- “I Don’t Have Time to Teach Writing”: The Artist’s Journal in Theatre Courses
Barbara Fassler Walvoord, author of Helping Students Write Well, admits that when she leads a workshop on strategies for improving student writing, she most often hears, “I already have more than I can do to cover my subject in a semester; I don’t have time to teach writing” (3). Certainly, the prospect of adding a unit on grammar or grading mountains of compositions is daunting, but does omitting the teaching of writing from the content of a course actually help to achieve the desired result of student mastery of the material? No, claims Walvoord; and, in fact, reducing the amount of writing can actually hinder the learning process, regardless of the course content, because writing skills are intimately connected to thinking skills. Thus to view the writing in a course as “extra,” as something that can be cut if there is a great deal of “content” to cover, reveals, as Walvoord insists, “a basic misunderstanding of learning and verbalization. . . . Writing is a vital tool for learning” (4).
Psychologists and pioneers in the study of the writing process, such as Suzanne Langer, Janet Emig, Peter Elbow, and James Britton, support her claim. As early as the 1930s, Lev Vygotsky, especially in Thought and Language, connected writing skills with more abstract and complex thinking skills. “The relation between thought and word,” Vygotsky writes, “is a living process; thought is born through words. A word devoid of thought is a dead thing, and thought unembodied in words remains a shadow” (153). Writing forces thought into words and therefore helps to clarify thought. Until an idea is expressed in words, it is not fully understood. Writing helps the student to learn, to understand, to solve problems, to explore. Writing, asserts Walvoord, is “a way of freeing students from enslavement to present physical reality and of allowing their minds to abstract and conceptualize” (4). In a similar vein, an editor of Science insists, “Bad . . . writing involves more than stylistic inelegance; it is often the outward and visible form of an inward confusion of thought” (Woodford 745).
I would like to share a strategy for “teaching writing” in theatre courses: what I call the Artist’s Journal. This journal acts as a tool that helps students [End Page 43] reach an understanding of plays, and entries become a source of ideas and approaches for more formal papers. In addition, I find the journal encourages students to experiment because it emphasizes originality and artistry over correct grammar, organization, and other elements so important in more formal papers but which can get in the way of creative thinking. The Artist’s Journal represents a form of free writing combined with information gathering; it is the essential “pre-writing” stage so often neglected or rushed through by students. Thus the Artist’s Journal puts the emphasis on the writing process and provides me with a way to coach the students as they develop an idea. Studies over the last decade have found that student writing improves much more substantially when the teacher coaches the process of writing rather than assigns additional papers, writes extensive comments on completed papers, or drills grammar (Haynes 87; Singer and Walvoord). The Artist’s Journal encourages the students to enjoy taking risks, to develop confidence in unusual reactions, to explore different perspectives, to appreciate their imaginations, and to take pride in their ideas as it taps into their creativity; and I have found that it results in more imaginative and insightful papers.
I assign the Artist’s Journal in theatre history, dramatic literature, and dramaturgy classes, but it could be used in performance or design courses as well. On the first day of class, I explain the Artist’s Journal as the place where students react to plays read or seen for class; where they have the opportunity to improve their thinking and writing about plays; and, most importantly, where they can experiment with ideas and styles. For each entry completed outside of class, they write a response to the assigned play, focusing on plot construction, ideas, character, style, language—whatever moved, excited, interested...