In his book Writing without Teachers (1973), Peter Elbow focuses much attention on the merits of freewriting, particularly for beginning writers. Indeed, this sort of focus is not new for Elbow, and he has been known as an advocate for freewriting for decades. Further, Elbow is not alone in his adoration of freewriting, and it has long been a tenet of composition and creative writing instruction for decades.
However, the application of freewriting in virtual classrooms is a less discussed idea. I bring up this idea because Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers was one of the required texts for the course around which this blog is built: ENG 704 Teaching Writing Online.
Over the semester, I’ve thought about the concept of freewriting and its application to a virtual classroom. In my instruction of English Composition, in which I administer a seated, more traditional class, I utilize freewriting periodically, but I had not applied the technique to my online course: ENG 203 Introduction to Poetry. Although the two courses are different, there is some overlap, in places, and I think freewriting crosses many overlaps between various types of more specialized writing.
For me, one of the more important things about freewriting, other than the fact that if forces one to write, hopefully, free of self-imposed critical restraint, is that freewriting contains a time component. There is a bit of a sense of urgency to effective freewriting, I think, and this sense of immediacy, of needing to get as much information down as possible in the allotted time period, wherein lies a difficulty, I thought, with a virtual classroom. How do you replicate this sense of immediacy, which, ideally, frees the writer from the self-imposed restraint, in a virtual classroom?
I think a way that freewriting could be done effectively is to create an ‘assignment’ and structure it in the CMS, in our case Blackboard, as a “quiz” or “assessment,” each of which can be constructed with a time limit, after which the module no longer accepts new information. Although I haven’t set one of these up yet, I plan on constructing a trial run over the summer. In my head, at least, I could see this sort of setup working, an open “assessment,” guided by a prompt question or two, and featuring a dialog box where students can enter their freewriting. By setting a modest word limit, and detailing the ideas behind freewriting, most importantly the jettisoning of critical restraint, I think such a virtual exercise could be a decent proxy for freewriting in a seated class.
Nothing fancy, but perhaps decent food for thought. Elbow made a big footprint with Writing Without Teachers and it’s likely the freewriting techniques of which he was such a big advocate are not as difficult to implement virtually as I might have thought.