| September 1987
Information Sheet # 1
THE MELLON MENU
In the summer of 1986 the Mellon Foundation Honors Project Faculty published a handbook entitled Writing to Learn. The publication represents one further sign of college teachers' desire to explore how writing can foster better learning. To quote from the handbook's "Introduction":
A quiet change is taking place on college campuses across the country: we are (re)asserting the essential role of writing in liberal and professional education. In the form of reading logs and micro-themes, formal collaborative projects, writing is being integrated into courses from biology to mathematics. Faculty are learning that they can use writing in their courses to foster greater intellectual participation and learning and that language use facilitates the process of knowing. In creating text, we discover what we mean. In explaining an idea for a particular audience, we determine connection with other ideas or gaps in our understanding.
The Mellon Foundation Faculty's approach supports the recognition by writing teachers and researchers in the last decade that writing should be conceived as a way of learning. Writing enables us to re-scan and re-formulate ideas. The process of writing also leads us to explore relationships among ideas and make those relationships more explicit and systematic. Ironically, the act of writing leads us to assume both a distancing from immediate situations and an engaging in personal ways as we enter into written conversations within a discipline.
Given below is one example of the possible writing assignments introduced in the Mellon Menu. The "Reading Log" is from the section entitled "Appetizers: Pre-writing and Composing Strategies." Later Information Sheets will describe writing assignments from the three sections emphasizing classroom strategies and more formal writing tasks. For anyone wishing to study the complete Mellon Menu, copies are available in the Writing Center.
A reading log is a summary record of the information contained in designated course readings along with the students' own responses to that information.
One function of such a log is, of course, to help students retain material from their reading, but a more important purpose is to encourage them to think critically about and reflect on the implications, both personal and professional, of that reading. In their logs, students create an intellectual history of their own growth in the course, as well as a valuable resource for class discussion and for generating ideas for further exploration in more formal writing projects. Writing their responses helps them become more comfortable within the specific discourse community (discipline-specific language and expression) of the course while giving them experience in writing for a specific and real audience.
READING LOG SAMPLE
Reading logs: early in the semester
Maudsley, "Sex and Mind in Education"
Jordan, "The Higher Education of Women"
Reading Logs: end of semester
Virginia Woolfe, A Room of One's Own
Schulman, "Overcoming Silences"
* * * * *
Information Sheet #1 summarized information from the Mellon Menu on a procedure for using reading logs. Given below are two more strategies adopted from the Mellon Foundation's Handbook.
FOCUSED/UNFOCUSED IN-CLASS FREE WRITING
Many students become more actively involved in a class discussion if they have a chance to write for a few minutes to really figure out what they think. A teacher might begin class with a five-minute free write, focused on a particular question, or might stop class half way through and ask students to respond to the lecture or discussion. These informal texts may serve as a basis for continued discussion or as a means of eliciting student reactions.
In-class free writing may be shared with the group or passed between class members. Faculty need not grade or even read them. If the teacher so desires, the free writings can be turned in during class or collected in a notebook and submitted 2 or 3 times during the semester. Or the free writes can simply become part of the student's class notes--reinforcing the idea that notes should include both information from instructor and the student's own wrestling with that content.
To do a free writing, simply ask students to write as rapidly as they can, allowing ideas to flow without regard for spelling or other mechanical matters. If the students experience "writer's block" or run out of ideas, they can write "nothing comes to mind" until something else does. The point is to keep the pencil moving the whole time and not to censor any thought.
Closure statements. Another option is asking students to write a five-minute sprint summarizing what they believe was the main point raised in that day's class. The students can also raise questions about the material, identifying misconceptions or issues needing further explanation. This task encourages students to make connections at a high level of generality. As with the other free-writing assignments, those can be done on 3 x 5 cards to encourage succinctness and precision. Starter sentences can help students get started: "The most important point today was..." or "What I still don't understand is..." The instructor can quickly scan these free-writes, making it possible to dispel some of this mental fog in the next class period.
Using free writing frequently helps students become comfortable with writing as a genuine tool for discovery. It reinforces the notion that our thoughts are seldom clearly formed or understood until we start writing (or talking).
REVIEWS, DICTIONARIES, LETTERS, EDITORIALS
Reviews. Adopting the stance of an expert, students might be asked to write reviews of texts or books they have been reading in class. The review could critique the major argument in the book, its method of evidence, organization and style.
Near the end of the term, faculty might ask students to select the article or book they thought had been most successful or persuasive, and write a review arguing for their choice. This is a way not only to summarize material and identify main points, but also to locate the article or book in the larger discourse community of which it is part.
Class Dictionaries. Throughout the semester, students may be asked to collect main terms and major figures in the course, and compile them, with their own definitions and examples. These definitions may evolve over the course of the term as students gain a deepened understanding of their implications and meanings. "Gender," for instance, may have acquired a different, and richer, meaning for students by the end of the course in which gender issues have been explored.
The audience for this dictionary could be people outside of the class for whom these terms might be new. The task asks students not only to put major ideas into their own words (and perhaps provide their own examples) but also to communicate their ideas to those less expert than they.
Letters to Authors of Readings. This format encourages students to respond directly to a particular author, and the familiarity and conversational style make the assignment more accessible than a formal essay. The sense of dialogue encourages students to think not only about their own ideas but also about how their reader will react to them.
Editorials. Editorials require students to argue succinctly and cogently for a particular point of view and to persuade a particular audience of the rightness of that point of view. Assigning editorials on a topic that has generated debate in class is a useful way to encourage students to push their opinions into full arguments and to see the complexity of the issues involved. The format is familiar to students and fosters theorizing.
This website created and maintained by the Coe Writing Center. Copyright 2001.
Email Dr. Bob Marrs with any questions, comments or suggestions.