Distraction-free writing, Fall 2011 #252ac

Given the relative wealth of “distraction-free” writing programs available online, each purports to be unique in promising to deliver the same, basic thing: increased focus on the task at hand. Both the programs themselves and their descriptive pitches enable and frame the act, purpose, and value of writing in different ways. Some are very process-oriented; others are more expressive. Many exhibit stark, monochromatic styles, harkening back to simpler times. 

In other words, certain programs invite certain kinds of writers. For instance, Writer for iPad implies concern about "destroying the voice and the organic structure of our original thought." Meanwhile, Ommwriter "believes in making writing a pleasure once again, vindicating the close relationship between writer and paper." Furthermore, WriteRoom "gets your computer out of the way so that you can focus on your work." These programs are pitched and presented more as environments than tools. They are more spaces for us to write from/within and less instruments facilitating the writing process, if it is a process at all.

So, let’s see if any of these programs fulfill their promises. Many are available for free or at minimal cost, so I encourage you to download a couple of the following:

For the more adventurous among us:

To better focus our discussion of and thoughts on distraction-free writing, I'd like for us to complete the following:

Part 1: Experience (blog, Monday, 10.31.11). Describe what it's like to write from/within the space of a distraction-free writing tool. Boot up one of the distraction-free writing tools listed above and write from and of the experience. Is this familiar? Is it foreign? Is it nostalgic? Even romantic? Furthermore, what kind(s) of writing or writer(s) does this tool invite and/or discourage? How does writing via this tool compare to your standard word processor? Think stream-of-consciousness. Whatever form this experiential writing exercise takes is fine, but it should be substantial. Be sure to post it by 2:30PM, Monday, 10.31.11. 

Part 2: Application (blog, Wednesday, 11.2.11). Write something else, something more specific within the space of a distraction-free writing tool. Boot up one of the distraction-free writing tools listed above and write about a course-related issue or topic. This can be a creative or a critical piece of writing, but do begin and complete it using one of the distraction-free writing tools listed above. Be sure to post it by 2:30PM, Wednesday, 11.2.11.

Personal writing history, Fall 2011 #252ac

Reflecting on our relationships with writing can help us understand how and why we write and, by extension, how our own writing strategies are similar to and different from those around us. By putting such reflection into the form of an autobiography, we have a chance to get to know each other better in a unique way.

So, compose a piece of at least 750 words detailing your life of/with writing. The approach you take is rather open-ended. The main focus should be on your relationship with writing, but you can take a chronological perspective, share a series of anecdotes about writing, and/or note particular progress in your ability and understanding of writing. If you have any questions about this, don’t hesitate to contact me. I’d be happy to discuss approaches/ideas.

  • What early experiences with writing devices or artifacts can you recall? What do you remember about your earliest writing(s)?
  • Who do you identify as being most literate person in your life? What makes that person's relationship with writing so special; that is, what behaviors or characteristics does he or she exhibit? What have you learned from him or her?
  • Do you think there are social consequences or potential impacts on your lifestyle that depend on your writing capabilities? What might these social consequences or potential impacts be?
  • What will it mean to be a writer in the near future?
  • What's on your desk at home and/or office at work? What writing devices are you carrying now? What's on your writing “wish list?”
  • What writing technologies do you own or know about that would be of benefit to your classmates?
  • How do you learn new writing technologies? What process do you go through? Is it hard, fun, easy, traumatic, boring, annoying, or some combination?

Be sure to post it to your blog by the start of our 9.12 session.


Reverse-Engineered Scholarship, updated Fall 2011 #111cr

Reverse engineering is the process of extracting craft knowledge from a human-made artifact. While this activity may be more common in some fields than others, e.g., electronics over furniture, anyone who has ever taken something apart in order to better understand it could be considered a reverse engineer. This assignment asks for you to consider yourself one, too. 

According to Electronic Design, reverse engineering can take several forms:

  •  A product tear-down identifies the product, package, internal boards, and components.
  • A system-level analysis examines operations, signal paths, and interconnections.
  • A circuit extraction de-layers electronics to the transistor level and then extracts interconnections and components to create schematics.
  • A process analysis examines the structure and materials to see how something is manufactured and what it is made of. 

For the purpose of this class, you will be conducting process analysis*.

The Assignment 


This assignment asks that you begin at the end, that you start with a finished piece of writing and work backward. It is similar to the other “Scholarship” assignments in that it asks you to pay attention to particulars of a piece of written work. While Pop Up and Mashup Scholarship consider audience, grammar and syntax, organization, and source materials, Reverse-Engineered Scholarship focuses on argument, idea development, and the method or process of how we write. 


Choose one of the longform articles below or submit one for instructor approval** by 5pm Friday, 10.13.11.

Part 1. (online, due Tuesday, 10.17.11) Upon reading your chosen article, pare it down into the form of a shitty first draft***, eliminating at least 50% of the published article’s content. Post this form to your blog and reflect on your paring choices. In your reflection, consider what’s essential about the article, what ideas or information perhaps came first. 

Part 2. (online, due Thursday, 10.19.11) Pare your chosen article down even further into the form of a basic outline. Post or upload both forms to your blog and reflect on your paring choices. The outline and initial curiosity/perplexity involves some educated guesses on your part, forcing you to think more like the original author of your chosen article. In your reflection, consider the author’s interest in the subject matter and how it is similar to or different from your own interest. This is also an opportunity for you to justify your overall reverse-engineering of the article.


*If one of the other forms of reverse engineering is more appealing to you, please contact me for instructor approval.

**Given this assignment’s connection to The Big One, it may behoove you to choose an article about your area of interest.

***If you would like to use your own identified method or process for writing rather than what’s asked in Parts 1 and 2 of this assignment, please contact me for instructor approval. 

Pop Up Scholarship, updated Fall 2011 #111cr

The inspiration for this assignment comes from VH1’S Pop Up Video, a show that presented little pop up windows -- officially called "info nuggets" -- during music videos. These pop ups contained all kinds of information, ranging from the band/artist and lyrical interpretation to sociopolitical commentary and little known facts. An example can be found here. VH1’s Pop Up Video is a kind of writer/text collaboration as it not only involves more than one kind of text but also more than one kind of author; furthermore, the show itself is rather light-hearted and all about linguistic play.

The Assignment

Part 1. (print, due Monday, 10.10.11) To develop a better working knowledge of discursive practices in written communication, choose a recent article from a journal or magazine related to your area of interest. After printing out a copy of the article, converting it from .pdf to .doc or simply cutting and pasting it into Google Docs, Microsoft Word or other similar word processor, go through the entire document as you would in peer review. In other words, make observations on format/style, ask questions oriented to the text/field of study, delete unnecessary sentences, insert new sentences. Be sure to give justification for all changes. Track/insert at least 3-5 changes/comments per page and insert a brief end comment after the conclusion paragraph. Keep the idea of Pop Up Video in mind, though. Don't hesitate to get playful and/or experimental with the text.

Part 2. (online, due Monday, 10.10.11) Use Part 1 as the basis for a blog entry about the particular discursive practices within your area of interest. How you construct this blog entry is up to you. I encourage you to provide a simple walkthrough of your comments and observations and suggested changes to the document, a conventional collection of bulleted points, or a scan/upload of the actual document accompanied by your own further commentary. In the blog entry, make sure to have some conclusions about the nature of writing within your area of interest, if you see any problems, or if you think all those writing about in your area of interest should write like this and why.

Part 3. (online, due Wednesday, 10.12.11) Having not only blogged your comments and observations but also read the comments and observations of others, compose an additional blog entry in which you reflect further on not only how to write within your area of interest but also how to write within others' areas of interest. Ask yourself about similarities and differences and what this might reveal about the very nature of written communication. Think as well about whether or not you look forward to writing in such a style/format and how this will change the way you write in the future (if at all).

Future assignment: The reverse-engineered essay

Among the ideas behind assignments like Mashup Scholarship and Pop Up Scholarship are that students need lots of practice writing and that they need to perform this practice in different ways. By explaining why and reflecting on how they perform academic writing instead of just producing 4-5 essays over 16 weeks, I like to think that more is happening here. The performance, i.e., the essay, is but one way of showing proficiency. The ability to reflect on that performance before, during, and after is just as important.

Such assignments also challenge how we should conduct ourselves in relation to academic writing. We need not be serious as a heart attack when discussing particulars of the kinds of writing students will be expected to do in college. There is no reverence in Pop Up Scholarship, given how much I encourage students to approach the assignment in much the way Pop Up Video did its own subject matter, i.e., with an affable, critical, knowledgeable, and playful edge. Furthermore, Mashup Scholarship invites students to do what other writing instructors may balk at.

However, both assignments focus on somewhat specific aspects of writing, including audience, grammar and syntax, organization, and source materials. Neither account much for argument or idea development, though, focusing and reflecting instead on the end result over whatever process produced it. This is not to say that my first-year writing courses are bereft of discussion concerning argument, idea development, or writing processes, only that I haven't devised a clear assignment addressing them. I think I might have something for my Fall 2011 class that does, though.

During my first year at UM-Flint, I had the privilege of working with a fourth-year student on an independent study project about comic-book writing. The student's semester-end project was a 25-page script of an origin story for a new superhero. Helping the student get to that point was an earlier assignment in which he reverse-engineered Dennis O'Neil's Batman: Birth of the Demon, breaking it down into constituent parts for further examination, seeing how the frames, panels, and pages fit together, and where O'Neil likely began.

A recent column on plagiarism got me thinking about reverse-engineering again. Even if a student were to reverse-engineer a plagiarized essay, they will undoubtedly still learn something worthwhile in the process, yes? Both Mashup and Pop Up Scholarship as well as some of the required reading in my first-year courses lean toward the idea of reverse engineering. This is something I want to explore more with students. So, similar to Mashup Scholarship in that I ask students to do something they and/or other professors may have reservations about, reverse-engineering an essay asks students to fill in the steps that led to final publication.

I'm still working on the specifics of the assignment, but here's some starting language:

Choose one of the longform articles below or submit another for approval. In an entry this week, provide context for and a summary of your chosen article. That is, note the author, the publication in which the article appears and when, etc. It's pretty much impossible to reverse-engineer an essay you haven't read.

Using either the sample steps provided below or your own identified process, reverse-engineer your chosen article. Over the next two weeks, we will move from revised drafts to shitty drafts to outlines to brainstorming to initial curiosity/perplexity. In other words, we will work backwards until we have reached a satisfactory starting point for your chosen article.


I welcome any/all feedback on this. Do you see particular use in devising such an assignment?