Over the past year, I’ve had a number of conversations about teaching writing with faculty members teaching courses ranging from Intro to Methods to Senior Projects. These courses require different kinds of writing and different modes of thinking. Intro instructors are most concerned with description, that is, teaching students how to describe sociological patterns they observe in the world, or to describe the sociological significance of some concept from the course. In Methods, instructors add a focus on synthesis, that is, bringing themes or strains from existing literature together to point toward a research question that the student can write a proposal to investigate. Methods courses also often require critical writing, especially when assignments ask students to identify strengths or weaknesses in the methods of studies they read. Senior Projects instructors combine synthetic and critical summaries of existing literature with descriptive analysis of data students have collected by themselves.

It might be surprising that with the different kinds of writing being taught in these courses, and the different kinds of assignments they use, there is one instructional tool has proved useful in all of them. But there is. It’s called a reverse outline.

Image from www.paperravenbooks.com
Image from www.paperravenbooks.com

Many of us teach our students to write outlines before they try to write papers, but this is not always effective. Outlines only work well when students already have some idea of what they want to say. They presume that before sitting down to write, students know what needs to be described, synthesized, or critiqued, and that the problem separating them from a good finished paper is one of organization, not content.

Experience across the Minnesota sociology curriculum shows that this is not usually the case. For better or for worse, students often sit down to write having no idea what they’re going to say. In this situation, writing an outline is no easier than writing a paper, and it can actually be counterproductive, because it gives students the idea that they have to have full command of their argument before they begin writing. This is not helpful, and for many, it’s intimidating. It prevents students from engaging in the descriptive, synthetic, and critical analysis of course materials, and makes them think instead about things like paragraphs and sections.

This is why I recommend something else: a REVERSE outline. The reverse outline is conceptually the same as an outline – it highlights the main points of an argument and charts how they are structured in a paper. The difference is that the reverse outline isn’t written until after the student has begun to draft their work. Whereas an outline asks students to organize their thoughts before they put a single thing down on the page, a reverse outline invites them to take risks with their writing, knowing they’ll be able to come back later to structure their arguments. It asks them to be adventurous early in the writing process, and only later to apply rigid requirements for style and organization to thoughts that they have now been able to develop fully. This is extremely effective for teaching the basic skills of descriptive, synthetic, and critical writing, because it allows students to think about content and organization at the same time. Unlike an outline, which presumes that content has been mastered before writing begins, it acknowledges that the content will be revised and improved through the process of organizing it.

The reverse outline is a good way for students to transfer their unstructured thoughts on course concepts and materials into organized writing that follows a logical flow. It’s also a great intermediate assignment between first and second drafts of a paper. But most importantly, it’s an extremely useful way for students to develop their own writing skills through evaluation of others’ work. Particularly in upper level courses, students often have a hard time writing literature reviews that synthesize thematic areas and broad ideas from existing work. Asking them to read a simple journal article and write a reverse outline of it is a great way to help them see how an effective literature review points toward a research question. Likewise, students in introductory courses can learn a great deal from reverse outlining short think pieces from sources like Contexts or Sociological Images, or from popular press sources.

As with the five-minute workshops I discussed in an earlier post, the idea with reverse outlining is to integrate writing instruction with course content that an instructor is already using. If you have a multi-draft assignment coming up, give it a try. If you don’t, ask your students to write a reverse outline of an upcoming reading. Either approach should help with teaching the integration between content and organization that students so often struggle with.

Most sociology teachers want to teach writing. The problem is they don’t have time. With dozens or hundreds of students, meeting one-on-one with even a small fraction of those who need help is impossible, and since students’ writing skills vary significantly, it’s difficult to draw up in-class lessons that will help students at all levels. Given these structural impediments, it’s hard to blame instructors for de-emphasizing writing skills in the classroom.

To address this problem, I’ve recently incorporated a tool called the five-minute workshop, developed by Pamela Flash, Director of Writing Across the Curriculum at the University of Minnesota, into my teaching. Using five-minute writing workshops enables instructors and TAs to quickly and efficiently teach writing skills that benefit all students, regardless of their current writing abilities.

The basic concept is simple enough. Give students five minutes to either write something or revise something that connects to work they are already doing, or to content you are already teaching. Then move on. Do it again next week. And the next. And so on.

This works because writing is more than putting words on a page. Minnesota sociology faculty report that what holds our students back the most is not crafting prose, but struggling to identify and communicate sociologically important concepts and arguments, or to effectively juxtapose competing arguments from readings and lecture. Five-minute writing workshops focus on these kinds of skills: the conceptual and analytic part of the writing process, more than the art of phrasing. Give students five minutes to either write something or revise something that connects to work they are already doing, or to the subject matter you are already teaching, and then move on with the rest of your content for the day.

To design a five-minute workshop for use in your course, start by identifying a core writing skill that you think your students should work on. For instance, I often find that my students need practice describing the role of media in transmitting cultural scripts. During discussion of gender, culture, or media, I display the image below and ask students to take three minutes to write one sentence about the role of perceived physical attractiveness in the cartoon. We then discuss their ideas for a couple more minutes, and move on. This develops students’ abilities to recognize cultural frames and narratives as depicted through visual media and to distill broad ideas into sharp, debatable statements.

The possibilities are vast. To practice thesis development, put a characteristically problematic thesis statement on a slide and ask students to write a version that improves it. To work on style, project a sloppy, overwritten paragraph, and have students write a version that conveys the same meaning in half the number of words. If students are struggling to identify theoretical tension, display a concept map of a recent reading and have them describe the relationship between two of the central elements. And so on.

These workshops are designed to be brief, fun, and stress-free. If you’d like some help designing a few to get you started integrating writing instruction into your course, drop me a note. I’d be happy to help.