Teaching Tip: Muse? What muse?

This week the Monday Motivator, a weekly email for new faculty from the Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (http://www.facultydiversity.org/?page=MondayMotivator), focused on the benefits of daily writing.  Evidence indicates that even brief daily writing sessions result in increased faculty scholarly productivity, but many professors resist establishing a daily writing practice.  Instead, they believe that it’s more effective to wait for inspiration (the “muse”) to strike and then write for extended periods of time.  Unfortunately the muse doesn’t always strike at convenient times, and junior faculty members using this method suddenly may realize that tenure is upon them and the muse has gone missing.

As I thought about why professors resist the idea of daily writing, I started to think about the similarities between ourselves and our students.  We bemoan the common student practice of waiting until the last minute to complete writing assignments, of not allowing sufficient time to write drafts and let them rest, of not breaking larger assignments down into pieces.  Yet, how many of us “binge” write?  If the “inspiration” for students is a looming deadline, isn’t that also true for us?  The assumption that writers have to wait for inspiration and then need big chunks of time to produce anything of value seems to be quite widespread (and seems related to the fantasy of the writer in his or her garret, oblivious to the world as the muse strikes).  In fact, most of the time when I read interviews with successful writers, they seem to have very organized schedules that involve regular daily writing.

I’ve certainly done my share of binge writing as a student and as a professor, and for a long time I thought it worked just fine.   I first began to think of binge writing as problematic while I was teaching the Senior Seminar in psychology, which involved a lengthy literature review and analysis.  We always had one class conversation about the process of writing a lengthy and complex paper.  Many students had never had to write something that could not be done in a single (long) sitting, and most of them never had done more than a single draft.  Trying to complete this task using binge techniques was a recipe for stress overload and disaster. Then I heard Tara Grey talk about becoming a prolific writer, and I read Robert Boice’s research on faculty who become productive scholars.  I started looking into various writing coaches’ philosophies.  I found the same thing over and over.  Daily writing matters.

So what’s so great about daily writing?  Well, one of the advantages is that you never quite forget what you’re doing  – you can work for half an hour, leave yourself a note about where you want to start tomorrow, and go off feeling good about having accomplished something.  The work stays fresher, and you may find that you keep thinking about it between daily sessions, so in that sense you may be getting more done.   And it’s a lot easier for most of us to squeeze in 30 minutes every day than it is to find a 3 or 4 hour block of uninterrupted time.    Contrast that with the article you started a few weeks ago (a month?  already?) and now you can’t follow your own train of thought or remember what you wanted to do with it.

OK, this is a teaching tip, so what does this have to do with teaching?  Well — what if we required students to write daily?  It would be an interesting experiment to see if students who were required to write a certain amount each day ended up with better quality work than those who did not write daily. If daily writing is as good as the research suggests that it is, we could be helping our students acquire a habit that would promote academic success and lifelong learning.  Will they like it?  Probably not.

How could we manage such a requirement?  Students could keep a journal or some kind of record of their writing process, and turn it in with their work (this does have the disadvantage of being easily falsifiable).  For students who have trouble concentrating, the Pomodoro technique might be a useful way to structure daily writing as well as track progress.  For those of you who have not heard of it, the Pomodoro technique is a time management tool created by an Italian university student named Francesco Cirillo.  Basically, you time yourself for 25 minutes using a kitchen timer that has a noticeable ticking sound and dings when it’s done (his was shaped like a tomato, hence the name).  Each 25 minute segment is one “pomodoro”.  A five minute break separates pomodoros during which you do not think about whatever you’re working on.  After four pomodoros, you take at least a half hour break.   Pomodoros are logged and can be used to help you understand how long a project really takes.  For example, the paper you thought would take two hours (four pomodoros) might actually take twice that long.  By monitoring your time, you can plan more efficiently.  You can do as many pomodoros in a day as you want to; if you only have time for one pomodoro per day of writing, no problem.  The process of timing and logging pomodoros helps many people concentrate and focus.  (This is a very simplistic explanation of the Pomodoro technique.  To learn more check out  http://www.pomodorotechnique.com/)   Another option is 750words.com which gives you a daily nudge and also tracks the number of days in a row that you have written.   You might also be able to use blogs or online journals as a way to track daily writing.  Note that I am NOT suggesting you read or grade all this writing.  The purpose is to make sure that daily writing is occurring, and the assumption is that it will help improve the final product.

Of course, if you’re a “muse-driven” writer yourself, you might not believe that daily writing will help.  Or maybe you think it would be good for students but not that helpful for you.  So, try it out on your students and see what you get – you might be inspired to try it on yourself.

Do you write daily?  Do you find it helpful?  How do you encourage students to do less “binge” writing?  If you are in a design field, do the same ideas relate to the design process?  Could you adapt daily writing to daily designing?

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