An "Academical Notebook"
Chris Carlsmith, Graduate Student Associate, TRC and Department of History
During one of the sessions at the January Teaching Workshop, I asked the audience to brainstorm in response to the question "What makes writing easy?" Answers included: a friendly audience, being seen as the expert, a clear sense of purpose, the chance to write in my own style, a specific topic, and enthusiasm for the subject. Next I asked them to describe "What makes writing difficult?" Some responses were: an imagined critical audience, time pressure, lack of adequate vocabulary, a required topic, an overly technical topic, and too much self-editing. In reviewing these two lists, we realized that the assignments we formulate for our students often draw from the latter list far more frequently than the former. No wonder our students approach writing assignments with a sense of trepidation!
One solution to this apparent problem is to ask students to keep an "academical notebook", more commonly known as a journal. A journal is a cross between a diary (first person, subjective, personal) and a class notebook (third person, objective, filled with "facts"). It allows the student to combine his/her emotional reaction to a subject with an intellectual reaction, a process that will raise both the level of student interest and the quality of thought.
Introducing a journal into classroom use is not difficult to do. Either a spiral notebook or a binder will serve, and a larger size will allow students to add clippings and pictures as appropriate. Insist that students date each entry, and encourage them to write for at least 10-15 minutes each time they make an entry in their journal. You will need to provide them with questions in the beginning until they have a clearer sense of how you want them to use the journal (see below for some sample questions). Ask to see the journals occasionally during the semester, and allow students the freedom to remove or fold over a page that they don't wish you to read. You may wish to respond to what students have written, or just flip through their entries in order to have a sense of what they are writing about; it depends on the size of the class, the issues they are writing about, and if the journals are graded or not.
Student journals provide a number of benefits both inside and outside the classroom. They can be used to help focus a class at the beginning of the period, or to pull together what has been learned at the end. They can often replace quizzes or worksheets as a measure of what students are learning. Journals allow a reticent student to establish an opinion about a topic before being asked to speak about it publicly, and the simple act of writing will often stimulate more careful reflection upon complex issues. Journal writing turns students into active learners - it's difficult to fall asleep while writing! Journal writing also helps students to relax when they write and helps them find their own voice and rhythm. Journals can be a way for students to respond to readings, films, and speakers, as well as to chart the evolution of their thought over a period of time. Lastly, journals can provide a way for you to establish a written dialogue with your students in addition to the oral exchange that typically dominates classroom time.
Journals can be used across a wide variety of disciplines, as a few examples may show.
Journal writing provides students (and instructors) an opportunity to experiment with different types of writing, which ultimately should improve the quality of students' written and oral thought. If you are interested in learning more about the uses of journal writing in the classroom, please contact the TRC for more information. [Adapted from a session at the 1994 January Teaching Workshop entitled "Writing to Learn".]
Elbow, Peter. Writing without Teachers. (New York: Oxford University Pres, 1973).
Fulwiler, Toby. "Writing is Everybody's Business" in National Forum: Phi Kappa Phi Journal LXV, 4 (Fall 1984), 21-24.
Fulwiler, Toby. "Journals Across the Disciplines" in English Journal 69, 9 (Dec. 1980), 14- 19.
Steffens, Henry. "Journals in the Teaching of History", in The Journal Book, Chap. 22, 219- 226.