[As published in The Point: The Newsletter of SCENT - UPEI's
Senate Committee on the Enhancement of Teaching 5.1 (June 1996): 3-4.]

Dr. Russ Hunt, an English professor at St. Thomas University, has long sought ways to renovate instruction to benefit students' learning. He believes that students learn most powerfully through writing when they participate in written dialogues or discussions that make their writing matter to others. Dr. Hunt is currently working on a book on St. Thomas's new Aquinas programme, a programme for first-year students that he helped to develop. He presented two workshops at UPEI last September.

Some Strategies for Embedding Writing
in Dialogic Situations

Dr. Russell Hunt
St. Thomas University

I. Forms of Structured Written Discussion

Inkshedding. Participants write impromptu on a common subject or issue, using "freewriting" (i.e., simply attempting to catch the flow of ideas, writing without planning or worry about form or correctness.) Others in the group immediately read what's been written. Marginal responses (substantive responses, rather than comments on form) are encouraged. Normally readers are asked simply to mark passages which they find striking (true, not true, needing qualification or expansion). Possible next stages include:

Accumulating Discussion. A subject is discussed in writing. Each reader, as he or she reads the continuing discussion, enters a response to the text in an accumulating file of responses to that issue. (This accumulation can be kept in a manila folder in a location available to students between classes, or as a virtual folder -- for instance, an accumulating file in a computer noticeboard.)
At the end of the process the file can be edited (for instance, by an editorial committee) to become a group response to the issue, which can be read by others in the class who haven't participated in the discussion.

Electronic Discussion Lists. This differs from an accumulative noticeboard discussion because the computer network presents the reader only with responses that are new to him or her, so there is less tendency for discussion to be either recursive or accumulative. If the discussion involves a whole class and has many contributions, the discussion list option may help keep the volume of responses from daunting readers.

II. Uses for Forms of Structured Written Dialogue

Course Evaluation. At some convenient point in a course, students write in-process course evaluations (either in response to specific questions, or open-ended) which are sent to a third party (a secretary, for example) to have identifying marks stripped off and to be assembled into files -- for instance, ordered by questions. These can be printed and distributed, so everyone sees what others thought; they can also be edited by a committee of the class.

Colleague Acknowledgements. As part of the process of generating marks in the course, students can be invited to acknowledge, in writing, contributions of colleagues in the class to their own learning. These acknowledgements are sent to the instructor, who can (a) include them in the process of creating a mark for students, (b) strip them of identifying marks and redistribute them to the acknowledgees, and/or (c) "publish" selected items, with identifying marks removed, as examples of what can be taught and learned among students in the particular course.

Text Choice Recommendations. Each participant chooses a book (or story, or poem) which he or she thinks others should read (the choice can be restricted to works from a defined corpus, or even from a particular anthology), and writes a recommendation of that text. Others, on the basis of the recommendation, choose to read the text (or not), and add their recommendations to the first one. This can begin with small groups (say, five) reading each others' recommendations and agreeing on (or revising) one to pass on to the larger class. Discussion can continue in writing, or orally. The process can lead into a narrowing cycle which ultimately produces a text everyone has read, and a set of recommendations which can be discussed.

Feasibility Study. Students report on a foray to the library to assess whether a potential group-research topic is appropriate. (In a recent instance, participants were asked to assess a topic that they or someone else in the class had proposed on five criteria: definability, resources, relevance, richness, and interest.) The group creates a report, which is circulated to the class, either through photocopies or via a computer network (photocopies are usually better when the documents are relatively long). The class then makes a decision about which topics to investigate on the basis of these studies.

Research Report. Participants choose different aspects of a subject, and write reports that allow others to learn about issues they didn't have time to do research on. Often this can lead to a cycle in which the readers write on the report itself specific questions about which they'd like to know more, and authors go back to the library and add sections responding to whichever questions they find useful. This in turn can lead to a "publication" of a set of edited reports on the subject for a larger group.

Occasions. Using public occasions on campus -- poetry readings, gallery openings, concerts, plays -- as the basis for a written discussion has a number of potential benefits. Students can be told at the outset of a course that they need to participate in written discussions on a certain number of "occasions" during a term or year. Since more than one or two students need to attend for the discussion to work, the students need to persuade a stated minimum number of their colleagues to attend and participate (this persuasion can be done in writing, particularly if you have a computer bulletin board program or an actual cork bulletin board in the classroom, or somewhere else convenient, where invitations can be posted). In order for an occasion to "count" there has to be a minimum number of participants. (This depends in part on the size of the class; I've often used about eight as a minimum.) Each participant has to write and post (a) a reaction to the occasion and (b) at least one response to someone else's reaction.

Guidebooks. With some advance planning, groups of students can be given the responsibility to research and prepare "guides" to plays, movies, or other occasions. These are printed -- often as a four-page (one sheet folded) leaflet -- and distributed in advance to audiences. They often include background information (for instance, accounts of previous productions of a play, historical context or information on sources for a movie, biographical and social information on a composer or artist). Because this sort of publication is literally public, it affords an opportunity for editing to serve a meaningful function.

There are many more possibilities. The central issue is that this sort of writing (unlike formal essays or essay exams) should never be evaluated and graded: its purpose is to engage the student in authentic dialogue using the medium of written language.