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.