Rumination, Research, and Revision:
Composition through Essay and Inquiry
Cassie Keller Cole
My course emphasized rumination, research, revision. Students read classical essays from Quotidiana.org, short essays from Brevity (an online literary magazine), and other essays selected from The Best American Essays, Short Takes, The Next American Essay, and contemporary literary journals available through the library databases or copied for them into Blackboard. We began each class with a rushwrite that used the reading as a starting point. We considered all readings in terms of the questions What does this teach us about writing? and How can we apply it to what we are doing here and in the future? We continually explored the question What makes good writing? At the end of the semester, each student created a list of writing values based off of a broader class compilation and then heavily revised their work in hopes of achieving those standards. During the semester students were required to submit their work to a public venue outside of class such as a journal or contest.
My students wrote personal essays. We discussed Montaigne’s “attempts” and “trials” as the first examples of explorative, inquisitive writing. The students incorporated research, analysis, and meditation in their writing in order to probe into the questions surrounding them. Early on in the class we addressed the fact that not all college or life writing is in the genre of personal essay, but we agreed that learning to write with personal investment would enable them to find ways to care about other writing assignments and make their work worthwhile beyond simply handing it into a teacher.
The students completed three main essays and a final portfolio and presentation. With each major assignment, students met in small workshops twice. I provided extensive comments for both revisions, but only directed one of the workshops outside of class.
In the short (500-700 word maximum) essay students critically analyzed a question or quotidian topic to challenge the way they think, make connections, and impose meaning on the world around them. Because of its length, this first major assignment allowed us to focus on word choice, syntax, and prosody, learning how every punctuation mark, word, sentence, and paragraph build upon each other to form an essay. The purpose of this assignment is to harness students’ grasp on precise language so that it conveys critical and meaningful thinking. We discussed and honed these skills throughout the semester, but this first essay provides a good starting point. Such a short assignment aids students in delving into the course material and writing from their first day in class and establishes an expectation for high-quality work; it also proves to them that they are capable of meeting that challenge.
Students then wrote a short (three page) analysis of a single word within a contemporary rhetorical situation (such as an advertisement, a song, or an essay or article). Students researched the word’s history, denotations and connotations, then argued how the word they chose detracts from or enhances its context.
The last major paper of the semester was a meditative research essay (8-10 pages). Students began with a question that intrigued them in some way, then researched in hopes of exhausting as many aspects of that question as they could. Students were instructed to write without a specific solution in mind; instead they wrote toward a deeper understanding of a subject and then revised extensively. This assignment combines the skills practiced throughout the semester and demands that students delve deeply into a subject that is meaningful to them, demonstrating an awareness of form and challenging their own and cultural assumptions. In this essay, students seek to communicate their process of discovery and thought without being didactic. This type of writing is challenging, but enables a student to push beyond formulaic boundaries and analyze a subject with an intimate awareness of audience.
In addition to the major papers and small rushwrites, my students contributed to a class blog. Each week they responded to one of three prompts and commented on at least two other students’ posts. The purpose of the blogging-journal was to encourage them to write consistently and often. I expressed my hope that they would be able to delve into what matters to them and discover how to articulate those concerns. The prompts ranged from revision practices to class evaluations, letters to analyses. The responses were generally well done and always interesting. (See ruminationresearchwriting.blogspot.com).
Students spent the final two and a half weeks of the semester collecting and refining a final portfolio. This included all of their major papers, a 300 word reflection of their submission process and experience, and four of their favorite journal assignments. All of this needed to be at least superficially revised. The paper that they submitted to a public sphere and their journal assignments needed to be substantially revised. After doing this, they bound their pieces in a creative and professional way that enhanced the work. Some students collected their writing within themes or under a defining title. A few students included photo collages that matched their subject matter. One student turned his into an origami structure because his substantially revised essay was about learning to fold paper. Another bound his with large slabs of wood and bolts, suggesting that his writing of the semester was a blend of the natural and mechanical world. On the day of the final, students gave a presentation on their work and defended the decisions that they had made in forming their portfolio. The purpose of the project was to make their work more meaningful for them in a personal way and show that the skills they gained in class extended beyond the four walls of the room we shared. In submitting their work and compiling portfolios, students discovered that they really do approach their writing differently when they think others could be reading it.
My students knew from the first day that this was an experimental course. We openly discussed that much of the writing they do outside of class is rhetorical in nature, but that they also need to better understand (and be personally invested in) genre, style, and their responsibility as contributors to society. Writing should be more than an exercise or a first-year course. I wanted students to realize that their work can (and should) be valued outside of the classroom, that their voices can make an impact, and that writing is useful to them as individuals and as community members. I told my students that expanding their critical thinking capabilities and knowledge of how writing allows them to communicate their ideas plainly can only benefit them. By the end of the semester, they all agreed that learning to write personally helped them to find connections and interest in topics that initially did not appeal to them.
Hauser, Bruffee, and Ervin’s ideas about writing in the public sphere encouraged me to invite my students to challenge themselves and invest in writing that they felt was worth sharing. My pedagogical decisions are especially influenced by my creative writing interests. Alexander Smith’s “On the Writing of Essays” posits that an inquisitive and critical mind will always be engaged in writing, and I include my students in that description. As a result of my own immersion in the writing process—including workshop and submission—I am in a constant state of revision. This approach to writing impacts the way I perceive and teach it: my revision stage is never complete. Ultimately, I wanted my students to trust their capacity to be credible thinkers, readers, and writers.
Overall, this course surprised me with its success. The class discussions based on the reading refocused how we approached writing; students saw that art requires clarity and deliberate organization. While no student could become a professional essayist in four months, I was impressed by the caliber of my students’ work and the ways they stretched themselves, learning to ask How? and Why? As students wrote with personal investment in their writing, they had to develop their own professional and intimate voice and incorporate research in subjects that had larger resonances.
At first, students resisted the idea of submission, but after completing the assignment they felt empowered by the opportunity. As we talked about various journals and contests, cover letters, and interaction with editors (and readers), the students felt a new excitement about their work—even if their pieces were not accepted for publication, they knew their pieces deserved a wider audience.
Students feared the final presentation with good reason. I should have presented it as an oral analysis assignment. This would have helped them to see more clearly the purpose of the final and the transferability of their skills.
Naturally, each student responded to the course differently, but most felt that they grew because they had approached new writing styles with their own voices.
If I taught this course again, I would alter a few aspects of it structurally. In the first week and a half I would assign a short ungraded essay to introduce students to the ruminative essay without the pressure of a score beyond participation points. While teaching this, I would still focus on the importance of poetics.
Throughout the semester I would assign a series of shorter analyses that collectively count as a major paper. Since students should apply analysis skills in all their writing, a group of short and frequent assignments would benefit them by emphasizing the importance of constant critical thinking in a variety of contexts.
Since research papers have proven to be the most valuable to students, I would begin library instruction and the ruminative essay by the fourth week of class at the latest. Students begin to burn out at the end of the semester. Students will gain more from their most difficult assignment if it is required earlier because they will still have the energy. Additionally, students need the library tutorials as soon as possible so that they can practice what they learn on multiple assignments. Moving the research days earlier in the semester would enable students to incorporate the knowledge gained to all of their subsequent work.
The last major assignment, before the portfolio, would be the short essay. This would let them have more fun, use research, and capitalize on their writing abilities.
While the final presentation would remain a thorough analysis of writing values and decisions, I would also make it a celebration by granting more time for students to read selections of their work.