“Writing…transcends academia”

Robin Queen, Linguistics (large size)

Robin Queen is a linguist whose research interests include language, gender, and sexuality, language variation and identity, and Anishbaabemowin language revitalization. She is also an Arthur F. Thurnau professor honored for her accomplishments as a teacher. Writing plays a central role in Queen’s teaching. She uses writing in a variety of ways to encourage students to “go deep into a topic rather than skimming across the surface.” She also sees developing students’ writing abilities as an important instructional goal in and of itself, saying, “I think writing is probably one of the skills that we work on in this institution that really transcends academia.”

Much of the writing that Queen assigns her students is informal. She uses response papers, in-class “one-minute papers,” and, on occasion, new media such as blogging to give students opportunities to synthesize course readings. As she says, “The thing that I find most interesting to read myself and the students also find engaging is asking them to put two or three things they have read into dialogue and tie it to something that we have actually talked about in class.” Queen hopes this kind of writing helps them start to see the emerging “narrative” of the course. “Most the readings that I use in my classes are either journal articles or book chapters, so I don’t typically use…a textbook,” says Queen. “That means the thing is not already set up for them and it doesn’t have an imposed coherence to it, so they have to work on it a little bit themselves.”

When she assigns more formal writing projects, Queen prefers to break large assignments into smaller, scaffolded stages to help students assemble a better final product: “Usually what I try to do is have [students] do some kind of literature review, [then] some kind of analysis… My reason for doing that is twofold: I think it keeps students from doing things at the last minute. It helps create a kind of practice of taking large tasks…and breaking them down into smaller tasks.” Not only does this approach help students learn to tackle complex projects, it also helps them learn to research and synthesize sources: “As young academics they are still developing the skills of what constitutes research. So I think having them actually do a literature review, and having to put different pieces of literature into contact with each other is pretty useful.” Queen gives students feedback on drafts and also organizes peer review, so that students complete at least three drafts of these large assignments before turning them in.

When asked what advice she would give other professors about how to incorporate more writing into their courses, Queen emphasizes the need for variety. “I think the thing to do is to figure out ways to embed short bits of writing into many aspects of a class, and to provide students with ways of writing in lots of different styles. To really give them the sense that there’s a lot of ways to write and that you can be successful in many different ways. She also says it’s important to have students “provide written material fairly frequently—short kinds of things, as well as medium-length things, and longer things—just having writing be part of the classroom world, not this thing that you do separate from the classroom.”

For Queen, these frequent writing opportunities are what help students develop a more productive understanding of writing as a process, and how to continuously improve their own writing abilities. “I think for a lot of students, and for faculty—you know, for academics—there is this kind of myth of the garroted genius and that if you wait around, your genius eventually shows up. I think that’s bunk. Writing is a skill like other skills and you get better at it the more you do it. So you have to practice and you have to recognize that the first things you write are almost always terrible, and let that be okay.”