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Six months of daily essays

As I was sitting down to write tonight’s essay, my muse was encouraging me to think about the many different possibilities: I was in a mid-career start-of-semester workshop last week, and I am trying to write up my thoughts from each of those workshops; I’ve finally gotten my course webs up and running, and I wanted to write about that achievement; I still owe my students part four of the introduction to Don’t Embarrass Me; I could do another episode of Inbox zero; and I opened the CS free will donation supply store today, and could add that to the dumb things Sam does series. There were so many options! But then we both realized that it’s the last day of the month. And, on the last day of the month, I reflect on what I learned about writing in the past month.

My original goal for this month was to write a technical essay each day, one that could serve our course in Thinking in C and Unix [1]. I quickly discovered that (a) most of my audience did not feel like they could understand those essays [2] and (b) most of those essays took significantly longer to write than the more traditional narrative essays. Why? A large part of it was that I was writing code at the same time, and I do not produce code at anything close to the speed at which I produce text [3]. There was probably a bit more incentive to get it right. And there were more times that I needed to look things up to make sure that I got things right. I was depressed to discover that one fifty-minute class’s worth of lecture corresponds to about four essays. It’s going to be hard to make sure that I have enough for all of my students.

In any case, for both reasons, I also ended up writing a variety of non-technical essays. For awhile, I was trying to write two essays each day. But then the business of class prep and the start of the semester intruded. Since the technical essays took more time, effort, and mental energy, they were often shifted to the side. It may be that I end up writing most of them in response to questions in class; we’ll see. In any case, I’ll continue writing the technical essays every few days.

Let’s see … did I discover anything when writing the technical essays, other than that they took more time and effort, and that I needed a lot of them to cover what I normally cover in class? I tried to maintain my standard tone, although perhaps with fewer jokes. I’m still trying to find the right way to say the following.

Okay! It’s time to stop reading for a moment and think it through on your own. Yes, you and I both realize that I will give you the answer in the next paragraph, but you won’t learn nearly as much if you just read on.

Part of my problem may be that I’m one of those readers who isn’t good at stopping when the author tells me to stop, so I assume that my readers are the same way [3]. I may need to more carefully consider how best to write the technical essays; maybe I’ll talk to my students about them in the next class.

Beyond the technical essays, I wrote a fairly long essay about editing. What did I learn from writing that essay? I learned that I need to edit more [5]. I learned that some of my readers think that I need to edit more [6]. I learned that writing about editing takes an already long process and makes it even longer. But I should have known that.

One would hope that the editing and the writing would bring me closer to a consistent tone. Am I finding my voice, as it were? I’m pretty sure that I’ve had a voice all along [7]. But I hear that some of my readers think that my writing has gotten better [8]. Karla Erickson [9] said that she sees a tone of gratitude run through some of my essays, particularly the essay on personal-professional harmony.

I’m proud of that particular essay; it is likely to be one of the ones I will regularly share with others. But it took a lot of time and effort to write. I’m glad I spent that time and effort, but I should have considered writing about the topic over multiple essays [10].

Speaking of writing about something over multiple essays, I wrote a series on getting to inbox zero [11]. It does seem like I’m straying a bit far from the original goals of the series. Many more of my essays seem like standard self-reflective ’blog posts than I had originally envisioned. I had originally planned to write more of the professional essays, from information about the College and the department, to profiles of people on campus, to technical essays. I hadn’t planned to write so much about myself [12]. But now that we’ve hit six months, I’m somewhat comfortable with writing about whatever strikes my fancy [15].

I’m happy to note that the majority of the essays came out at a reasonable hour, before 9:00 p.m. Central time. The earlier release time means that I’m generally able to get to bed earlier [16]. Perhaps that’s why Karla sees more gratitude.

I’m less happy to think about the various things that have been happening in the country while I’ve been writing this month’s worth of essays. At times, I’ve been tempted to write something. But I realized that I have difficulty writing coherently about the broadly political, and there are sufficiently many people who do so well enough that it’s not clear that I would add anything useful. I will admit that the broader political climate has me depressed enough that I can’t really bear to think about it all that often. It terrifies me that people are so hateful and unthinking. But I find glimmers of hope in the strength with which so many students at Grinnell and people around the country are taking stands and supporting each other. I’ll trust in them to make the bigger difference. At this point, I think my focus has to be on making sure that my students learn and feel cared for.

Wow, that was a depressing aside. And it was hard to write, as incoherent as it is. In any case, I think there is still use in writing about things that are less directly political, whether it be about people, about programs, or about the personal. At the very least, my writing may provide my readers with a bit of respite. Let’s hope.

What will I be writing about in the coming month? I listed about five topics at the start of the essay. Those should be coming soon. I need to continue writing technical essays on C and Unix. It’s time to start writing a few more profiles, if not a full month of profiles.

What do I hope to achieve in the next month of writing? I hope to think more carefully about the appropriate form and tone of the technical essays. I hope that I’ll find the time to consider various aspects of my writing more carefully, such as word choice and the particular sentence structures I choose [17]. And I’ll do my best to continue to be grateful.

Oh, yeah! I almost forgot. I’ll work on finding the right way to end my essays.

[1] I tend to refer to the course either as Don’t embarrass me or cnix.

[2] A small portion of my audience indicated that they preferred those essays; one even asked if they could share them with their students.

[3] 30 or so years of teaching experience also suggests to me that most students don’t stop and think when the text tells them to stop and think. Students also tend to read over formulae [4] and code, even when the formulae and code contain important lessons.

[4] formulas

[5] I’ve worked hard to remove I think from my essays, since It’s obvious that most of what you’re writing is what you think, as way too many teachers write on far too many student papers.

[6] I got at least one comment akin to English teachers everywhere cringe at your word choice in the first version.

[7] It’s a voice that seems to be silly, snarky, and self-effacing.

[8] I’d appreciate it if someone would tell me why they think my writing is better. I’ll admit that I can’t see a big difference.

[9] Yes, I know that it’s annoying that I keep linking to the unwritten Karla Erickson essay. It’s one of the ways I remind myself that I need to write that essay.

[10] Okay, I do plan some followup essays. But I still could have broken the original essay into multiple parts.

[11] More essays in that series are planned.

[12] More precisely, I hadn’t planned to write so explicitly about myself. I write about myself every time I write, since my perspective carries through so clearly in each essay [14].

[14] Or at least I hope it carries through clearly.

[15] More precisely, whatever strikes my muse’s fancy.

[16] Michelle, you can stop laughing now.

[17] I doubt that I’ll be able to do so, but I’ll try.

Version 1.0 of 2017-01-31.