20 x 20

Here’s a thought experiment I’m using to focus my own writing pedagogy. Suppose you were given twenty 20-minute moments of a students’ full attention. That’s six hours and forty minutes altogether. Suppose you could decide where, when and how that time was used. You can do it all in one day or spread it out over eight weeks (or even more). The student could practice a particular skill, or simply sit and listen to you instruct them. You could give the student feedback or ask the student questions. The content of this little course is entirely up to you. But outside of the 20 x 20 minute sessions you are not to expect anything at all from the student other than they are leading the life of an average college student, with an average course load and average ambitions. Your job is to improve their writing as a much as possible. Again, during each of those 20-minute moments, you have their full attention.

The finitude of this problem appeals to me. I recently ran a Twitter poll which confirmed my hunch that most of us would agree that a substantial portion of the time should be spent  by the student, alone, practicing. But surely some instruction would help. So the first question is how much time we’d spend meeting with the student to give instructions and feedback. Actually, that’s two questions: how much instruction? How much feedback? Then there’s the question of what instructions to give them and what kind of feedback. But don’t forget your finitude here: there are enough resources for twenty things to happen. There are twenty moments of twenty minutes each. Some for instruction, some for writing, some for feedback.

I think it would be very interesting to compare the variety of writing philosophies according to how they would manage the resources in this problem. In fact, I’m sure I would have answered this question differently at different times over the last ten years or so. Before I got into the business of writing instruction I would probably have dismissed the exercise as absurd, or trivial, or in some other way not worthy of a university education. But the more I try to help writers improve, the more I think we cannot get around this, at least as a thought experiment. If the goal is to make students into better writers, what would be the optimal use we could make of these conditions?

I leave it open for now, but I’ll post my own answer later this week.

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