Curt Nehring Bliss

Curt Nehring Bliss
Associate Professor of Humanities
Director of Honors Studies
Finger Lakes Community College
Canandaigua, New York 

Teaching to Learn

You will love it there,” my colleagues insisted.

My curiosity piqued, I jumped at the invitation from the director of our campus writing center to attend a conference at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking in the spring of 2006. I was well known to extoll the virtues of academic conferences for their ability to provide both intellectual stimulation and sanctuary, but what was it about IWT that my colleagues deemed with such conviction would resonate with me?  

The conference topic squarely garnered my attention—“Great Expectations: Re-Visioning the Academic Paper.” At the time, a 2-year college writing and literature instructor at Finger Lakes Community College, I was working on a document for our WIC (writing intensive course) faculty that shared the same concern—“Rethinking the Research Paper.” Likewise, upon arriving in Annandale, I surely was charmed by a range of details: the inspired elegance of Bard’s campus in springtime, the distinct sincerity of Teresa Vilardi’s introductory welcome, the gravity of the oak tables and oversized chairs of Olin Hall’s seminar rooms. And while the keynote and the follow-up conversation surrounding the conference theme were deeply engaging—and especially validating—it was the small group sessions built on an invitation to write and share—the backbone of IWT practice—that really took hold of me. It dawned on me that in attending dozens of academic conferences and workshops all over the country, that this was the first time I’d ever been invited to actively participate, through writing, in the experience.  In the classroom, I’d been using free writing as a generative tool since I began teaching in the early 90’s, inspired by Natalie Goldberg’s seminal text Writing Down the Bones and deepened with my discovery of Peter Elbow’s Writing with Power a decade later. But writing among colleagues? At an academic conference? This was new to me—and it felt right.

The prompts we were invited to write from were playful—“Tell us about yourself, but include one lie”— and the summary margin notebooks we put to good use afforded us that necessary extra inch of space in which to effectively reflect, but what was most revelatory about that first IWT experience was the mutual respect and feeling of deep and comfortable collegiality generated during the workshops. Upon introducing ourselves, we discovered we were educators from a wide range of geographic and academic settings: from New York to California, teaching in public and private institutions from junior highs to graduate schools, prestigious and otherwise, and in disciplines that stretched across the curriculum. As the day advanced, it became evident that what we shared was a growing appreciation for the opportunity to practice what we all hoped to create in our classrooms: authentic engagement with a community of learners.

Upon returning to my college, I eagerly confirmed my colleagues’ insights about my predilections for the IWT experience and then scrambled to collect enough unused funds hiding in various budget lines to apply for the five-day “Writing and Thinking” workshop in July of that same year. I also began to collaborate with our writing center director to organize an on-site, writing-to-learn IWT workshop for our WIC faculty. We would eventually host two such events—both a one-day affair for fifteen faculty members and then a two-day event for forty-five—each receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback from attendees. Since that first April ‘06 conference, I have had the privilege of participating in a total of ten IWT offerings: three more annual conferences, three five-day workshops, one “Writer as Reader” workshop, and the two aforementioned on-site workshops here at my own Finger Lakes Community College.

In preparing for this essay—combined with some necessary spring cleaning of my office filing cabinets—I located every notebook, Institute handout, hotel receipt, bar tab, and travel authorization form from each of these experiences. A stack of pages measuring up to nearly half a foot high (you really churn out the words during those five day workshops), these documents detail everything from the incidental “ah-ha” moments to the radical, transformative shifts that fundamentally altered both my practice of teaching and thinking about learning.    

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so I’m sittin' here in room 308 of the Humanities building at Bard College writing the first free write of the week… Carley Moore is leading our group and I seem to know her from somewhere—perhaps a 4C’s conference from a few years ago, perhaps we have never met though there is something familiar about her and about all of this right now—isn’t there a term in some native tongue that refers to having a familiarity to a place you have never been—a ‘sense of home’ kind of gut-feeling to the unfamiliar?

And so begins my first private free write of the five day “Writing and Thinking” workshop on July 9th, 2006. I would turn thirty-nine in a few days, and with fifteen years of teaching behind me, I was hungry for an IWT experience to help me reimagine how I design courses and engage learners. I was fresh from teaching a course that benefitted, albeit belatedly, from my first encounter with IWT a few months prior—a team taught honors seminar on Ovid’s Metamorphosis and its musical adaptations over the centuries (from the traditional operatic treatments of the Orpheus & Eurydice story to the contemporary songs of balladeers and troubadours steeped in mythological tropes). And while students connected to the subject in satisfying ways, the classroom experience stubbornly nagged at me. Until returning from Bard in April with a newfound resolve to use the classroom for prompt-driven intellectual practice, our time together seemed to fall a bit flat: contrived discussions, half-assed collaborative group work, a disconnect between the model my colleague and I tirelessly provided and students’ own abilities to pursue authentic academic inquiry. In one day, IWT had whetted my appetite for an active investigation of my own learning instincts and to consider their various translations in the classroom. I was ready to spend the better part of a week, writing my way towards all I didn’t yet know.

What sets an IWT experience apart from nearly every professional development workshop or conference I have participated in is its unequivocal emphasis on active learning. Even conferences on ‘active learning,’ and I have been to them, are too often mired in PowerPoint presentations and straight-off-the-page reading of academic position papers. IWT clearly prescribes to the principle that we learn best by doing and offers workshops that provide ample opportunities to experiment and practice with the tools at the core of their methodology: free writing, loop writing, sharing, text rendering, keeping dialectical notebooks, and reflective writing. It was about midway through the five-day workshop when I experienced the full impact of these strategies and their contributions to active and deliberate learning. In a ‘Road-to-Damascus’ kind of moment, I became deeply and powerfully aware that I was conscious of the experience in which my own learning was occurring.

I’d never before encountered such a profound, visceral, throw-the-pen-across-the-room, meta-learning moment before—not in college, not in my classrooms, and certainly not in academic conferences. While this bit of ‘learning ecstasy’ probably occurred during one of the process reflection free writes designed to promote these kinds of metacognitive insights, looking over my notebooks now years later, I can’t find the actually reference to the emotional experience that lingers so deeply in my memory—no cryptic, mystical messages to myself, no ‘writing in tongues.’ But I do notice a shift in my marginal notes that records nuanced observations about the workshop’s process: “No disclaimers before reading our own writing,” “Sometimes the writing is private sometimes public,” “Everyone reads at least once,” “Carley doesn’t praise the quality of the writing, just moves on to the next person.” If I was going to create opportunities for these kinds of authentic meta-learning experiences for others, I needed to note all the various elements in play that may have contributed to my own learning epiphany.

In response to a reflective prompt on the second day, “What do you notice about yourself as a writer in this room,” I wrote:

I notice I write louder than anyone here. I often hear only my pen-point thudding against the table or clipboard. I notice that I am quite comfortable and could probably keep writing for hours…and I am breathing deeper than usual. I notice I am not judging myself in relationship to anyone at the table—no passive aggressive unconscious labeling, pigeon-holing, or hierarching (sic) of myself or others.

My observation speaks to the core of the space that IWT practice aims to create—a safe, non-judgmental environment where intellectual risk taking and honest relationships can flourish. A few specific aspects of the practice, I believe, are what help to create such a space. First of all I noticed that Carley participated in every writing and sharing task that she asked of us—a small detail perhaps, but one that infuses the learning space with trust, camaraderie, and a sense of shared value in its processes. I also noticed that everyone in the group was required to share, even if only a small portion of their writing. And through all of this there was never the pressure to impress. Now, after years of honing these practices on my own, I’ve come to recognize that the act of sharing what we write within a small group of people and insisting on attentive listening (pen in hand) can liberate learners from fear and trigger enough collective empathy to make even the shyest or most resistant learners open up and truly participate.

When Carley shared, toward the end of the five-day workshop, a list detailing “what makes a prompt particularly good,” I was struck at how one of the criteria—“good prompts are simultaneously open and constrained”—seemed to point to a core paradox at the heart of designing for deep learning. I was beginning to perceive a tangible, reproducible matrix in which these opportunities for learning could be orchestrated, a set of reliable and adaptable tools for inviting participants toward a deeper relationship with themselves as learners, and a counter to all those tacit notions that teaching and learning are, on some level, essentially haphazard, mysterious acts of providence. An influential text on learning theory by a young Parker Palmer, To Know as We are Known, expresses a resonant notion; in articulating his three basic criteria for an ideal learning space, Palmer writes that they must be designed with regard to “1) openness, 2) boundaries, and 3) a sense of hospitality.” Whether designing a prompt, a workshop, or a course, this principle continues to inform my endeavors as an educator. And while I’d long theorized and implemented this notion, it wasn’t until IWT gave me the opportunity to practice inside of it that this knowledge became truly embodied.

Perhaps most significantly, my first five-day workshop at IWT provided me the space to understand that the learning I was engaged in was an internal experience—motivated by my own thinking though writing. For while the collaboration with my fellow workshop participants and facilitator was by all measures reassuring, energizing, and inspiring, my insights were ultimately generated “from the inside out.” This insight has committed me to a set of design concepts and classroom practices that ideally provide students access beyond mere mimicry of the ideas and postures of their texts, classmates, and instructors to a more direct access to—and ownership of—their individual learning experiences.

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In the six years since that summer “Writing and Thinking” workshop, my own teaching style and methods have changed pretty dramatically. No matter what the course is, I design the curriculum and ground the experiences in basic IWT practices. I am not sure if it’s merely coincidence or a conscious decision of the Institute’s staff, but in my ten workshops and conferences, I have yet to have the same workshop leader. This has given me broad exposure to how each educator holds the core practices of the Institute consistent, while tailoring their implementation to their own personal styles (pacing, tone, rhythm, word choice, etc.), and has helped me to find my own voice inside the practice.

One of my favorite courses to teach, and one that allows me to use various ‘thinking through writing’ practices to their fullest expressions, is our Honors Retreat course. Taught on weekends at our college’s woodland field station on the south end of Honeoye Lake here in the Finger Lakes, this course is designed around a very IWT-like workshop schedule of 90-minute writing and sharing sessions with periodic breaks for meals, hikes, and canoeing. We use Lynda Barry’s genre bending, graphic/text collage What It Is, a text that is ripe for engagement with writing prompts that mine the core of our experiences as creative and critical thinkers. The course has become one of the most popular and successful in our Honors Curriculum.   

In addition to my own curriculum design and classroom practices, I have managed to imbed many IWT elements into the design of various campus-wide programs—particularly the practice of process reflection.  As I began to assign more process writing in all of my classes, I started to notice how much this really helped students articulate, and ultimately manage, their own learning endeavors. This tool proved so valuable to my students that, as Director of Honors Studies, I eventually made reflective learning the unifying pedagogical practice of our college’s honors program. With an abundance of anecdotal evidence combined with a growing pool of assessment data, other colleagues began looking to add process reflection as a formal component to their programs as well. Most recently, reflective writing has been infused in our college’s revamped two-course composition sequence required of all students.  In addition to a best works portfolio, students submit a reflective introduction that maps out their learning experience throughout the semester. Writing faculty are encouraged to offer frequent opportunities, in and out of class, for students to write brief, low-stakes process reflections throughout the semester. I am currently working with a small group of Humanities faculty to develop a first year seminar program at the College—a program that has never managed to establish itself—and we will be grounding the design in writing-based teaching practices.

The pedagogical practices the Institute advocates are easily applied and adapted to fit so many learning situations, even those that lie beyond the classroom. Because a critical mass of my colleagues have attended IWT workshops, whether on-site or at Bard, writing and sharing together has become an increasingly accepted part of our professional development activities. When planning day-long assessment or curriculum workshops, for instance, we are sure to imbed writing and sharing opportunities as part of the experience. Faculty periodically offer workshops on how to promote learning through in-class writing though our Center for Teaching and Learning. Recent grant funded classroom research projects by various faculty members have explored the role of reflective writing in promoting revision and self-assessment. I have even found that simply writing with colleagues one-on-one or in small committees before we formally discuss policy or pedagogy helps to soften the potential for defensiveness in academic collaborations.

I’ve employed IWT principles in everything from leadership workshops for resident hall assistants to facilitating ‘Community Reads’ fundraisers, but perhaps one of the most unique invitations to put these practices to the test came about when Karen Hopkins, assistant to our college president, asked me to facilitate a book discussion for the annual conference of the SUNY Community College Presidents’ Assistants Organization. They were discussing Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High—a New York Times bestseller that was making the rounds among many of our college’s administrators.  While I might have felt hesitant, I don’t really know of any gracious way to refuse a request of the president’s direct staff. And because she responded positively when I asked if she thought her group would be willing to do some writing as part of the book discussion, I was eager to see how what I’d been doing in the academic halls of campus could work with a group of office professionals unaccustomed to writing and thinking workshop methodologies.

After introducing the concept of free writing to the dozen or so presidents’ assistants, I offered the following prompt:  “Let’s each of us recall, in writing, a story of a time when a conversation we were involved in ‘went crucial.’” The book defines crucial conversations as having three specific qualities; they are high stakes, emotionally charged, and demonstrate a difference of opinion. After about ten minutes of writing, I looked up and noticed nearly everyone still working. To wrap things up, I invited them to consider the following: “In retrospect, and using some insights you gained from the reading, imagine what you could have done to better diffuse the situation.”  We wrote for another four or five minutes.

I explained the guidelines for sharing—read the words on the page, no need for any disclaimers, and listen actively by jotting down words and phrases that resonate. With a bit of nervous anticipation, I asked for a volunteer and half a dozen hands went up. One after another, most of the women in the room read what they had written. And even though most hadn’t composed much beyond work memos and reports since college, their texts were rich with voice, detail, and insight. The stories were fascinating and wide ranging—advising a newly hired female student worker on the appropriate work attire for a president’s office, managing an upset student who insisted on seeing the president to discuss an unfair grade, dealing with an aggressive local news reporter after a particularly heated Trustees meeting.

We ended with a short process reflection free write in which I invited them to “Write about anything you noticed from this exercise.” One participant shared: “I never realized how I might have done something differently until I wrote about it—even though I have played that scene over and over in my head for years.” Time and time again, I am reminded of the power that the act of writing has in stimulating insights and epiphanies—in allowing for real learning to occur.

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This summer I will have the privilege of returning to the Bard campus to attend the workshop “Teaching the Academic Paper,” which I understand from the description grew out of the 2006 conference theme—my first exposure to the Institute. I’ll celebrate my 45th birthday at IWT this summer, and I’ll offer a toast of gratitude to the role it’s played in my development as an educator. While I have no idea what new insights await me or what new practices I’ll grasp and make my own (I still struggle with employing the dialectical notebook), I am certain that when I take my seat at the seminar table and open my notebook in anticipation of the invitation to write—a world of learning awaits me.