Bend and ‘Flect

medium_7930358116 (1)  When I think of “reflection” outside the world of composition and rhetoric, I think of light that emanates from a source bouncing off a surface that redirects that light–like sunlight bouncing off car windshields. The light is conceived of as linear, and the relationship between source and surface is geometric, the point of origin different from the point of metaphorical impact, and different, too, from the usual destination, the driver’s side of a car on the highway, making it difficult to see ahead.

The word “reflection” itself doesn’t have appear to have an etymological history that follows the rules of geometry. Where the “flect” in “reflection” comes from is unclear, and while that root is related to an old French word that means “to be brought back,” or from the classical Latin “flectere,” to turn around, “retrace one’s steps, turn back, to turn away (the face, gaze), to turn back, reverse” (OED).

The “flec[t]” of “reflection” means “to bend,” and that’s where “genuflect” connects (as does “connect,” says the OED, as well as “inflect” and “deflect”). The OED editors suggest that a now-obsolete word, “fleche,” may be related, but that word went out of style in about 1420. Still, adding “fleche” to our understanding provides some interesting details to the effects of this bending, including vacillating and wavering.

In the field of rhetoric and composition, reflection has come to mean “writing exercises that require us to position ourselves as the authors of detached rational cognitive and apparently objective self-assessment” (Done & Knowler 850). Students are asked to reflect to assess their process and their work generally, with the goal of developing some metacognition about the work of writing.  Developing some consciousness of the work is a productive goal, but I find that students tend to perform the work of reflection rather than really do much.  I also find that they focus primarily on form, recording, for example, that they need to focus more on stating a thesis early, and then making sure that “everything else” referred back to the thesis.  I don’t seem much about the work of the actual project mentioned at all in a reflection like that.   (For more about the performances of reflection, see Julie Jung’s “Reflective Writing’s Synecdochic Imperative: Process Descriptions Redescribed”).  

I’ve tried refocusing my questions to move them away from these sorts of performances, but I think the genre itself invites this sort of response. What do we need to do to get away from those canned responses?  Is reflective writing a good practice?  What exactly do we want students to get from this practice?  Did I learn to reflect like that when I was writing?  Am I aware of my own practices?  I posed these questions to the members of my “Theory and Practice of Teaching Writing Course” this past week, and we decided to try reflecting on our own practices as writers.  The list we came up with is more focused on the work of writing rather than on assessing ourselves as writers, or on rehearsing the parts of the abstract form we might believe we want to fill.   The discussion, then, pointed toward a difference that we have heretofore not adequately connected to what we ask first-year writers to do.  We talked about the bits and bolts of how we go about the work, and we considered why we all had very different practices whether we were implicitly or explicitly asking students to do something we don’t even do ourselves when we reflect on our writing practices.

In no particular order and not grouped by individual practices, we

  • start talking about an idea with friends and colleagues
  • read lots and see where the critical conversation is around a problem or question
  • pull out pieces of texts–critical or otherwise–that we want to engage with
  • write notes in response to what we’ve pulled out
  • sort through things–both ideas and stacks of paper or articles, both material and digital
  • write half sentences with a sort of “stage direction” type note of where we want to go next
  • write crazy, flowery drafts to take pressure off writing precise prose (with the promise to ourselves of going back and revising)
  • talk more
  • check out another scholarly piece that someone suggested in discussion about the work
  • mark words we know we can find more precise words for later so we can keep going with argument
  • bracket things to rethink later
  • make writing task lists
  • stop and try to write a sentence or two that encapsulates the argument we’ve created thus far
  • resist our own lists
  • open a word processing file for each “section” to help us see connections other than those we first imagined
  • save electronic file and reread as both a break and a refresher on where we’ve come from, to help us revisit idea of where going next
  • write notes to ourselves as the end of a writing session so we know where to start the next time we sit down

We had many others, and we recognize that these lists are also “abstractions” that can be applied to any work, although we agreed that these were only abstractions when we tried to assemble them into something we could label “practices.”  The actual work, when we were in the midst of it, was all about the project itself.  We didn’t really think about form first, only form in the service of what we wanted to do and where we wanted to go with the project itself.

We also recognized that we’d developed these processes over time, and that we did different things on most projects, in part depending on circumstances and where we were with an idea (some got ideas for things to write in response to what others had said or written, some through their work in classrooms, some while writing on something entirely different).

The post-project narrative is, we concluded, usually an artificial exercise that someone asks us to do as a way of demonstrating that we know the form we’re supposed to fill and documenting that we’ve done some work rather than.  Still, asking writers to provide this  of reflection–the process note, for example–doesn’t guarantee that the writer did not just sit down and dash of something over the course of a couple of hours, and then compose the reflection to fit the generic form.  And what’s gained from that?

The work of writing itself, then, is reflective.  Reflection is the critical thinking we put into play as we write, not as a post-project narrative of what we did. We don’t think straight, and that’s OK.  And we can’t write long pieces all in one go.  And we have to remind ourselves of what we’ve said, and we have to test out what we might want to say, and we have to decide whether that “might want to say” really panned out after it becomes “what we’ve said.”  Reflection is a movement across the time of writing.  It’s not just a record of what we’ve done–it’s not just the “bright light” of our work bouncing off the screen back at us –because in reflection we look forward and sideways, too.  Our reflection vacillates and wavers and retraces and bends.

Reflecting Bubbles from Creative Commons

photo credit:numb – Postcards from the Edge of Sanity via photopin cc

Special thanks to the members of my section of ENGL 5100: Alex Gatten, Beth Reinwald, Hayley Stefan, Katelyn Jaynes, and Laura Godfrey for all the great discussion on reflection–and particularly for contributing the ideas on the list!