For many of our students, procrastination is a monster hiding in the closet.
At least once a semester, one of us will receive a last-minute email from a student with a question that, had that student been working on a project in advance, he or she would have asked days before bumping up against the deadline. Or, similarly, we will sometimes receive questions from students an hour before class claiming that the link that we sent for the day’s reading did not work.
These are the telltale signs of students suffering from procrastination syndrome. And it would be easy to say, “Start earlier next time,” and then move on. But as we note the level of anxiety, panic and supercharged emotion that our students express when they come clean about a botched timeline or poor planning, we realize that working through a habit of procrastination is too important a quality-of-life issue for our students to dismiss so easily. As we’ve asked them: Isn’t it better to know what sort of monster is hiding in the closet than to wait for it to come lurching out unexpectedly -- and at the worst possible moment?
It seems to us that the more we understand procrastination and think it through with our students, the more we can help them build lifelong habits that allow them to be successful in our writing classes. Indeed, antiprocrastination habits can also help students manage the many competing priorities in their busy schedules as well as help us all remember what’s really important in life.
The Many Faces of Procrastination
When you get right down to it, procrastination really involves the what-ifs of Murphy’s Law that whatever can go wrong will go wrong. This should be the main motivator behind procrastination awareness. It’s always a good idea to have a backup plan. Don’t put off getting started on a project because it feels like it will be easy to put together. Start assembling resources, outlining, thinking forward and scheduling activities to avoid the unexpected. When a project is due, leave yourself plenty of wiggle room for issues with printing, traffic, parking, finding the drop-off place for paperwork, etc.
A health sciences team that one of us once worked with famously told and retold the story of a National Institutes of Health grant application that was five minutes too late for the FedEx truck. An important project was delayed funding for a whole year because a copy machine ran out of paper and the team had not allotted enough time to the final stages of the job. The more we can help our students realize that these sorts of habits -- being prepared, starting early, problem solving in advance -- can make or break a project, the sooner they can start taking action.
But what about students who have writing or performance anxiety? Such students stand to gain the most from developing antiprocrastination tactics. If they experience the gains that can occur if they start on projects earlier, they will begin to feel their anxiety lessen. If the paper is due in two weeks, they can start right away by analyzing and note taking on the assignment sheet, breaking the assignment down into discrete stages or tasks. That simple act will activate the composing process, launching the task in their minds. Starting earlier on the assignment or task might lead to better time management, including catching any unforeseen time sensitivities well in advance.
Complicating the picture slightly, procrastination does offer some positive possibilities. Sometimes writers need to put a project aside for a later time to let it stew or to allow thinking to mature. And if we teach our students that this approach can be a productive conscious part of their own processes, we can again help them to build more conscientious tactics. People who work hard not to procrastinate develop a good working sense of when to put something off strategically and when to dive into something more forcefully. Sometimes procrastinating on a project might be a sign that we aren’t quite ready to grapple with something about it -- perhaps for good reasons.
Helping Students Develop Procrastination Awareness
Procrastination syndrome is a tough phenomenon to deal with. It can take many subtle and not-so-subtle forms: the student who always seems to have a rough draft, no matter how much time he’s been given to write a paper; the student who always goes missing on the day a draft of a paper is due; the student who just always seems anxious about something.
In line with the context that we’ve offered above, we can take further steps to help students develop strategies to manage and work toward overcoming procrastination:
We can discuss with them valid reasons why people procrastinate. If you ask students whether they consider themselves procrastinators, most will say that they are. But then if you ask why they tend to procrastinate, they have to think about it a bit. The beginning of any procrastination-awareness intervention starts with the question of why we procrastinate: because we’re feeling overwhelmed, because we are uncertain about where to start, because we are fearful of failure, because we really would rather not do what we know we have to do.
We can start nudging students to think about the different reasons for procrastination and to start to make distinctions between wise waiting and unhelpful delaying.
We can share with students our own experiences with procrastination. If we are anxious about writing or performing, we can confess that to students -- many of whom share this anxiety and would appreciate hearing it from an instructor. If we’ve ever lost a significant amount of work due to not saving it in more than once place, students will see that it can happen to anyone. And if we tell students the story of how we arrived late (and embarrassed) to that important interview or conference presentation because we simply did not leave enough time to find what turned out to be a labyrinthine locale, we will be reiterating a lesson applicable to many other circumstances.
As teachers of writing and other creative performances, we can try to build antiprocrastination fail-safes into our curriculum. Portfolio assessment systems, for example, offer students the opportunity to experience their writing tasks as works in progress. We can give students opportunities to see just how good a piece of writing can become if they have enough time, space and opportunity to revise multiple drafts of their work throughout the course of a term. The peer pressure involved in working together closely and extensively with a peer writing group can also nudge them to meet deadlines more responsibly.
Finally, students can internalize this (almost) procrastination-proof process more deeply if we ask them to write reflectively and critically about what they learned from the process. Most of our students come to realize the benefits of starting early and staying persistent.
Life, Work, Time
So what if students procrastinate? The cream will always rise to the top. The good students will always be more proactive and thoughtful. It’s not really that big of a deal, is it?
Well, it might actually be about as big as a deal can get. In her memoir The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, Bronnie Ware details her experiences working as a palliative nurse with people in their last three to 12 weeks of life. She discusses the top five regrets, or things they would have done differently, that repeatedly surfaced in all their stories. All of those regrets seem to revolve around important things people kept putting off: not living a life true to themselves and their dreams, not taking time away from work, not sharing their feelings with the people they loved the most, not keeping in touch with friends, and not letting themselves be happy. We always seem to think we will have enough time to get to, start or restart the big deals in life … later.
These quality-of-life questions remind us of Thomas Carlyle’s antiprocrastination exhortation in Sartor Resartus (“The Tailor Retailored”). Carlyle proclaims the importance of what he learned from Professor Teufelsdrӧckh about not waiting too long on the most important life choices and actions:
I too could now say to myself: Be no longer a Chaos, but a World, or even a Worldkin. Produce! Produce! Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a Product, produce it in God’s name! ’Tis the utmost thou hast in thee; out with it then. Up, up! Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it, do it with thy whole might. Work while it is called To-day, for the Night cometh wherein no man can work.
(And we might well replace the words “work” in the last sentence with “start.”) If we try, we can perhaps also help our students retailor some of their most pernicious procrastination habits of mind.
But, of course, we must not wait too long in starting to offer our students some of this potentially lifelong good advice.
Steven J. Corbett is a visiting assistant professor of English at George Mason University, and Michelle LaFrance is an assistant professor of English and director of the Writing Across the Curriculum Program at the university. They are co-editors (with Teagan Decker) of the collection Peer Pressure, Peer Power: Theory and Practice in Peer Review and Response for the Writing Classroom (Fountainhead Press, 2014).
I remember well my first class in graduate school, now 10 years ago, because I was only somewhat prepared for it. My pencil pouch held a full canister of lead, but, when our creative writing professor asked us to go around the octagonal seminar table to sign up for our workshop dates, I had to ask, “What’s a workshop?”
“Well,” the guy next to me said, “you sit in the middle here, blindfolded, and we all take turns -- ” He held up his fist as if to throw a punch.
There is a kernel of truth in his humor: the cloth covers not your eyes but your mouth. On the days you “are workshopped,” as it is said, the class discusses the merits and faults of the writing you submitted the week before, and you’re not allowed to talk during this discussion. It’s called the gag rule. The main reason for this rule is that ungagged authors are too compelled to defend their writing -- but a workshop is not a defense. There is no passing or not passing the workshop. You simply gather feedback, take what you’d like and disregard the rest.
The stakes couldn’t be lower, in other words, so why is it commonly such a bruising experience?
“It’s just … not … good,” a student said in my second class, the first workshop of the semester. Ouch. The most infamous comment I heard in my years in graduate school was, “When I read something like this I think, ‘Oh, he must be writing in his underwear.’” I’m not sure what he meant, exactly, but we all caught the drift.
There’s another kernel of truth in my classmate’s comment: there’s something about a workshop that allows fists to fly, and I’m not above reproach. I regret once saying a page of dialogue was “like a soap opera script.” Another time, when I was workshopped, a classmate said, “I don’t see the point of reading this.” Afterward he came over to me and said, “That came off way more antagonistic than I meant it to.” I said bitterly, “You’re not a good reader.”
Is this how one becomes a master of fine arts?
Many say we can do better, for reasons personal (flying fists) and pedagogical (lack of evaluation of what students actually learn -- and tacit permission of flying fists). Sum it up in the title of a book by writers and teachers Carol Bly and Cynthea Loveland that came out in 2006, Against Workshopping Manuscripts: A Plea for Justice to Student Writers.
After graduating, I began to teach creative writing classes, and, resolved to do justice, I tried alternatives to the workshop. I taught forms and principles and assigned exercises. I modeled how to write like a good reader -- which is to say, how I imitate writing I admire (and try to conceal this imitation). We studied “how to write” books -- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Triggering Town by Richard Hugo, and On Writing Well by Howard Zinsser. I wanted to scrutinize the methods and techniques of producing writing, rather than student writing itself. The closest we got to workshops were small groups in which students shared their work -- with no gag rule.
It was OK. Not great. The students seemed to like the class, but as a teacher, I felt like I was trying to cook on a feeble campfire, the water never getting to a full boil.
There is something valuable, I’ve since realized, in turning up the heat on students. In other classes, this heat comes in a term paper or a final exam, a culminating moment that tests student mettle, that makes students do the best they possibly can. In a creative writing class, this heat comes in a workshop.
Meanwhile, something else occupied my teaching life: I began teaching some of my classes online. My classes are asynchronous, meaning that while there are deadlines, there is no live interaction. The weekly conversation between students and myself happens on the discussion board, on which students respond to prompts I give them and comment on each other’s ideas. In my first-year composition class, they also review and edit fellow students’ drafts.
I love the discussion board as a teaching tool for several reasons, including how I can manage the occasional flying fist. The weekly, graded discussion board assignment asks students to give thoughtful feedback -- in agreement or disagreement -- and a nasty comment almost always stands in place of thoughtfulness. So, if a student writes something offhanded, snarky or just plain mean, I can get ’em where it counts: I take off points.
For doing so, in my anonymous student evaluations I once took a jab myself: “Taking off points for something the teacher took personally is crap.” I’m all but certain I know who wrote this, and it delights me to mention that, after my reprimand earlier in the semester, his discussion board participation was excellent, not to mention civil, and he got an A in the class.
As for his parting shot, well, I suppose I did take it personally: no one is going to be mean in my class.
With this capability, I’ve now returned to teaching creative writing workshops -- this time online. After a few weeks of preliminary exercises, much like I did in the classes I taught after graduate school, students spend the rest of the semester workshopping each other’s poetry, fiction and personal essays on the discussion boards. Students get full scrutiny of their peers -- the heat is up -- and when the time comes to administer student justice, I’m ready.
I’m surprised to say I’ve even instituted the gag rule, something I loathed as a student in workshops myself. It’s valuable for authors to see how little they control their readers, so long as I can control the readers from doing their worst. I have also been surprised to realize that, as it is often said of online education, students are welcome to come to class -- and write -- in their underwear.
Brian Goedde has an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program and teaches writing at the Community College of Philadelphia.
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