“Not to Drill, but to Create”: The Value of Service-Learning in a Transcendentalism-Themed Composition Course

PALS is very excited to have a guest post by LuElla D’Amico who teaches at the University of Incarnate Word in Texas. In this post, D’Amico explains the set up of her composition course which uses transcendentalism as a way to support students’ formation of a scholarly community. This community building and academic learning is further supported by a service learning component.

I theme the second course in our composition sequence at the University of Incarnate Word (UIW) in San Antonio, Texas around the nineteenth-century philosophical movement of Transcendentalism. As an American literature scholar, this theme provides an ideal merging of the school’s social justice-oriented mission and approach to community service with my own research interests, and it is broad enough to provide numerous platforms for the students to write their research-based essays. In addition, it provides a framework for the freshman students to consider their roles as scholars embarking on a university experience where they have newfound independence both in the modes of thinking they encounter and the ways in which they organize their lives.  

My syllabus begins with the traditional Composition II objectives of teaching students how to analyze and mimic the ways academic communities engage in oral and written conversations about significant topics. It is within this framework that I suggest that the transcendentalists formed one of the first American academic communities and that the movement is thereby of worthwhile study in a course centered on academic discourse. The second paragraph of my syllabus states the following: “The transcendentalists were a group of nineteenth-century philosophers and thinkers who instigated transnational conversations about God, self, society, social justice, morality, community, education, nature, and activism. We will use transcendentalism as a platform to consider and craft our own arguments about these issues, and we will spend time pondering the legacy this movement continues to inspire. Finally, we will focus on how UIW’s Catholic mission intersects and diverges from transcendentalism’s goals.”

During the first week of the course, students read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The American Scholar” (1837), and we spend significant time devoted to Emerson’s delineation of “Man Thinking” versus “The Bookworm.”

For Emerson, “Man Thinking” represents the active scholar, one whom “Nature solicits with all her placid, all her monitory pictures. Him the past instructs. Him the future invites.” “Man,” (or “Woman Thinking,” as I and my students often substitute the phrasing) is energized. This type of scholar is ready to test, tackle, consider, and create new thoughts. Moreover, she or he is prepared to push boundaries and make changes to the world. 

This moniker is contrasted with that of the “Bookworm,” a person who becomes obsessed with others’ ideas rather than generating their own. For Emerson “Books are for the scholar’s idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings.” “Man (or Woman) Thinking” creates knowledge, while the bookworm imitates it. For students and faculty alike, Emerson’s language can at first seem esoteric, so the class spends time walking through the language of the essay together after I’ve lectured about the primary characteristics of the transcendentalist movement. Next, I encourage students to find individual quotes or short passages that speak to them from “The American Scholar” to share with the class. Although Emerson’s language holistically is difficult, it usually “feels beautiful” to students, and as we all know from visiting doctors’ waiting rooms or scrolling Facebook, it is quite quotable and easily digestible in chunks. Locating and discussing specific quotes helps students break down Emerson’s essay into intelligible parts, and it likewise teaches them about how the transcendentalist philosophy is apparent even via the level of language. The words on the page matter, but so, too, do the general feeling they invoke. In a larger class discussion, we parse the essay’s diction, and we work on reading comprehension skills, exercises that serve the students throughout the term. 

Ultimately, the irony of discussing the contrast Emerson sets up between “the Bookworm” and “Man Thinking” during the day within a typical university classroom setting as the sunshine streams through the windows is not lost on my students. In turn, it makes sense to them that in a course grounded in Transcendentalism that they would be required to be active outside of the classroom and to consider how that activity relates to the material that they are regularly reading and writing about as they begin to define themselves as scholars within the university.

During the second of the week of the semester, a representative from the Ettling Center for Civic Leadership and Sustainability at UIW visits the class to walk students through the practical methods and theoretical philosophy of conducting service learning at the university. To help students better consider how to become active scholars and not merely “Bookworms,” service learning is a vital element of this course. Therefore, I require students to spend 20 hours volunteering at the Headwaters at Incarnate Word, a 53-acre nature sanctuary that is the site of the Blue Hole, the source of the San Antonio River. The Headwaters is an Earth Care Ministry of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word who founded UIW in 1881. Prior to volunteering, students are given an orientation about the history of the Headwaters and its connection to the Sisters, and they are introduced to the tenet within Catholic social teaching concerning caring for God’s creation by acting as stewards of the Earth.

During their visits, my composition students help with the Headwaters’ ecological restoration process—removing weeds, picking up litter, managing trails, and even planting and growing new plants. I consult with the Executive Director at the Headwaters to find out what the Headwaters most needs, and her orientation mentioned above relays to students the days, times, and activities that they can accomplish when volunteering throughout the semester. Because she is aware of the focus of the class, she even relates the Earth care mission of the Headwaters to Transcendentalism. Even though students are generally unaware of the service learning portion of the class prior to signing up for it, they understand the reasoning behind it because of the reading and discussion about Transcendentalism during the first week. I also think it is helpful to hear from experts besides myself about the value of service learning, the UIW mission, and its relationship to our readings and to their development as well-rounded intellectuals. 

Importantly, I feel I should mention, too, that I never let students volunteer alone. Rather, they must always go with a classmate, and they have in the past generally decided to choose dates when they could all volunteer together. In doing so, they coalesce into a community of scholar-practitioners. They have all read and written about similar material, and they inevitably end up discussing why they are volunteering and reflecting upon it.  

Each time they volunteer, I require students to write a reflection about the experience on our class WordPress blog. In these reflections, students must quote a transcendentalist essay we’ve read, so they can practice close reading and citation skills at the same time as they ruminate on their service-learning work. Otherwise, the parameters of the reflections are broad. The reflections must be 250-500 words, and students must consider each experience and its value to their development, whether that development be intellectual, social, or spiritual. In these writings, students have revealed that the most important moments are often the breaks they are allotted. It is during these breaks that complaints about their Fridays and Saturdays being spent volunteering rather than socializing or studying lead them to deeper discussions, discussions about whether the Transcendentalist philosophy still resonates, about whether nature does reveal different truths than the classroom, and about how Catholic social teaching converges with Transcendentalism through its attentiveness to the Earth. Moreover, those moments are when they get to know each other and create friendships that are diverse and often unexpected. 

Blue Hole at UIW

Here, it feels pertinent to mention that the Headwaters website specifies that the sanctuary was created for aesthetic and educational purposes but that it also has the intention to act “as a sanctuary where people are encouraged to reflect and find meaning in their connection with the Earth, themselves, and each other.” Volunteering at the Headwaters provides students just this opportunity. While UIW is a Catholic institution, its students come from various religious and social backgrounds, and this different environment naturally invites discussions about spirituality (or lack thereof) and its relationship to the students’ intellectual and practical pursuits. It provides the freshmen with an entryway to discuss the material of their lives and connect it with their academic goals, and the candor and consideration of our classroom discussions is always richer because of the relationships the students formed at the Headwaters. Students learn to appreciate each other. Rather than being worried about offending each other or phrasing an idea the wrong way, they give each other grace to speak and they seek to understand where the other party is coming from and why. 

In part, I think it is that students work together on a project outside of class that forces them to get to know each other in a setting that is tranquil—and that is made more tranquil for others because of their valuable work together there—that contributes to the heightened level of discussion. I also think that it is in part the texts that we read that helps foster deeper, more meaningful discussion. Optimism, and valuing each individual, is infused in Transcendentalist philosophy, and students seem almost primed to believe the best in each other based on our course reading. Thus, they ask one other to clarify, they build on one others’ ideas, and they seek points of commonality. They also do not obscure difference but rather recognize it and see it is as valuable in increasing their understanding of a particular subject and of one another. I can honestly state that the level of discussion at the end of this class is more nuanced than any class I have taught, and it is remarkable (and was frankly surprising to me) that such consequential, serious discussion is arrived at seemingly organically in a freshman-level, required writing course that most students are not necessarily looking forward to taking.

Ultimately, at the end of this course, students feel more deeply invested in their final research projects, in one another, and in the university as a whole. Their final essay prompt gives them the following charge: “Now is the time for you to think about becoming your own ‘American Scholar.’  What type of problem do you see as most troubling, perplexing, or energizing in the world today? What might be one way to think through this idea or problem? In the course of your research, you will form a thoughtful position about a topic of your choice, but it must be a topic that deals with both intellect and empathy—the mind and the heart. It’s time to solve and explore what matters most to you. In sum, use what we’ve discussed in class as a launching point and base for your own thoughts: create your scholarship. The next move is yours.” Students have tackled topics such as feminism in action movies, whether women should be allowed in the Catholic priesthood, innovation in search engine platforms, the value of Socratic education in K-12 schooling, veganism as ethical obligation, criminal justice reform, the need for suicide prevention services on campuses, and how graphic design can and should align with moral philosophy. Students, then, do truly match and construct their research and writing with their own interests and activist sympathies, and they are invigorated to write rather than seeing it as simply another task that needs to be checked off their to-do lists.

Although this course is designed around my institution, I think the core components of it are interchangeable. The course theme, the service-learning project, and the reflective discussions based on the readings and activities are platforms that could be used in any freshman writing course interested in pushing students to thoughtful consideration of their roles as emerging scholars in the academy. Of course, it seems fitting to end with Emerson who points out that universities “can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame.”


LuElla D’Amico is an Assistant Professor of English and Coordinator of The Women’s and Gender Studies program at the University of the Incarnate Word. Her research focuses on girlhood and girl culture in early and nineteenth-century American literature, and she has edited a collection titled Girls’ Series Fiction in American Popular Culture. Her journal articles have appeared in Children’s Literature Association QuarterlyChildren’s Literature in EducationGirlhood Studies, and Teaching American Literature: A Journal of Theory and Practice, among other venues. She is also “Year in Conferences” Director for ESQ: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture, and she is President of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Society.


Strategies for Teaching Blocked Writers

PALS Note: We are happy to have Aaron Colton take us through his composition course that focuses on the ever pervasive writer’s block. Both Colton and his students made unexpected discoveries along the way. Join us as we get a glimpse into that journey.

On the first day of the fall 2018 semester at Georgia Tech, I asked the twenty-five students in my freshman communication course whether they’d ever experienced “writer’s block.” Virtually every hand shot up. The pervasiveness of writer’s block among my students—described mainly in the context of college applications and timed AP essays—stunned me. As a longtime instructor of composition, I’d confronted a host of explanations from students as to why they had not completed a given assignment, but never had I thought to ask struggling students whether they would consider themselves “blocked.” Instead, I’d come to associate the condition solely with professionals—as is the case in popular films like Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002) and the Will-Ferrell-led Stranger Than Fiction (2006). Writer’s block was the burden of those who write for a living, I had thought, not students.

Writer’s block is in fact so ubiquitous among professionals that there is an entire cottage industry dedicated to curing it. Historically, the prevailing treatment for blocked writers has been the written self-help manual, which can range from simple lists of suggestions (The Chronicle and Inside Higher Education publish such pieces regularly) to full-blown monographs (perhaps the earliest of which was published in 1934, according to Zachary Leader’s excellent intellectual history of writer’s block). More recently, an array of digital productivity tools has emerged, intended to support writing by way of time management or carrots and sticks. Pomodoro timers encourage writers to follow a 25-minutes-on, 5-minutes-off schedule; websites such as Written? Kitten! and WriteOrDie celebrate progress with images of cats or, terrifyingly, delete one’s sentences should a preset words-per-minute goal go unmet.

The preponderance of articles and apps that tackle writer’s block typically call attention to the process of writing. A common assumption about writer’s block is that the blocked writer is either doing something wrong or not doing something essential. Thus, written recommendations tend to be practical—“stay off social-media,” “stop editing prematurely,” and so on—while apps force writers to abide by the same instructions.

from Spongebob Squarepants “Procrastination”

Though the very theme of the course in which I had queried my students was itself “writer’s block,” I had not designed my course as a remedy for blockage—nor did I consider it a therapeutic outlet. Rather, my intention was to introduce students to written and multimodal communication through three related questions: (1) How should we define “writer’s block”?, (2) How is it best remedied?, and (3) How should we understand the recurring figure of the blocked writer in recent American media? However, in challenging my students to adopt an analytical approach to blockage, we discovered a powerful method for resolving students’ own experiences of it—one that I now advocate for struggling writers at all levels of the college curriculum.

In the major assignments of my course, I asked my students to weigh varying conceptualizations of writer’s block and to assess its resolvability and cultural significance. Throughout the semester, students created and revised:

  1. A 3-4 page encyclopedia entry on writer’s block. Writing in a descriptive genre, students drew from several of the perspectives on writer’s block they discussed in class—from neuropsychologists’ scientific findings to novelists’ more abstract theories—and then made tough decisions about which perspectives they found necessary to include in an informational account of the condition. Students were thus able to generate foundational understandings of writer’s block on which they would later build arguments and interpretations.
  2. A digital or physical resource for blocked writers, and a pitch to a magazine or website editor for an article about that resource. Teaching at Georgia Tech, I often leverage students’ interests and proficiencies in engineering, coding, and design. This assignment encouraged students to exercise those skills in accordance with the theories of writer’s block they developed in their encyclopedia entries. Then, in writing pitches for articles describing the utilities of their resources, students articulated the ways in which their products might assist blocked writers where others have fallen short. In doing so, students took a first step toward making discursive interventions in response to ongoing dilemmas.
  3. A 10-minute podcast, examining a blocked writer-character in American fiction, film, or television, produced in teams of five. In this project, students were asked to consider why writers or directors continually return to the subject of writer’s block, and then to argue that a particular blocked writer-character represents more than just the difficulty of creative labor. Characters interpreted by students ranged from the The Shining’s (1980) questionably productive Jack Torrance to the procrastinatory Spongebob Squarepants.

While undoubtedly productive, students made it clear in their reflections on these assignments that they had not been liberated entirely from blockage. Far from it, several students found themselves grappling with writer’s block even while examining the subject. As one student noted late in the semester: “the ironic thing is that I would usually still be undergoing writer’s block as I wr[o]te about overcoming it.” At the same time, however—and in spite of their continued experiences of writer’s block—my students gained a consistent and considerable wealth of material for defeating it. The key lay in method—that is, in treating their likely (or even inevitable) frustrations as objects of analysis.

from Stanley Kubrick’s  The Shining

Because the course assignments fused the experience of writing—or failing to write—with critical thinking, students never found themselves without a compositional foothold; their experiences of blockage could always lend themselves to the assignment at hand. One student, for example, reflected on how when scripting her podcast, which examined the blocked writer Karen Eiffel from Stranger Than Fiction, her own battles with blockage allowed her “to see inside Karen Eiffel’s mind,” and thus equip herself to make meaningful interpretations. So while not a panacea, “[s]tudying writer’s block,” as another student described, “created a sort of placebo effect when attempting to communicate my ideas.”

While I am not recommending that every composition course center on writer’s block, I do believe that blocked students, both in composition and in other humanities disciplines, can benefit from sustained and nuanced meditations on the experience of blockage. By transforming writer’s block into a topic of pre- or mid-assignment exercises, students can probe the academic, social, and personal contexts from which writer’s block emerges, and in doing so gain insights into what it might take to reclaim their compositional capacities. Instructors can ask student to write as specifically as possible on questions like these:

  • What does writer’s block feel like? Is it physical? Emotional? A mental state?
  • Where do you think your writer’s block comes from? Is it a product of the assignment? Of the sources you’re writing on? Is it a personal issue? A combination of these things?
  • What does your writer’s block sound like? Is it a critic who says your ideas are no good? Does it assure you that writing will happen, only later—like the night before the deadline?
  • Do you feel that you’re missing something essential to your writing process? If so, what is it? A main idea? A link between ideas? The perfect passage to dig into? Motivation?
  • Recall the last time you wrote unblocked—what did that experience look and feel like? How long did you write for at a time? What gave you motivation? Did you start writing with ideas already prepared, or did your ideas arise as you wrote? How did you find your ideas?
  • Imagine that you’re interviewing a future version of yourself who has finished the assignment. What did this person do to get back into the writing groove?

The difference between this technique and the plethora of articles and books on overcoming writer’s block is that it approaches blockage from a topical rather than procedural angle. Instead of recommending that students take walks or try out stream-of-consciousness prose, it suggests that they write both descriptively and critically about the very writing they’re failing to accomplish.

Ideally, prompts like these will nudge students to identify the questions or personal/motivational issues they need to confront in order to jumpstart their writing processes. But even without such realizations, an added advantage of this exercise is that it demands the same procedures of critical thinking that most writing assignments depend on. That is, even if students do not achieve the mythical “flow state” of writing—where ideas pour forth as if given by a muse—reflecting on writer’s block can bring students to prime the very intellectual muscles they’ll need to exercise in their assignments. So, in getting those first words about writer’s block onto the page—even if they are seemingly tangential to the main assignment—students take a crucial, and analytical, first step to beating writer’s block.

Contributor Bio:

IMG_1544Aaron Colton is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he has recently taught courses on writer’s block as a cultural phenomenon and sincerity and irony in recent US culture. His research on 20th- and 21st-century US fiction has appeared in Studies in American FictionCollege Literature, and Postmodern Culture, and his current book project examines the representation of writer’s block in postwar American literature.