignments instructors must “discourage generalizing and opining unless the opinion can be tied to some actual experience in the student’s life” (174). Students will be more engaged as they understand that they are active participants tracking events and issues which they have a say about, rather than passive observers completing a school assignment. Additionally, multiple students in the class commented that “news outlets may not specifically address a topic that actually interests the students that they could find just by doing research” and, what was even more interesting to me, that “I’d have harder opinions on current events BUT I chose my topic because no one was talking about it on a large scale—and I feel like it was more important than people consider it to be.” I hadn’t accounted for the fact that the news cycle itself would disproportionately recommend a few interesting stories and I would be left with the same problem, that is, too meager a pool of politically-charged potential topics that many students would inevitably lack interest in.
One of the key motivators of the invention journal project is its utility in reducing pressure on the students to write on a topic which they do not care about but which they think the instructor does. Perl writes that when students take this kind of projective structuring to the extreme, they “focus on what they think others want them to write rather than looking to see what it is they want to write. As a result, they often ignore their felt sense and they do not establish a living connection between themselves and their topic” (368). The invention journal helps mediate this problem in various ways. First, the journal is almost exclusively for the student’s personal use and benefit, checked by the instructor regularly only to confirm completion of the task. When the student knows that the instructor will not be scrutinizing their invention process they will be freer to pursue what they want, to take risks, and make mistakes in a setting comfortable enough that they can effectively learn from them. It is important still that the student knows that eventually the topic they decide to pursue will become a research paper draft which will be carefully examined by the instructor and by their peers. As Nancy Sommers writes, “The anticipation of a reader’s judgment causes a feeling of dissonance when the writer recognizes incongruities between intention and execution, and requires these writers to make revisions” (385). While the crucial end goal is always in sight, the student writers will have the time and space they need to develop a topic in a way meaningful to them, rather than a way which they think will most please the instructor. As Nathan Redman says, quoted in The St. Martin’s Guide to Teaching Writing 7E, “it’s less important that what [students] write about be timely or weighty than that it be something—big, small, or in between—which enlivens them, because that will in turn enliven their prose” (163). Enlivened prose is the holy grail of every writing instructor, but if we want to attain it, we need to do more to first enliven our students.
We know that once students have written a full draft, especially a substantial draft, they are almost always unwilling to start completely anew if they find that their topic does not work or does not appeal to them as much as they thought it would. The adage is that necessity is the mother of invention, and from a writing standpoint this is usually true. Many if not most students choose a topic because they need to, because the instructor has placed some kind of deadline regarding topic exploration or a first draft, and when the clock runs out they need a topic—any topic. The benefit of allowing writers to stew over a topic or several over the course of a few weeks accomplishes two things: first, after putting consistent thought and time into one possible route, the student is still in a position early on that they can change their direction without sacrificing potentially up to a ten-page draft about something else. Sommers asserts that student writers need to experience “a sense of writing as discovery—a repeated process of beginning over again, starting out new” (387). We do not afford our students enough time to discover and to fail, especially understanding that our writing class is probably not the only class the student is taking and the prospect of “beginning over again” in the midst of rapidly accumulating homework may seem impossible to them. Second, instead of necessity and instructor expectations coercing invention, the writer’s natural thought processes over time lead to the invention. To this point, Thomas Merton reminds us that “[t]he purpose of education is to show a person how to define himself authentically and spontaneously in relation to the world—not to impose a prefabricated definition of the world” (Burnham 20). We facilitate this process by allowing time and creative space for spontaneity and authenticity—authentic discovery as well as authentic failure and recovery.
I see the carrying out of the invention journal assignment as initially broad in scope, with the instructor being able to specify or generalize according to the needs of the class. For example, the task may be posed in extremely general terms by requiring simply that students think about or muse over a potential topic for fifteen to thirty minutes a day, four days a week, for four weeks. The instructor may see more value in structuring the assignment slightly more, requiring perhaps that one week students write creatively on any issue that interests them or bothers them, the next week following news media outlets to see what people are saying about the issue. In this case, students will have already chosen a topic independent of a politically skewed news channel, and if their topic is hardly represented in the news, then that is information in itself. (Of course, students must be encouraged to look beyond the front page, and in the subsections of online news sites they are bound to find something at least approximating their topic.) I would recommend that part of this invention phase require students to conduct initial research into scholarly journals for their topic, because the critical conversation about the issue will probably constitute the last familiar portion of the assignment to them.
Just as my students worked towards a grander perspective on their day-to-day life through the personal journal, the invention journal will help them to come to terms, critically, with an issue of interest with an ongoing conversation they want to contribute to. We should not only understand but embrace the limitations of a four-month class and the inevitable drop-off in critical thinking which happens after finals end and winter or summer break comes around. What tools are we giving our students to continue practicing good writing and rhetoric after the final exam? If we assign a supposedly one-size-fits-all topic, many students will fail to establish a living connection with it, and some will even resent it. Likewise, if we rush the invention phase, many will rush to an obvious topic which they think we want them to write about (especially for freshman who are brand new to university expectations and curricula). Professionals who write largely cover issues or events that interest them—even a football-favoring sportswriter asked to write about a basketball event, for example, has a living connection he or she willfully established with the sports world which motivates him or her and engages him or her in the task at hand. We do not teach invention simply as a means to getting a single topic to write one paper about; rather, invention is a professional skill which serves people of all career paths, both in the creation of a professional identity and scope of interest and in the approaching of various tasks over the course of a career.
I want to reiterate the primary reasons for engaging students in the invention journal assignment: first, to give them real time and space to decide on a topic which compels and excites them. Second, to prepare them for professional situations when they will be called upon to contribute to ongoing conversations about which they have not only interest but familiarity. As we provide students this creative environment, the most drastic benefits will come in their experience of engaging themselves in a conversation they can own, rather than simply filling ten pages by making an unoriginal claim surrounded by fluff and sources. We must first enliven and embolden the writer, encouraging consistent introspection, before we expect their written work to truly grow out of their passions and interests.
Burnham, Christopher. “Expressive Pedagogy: Practice/Theory, Theory/Practice.” A Guide to Composition Pedagogies, edited by Gary Tate, Amy Rupiper, and Kurt Schick, Oxford UP, 2001, pp. 19-35.
Fulkerson, Richard. “Composition at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 56, no. 4, 2005, pp. 654-687. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30037890.
Glenn, Cheryl and Goldthwaite, Melissa A.. The St. Martin’s Guide to Teaching Writing. 7th ed. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1995.
Judy, Stephen. “The Experiential Approach: Inner Worlds to Outer Worlds.” Eight Approaches to Teaching Composition, edited by Timothy R. Donovan and Ben W. McClelland, NCTE, 1980, pp. 37-51.
Perl, Sondra. “Understanding Composing.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 31, no. 4, 1980, pp. 363-369. JSTOR, doi: 10.2307/356586
Sommers, Nancy. “Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 31, no. 4, 1980, pp. 378-388. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/356588.