When I signed the contract for the book that would become The Writer’s Practice, I was confident producing it would be relative snap.
I was wrong.
Because everything in the book would be something I’d done in class, I figured it would be a matter of collecting, organizing and unifying everything into a single tidy package.
Like I said, I was wrong. Assignments that worked in one medium (the classroom) didn't necessarily work in another (a book).
I didn’t fully recognize it at the time, but writing the book became an exercise in figuring out how to teach from a distance, a challenge everyone is facing at this moment.
The current semester is one of triage, making the best of a sudden shift, but it seems like that we’re looking at the potential for disruption in the fall, even the spring, up until there is a viable vaccine for COVID-19 that can be mass distributed.
Rethinking how we do things is now a necessity.
While I saw The Writer’s Practice as a class text, (explicitly as a non-prescriptive alternative to They Say/I Say), the publisher also wanted to sell it as a trade paperback, meaning it would have to work with an audience of people trying to improve as writers who would never meet or interact with me, or any other instructor, for that matter.
How’s that for distance learning!
The resulting many-month process was a thought exercise in identifying the parts of my pedagogy that are embodied in my face-to-face instruction and, as much as possible, putting them into the book’s experiences themselves.
Everything in the book must be worth doing for its own intrinsic value. I had no cudgel of grades or course credit to hold over my audience. Even the long-run promise of “improving” as writers isn’t sufficient if the experiences themselves are not viewed as worth the audience’s time as they’re being done.
This doesn’t mean everything is “fun,” but it must be engaging for its own sake. I had already embraced this in my class experiences, but doing the book revealed a number of spots where I’d allowed the authority of the instructor to paper over some shortcomings in the assignment design. I had to fix those.
Looking at the experiences as I’d been presenting them to my students, I was surprised to realize how limited they were. I was using all the principles of good assignment design, but they would’ve left someone working outside a class context almost clueless as to what they were being asked to do. They were a good blueprint for someone on the inside of the course, but they could not stand alone out of that context.
I realized that I was spending lots of class time framing and contextualizing my assignments for my students in and out of class. All of that had to go into the experiences themselves. That meant writing mini-essays to lead off each experience that encapsulated the, let’s call it … spirit of the work.
For distance learning, this can result in a tremendous savings of time. Rather than meeting an online synchronous class to explain and contextualize, that information can come bundled with the assignment/experience itself.
If I can’t be present in person, I have to make myself present in the materials. It was important to me that the readers engaging with the book know me, that my voice comes out in the writing and that I register to them as a human being who wrote a book that could be used as a class text, rather than a textbook author.
This means using examples and illustrations that are unique to me. As one example, for an assignment that asks the reader to write an alternate history in which they change one fact of the past and speculate on what would’ve been different going forward, I imagine what would (or wouldn’t) have happened had Michael Jordan not been drafted by the Chicago Bulls as the No. 3 pick.
If you were to do all of the experiences in The Writer’s Practice, you would learn quite a bit about me. The same is true if we shared a face-to-face classroom. My view is that this aids in student learning.
Lecture is not a huge portion of any writing class, but there are things that I tell students in a face-to-face class that are important when it comes to having success at building their writing practices. For these, I wrote short chapters on topics like writing process, proofreading, writer's block, etc. …
But rather than seeing them as purely informative or situating them at the beginning of the book, I decided to sprinkle them throughout as interstitial material that comes within the context of the experiences surrounding them. Rather than trying to load students up with information up front, I wanted to provide a just-in-time jolt to the problems they were hopefully wrestling with in that moment.
Even with face-to-face courses, most coursework is done while one is alone, but at least the class periods provide some sense of connection with others. Anecdotally, this appears to be the aspect of school that instructors and students are most missing during our emergency distance learning period. With distance learning, the chance to commune with others is significantly restricted. With a self-study approach, it is absent.
Unless you make sure the work itself requires a connection to the community to be completed. For the experiences in The Writer’s Practice, I require the writer to show their work to others, to survey opinions, to interview people, and to do a bunch of other stuff that puts them into the wider world.
Building some aspect of community into that distance learning experience is vital. We are social creatures.
Structure Without Scheduling
The hardest part, by far, was thinking about the assignments without the structure of classes. I was so used to doling out work that could be accomplished between class meetings, it was almost as though I was starting from scratch.
One thing I discovered was how inefficient the class-to-class scheduling can be. The timing of class was actually getting in the way of students accomplishing more. Freed up from the schedule of class meetings, I could instead craft the experiences around a structure that would see the student through a series of mini-experiences inside the larger assignment. The timing of those could be completely dictated by the students themselves.
For distance learning, I think this points toward weekly or even longer projects where students are asked to check in, but where they are not beholden to school rhythms when they are not at school. A class schedule is dictated by the logistics of buildings and classroom space, not because it is conducive to learning. Remove yourself from that box and you might find a better way of thinking about the structure and flow of work.
Learning from The Writer’s Practice is undoubtedly enhanced by working with an instructor and doing it alongside other writers, but it isn’t strictly necessary. And in terms of distance instruction and tech, I could work with students over the phone and the good, old-fashioned U.S. mail if necessary.
The best thing about the exercise of writing my course into something that could be done in my absence was it made me a more effective instructor when I’m present.
Writing the book revealed the places where working synchronously (whether it be face-to-face or online) truly held value. Class became time for collaboration or sharing work in real time as it was being created.
There’s no doubt that a writing course lends itself to this kind of thinking, but I believe it translates to any discipline.
Ask yourself what students should spend their time doing in order to best learn and then set up the conditions which foster that process.
Not easy, but ultimately pretty darn interesting.
 These became my favorite part of the book to write. It caused me to think deeply about my intentions underneath the experience, and often revealed aspects of the assignment I hadn’t previously considered.
 I trace a link from Jordan’s drafting to the gentrification of Chicago’s West Side, near the location of the old Chicago Stadium, which was torn down and replaced with the United Center so more people (particularly those in luxury skyboxes) could watch Michael Jordan play basketball.
 I believe this is one of the reasons that MOOCs failed to gain significant traction. There is no sense of community a course that literally is defined as “massive.”
 True story: because of the time I spent sitting at my desk working on the book, I developed a frozen shoulder that needed six weeks of physical therapy.