Steven Volk, April 11, 2016
As the semester drags itself into the last month of classes, it sometimes feels that we are walking against the tide in a heavy surf. Each step seems painfully slow, the distance gained so small. Classroom patterns are now deeply embedded and it’s hard to change or challenge them. This is particularly obvious in discussions where, by now, everyone in class expects the same hands to be raised when we ask for comments or toss out a question. To be sure, we are grateful that, at least, we can count on those students to say something, otherwise we’d all drown in sea of silence.
At this point, most of us will just wait out the semester, promising ourselves that next semester will be better – that we’ll get them all talking, and they will always be on point, and will be eager to dig into the most serious topics, and….
But maybe it isn’t too late to try something new, even at the tail-end of the semester. Enter “inkshedding.” Inkshedding is a writing-discussion practice begun in the early 1980s that Russ Hunt and Jim Reither of St. Thomas University (Fredericton, New Brunswick) designed to link classroom writing and discussion. While “inkshedding” sounds like a contemporary neologism, it actually dates to the 17th century when some writer substituted “ink” for “blood.” It meant the consumption or waste of ink in writing, according to the OED. Thomas Carlyle’s employment of the term in mid-19th century is eerily apposite of the current political moment:
Who shall be Premier, and take in hand the “rudder of government,” otherwise called the “spigot of taxation;” shall it be the Honorable Felix Parvulus, or the Right Honorable Felicissimus Zero? By our electioneerings and Hansard Debatings, and ever-enduring tempest of jargon that goes on everywhere, we manage to settle that; to have it declared, with no bloodshed except insignificant blood from the nose in hustings-time, but with immense beershed and inkshed and explosion of nonsense, which darkens all the air, that the Right Honorable Zero is to be the man. (Latter Day Pamphlets, III)
Inkshedding, as described by Hunt, grew out of freewriting exercises developed by Peter Elbow, exercises in which students are asked to write in response to a reading, a comment, or some shared experience. Hunt and Reither were concerned that writing should be more social and that freewriting which doesn’t go to somebody is lacking. Even Elbow later admitted that the stakes might be too “low” in freewriting.
So Hunt and Reither would have the students pass their freewriting texts around the class, and they would then mark with a vertical line the passages in the texts they were given that they found most “striking.” From this beginning, the exercise developed in a number of ways. Dan Cleary, who taught English at Lorain County Community College, came up with one of the most common, a practice which James Lang summarized in On Course (Harvard University Press, 2010).
Students begin by freewriting for 5 minutes on a topic of shared experience (a reading, event, comment in class, etc.). Then they pass their notebooks to another student who reads what has been written, and then spends 5 minutes freewriting in response to the first writer. This continues for 20-25 minutes, with students in written dialogue with each other. Only at that point does the discussion become an actual, out-loud discussion. Encouragingly, as Dan Cleary remarked, “I’ve never had a dead-end discussion after an exercise like this…”
Some Theory behind Inkshedding
There are some immediately obvious advantages to the Inkshedding practice. As many who have used it explain, the practice draws everybody into the process, even the non-talkers, since everyone has to write, read, and write again. And it’s not hard to imagine that, once the discussion moves from the written/silent phase to the oral/open phase, not only will it be more informed, but the teacher will have a greater opportunity to intervene to call on those whose voices are often not heard in class. (Note: we often see these as “shy” students, but I’m less willing to employ that term – more on this another week.)
Inkshedding is also informed by learning theory. Here’s a summary of some of Hunt’s main points:
- When discussion takes place in a written form, it “broadens the bandwidth,” allowing everyone in the room to “talk” at once. Even in the best of discussions in a relatively small (12-15 student) classroom, students can be frustrated because the point they had wanted to address already left the dock five minutes earlier, and to return the discussion to that place would be counterproductive. Writing allows everyone to comment. But, as Hunt observes, what is even more important is that every idea or response has a chance not only to be formed in the first place, but also to be “heard” (i.e. read by a number of other people).
- Hunt notes that we often overlook the importance of reading to the writing process. Inkshedding differs from (simple) freewriting because the text is read both in a social and a dialogic way. It is read for what it says, not to evaluate it or give the writer advice for how it could be “improved.”
- The “transactional” nature of this reading process, particularly in the sense defined by John Dewey and Arthur F. Bentley (Knowing and the Known), is critical in that it “reminds us that no component of the process can be understood or characterized outside the process.” The reader is influenced by the writer, the writer by the reader, and the whole event is tied to preceding and subsequent events. As Anthony Paré, the head of the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia-Vancouver, observed, “Texts are located in an intertextual web. This is something students don’t (can’t) get, since their texts are not linked to other texts. Students eavesdrop on the disciplinary conversation and report what they’ve heard; they don’t join the conversation. They are intellectual voyeurs. Inkshedding gets them into the action.”
From Writing/Reading to Class Discussion
There are a number of ways that the written discussion can move from its initial phase into a full-blown, out-loud class discussion. In the early phase of Inkshedding, Hunt and Reither would form a small group of volunteer editors who would collect the notebooks, read them all, and mark the passages they found to be most “striking.” Those with the most marks would be transcribed, copied and distributed for a subsequent meeting of class, to start off an oral discussion. That practice drew a fair amount of criticism as it meant that not everyone’s comments would be read. In response, students suggested posting all the comments on the class walls so that students could circulate and read them. But this could prove unwieldy, not just because it wouldn’t work in a large class, but because students probably would only read those comments employing the best handwriting.
Another response was to continue the discussion at a silent level, a period when anyone could read any other comment and note what she felt to be the most “striking” passages for transcription. As Hunt noted, “These ‘reading times’ often bec[a]me one of the most powerful moments in my own teaching and conference participation, as people silently exchange[d] sheets of paper and a “discussion” occur[ed] in almost complete silence, punctuated by sotto voce expressions of agreement or outrage, or laughter. There is something particularly powerful about the fact that the reading and selection is being done immediately, or as one anonymous commentator on an early version of this text put it, ‘in real time.’”
A further possibility, particularly if the intent is to move to oral discussion quickly, is to ask students to find one passage from someone else’s inkshed to read aloud. As Hunt observed,
One of the most important educational aspects of inkshedding, for me, is the way it foregrounds and dramatizes the transactional nature of text. For almost all students (and this is especially important for those who have difficulties, or limited experience, with writing and reading), text has never been the basis of an authentic social transaction — beyond, perhaps, a thank you note to a distant grandmother or, more recently, e-mail exchanges with friends. The process of creating an identity and a role in a group through written text, as they do every day through oral utterance, is one in which they have only rarely engaged. And it is my belief that this process is the defining mark of the fully literate person.
Enter the Eggshells
Discussions can stall, or never properly start, for a myriad of reasons: students haven’t done the reading, a few voices (almost always the same ones) set the tone and (consciously or inadvertently) dissuade others from joining in, the “quiet” students feel overly cautious about entering the discussion, students are tired or have other things on their minds. But there are other reasons as well, and we are all quite aware of them. Sadly, I can’t tell you the number of times when students, in private discussions, have said that they didn’t take part in a discussion because they were worried about how other students would react to their comments. They were concerned that what they said might be “taken the wrong way,” “misunderstood,” or that, lacking specific theoretical or linguistic chops, they feared tripping some word-choice detonator. They felt that they were constantly walking on eggshells worried that, as they put it, what they said would “be held against them” outside of class.
This is a massive area of concern that requires many posts and much more discussion, but it is one area where inkshedding can be helpful. We can think about this from two different directions. The first relates to the nature of the classroom discussion as it usually occurs. As we know (and as I noted above), when you raise an issue for discussion in class only one person at a time can respond. So you ask the question, wait a few seconds, and call on the first student whose hand is raised. If your classes are anything like mine, the first ones to raise their hands will likely be the same ones every time. Fine – at least this can begin a discussion and others will join in, which is what often happens.
But what we are probably not as aware of is that the first comments tend, in Hunt’s words, “to determine and focus the range of discussion, and effectively determine the kinds of questions or issues which will be raised.” If the discussion has already been framed in a certain direction, students with other perspectives, particularly if they worry that they may be challenging existing orthodoxies (what ever the particular classroom orthodoxy may be) or that they may not be able to state their view in a carefully articulated fashion, are much less likely to engage in the discussion, and therefore the discussion is less likely to open new, suggestive, or controversial, areas. Inkshedding, with its write/read/write/read/discuss structure can allow more “initial” voices into the discussion before it heads down a particular track.
The second point can, itself, be controversial: When employing inkshedding methods, some faculty don’t require that students put their names on their inkshed writing, allowing them to remain anonymous (at least to the extent that students aren’t familiar with each other’s handwriting and only if the paper on which they write is passed a number of times before it halts and is read and commented upon). There is, of course, no anonymity when the discussion is oral, and there is much to the argument that students (as well as faculty) should take responsibility for what they/we say or write, particularly when technology and social media allows individuals an anonymous cover to say the most vile things without any sense of responsibility or any thought to the consequences of such utterances.
And yet, precisely because I worry that the pressures of conformity are preventing students from testing out emerging ideas or putting forward thoughts that could be considered controversial in the classroom, I now assign work that is anonymous to all but me – and have done so with highly positive effects. Certainly, if inkspilling became a surrogate classroom YikYak, the practice of unsigned writing should be halted (and discussed!). But because that seems unlikely and because anonymity might actually promote more cautious voices to emerge, inkshedding should be considered as an approach to more robust classroom discussions that includes a wider diversity of voices and positions.
A number of faculty who have written about their inkshedding experiences have found it too cumbersome to be effective as designed. They support its theoretical basis – the importance of social, dialogic and transactional writing – but they have concerns about the actual implementation of the exercise. Doug Brent of the University of Calgary discussed the most obvious limitation, handwriting. “Handwriting, especially handwriting that is clear enough for other people to be able to read it, is slow. Equally slow is the practice of passing the inksheds around and marking particularly interesting passages. And, since the point of inkshedding is that it should be seen by more than two or three people, somebody needs to collect them, transcribe the marked-up passages, and circulate them later.”
Technology to the rescue. Brent moved the exercise to an in-class Google Doc (he was teaching in a classroom where all the students had computers – the same can be arranged if students are asked to bring in their laptops or are provided with laptops), creating an empty shared document and asking students to read each other’s inksheds and copy interesting passages into the Google Doc. As he noted, “A collaboratively constructed document beg[an] to unfold in real time.”
When Brent questioned his students (via Survey Monkey) about their experiences with inkshedding, 14 of 20 responded, mostly positive:
- Inkshedding ‘forces’ us to provide our thoughts and ideas, in a way that pretty much 100% engages us.
- I think it is more beneficial, because I personally do not like speaking aloud.
- This gives me and other students like me a chance to get their point across without feeling pressured.
The students were particularly positive about the experience in its digital format:
- I like Google Drive because of how instant everything is. Collaborating and commenting are the most useful parts, I think. Instead of having to send a file or give a physical copy of a paper to a classmate or professor for review, you can just share it on Drive and see the comments as they are being created.
- Google Drive made it easier to communicate and more efficient. If everyone wrote on a piece of paper and passed it around chances are only one or two people would see it, but with Drive it is available for everyone to view, which is amazing!
To Use or Not to Use
So what are the pros and cons of inkshedding? Brent asked colleagues who are active in the “inkshed community” for their opinions. (Yes, there is a community with its own blog, and associations – the Canadian Association for the Study of Language and Learning.) Here is the list he generated:
- as a writing-to-learn tool;
- as an exploration tool;
- as a way to understand text(s), assignment(s), difficult concept(s), etc.;
- as a safe place where students can ask questions and express confusion;
- as a place of sharing experience and knowledge;
- as a tool that triggers further thinking about topics, texts, assignments;
- as a reflection tool (after an assignment or a task has been completed);
- as a crossroad (making connections between what is in class and what is outside of class or how knowledge gained in class can be applied elsewhere);
- as a meditation tool (on a difficult day, to get students to centre themselves);
- To build relationships: I tell my students that I will have a conversation in the margins with them over the semester. This also happens between the students themselves, but as an instructor what I love best about inksheds is the way it allows me to reach students;
- To provide a method of writing that everyone can succeed with; inkshedding is diplomatic and the fact that it isn’t about punctuation, grammar and structure means that it opens up spaces of possibility for students who have been previously silenced by anxieties about those things;
- To bring the voices of quiet students onto the floor; e.g., I pull an insightful quote from a quiet student’s inkshed and just before class, ask them if I can call on them to share their excellent point with the class;
- To get students can take risks (e.g., test something a little edgier, or feel safe about saying that they dislike or disagree with someone/something);
- To help students find paper topics;
- It allows students to read each other’s writing, which not only exposes them to different interpretations and understandings of the readings, but also allows them to see the range of student writing out there. They get to see “real” student writing. This has a variety of benefits, addressed below;
- Writing for a real audience allows them to develop a sense of audience–they replicate the strategies they find worked for their readers and want to achieve greater clarity for their readers. Their peer readers are often more important than their instructor reader;
- They get stylistic and organizational ideas from each other. Frequently a student will report that she liked the way so-and-so did this or wrote in a particular way, and they experiment with it the next time around;
- Reading each other’s writing, especially this informal writing, is immensely reassuring in letting them know they are not the only one who thinks a certain way or struggles with an issue (writing or a difficult article);
- Conversely, reading each other’s writing exposes them to a variety of experiences and ideas that may be different from their own. Seeing their peers twice a week and having to comment on their writing brings about a certain cultural sensitivity that may not develop otherwise;
- The pointing and the inkshed reporting, which calls attention to positive aspects of inksheds builds students’ confidence because they are not used to having readers point out what they like or say that their words are eloquent, humorous, powerful, etc. That little smile on a student’s face when someone calls attention to something they wrote is great to see;
- Often their understanding of a concept is enhanced or increased by reading someone else’s summary or interpretation of it.
And the Cons:
- International students sometimes don’t see inksheds as helping them improve their Standard Written English;
- Students need a certain level of language proficiency before they can inkshed in English;
- Students can get the false impression that grammar doesn’t matter in their writing–or some lesser order errors can get fossilized– if this is the only or main genre of writing in a class. This can be ameliorated in various ways; i.e. dialogue, ‘soft’ expectations for gradual improvement, etc.
- If not carefully coached on how to give worthwhile content feedback, students can get lazy in doing so OR actually hurt each other. Feedback needs to be monitored–at least early on.
- Inkshedding can be stressful, especially the first one or two. Instructors can reduce stress on the first few inksheds by making them about easy topics rather than about a particular reading.
- Students can reject or de-value inkshedding (especially early on) if they don’t understand why we are asking them to it. Instructors can spend time on rationale (and engage their ideas too) to help with this. Also, writing along with students models its value for all–and also messy writing!
Inkshedding may not be for everyone, but maybe it will offer just the way into a broader class discussion that you were looking for, some way to shake up the class in the latter part of the semester.
(And, by the way, many use inkshedding at conferences as well, as a way to open up a discussion after a presentation.)