The (Design) Studio Approach to Teaching Writing

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“Figure 06.1 Governance versus anarchy” by Jurgen Appelo is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (new window)

Over the last 5 years, I’ve found my teaching radically transformed by the studio practices of design fields. What, though, does an architecture charrette, mechanical engineering course, or graphic design studio have to teach me about the teaching of writing?

After encountering articles relating design to writing and teaching (Purdy (new window) and Marback (new window) to name just two) — and growing attention at conferences to studio, design, and making — I’m increasingly convinced that design methods and studio practices are often more appropriate to how I understand the challenges of teaching writing — and of the kind of thing writing is — than the ways that I was initially taught to teach writing.

As a field, Writing Studies recently has grappled with an increasingly complex understanding of writing and rhetorical interaction, whereas it’s my sense that most traditional approaches to the teaching of writing aim to simplify writing, to reduce its complexity, in order to make it manageable for the novice undergraduate. Think of the 5-paragraph essay, the emphasis on being “clear and concise” above all else, and the linear process for writing so often cemented in a textbook or a syllabus. These are all technologies for reducing writing’s complexity. But perhaps simplifying writing for our students does not equip students with the knowledge, habits, and dispositions to write “in the wild,” as Paul Prior famously puts it.

Design fields begin with a problem’s complexity and engage with it in ways self-consciously construed to maintain complexity. Like the image above implies, teaching writing in a way that aims for complexity, itself somewhere between order and chaos, asks us to craft writing experiences perched, however precariously, between anarchy and governance. So, what practices can we borrow from design fields and how can we adapt them for writing courses? In order to offer these suggestions I draw on a multimedia project “Learning as Coordination: Postpedagogy + Design” that I co-authored with Steph Ceraso, which is forthcoming from enculturation (new window), a chapter “Failing Forward” in the forthcoming collection Redesigning Liberal Education, co-authored with Maggie Debelius and Sherry Linkon, and an in-process, as-yet untitled article on student research, co-authored with Karen Shaup.

Start with a problem rather than a question.

Ask students to start with a complex problem that affects them or others — a real problem from the world, including but not limited to campus. Doing so invites students to see writing as one tool at their disposal when attempting to intervene in truly complex problems. Borrow designers’ exercise of asking “how might we?” as a way of generating ideas for making change. I have been pleasantly surprised at how often students come to see that writing (in one genre and mode or another) is inevitably necessary when pursuing change of any kind. And once students begin to see writing as a tool for acting in the world, we’ve moved away from writing understood strictly as a way of answering questions or demonstrating knowledge.

Go public.

For high impact experiences and visible results, student writing needs to be for an audience besides us. Borrow the model of the studio critique (think of the judges on Top Chef). Students can pitch their ideas for writing interventions — campaigns, petitions, graffiti, social media, proposals, the creation of alliances among those in power, etc. — to people more expert in the problem than you and me. Yes, this raises the stakes and creates some risk, but it also generates a sense of real reward, of working for something that matters besides the grade, or at least in addition to it. And once students get feedback from the crits, assign the public circulation of their attempts to intervene in complex problems. Going public means we’re exercising the real intellectual and affective muscles that students will need to be honed the next time that they find themselves in the situation of needing to learn how to write in an unfamiliar situation and with the desire to make an impact (and there will be many “next times”).

No one writes alone.

In studios of all kinds, work is always teamwork. In my writing-oriented design studios, every project is a team project, and I try to be a free agent member of every team, adding ideas and suggestions when useful. Most professional work (including academic work, increasingly!) involves collaborative writing on a very different model than the single-authored model of academic tradition. Think of it this way: if we raise the risk profile of a writing class by insisting on public circulation, we balance that with the shared responsibility and pleasure that comes with teamwork.

There’s lots — lots! — more to talk about on this subject, and if you’re interested, please reach out. I’m happy to share materials, experiences (including failures), and resources.

-Matthew Pavesich