Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

How We Feel About What We Write and Teach

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Reading Time: 3 minutes

I came across this list of notable Africa American literature (thanks Remi Kalir) and decided to go to the Kindle store and get some. Then Amazon of course recommended others. So I got some of those, too. Well, I got some samples and bought some. Quite a few on that list are not yet published.

One of the first ones I started reading was a collection of essays by Zadie Smith called Changing My Mind (recommended by Amazon, not the list) and the first one comes from a speech she gave. It’s Ch7 That Crafty Feeling. It’s about her writing process and it made me reflect on my writing and teaching. So here is my capturing a few thoughts.

How We Feel About What We Wrote Before

She talks of how she and another author are almost terrified or ashamed of things they had written earlier. I was recently telling a friend (and I tell this story often) that my most frequently cited academic article is among my worst productions. I find it shallow and not radical enough, and my thinking about it changed between the time it was accepted for publication and when it was actually published (maybe 6 months?). So I get that feeling. If that article is all you ever read by me, then you don’t know me at all. Please hide me somewhere. But, around the same time I wrote that article, I wrote two others. One for a journal, one for a magazine. Both of these were published faster. Both of them were a source of pride when I published them. Both continue to be used and cited today, and both I am still proud of. One of them was such a timely piece for its time. But its message somehow seems to continue to have relevance and I continue to recycle and expand on its ideas to this day. It was a moment of clarity near the end of my PhD dissertation and I worked with the editor of the magazine to help me write it for a wider audience of readers. It’s Critical Citizenship for Critical Times, written during 2013 ouster of president Morsi in Egypt. But the messages in it apply all these years later to many different contexts.

I’m thinking now… I think maybe I haven’t had anything as good as this piece ever published. But I also haven’t had something as awful as that other article people cite so often. Maybe I learned a lesson never to publish something half-assed? I don’t know. Maybe I try to publish stuff I have thought about for a long time? But I also blog. Maybe the blogging became my space for incomplete and incoherent thinking, for a string of thoughts over time, such that I have more room to think more clearly for stuff I publish elsewhere? I am unsure. I think the speed of blogging and getting things out there immediately helps ensure ideas are current and can get immediate reactions… and that helps my thoughts develop better. As I write them, and as they get written. But these are not novels, of course. Novels are a different beast.

On Scaffolding

“If you are writing a novel at the moment and putting up scaffolding, well, I hope it helps you, but don’t forget to dismantle it later”

This seems obvious but I realized something we do in teaching that doesn’t follow this properly. We need to know when students need support and when we can remove the support rather than keep it there and encourage dependence on them.

As I start thinking about how I hate rubrics because I don’t want students to be suffocated by them…but I want to be transparent with them and help them become better writers… I need to think about how to give them guidance that will later enable me to pull away and have them evaluate their own writing and improve it on their own.

On Editing

I have always known this about editing. But now it’s explicitly there and I know I have always had this problem editing other people’s work if I have to do it over and over in a short period of time.

Step away from the vehicle. The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer…

that’s true of the professional editors, too; after they’ve read a manuscript multiple times, they stop being able to see it.” (emphasis in Original)

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