Teaching Writing by Teaching Students to Notice Better
Updated: Dec 15, 2020
This past week, one of my first-ever college students touched base with me as they prepared to submit their dissertation. It has been ten years since I taught their introductory composition course, so I was admittedly thrilled that they reached out to get my opinion on a couple of paragraphs—just weeks before they, too, earned the title of "Dr." That exchange inevitably lead to a brief nostalgia trip and some reflections on how my teaching has evolved in the years since. While there is so much that has changed about my approach to the classroom, there was one activity that I developed in my first semester of teaching that remains a favorite of mine. And it involves—and this is no joke—a 2008 song by Flobots.
You see, I have long been of the opinion—drilled into me, no doubt, by the authors of Writing Analytically—that all good writing begins with good observation. In other words, analysis begins with honing our ability to notice details. Indeed, I often tell my students that data collection (or detail collection) is the first step in performing analysis. Yet the challenge I faced in my first-year composition classrooms, especially at an institution like Washington University in St. Louis, was that students had already developed habits that were antithetical to slowing down, dwelling with a text, and noticing better. So I developed an activity that modeled the practice of dwelling with a text and pushing oneself to notice more details before jumping to decisions about what a text was—or what they could do with it.
Since I also enjoy getting songs stuck in my students' heads, I ended up choosing the song "Handlebars" by Flobots as the object of our in-class activity. It is not only a catchy tune with some interesting cultural politics to explore, but also a song that is relatively accessible in terms of how it presents its details. I would prime my students in the prior class period by going over what Writing Analytically calls "The Method": a practice of locating repetitions, binaries, thematic strands, and anomalies. While such a method can easily become prescriptive and limited, it always served me well as an introduction to close reading; students often wanted to know "how to start" and "what to look for" in their first semesters of college. After acquainting them with this method, they were ready for some practice.
When they showed up the next day, I asked them to pull out some paper and a writing utensil. The instructions were simple. I was going to play a song for them, and they were to write down as many repetitions, binaries, thematic strands, and anomalies as they could while the song played. And they were asked to do so by paying attention not only to the words, but to the music. The goal was to write down as many details as possible. Once I had played the song, I asked my students to go around the room and rapid-fire shout out their favorite detail—although they were not allowed to name something that had already been said. When they finished, I asked them to pull out a new sheet of paper. We were going to do the activity again, but this time they had to write down all-new details. After another rapid-fire round of sharing, I asked them to listen through the song one more time.
Almost without fail, the best details came out in the second round of this activity. The first round would pull out all the easy details, and by the third round they would be struggling a bit to locate new details. Once those three rounds were completed, I passed out a sheet of paper with the lyrics to the song written on them. With those in hand, I gave them three minutes to locate new details with only the words on the page—no accompanying music. Just as I had done with the song itself, I would go through this activity three times and push them to continually find new details. Generally speaking, all of these rounds went well with my students. They started to figure out how to look for smaller and more nuanced details, they were figuring out strategies to defamiliarize themselves from how they had noticed earlier details, etc. Still, the third round was sometimes really difficult for some of them.
I then collected those handouts with the lyrics on them, and asked them to repeat this activity while I played the music video on the screen. This was always my favorite part of the activity. I could see (metaphorically) my students' heads exploding as they suddenly felt bombarded by details. With the words being sung, the music playing, and visuals playing on the screen they found themselves unable to record details quickly enough. We did this for three rounds as well, often with students filling upwards of twelve pages with lists of details. When it all ended, I would generally facilitate a conversation with them about the experience. I would point out that, in less than 75 minutes, they had generated pages of details—pages that would expand once they began thinking about what those details meant, how they were connected, etc. I had purposefully asked them not to analyze the texts, but just to notice details in them. And I had asked them to do that across multiple media as a way of inviting them to think more broadly about what constitutes a text.
Ten years later, I remain convinced that this is one of the most important things I can train my students to do: notice better. Training students to write well begins with helping them to see more of whatever they want to write about, and too often (in my opinion) we become preoccupied with grammar, style, and formatting—or at least too quickly. What are we doing to help our students to do the pre-writing work before they put a pencil to paper or their fingers on a keyboard? How do we help them to avoid pre-judging a text before they have had time to consider the details that make it up? If you are looking for simple ideas for doing that in your own classes, I can highly recommend giving my "Handlebars" activity a try.