By Jessie Reeder. Jessie is the TA Assistant Director of the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is also a dissertator in literary studies, focusing on 19th century British Literature and Latin American revolution.
Every instructor in our Writing Center knows the blue record sheets we stock. They provide a simple grid for marking down the date, the time of each appointment, the students’ names, and a few notes about each conference. The front side of these sheets is a study in order. I was not, however, a kid who placed my toys into neat rows; I was a finger-painting, dirt-tracking chaos-maker. This is probably why I almost exclusively use the back side of the blue sheets, which is, delightfully, completely blank. At the end of every shift I teach, the back of my blue sheet is covered in arrows, inscrutable Venn diagrams, crude drawings of staircases, circled and re-circled symbols… Basically, if our civilization crumbles and the archeologists of a future age find only my blue Writing Center sheets, they will likely conclude that we were a race of madmen.
This tendency—unsurprisingly—spills off of the blue sheet and into most aspects of my teaching. During an average shift in the Writing Center you can find me ripping the staple out of a student’s draft so that I can spread the pages on the table, drawing an idea map while the student talks, scrawling symbols next to each paragraph that correspond to topics, or bee-lining for the “highlighter” tool in the student’s word processing software. This is something for which I seem to feel the need to apologize. I hear myself say the following with alarming frequency: “I’m sorry; it’s just that I’m sort of a visual processor.”
But why do I apologize? Inherent in that “sorry” is the assumption that:
- I’m the only one at the table who does her best thinking through visualizations, and/or
- These visualization strategies are somehow extraneous to what we’re really doing, which is working on writing.
Over time I have come to believe that these statements are not only false, but that their exact opposites are true. The first assumption, that other writers don’t need visualization techniques, breaks down easily. Where the modern disciplines of psychology and pedagogy converge, they have given chaos-kids like me hip terms to describe our messes. Do you have trouble paying attention during long oral presentations? Recall faces better than names? Are you more likely to remember this blog post if it has a high volume of images? Chances are good you’re a “visual learner.” Do you have a good sense of direction? Create detailed mental pictures? Learn best through charts and diagrams? You might be graced with “spatial intelligence.” So-called visual and spatial thinkers are contrasted against those who learn by listening or interacting, or those for whom interpersonal dynamics or logical algorithms make more sense. These schemas suggest that a great many of us—if not a majority of us—fall into the visual and/or spatial camps. This is now a widely accepted pedagogical axiom. Cue the rise of PowerPoint in lecture halls across the nation.
And yet, these theories that give name and validity to visual learning still imply that they belong to a subset of the learning (or for us, writing) population. That even if a majority of us thrive in visual learning environments, not all of us do. I want to trouble this, particularly in the context of the Writing Center.
On an anecdotal level, I can report the high number of “Aha!” moments my students have when I use a visualization. Often these are to meant to help me understand the student’s idea. The diagram I draw functions something like a translation into my own visual language so that I can understand the crux of the matter and translate my thoughts back to the student. But I notice that we often end up having a productive conversation in the visual language itself, one that involves reordering ideas, making new connections, and finding gaps in logic—key facets of the writing. For example, I recently worked with an undergraduate who was having trouble articulating the meaning of “imagined community.” I decided to map what she was describing, and we both realized that she was trying to simultaneously define imagined community as extending across space, and through time, which was muddling her language. We spent most of the session playing with this drawing so that she could figure out what she wanted to say. Another day I worked with a student whose paragraphs seemed disorganized, but I couldn’t pinpoint why. She had her draft on her laptop, and I asked her permission to use the highlighter tool to color-code her sentences based on their purpose. We saw an oscillating green-yellow-green-yellow pattern as she bounced between summarizing existing research, and offering her own argument. The impact this visualization had on her was so much more profound than I could have done with my own clunky explanations; not to mention that it transcended a language barrier we were struggling with. A student in one of my composition classes who had trouble catching his own typos benefited immediately simply from switching fonts and disrupting his eyes’ expectations.
What I am coming to believe is that visualizations are not, in fact, extraneous or supplementary to the writing process, nor are they only useful for certain kinds of learners. More and more I believe that writing is already inherently visual, and that visual thinking—whether or not it is your “natural” learning style—is key to writing well.
Recently, I co-taught a Writing Center workshop on using the software Scrivener to manage long writing projects. Most of the students in the room were graduate students working on dissertations, theses, or research proposals. I began by confessing that I myself turned to Scrivener—essentially a powerful organizer—because of my frustration with trying to work simultaneously across so many different documents containing my research, outlining, note-taking, and drafting. My visual brain found it maddening to constantly lose (literal) sight of one idea while I worked on another. I showed a screen capture of a typical workspace before I started using Scrivener. This unwieldy jumble of documents may raise an instinctive, familiar flight response in some of my fellow writers:
And then I displayed an image of my singular dissertation file with Scrivener:
And my new, blissfully organized workspace:
Something happened in that darkened computer lab that’s rare in teaching: an audible, collective gasp. An immediate recognition of the power of this kind of organization. We are not alone, visual-writers. We are not alone. That is because, I think, writing is already visual.
What Scrivener has done for me is not merely organizational—although that feature is certainly fabulous. More importantly, it allows me to write while having my eyes constantly on the larger structure of my project. It forces my brain to make constant reckoning with multiple pieces of my argument at once, and by doing so, has had profound impacts on my ideas and my writing. Which is to say that the visual aspect is not merely a tool to get me where I want to go more efficiently; it is a constitutive feature of the end result.
In fact, Scrivener is simply a formalization of practices I was already cobbling together. Perhaps you will recognize yourself in these necessity-born devices I would (and still) use during my own frantic writing sessions. I find that as soon as a physical page gets flipped over, or text scrolls up out of view on a screen, it’s almost entirely gone from my mental space. “Out of sight, out of mind” is not just an appropriate axiom; it’s a serious barrier to my ability to synthesize while I write. Hence I rely on printing the pages of a draft and laying them out on the floor—even if there are 30 or 40 of them. When I need to radically reorganize, the scissors and tape come out and a Frankendraft is born. If my task requires synthesizing a number of different pieces of research, I literally surround myself with them at my desk.
When we do these things we are attempting, I believe, to compensate for visual loss, and for the corresponding rise in mental disorganization.
On a more fundamental level, I believe there is something inherently visual about language and composition. When inked on the page or illuminated on the screen, writing takes a visual form. But even in oral composition or recitation, language itself is a medium for putting images into our minds.
However, I digress into the philosophical, when what I really want to talk about is the practical. The point I want to make is not that all writers or all writing necessarily partake of the same processes. Truly, I realize that not all brains and eyes operate alike. And yet, practically speaking, I believe that Writing Center teaching needs to rely much more heavily and purposefully on the visual.
We have already institutionalized the process of reading aloud because of a deep, fundamental belief in the power of auditory processing. We take it as a given that students will learn from the simple act of vocalizing their own prose. At least in UW-Madison’s Writing Center, we have almost every single student read their writing aloud to us, based on our faith that it is a useful tool and properly a writing task. What is reading if not writing’s tango partner?
I would like to make the same case for visualizing. What is the organization of ideas, the hierarchization of concepts, and even the proper use of grammar, if not the translation of visual schematics into prose form? And how can we write what we mean to say if we don’t have a proper grasp on the shape it takes?
When we ask students to read aloud, we have ready-made explanations for why this practice is valuable. Unfortunately, we seem to have less clear language for asking students to diagram, to color-code, or to change their font. At the beginning of this post I described myself using visualization strategies with my students and apologizing for it. What I really should be sorry for is that in all of those scenarios, it was me doing the diagramming. If visualization were merely a way for my spatial brain to interpret students’ ideas, then that would be okay. But if visualization is actually a key component of the writing process, then I owe it to my students to teach them how to do it, to explain why, and to spend time on these practices. I already know the value of spreading out the pages of an essay across the table, so why am I doing it for the students? Why not:
It’s hard to get a sense of your argument without being able to see the whole essay; how can we do that?
What do you think we would learn if we color-coded these sentences?
If you had to draw the relationship between these two ideas, would you make a Venn diagram, two concentric circles, or something else altogether?
I think that approaches like these not only provide the students with the benefits of a visual model, but also help them think about how they might benefit from using them more often and more purposefully. Of course, I’m far from the first to connect writing to visualization, but some of the best techniques reside in handbooks for creative writers, or for grade-school students. The implication is that grown-up, academic writing means graduating from the visual imagination. But I never stopped being that chaos-kid mucking about. I didn’t graduate from her. In fact, lately she’s teaching me that embracing her is actually the key to order.
I would love to read about your own strategies for visualizing your ideas and your writing, and/or tutoring with visualization techniques. Please leave a comment so we can start a conversation!