Writing about one’s own thinking

I tend to feel an allergic reaction coming on whenever I hear the terms metacognition or metacognitive. Somewhere there’s a drinking game where one takes a chug of brew whenever a grad student says metacognitive. Take two drinks when a grad student uses foreground as a verb. Drunkenness ensues quickly.

The words are jargon. But metacognitive reflections, writing about one’s own thinking, are essential forms of self-learning. Somehow, it often seems not to exist among adults except as assignments from professors. But self-reflection should become part of one’s workday. Self-reflection is as important as any bulleted item on a position description.

I keep a private journal where, every morning, I write notes about the day before or the day ahead. Usually, I only jot down a few lines. Writing out more thoughts in several pages would be even more helpful in processing what comes through my mind. Brian Koppelman co-creator and showrunner of the TV show Billions dedicates time each everyday to journaling. He uses a method known as morning pages as popularized by Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way.

But this post isn’t about my own metacognitive practices. I’m curious about nurturing that capability in students. I wonder if they even realize that we’re trying to instill a lifelong habit into them? Or is it just another assignment, as task done for a grade? The ways we frame that make a difference.

From my undergraduate days, decades ago, I remember only fragments. Certain mental processes stick with me, such as how to approach a complex topic and break it down into understandable chunks. Daily journaling, even if only a few sentences each day, is a habit I wished I had developed much sooner.

Metacognition is most commonly defined as thinking about one’s thinking. But I prefer to place an emphasis on writing about one’s thinking because writing forces different levels of thought. I think a lot. We all do. We all have all sorts of thoughts popping in and out of our heads constantly, all day long. The bombardment of those momentary thoughts are natural but also are distractions that hinder productivity as the mind flits about from one daydream to another, either reflecting on some painful episode of the past or anticipating some challenge or desired accomplishment for the future. Writing (and I even prefer pen on paper since it physically forces me to slow down) allows for a more thorough form of reflection that facilitates the connection of ideas and the actions that you need to do in order to better understand and obtain your goals.

As pedagogy

Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching has a guide on metacognition with extensive references to pedagogical works on this topic. A deeper examination is found in A Rhetoric of Reflection, edited by Kathleen Blake Yancey.

My studio class on online literary magazine design has a weekly assignment that requires students to write about their own learning in the course each week. The weekly reflections are submitted via a GitHub issue. While the GitHub repository for the course is private, each student’s reflection is available to other students in the class. (Using GitHub simply aids the student in developing familiarity with GitHub. I could have done this through a learning management system (LMS) such as Sakai or Canvas, but they’re unlikely to encounter those LMS tools in a workplace outside of academia.)

The hardest part of a weekly reflection is knowing what to write about. It shouldn’t just be a list of “I did this, then that, and then that.” What prompts can I give students that encourage them to reflect on what they’re learning, even if they don’t recognize it as learning?

In the workplace

What’s the importance of facilitating communication in the workplace? Think about the type of guidance you get (or don’t get) from your professors in a course. When you interview for a professional job, one question you may be asked, “What type of supervision do you prefer/want/need?”

The interviewer is looking for a level of self-awareness. “What type of interaction do you prefer/want/need from colleagues on your work team?” While we must always be attentive and improving our listening skills, a large part of life is helping others learn how to communicate with you. Or, in other words, we have to recognize our own weaknesses in communication, and then adapt.

In this course, students have entered a distributed work environment with little face-to-face contact with supervisors (i.e., professors) and co-workers (i.e., fellow students). As teachers, our intention in a course is to craft a learning experience. That requires understanding what students want from a course, even when they’re not really sure. Weekly reflections are one means of obtaining that feedback in a way that is useful for both student and teacher.


Storytelling in the mid-century

This essay was first posted on our book design blog on July 5, 2011. That site is no longer active.

My daughter Mila, born on the second day of this year, will grow up in an era dominated by multi-touch tablets, with ever decreasing thickness and ever increasing capabilities. (Her adulthood likely will be spent with even more flexible devices for consuming information.) Eagerly I will introduce her to reading. Already she hears my voice babbling as I read aloud what she will one day read for herself. Her generation, however, is poised to encounter the stories of the world in manners that are as yet only partially known.

She will come of age in a time when writing is not simply textual (though the careful use of words will persist…must persist). The world of 2030, when Mila is in college, will view one form of writing as a composition elegantly mixing many elements, among which will be words, images, sound, and video. A critical aspect in the coming decades is that the careful use and mixture of those elements must exist.

What do we call these compositions?

Those are not the books we cherish today Those are not e-books. They most definitely are not enhanced e-books. Neither are they documentaries. Technically, the compositions will be contained in some type of app. Maybe they’re just websites. Ultimately, they’re simply stories: narratives for examining the themes that engage civilization, compositions through which we learn and share our experiences of the lives around us.

(And the twenty-first century form of storytelling is as much about the reader as it is about the author.)

A word loosely tossed around these days by media companies is content. Content is often defined by the container. Book necessitates text, perhaps joined by the occasional image. What about other containers? For instance, documentary films necessitate motion images joined with voice-over narration. With the iPad possibilities exist for a hybrid exhibiting capabilities not found in either print or film.

Feeding the reading space of 2030, through whatever magical hardware brand dominates the delivery of digital media, will be apps that are hybrids of books and documentaries.

If we think of the iPad, though, as supporting a new genre then we should step back to examine the whole experience of reading, even asking what is non-fiction? (For the sake of this discussion I leave fiction for another day.) Why do people read and spend time with non-fiction books? Ultimately, I suspect the answer revolves around learning. The desire to learn prompts us to read and, preferably, have an enjoyable experience while doing so. Similarly, that desire to learn in a satisfying manner drives us to view documentaries.

The challenge is in exploring how to leverage the tablet platform for storytelling. The iPad brings a new way of reading. Likewise, it carries forward a new way of writing.

While the publishing community scrambles for today’s solutions, the real burden is on all of us to ensure that tomorrow’s writers & editors understand the elements of style required for creating the publications that will dominate the mid-century. My daughter will be less than forty years of age in 2050. Aspects of the world will be unthinkably different then. Much will remain the same, but the way humans communicate through media will continue its long trajectory. Perhaps what we’re doing now with apps will someday appear as quaint as magic lanterns or the early years of cinema. Undoubtedly, the techniques of writing and composition in a tablet-based digital environment will evolve with time, eventually forming accepted practices that support different types of reading experiences.


Writing as espionage

“We remained travelers, enclosed in the self, capable, possibly, of transforming ourselves in contact with alterity, but certainly not of experiencing it profoundly. We are spies, we make the rapid, furtive contact of spies. When Chateaubriand invented travel literature with his Itinerary from Paris to Jerusalem in 1811, long before Stendhal and his Memoirs of an Egotist, more or less at the same time as the publication of Geothe’s Italian Journey, Chateaubriand was spying for the sake of art; he was certainly no longer the explorer who spied for science or for the army: he spied mainly for literature. Art has its spies, just as history or the natural sciences have theirs. Archaeology is a form of espionage, botany, poetry as well; enthnomusicologists are spies of music. Spies are travelers, travelers are spies. ‘Don’t trust the stories of travelers,’ says Saadi in The Gulistan. They see nothing. They think they see, but they observe only reflections. We are prisoners of images, of representations.

Mathias Énard, Compass p215 [emphasis added]

I read this book in early 2015. Those nights of reading have stayed with me.


The Purpose of Doing

Late afternoon, I sit at my desk, just after class. I glance up at the prints from Buenos Aires that hang on the wall in front of me. More than a decade ago I blogged so regularly. More free time in those days as I explored a premature semi-retirement in my early 40s. Yesterday, on my walk over the footbridge into campus, I thought about my eight-year old daughter and the thoughts that recur to me time and again: what will she know of my life, what will she know of what’s in my mind?

Last week, I asked the students in my first-year composition course to take out a sheet of paper and to reflect for a few moments on a simple question: why write?

It was a simple exercise, merely a prop to prompt their mental alertness at 8:30 in the morning. As a class we discussed their responses. People write because they have something to say. Writing is a way of thinking through a topic. Writing as a way of participating in a conversation. What is left out of the world if one doesn’t write? I feel haunted by that question.

How even now I wish I could know more of my own child’s thoughts. Not the secret feelings found in a diary. No, not that. We all have, must have, thoughts that are merely our own. But those broader thoughts that form so much of who we are as a person. There is so much of myself hidden away. So much that will only be found in the expressions that I leave behind.

The year is moving rapidly. Insects are vanishing. In February 1985, I was a 19-year-old freshman at Sewanee. I absolutely knew not what I was doing, though I had more focus as a freshman than as a senior a few years later. That was 34 years ago. And 34 years from now: 2053. My daughter will have turned 42, most likely without me. Environmental collapse, idiotic decision-makers, a gullible electorate, and a techno-system in overdrive might present a world unrecognizable to us now.

The future depends upon the reasonably intelligent and not merely the skilled.

I work at a liberal arts college with an identity crisis. (I’m borrowing that phrase from an actual student at this college.) My work, in essence, is to aid others in creating their own future. Here’s the question: how can the liberal arts provide context for their creativity, for their career ambitions, for the lives they seek?

There are vague, abstract responses about the liberal arts that are trotted out every so often. But the practical initiatives are more difficult to define. (I’m rambling, but perhaps this space is just for myself and the very few who wander in and out and the even smaller number who wonder what I thought in early 2019.)

I have this immense inner need to feel like I am doing something with my life. (Perhaps that’s a cause of suffering, the Buddha would say.) And I am doing a lot. I’m actually remarkably happy with my life’s work, what I have accomplished and where I’m heading. Yet, with all that I do, I must remind myself that I need to capture it in words in a regular basis. If not, an unfulfilled feeling creeps into heart and stays around. That impulse to write, that impulse for creativity, nudges me only to be suppressed by piles of papers to grade, lessons to plan, meetings to attend, and job descriptions to revise.

And there’s the key: channeling my work into my creativity, into my writing. It’s always been there. I just need to unlock that door that reveals the purpose of doing.