Using a “menu of options” assessment approach.

I have been experimenting with an approach to grading and feedback that I haven’t seen many other teachers doing, and a couple of people have asked for me to write it down. In the below I’m going to explain the “menu of options” approach I’m now using, and also say a bit about using pass/no pass assignments in the context of still assigning grades to a class as a whole. And I’ll share the way I talk about this in my current syllabi.

I’ve been writing about grades as a hinge point in the epistemic extractivism of higher education, but I’ll try to not veer off into the theoretical underpinnings of why I think this matters. I’ll just say that in my experience people hate being graded, people hate grading, and grading is the point at which really painful things like plagiarism and disciplinary proceedings proliferate. Grading is the thing that brings out the parts of my role as a teacher that I hate most – acting like a cop or the functionary of an empty credentialing system, forcing people to do useless work that then becomes further useless work for me. But responding to students, hearing what they’re thinking about and what they’re into, helping them figure out things they didn’t know before, watching them build capacities they didn’t have and become more fully and interestingly themselves – I love these things! These are some really strong antidotes to alienation under the neoliberal edufactory!

Since assessment is a key part of my job, and since I don’t actually think it’s wrong to have points for pausing and reflecting on whether learning is happening, I’ve been working on making assessment schemes that do a few things. I want them to:

  1. Help me articulate what I’m teaching through getting explicit about how I’d know that students were learning stuff.
  2. Be an infrastructural bulwark against ableism, racism, classism, and other vectors that punish students for not being rich, white, Christian, and second- or more-generation university students.
  3. Again infrastructurally start from the fact that people including me have lives that can get weird or have ongoing challenges, and that I don’t want them to have to get doctor’s notes, disability accommodations, or even tell me if their kid or parent is sick or if they’re having a pain flare.
  4. In the context of Covid, assume that people will very likely need lots of slack time in the term.
  5. Assume that students are interesting, interested adults who can make their own decisions about what they prioritize in their life and learning and that this is not up to me to manage.

ENTER THE MENU OF OPTIONS

The “menu of options” approach to assessments that I’ve been doing for the past two years in my undrgrad classes has so far worked really well towards these goals, though of course it’s a continual work in progress. It’s like arriving at Subway, Harvey’s, or a poke bowl place: You arrive at the counter and choose what base, substance, and extras you want. In my classes, the base is self-reflections, the substance is “content stuff,” and the extras are a summative project.

Base: 10% of the grade comes from three self-reflections, which ask students to write up what they want to get from the class and how they would know they had done that, a mid-term check in about how that’s going and decision about changing goals, and an end of term backwards look at how it went.

Content engagement: 75% of the grade comes from “are you actually reading stuff, thinking about it, working on learning things the class is teaching you, getting better at articulating what you learned” and so on. What this actually looks like varies, but for example in the third year social movements class that the syllabus excerpt below is taken from the ingredients here can come from short weekly assignments or the take-home exam. The weekly assignments are themselves broken up into “capacity assignments,” “learning from movements,” and “investigating ideas” options, which means there’s three short assignment options each week. Some of these can be done in class if students attend, or always on their own timeframe.

All of these have a firm deadline, and there’re many more of them than they can actually count in their final grade, so if they miss a week, or only want to do the “ideas” assignments, that’s fine. My weekly assignments are just pass/no pass, but you could do this with graded assignments too. The magic parts, I think, are having the revision option, and having many more opportunities for work than they actually need to do well in the class. In this example, there are 120 possible points they can pick from in the “Content Engagement” menu option, but only 75 of those points count toward their final grade. If they do just the reflections and content stuff they can get an A in the class through entirely pass/no pass assignments.

I give them short responsive feedback (often on the level of “really great quote selection here!” or “you might want to read In Defense of Looting if you’re interested in property destruction and social movements”). If they didn’t do a good enough job to meet my minimum standards I tell them what they got wrong or need to work on (“So the question asked you to talk about x, but you didn’t ever do that. What does x tell us about y?”), and they have a week to submit a revision.

I can’t overemphasize how relaxing this is for me. I no longer have to negotiate with students who need an extension, because they can just skip that week with no penalty. Or they can put in an earnest but really crappy attempt and just revise it when it doesn’t pass. But I also can’t explain how much better their work is! I’m used to getting a lot of really stiff writing, often with tons of lifting from Wikipedia. These short pieces end up actually sounding like my students, I see the point of telling them things because they have the chance to revise, and they write much much more than in regular papers. I don’t grade in a defensive posture of knowing they’ll just be looking at the grade and that I’ll have to justify giving them a grade lower than they want.

If they want an A+, or they just like doing longer projects rather than piddly weekly work, they can do a summative project, which is a regular scaffolded writing or creative piece with a proposal, mid-way check in, and final product.

PASS/NO PASS GRADING

For the past ten years, I’ve been experimenting with including responsive rather than primarily evaluative assignments in my classes – that is, assignments where I’m giving students feedback but no grade. One way I’ve done this a lot in previous classes was to have a paper worth, say 20%, and then have a draft option worth 5%. If students did an earnest draft – answering the question, meeting the page minimum, etc, they would automatically get a 5/5 and responsive comments for revision. Then their final version would be marked out of 15 instead of 20, and would receive just a summative comment. Students who didn’t do the draft would simply be marked out of 20, with the usual marginal and summative comments. This worked really well, both as a grade boost and to make substantially better papers that were a pleasure to read.

This approach has evolved into the current menu, where all of the “during the term” work is marked pass/no pass, and only the final take-home and the summative project are conventionally graded. There’s a lot that can be said about this and a ton of really interesting work on ungrading, specifications grading, contract grading, and other approaches to assessment that aren’t just giving a grade. I think that much of this work is right that grades are racist, sexist, ableist, fatphobic, and just generally a way the existing power hierarchies of the world as it is are mystified and rendered as objective assessments of worth. But I’ve become concerned that approaches like labor-based contracts, where students are graded based only on how much work they put in, also replicate existing structures through rewarding people who have time to put in to the contract. I’m also convinced that it doesn’t work to only have short weekly assignments – many students do better with and prefer a deep-dive push of the kind you get with a big project or take-home exam. But it has worked well to integrate the pass/no pass options into a standard cumulative grade, since I’m still required to give a final grade.

ISN’T THIS SO MUCH WORK?

The main question I get from people about the menu option and about offering revision as part of weekly work is: Isn’t this just way too much work? I will say that I’m a super fast reader and so that reading a lot of written work might feel like less work to me than it does to others. Also I find commenting on written work much more rewarding when I know that it’s heading for revision if it isn’t up to par, so that’s qualitatively more satisfying work for me. Last Winter I had 95 students across three classes (one grad class of 15, one 4th year seminar of 25, and a 3rd year class of 55. I had a TA for my third year class. For that one, I didn’t have the TA mark any of the weekly work, instead using their time to meet with students, work on summative project drafts, and to help with marking the take-home. Only one of the classes was a completely new prep, the other two being just lightly revised syllabi that I’d taught at least once before. It was a lot of teaching work, for sure, but I don’t think that it was more than I would have done with conventional grading, and I liked it better. If you’re considering experimenting with these things, you could try having one pass/no pass assignment on term, and another term try incorporating more of the “menu of options” approach, and just see how it feels.

Again, I no longer: Require attendance or participation, require doctor’s notes for illness or disability, require students to disclose intimate details of their lives to me, or have extensive negotiations for extensions. I just tell people to choose different stuff from the menu – future weeks, or bigger projects. But for both my own workload needs and because I think it’s actually better for students, I do have firm deadlines. If they miss deadlines, there are many many other options for them. Weirdly I have had strong attendance and solid participation since stopping including these in the grades for classes. And the feedback I’ve gotten from students specifically about the flexibility of assessment options – once they figure it out – has been just great.

Here’s how I talk about this in my syllabus.

ASSESSMENT & FINAL GRADES

We will be using a pass/no pass grading approach for most of the assignments in this class, with a “menu of options” scheme.” This means that for everything except the take-home and summative assignment options I will evaluate only whether you have done or not done the assignments or tasks – you will pass or not pass each assignment. I commit to telling you this directly and clearly (so, for example, if you respond to a reading or capacity reflection without sufficient engagement, I will tell you so and give you direction for revision). If you receive a “no pass” on any assignment you are welcome to revise it within one week, as many times as necessary, to bring it to a satisfactory level. I will give you responsive feedback rather than letter grades on the work in progress, and a summative final letter grade based on the work you completed in the course overall. You decide what letter grade you get and do the work required for that grade.

ASSIGNMENTS

You need to do Part A, and then it’s up to you how much of menu options from parts B & C you want to do.

A (required, up to 10 points/10%): Three self-reflections (P/NP)

•           assessing what you want from the class at the start of term (due Sept 19th),

•           how it is going at mid-term (due Nov 7th), and

•           how it went at end of term (due Dec 5th).

If you do all of these, you’ll receive a 10% in the class, so you should add as many of the other menu options as you need to receive the grade you want

B (up to 75 points/75%): Content engagement. Choose your own adventure from as many of these as you want:  

•           Weekly capacity assignments (P/NP) (thirty points/30% possible, due each Monday at 11:30)

•           Weekly investigating ideas summaries (P/NP) (thirty points/30% possible, due each Monday at 11:30)

•           Weekly learning from movements quizzes/short papers/discussion posts (P/NP) (thirty points/30% possible, due each due each Monday at 11:30)

•           Final take-home exam (conventionally graded) (thirty points/30% possible, assigned Dec 5th, due Dec 22nd)

C (up to 30 points/30%) Summative project (conventionally graded)

•           broken down into 1. A 500 word proposal due Oct 17th 2. Earnest attempt amounting to half the work necessary for the project due Nov 14th 3. Final product or performance due Dec 5th. You must pass each developmental segment (proposal and earnest progress) to turn in a final project. In other words, this is not a project that you can do in a last-minute push. Please see the assignment sheet for more explanation about this!

The basic idea here is to give you the flexibility to choose what engagement with this material will best support your own learning goals and life. If you know that you vastly prefer doing large projects worth a lot of points, and you would like to receive a B- in the course, you could choose to do the take home and the summative project, along with the required reflections, and receive a score of 70, or a grade of B-. If you prefer to do short, manageable weekly work that keeps you engaged with the class in a low-stakes and ongoing way, you could plan to do the self-reflections and complete many of the weekly assignments to receive a score of up to 85% and a grade of A. Or you could do some weekly assignments and one of the longer end of term options. It is up to you. There is no way to receive an A+ without doing some weekly assignments and a summative assignment, however.

All weekly assignments open Monday at 11:30 am and close a week later. These must be in on time to be counted. If you want an extension on weekly assignments, simply turn in an earnest effort – really addressing the prompt at hand by the due date; if I judge it unsatisfactory you’ll have a week to revise. Submitting an assignment that just says “I would like an extension” does not count as an earnest effort – if small weekly work isn’t your jam, that is totally fine! Opt for the take-home and summative project menu choices in that case. Some weekly assignments will involve experiential learning, others will be quiz or short essay based, others will invite discussion.

Shary Boyle, Outside the Palace of Me – Virtual Spotlight Tour: Whiteness

  • (this was an access copy for a conversation about this work, Thursday, May 12, 1 – 2pm EST)
  • On the stage of this show, but also in our lives, we enact different roles; our expressive intent does not control the interpretive uptake we might receive. Thus talking about something like whiteness invites us to dwell with the complexity of social relations that are entirely made up but have real material effects. We make and remake our self and the world always in relation with others; Shary Boyle’s work here stages some relations with which we can identify or disidentify – figures, images, and also the space of the stage, other people who might move through it with us, in complex configurations of gaze and body. We experience whiteness this way, as a whole world we move through with others, a co-production in which we are differentially situated and for whom the meaning we make shifts depending on how others perceive and position us.  

I want to start by giving a few orienting guiderails for thinking about whiteness, especially in the Canadian context. Whiteness is a social relationship. It is made up, but it really exists and has effects. While there is no biological or physical marker that identifies someone as white, there are many social and political markers that do this.

  • Michael Omi and Howard Winant write, “there is a continuous temptation to think of race as an essence, as something fixed, concrete, and objective. And there is also an opposite temptation: to imagine race as a mere illusion, a purely ideological construct which some ideal non-racist social order would eliminate” (Omi & Winant, 1994, p. 54). They name the process through which race exists “racial formation.” This is the “sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed” (Omi & Winant 55).
    • So here, we can start by recognizing that whiteness as a social relationship of oppression and benefit has not always existed, that “white” is not a biological category, and we can ask what it will take to destroy the work it currently does – to make whiteness as a relation of oppression no longer exist. And we can reflect on how looking at art can help in that creative destruction.

Ethical orientations toward repair in climate change

Hamburg, 21 April 2022

(this was the access copy for the live version of this talk)

Jesuit priest, pacifist, and anti-nuclear activist Danial Berrigan once gave a famously short convocation speech at a New York high school. He came on stage and said only: “Know where you stand and stand there.” I’m interested in both parts of this instruction, the epistemic and the active. Knowing where we stand is a complex collective endeavor, in which we rely on networks of other people. Standing there is an activity, a form of holding space in the present and shaping the world to come. Knowing where we stand and standing there are achievements in which we express our personal, specific self. And they necessarily involve engaging the whole world, whether that’s in collaboration or opposition.

Part of the reason I come back to the intertwined injunction to know and to do involves Berrigan himself offering it. How can I think about this man, a Catholic priest who seems to have unflinchingly understood the wrongs of his church, remaining a Catholic priest in the face of fellow members of his faith using their position to harm others? Or knowing that the church promulgated “just war” doctrines? Or that it had historically been the motor for genocidal oppression through the church’s role in colonization? Berrigan interests me precisely because of his implication in horrific wrongs, and his formulation of what it means to respond to that implication by refusing to abandon the relationship. I think of my relationship with human-caused global warming, ecosystem damage, and ongoing extinction crises as similar in some way with Berrigan’s relationship with Catholicism – with the difference that there is no priesthood I can renounce as regards climate change.

I live in what is currently Canada. As a state, Canada relies on extractive industries and the colonial land-theft that sustains them. Canada seems to be committed to doing anything and violating anything in order to continue current practices around oil (not to mention trees, uranium, nickel, and many other substances rendered as extractible resources for profit). My relationship with oil, as an immigrant to Canada, is complex. I believe Canada should respect the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and thus Indigenous law, live up to our commitments to address global warming and thus not build new oil pipelines, fulfill the explicit and implicit treaty agreements that founded the nation, end military interventions in other nations (including within our borders), and much more. As a Canadian, I pay into an unregulated pension plan that invests heavily in oil futures, as well as tobacco advertising, and migrant detention facilities on the US-Mexico border; I cannot change this investment. My taxes pay for military interventions and fund the politicians who ignore treaty relationships. I drive a car, turn on heat and lights, and fly to conferences. I’m complicit in Canada’s protection of resource extraction from pretty much any angle I think of, simply in virtue of the complex web of relations through which I live and breathe. I benefit differentially as a white immigrant mortgage-owner from histories of and present social relations of land theft and colonial oppression. In complex situations like, let’s be honest, just being alive, we make all sorts of compromises and become complicit in all sorts of things we would like to wash our hands of. I’m implicated, and perhaps complicit.

Solidarity Against Straightness – access copy

University of Hamburg, Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter

 Philosophisches Seminar

November 22, 2021

My core argument in this piece is: We should be in solidarity against straightness. I want to be on the side of straight people, against straightness as norm, institution, and system. While my own political orientation remains toward queerness of many sorts, I’ve come to think that my hazy earlier plan, to convince all my suffering straight friends that they should become queer, is both impractical and condescending. And I’ve become interested in the straightening of many non-heterosexual spaces, what my comrade Gary Kinsman is theorising as the “neoliberal queer”. In a moment when many young people no longer think of themselves as straight, where there is a certain proliferation of queer orientations, of ace sexualities and nonbinary genders, it is tempting to think that heteronormativity is dying a quiet death offstage. But, alongside these proliferations, straightness as a social relation of oppression and benefit weaves its way through our lives, a coproduction of eugenics, medicalisation, and neoliberal social structures organized around the monogamous, dyadic, reproductive family unit. How can we challenge straightness without recapitulating its core modalities?

 I’m interested here and always in how the affect, practice, and fantasy of solidarity can offer something helpful to our work for collective liberation across and with difference. To get there, I’m going to try to lay out some diagnostic criteria for straightness and consider what it would mean to betray straightness. Here I think about betrayal in line with work on white people becoming treasonous to whiteness in the ways that Mab Segrest articulates that possibility, when one wants to abolish a social relation in which one is embedded and from which one benefits. Wherever we are placed in relation to straightness, we experience the torque of ways it distributes benefit and harm as a stabilizing social relation of oppression and benefit. So, wherever we are placed in relation to straightness we have traction for opposing it personally and politically.

(I’ve taken down the rest of this paper, since it’s still very much in process, but if you’re working on this stuff and would like to read it, you’re welcome to email me to get whatever is the current draft.)

Porkopolis and The Secret Life of Groceries

There’s this ascendent form of writing showing up everywhere from self-improvement books to books about how complicated things are: Start with a story of a person, could be a person from history, could be someone who came to your workshop, could be someone who stands in as the exemplar of a situation too big and complex to get a handle on. Focus on that person’s story to help readers understand the human scale of the enormous forces affecting them and, by extension, us. This form of writing has a long history in political writing, and it’s for sure effective and grippy. We are story-based beings. Because of this, maybe, the stories we tell shape the scope of how we think about what’s possible, what we can do next – and this is one reason I’m inspired by the work of places like The Center for Story-Based Strategy, because they help re-imagine the kinds of stories we can tell. Also, I’m a total sucker for both stories and stories about irreducible, brain-exploding levels of complexity. So these two books, Alex Blanchette’s Porkopolis, and Benjamin Lorr’s The Secret Life of Groceries, were like candy to read. Terrible, terrible, horrifying candy. I feel like, read them? But don’t stop where they stop, because there is a core problem with where they land with the stories they tell.

Both books tell really amazing narratives about our entanglement with and embeddedness in ramifying tangles of the material production of what we consume. Both show that things are waaaaaaaay more complicated than you’d imagined. But both land at the end in a kind of shrug – things are so complicated, so intensely intertwined, so impacted and so overdetermined that we just ¯\_(:( )_/¯ (that’s my edit to make the Shruggie emoji like, sad shruggie).

The Secret Life of Groceries will show you how everything in grocery stores is pretty fucked. Everything we buy comes to us by truck, shipped by truckers who are themselves a profit source that keeps the trucking industry going – trainees who end up paying to drive, experienced drivers losing money year after year, people living in rigs they don’t own. When we look at grocery workers, shrimp production, how new condiments come to market, we find that it’s all, just, impossibly bad. Benjamin Lorr is a beautiful and a clever writer, and this book has a lot of the compelling rhetorical turns that made his previous book (Hellbent, a brilliant reflection on yoga) unputdownable. But in this book his philosophical interventions are less grounded – a lot of the book is about judgement and the space of aesthetics, but he leaves out quite a lot of the politics of collectively determining what is good and beautiful – even in cases, like trucking or grocery working, where he mentions in passing the work of labor organizers.

Porkopolis will show you how everything in factory farming (pigs) is pretty fucked. Everything we touch, from asphalt to the covers of books, to the traces of pig fat in diesel fuel that we breathe in because of the grocery trucks driving on our roads, contains pig remnants. Alex Blanchette is also a beautiful and a clever writer, though in a much more consciously and unashamedly academic mode than Lorr (and with that particular frisson that one comes to expect these days from Duke books, like any one could be the one to coin a new, necessary theoretical term). Blanchette shows how growing pigs under conditions of vertical integration, as in the case of the company he did ethnographic work with, shapes not only the industrial pig but also the human workers needed to tend the pigs, the ecosystems around factory farms, and far-flung webbings of material conditions invisibly tied to the interspecies factory floor. The book is the result of years of careful and hands-on ethnographic work and it is interesting and complicated.

So I’ll read and recommend both of them. But they both end precisely where I wanted them to continue, to say – given this endless entanglement, to echo Eva Haifa Giraud’s also pretty unanswered question, What comes after entanglement?

Blanchette suggests we consider deindustrialization. He says, “For the story I have tried to tell across this book is not one of domination and unmitigated agribusiness power but, instead, one of creative desperation to keep this system afloat. So many processes, from the blood of mares and the taste of cate, to human kinship relations and musculoskeletal systems, are riveted through hogs to create this system of cheap meat. And many more will have to be added in the future to keep it running. Large-scale agribusiness is totalizing because it is so fragile (and fragile because it is so totalizing); it is a story not just of domination but also of desperation in its efforts to cling to shopworn forms of value that no longer seem sustainable” (245).

Here is a long quote from the end of Lorr’s work:

“This is to say, the great lesson of my time with groceries is that we have got the food system we deserve. The adage is all wrong: it’s not that we are what we eat, it’s that we eat the way we are. Retail grocery is a reflection. What people call the supply chain is a long, interconnected network of human beings working on other humans’ behalf. It responds to our actions, not our pieties; and in its current form it demands convenience and efficiency starting from the checkout counter on down. The result in both incredible beyond words – abundance, wish fulfillment, and low price – and as cruel and demeaning as Tun-Lin voluntarily choosing to return to those boats. To me this is a hopeful as it is depressing. We are in dialogue with this world, not at its mercy. We have a natural inclination toward what is right that is as powerful as any selfishness. But for those out there who bristle at this reflection, who want to scream the patently obvious fact that meat is murder, that labor without choice is exploitation, or whatever their own personal horror is, who want to shake the world awake to the fact that we are literally sustaining ourselves on misery, who want to reform, I very much don’t want to dissuade you so much as I want you to consider that any solution will come from outside our food system, so far outside it that thinking about food is only a distraction from the real work to be done. At best, food is an opening, like any maw, that might lead us inside. Somewhere darker, more unknowable, a place where the real work of change may finally begin.” (“Climbing out to Fresh Air”)

The thing is, the place we find ourselves is neither dark nor unknowable – many people, from pigs to shrimp workers, insemination experts, the people harvesting mare’s blood to produce the chemical that causes the sow to ovulate so that she can be inseminated on a schedule, the people driving the shrimp to market, the people sterilizing their boots to keep the pigs alive – know in the clear light of day how bad and wrong things are. And many of them, like the people organizing for the lives of migrant workers, know with great precision where the real work of change needs to begin. It’s not a mystery that we do terrible things to one another and our world, it’s just capitalism and colonialism, buttressed with hefty doses of border militarism and the continual threat of state-sanctioned murder. So I don’t regret reading these books, and I know that part of what’s happening with my response to them is all about the fact that any time I’m working on a book I come to read everything in terms of the work I’m doing – so right now, working on a book about collective organizing as a better response to complex wrongs, of course I’m frustrated at all books that focus on complex wrongs without telling us stories about how people do or might stand in solidarity with one another. More books to read! More books to write!

Choose your fighter

Writing advice! I have given so much of it. As part of a general feeling of not knowing what the fuck I’m doing, I’ve been revisiting giving advice at all. In particular, I’ve been wondering if it’s ever good to give writing advice. This is because it is literally my job to teach people to write and to support student writers at all levels,

https://i.pinimg.com/736x/58/34/e2/5834e27a06f2bc5701be2653c221fc0d.jpg

and so I’m interested in getting better at that. I’m also writing about diagnosis and spiritual crises right now and have found myself reading a lot of self-help books, and some of them are relevant to the whole question of advice and the more specific possibility of identifying writing typologies, ours and others’, with care.
Here’s the idea: We could be more deliberate in identifying what helps us write – and, just as important for those of us who mentor other writers, working with them in terms of what helps them write without believing that what helps us write will help them write. Maybe you’ve already got this figured out, but I’ve been teaching writing for twenty years now, and it feels like this month is the first time I’ve really understood this idea: Maybe the things that help me write won’t help anyone else write!
This shouldn’t really be a shocking thought. I was trained in writing composition in the mode of Peter Elbow’s injunction to support Writing Without Teachers – the idea that people have what they need and we can get out of their way while supporting their writing process, rather than imposing our own process on them. Much of my reading in the study of teaching and learning has been interested in what it means to support people in their own process. Still, for a long time I was a proponent of the view, advanced by Robert Boice, that the best way to write was in short daily units, despite the fact that this is not how I write. This view is helpfully demolished by Helen Sword’s article “Write every day!: a mantra dismantled”. Sword says:

“In this article, I call into question the Boicean premise – often preached, seldom challenged – that daily scheduled writing is the one true path to scholarly salvation. Based on an international study of 1323 academic staff, PhD students and post-doctoral researchers in fifteen countries, I offer evidence that the vast majority of successful academics do not in fact write every day; that the correlation between daily writing and high productivity is a tenuous one at best; and that academics who explicitly reject the ‘write every day’ formula can still be prolific writers. This is not to suggest that daily writing is a bad idea (quite the contrary) or that Boice’s strategies for increasing productivity are ineffectual or unwise (indeed, I practice many of them myself – dare I say ‘religiously’?) However, my research underlines the importance, particularly for academic developers, of treating with caution any prescriptive, one-size-fits-all advice that demands unquestioning obedience from its followers and imposes guilt and blame on those who stray” (Sword 312-313).


For two days last week, I was totally compelled by the book The Four Tendencies, a people-sorting modality by Happiness Project author Gretchen Rubin . This was captivating because it’s a book about akrasia – willing or wanting to do something but then not feeling able to follow through – and I’m really interested in akrasia, in myself and others. This book really helped me identify something about how I am motivated to write, so I’ll start with what was so helpful.
On Rubin’s account, there are four fundamental tendencies that people fall into as regards our motivation to act. She is careful to say that this is a diagnostic tool just for this action-motivation, not for, like, whether you’re a nice person. We could be UPHOLDERS, who are motivated reasonably equally by external and internal expectations – who respond to things others ask of them, or also they can set expectations for themselves and then do the things. As writers, these folks would find out what the comprehensive exam or tenure review process is in their department, decide how to fulfill it, and then do that. We could be QUESTIONERS, who are not at all motivated by external authorities or expectations but who are very motivated by their inner, self-motivated reasons. As writers they might ask many questions about things like why the exams or review process is like that and only do things if they can square them up with their inner motivations. Questioner academics might have a really hard time writing stuff that they know is bullshit, like grant applications, or that they’re doing to fulfill some nebulous professional obligation that they don’t believe in. We could be REBELS, who refuse to act in response to either external or internal motivations and who in fact can be pushed into full on resistance whenever anyone, including themselves, sets an expectation. Rebel academic writers might write prolifically and with ease about something that they find interesting or compelling – but as soon as their supervisor says that they really could turn it into a publishable paper get completely shut down about it. Maybe worse, as soon as they internally think that they should turn it into something in particular they might get blocked and resistant. Finally, we could be OBLIGERS, who are extremely motivated by external expectations but have a terribly difficult time actually doing anything if the only motivation is an inner expectation. Obliger writers would be people who really like writing with others, or who can write with some facility when there’s a deadline or specific task needed but totally fall apart when they – or, I should say “we,” I’m a textbook obliger – are turned out into a field to roam and graze with nothing required of us. Obliger writers might be able to get lots done if other people require it of us but have a terrible time when we’re on summer break or if we have an advisor who doesn’t expect us to submit stuff. If you don’t immediately know which is your writing style, you can take a quiz to find out what you are.
Now, as soon as I read this it helped me understand why I’ve always set up writing groups everywhere I’ve lived, why the main way I write is through submitting an abstract, then having to write the paper, then submitting the paper to a special issue, and like that. As a writer I set up external scaffolding to help me do things and to make me finish things. Sometimes this causes me lots of suffering (for my second book, because I didn’t have to have the whole thing done before having a contract, I complained about Past Alexis and what a pickle she’d put me in signing a contract; now I feel much more forgiving! I would never have written that book without that contract and a deadline). Having external expectations is really the only way I write the things I want to write. When my doctoral supervisor – a very kind and hands-off person – submitted a narrative evaluation of my progress the term after I’d finished my comprehensive exams that said “Alexis has not made any progress on her dissertation this term” I was completely horrified – and suddenly I started writing, a lot.
The other thing this typology right away helped me think about is the way I work with my thesis students. I often try to set clear expectations for them, to hold them accountable, to check in with them. I have a monthly thesis group, where people come together to talk about what they’re doing and to share work or practice for job talks. These are all things that work great – for writers who write the way I do! But reading with this typology I can look at my seven thesis students and pretty quickly identify them in likely clusters, and it’s even easier when I look back at all the grad students I’ve supervised over the last fifteen years: There are Upholders, who set goals internally and in conversation with me, and then plug along and meets them. When we set deadlines, work comes in, but also these students keep working along even if we haven’t been in touch for a few weeks. There are Questioners, who only do thesis work when they’ve figured out what their internal goals dictate – setting deadlines and expectations for them just slides right off them. There’re Rebels, who gets grumpy when given direction, including self-direction. And there are Obligers, who ask me to help build in some external accountability for their work and who turn stuff in if they believe I really require it (though it’s also clear that this only kind of works, since they also know I’m not going to be actually mad at them, nor do they believe that they will hurt me if they don’t turn in work – so they also set up structures with one another for meeting to write or share drafts where they feel they’ll let someone down if they don’t show, or do the work). So being able to think about my mentees in terms of what works for them instead of what works for me can be helpful, maybe even necessary. Applying my own writing medicine – escalating external motivations – to my Rebel students or my Questioner students might actively shut them down instead of facilitating their process! A lot of departmental graduate handbooks are written as though everyone is an Upholder, who just needs to identify their internal motivations, understand the external obligations put on them by the university, and do the work. But if you’re not that kind of writer, you’d need to backwards engineer your own motivation for doing that work – lining up what your own internal motivation is, understanding the choices you have and the consequences for them, or figuring out how to set up a scaffold to help meet your goals.
A lot of self-help books, The Four Tendencies included, have the helpful orientation that we’re not actually trying to change how we are – we’re trying to figure out ways to have less pain in relation to how we are. I think deliberately and carefully choosing how we narrate “what kind of writer” we are is helpful. Along the way we could trust that actually we do know something about ourselves. I have a friend who says that sometimes when she notices herself asking herself, in a mean way, “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you do this?” she turns it around and asks that as a genuine question – “What’s wrong with you, dear one? Why can’t you do this?” Maybe some of the time what’s wrong is that we’re applying medicine for a different problem than we have; cranking up the expectations when expectations make us flee, lowering expectations when we need expectations to fulfill our own goals. It doesn’t have to be these modalities. I could narrate my tendencies through my Chinese lunar astrological sign – fire tiger – or my hippie North American astrological chart (I’m a Capricorn with a Virgo rising and a Taurus moon, and yes it is amazing that I can even walk with all that earth in my chart, you should see it) or my Enneagram type (I actually don’t know much about this but people tell me I’m a Nine) or my Buddhist five wisdoms orientation (Padma-Vajra, I know, it’s weird), or the Sorting Hat (actually I don’t know what my House would be).
Anyhow, here’s the more general point than this specific self-help modality. What if we who are supporting other writers consensually and collectively thought through the ways we talk about “what kind of writer?” they are, knowing our own tendencies and tuned our writing support accordingly? I think it might be good.

Getting traction as writers

This exercise is interested in the difference between what we academic writers need to get traction in order to write and what our readers need to have traction in their reading of our writing. The joke about all undergrad papers starting with the phrase “Since the beginning of time, humans have…” is about the disjuncture between what they needed for traction and what pitches us out of a piece.
Almost all of us will have a few habitual things we do in order to start a run on a piece of writing – throat-clearing phrases, stylistic set-pieces, or opening “moves” specific to or popular in our discipline. Sometimes there are whole paragraphs or pages that are essentially just us warming up or figuring out how to get toward what we want to say. A lot of the time we only relate with these traction-getting writing habits at the editorial stage, and sometimes there’s a bit of a sense that we should not write them in the first place. This is understandable, because these traction-getting habits often feel clumsy, and sometimes they actively spin us as readers away from a writer’s central point. But we can use our own traction-loops to consciously and deliberately get traction when we’re spinning our wheels in our writing. And being able to identify them then allows us to more carefully edit our own work later.
I think it’s also important to be kind to our traction-tools, because for many of us, it is through writing that we figure out what we want to say. So having some warm-up drills that allow us to access the floating, flowy space where we think through something in the act of writing it is actually excellent and really important. It’s like singing scales before starting to learn a new tune. But we also want to find a bit of intentionality with traction, because the forms we use do also shape the possibilities for the paths our thinking takes. So this exercise is also meant to be used when you’re a bit stuck and could use some help moving to the “rough ground,” moving past your usual loops.
If your traction-getting habits are of paragraph-length, you might need an outside reader to help you identify them. They can tell you something like, well, you always start with a long thing about a teevee show that made you think something, but then you get in to something really interesting and it’s not about the teevee show at all. Or, you start every piece of writing with a long disclaimer about how you don’t have any time to write and so you’re just going to get this out there because it feels urgent and you hope people will forgive the mistakes. Etc. This exercise won’t help much with longer things like that, but it’s worth doing a bit of introspection on your own writing – with care and compassion – to identify those bigger repetitive patterns.

For this, we’re just working with the smaller, sentence-level catchphrases. So.

1. Identify a core concept/issue/problem that you’re working with or thinking about. Pick one of the below traction-getters (or if you already know what one of your favorites is, pick it!) and start a sentence with:

What this means is …
What this entails…
This is to say…
So,…

2. Then, start your next sentence with:
The most obvious things about [x] is…
What’s really important about this is…
That is to say…
At its core…
This goes beyond…

3. Next sentence:
Underneath this [concept/problem/issue] there are at least three supporting …

4. Next sentence:
[This concept/conversation/orientation] occludes, renders unspeakable, relies on turning away from …
If we don’t think about [x], we cannot do/understand/think about [y] or This bad thing happens.

At the editing phase you can just take out the bit that was giving you traction – usually the first part. It was just there to get you moving, and actually you likely have a perfectly lovely and clear full sentence immediately following. Though now that I’m thinking about it, there should be an exercise about giving readers traction; I will think about that.