Theory

       The field of composition and rhetoric has changed greatly in the past 50 years. In this time, multiple pedagogical theories have come in and out of focus for educators. The expressivist pedagogy of the 60’s and 70’s was almost a spiritual approach to composing, where inspiration acted as a driving force for writing. This meant that writing was done without acknowledging the social context that influenced it. Well-known expressivists include Donald Murray and Peter Elbow, the latter who inspired the activity discussed: freewriting.


       In Writing Without Teachers, Elbow describes freewriting as a natural way of composing that alleviates the pressure to be correct or proper. Freewriting is described as a 15 or 20-minute writing block in which students write without stopping or stopping to correct errors or reword sentences. What is important, Elbow says, is making sure the writing remains unimportant: “It must be a piece of writing which, even if someone else reads it, doesn’t send any ripples back to you. It is like writing something and putting it in a bottle in the sea…Freewritings help you by providing no feedback at all” (4).


       A surge of scholarship in both favor of and opposition to freewriting appeared in the late 80’s. This could be explained by the 1984 publication of George Hillocks, Jr.’s What Works in Teaching Composition: A Meta-Analysis of Experimental Treatment Studies. Hillocks asserts: “As a major instructional technique, free writing is more effective than teaching grammar in raising the quality of student writing. However, it is less effective than any other focus of instruction examined” (161). Other focuses included sentence combining, models, scales, and inquiry. The conclusion of Hillocks’ study on freewriting acknowledges that it is more effective than other methods, but may not be effective enough to teach an entire class this way.


       This is perhaps why freewriting should be incorporated as a low stakes activity, what Elbow describes as an activity that does not necessarily aim for students to produce great writing as much as it aims “to get students to think, learn, and understand more of the course material” (“High” 5). Low stakes writing creates a different goal for the students, one that focuses on what is being said rather than how it is said. That is, students can compose without worrying about using their academic voices; the ideas will form without the mental block of writing or thinking for the academic discourse community.

Methods

       Students were informed that they would often have a free write at the beginning of the class period. They were informed that the grading would be based on completion of the free write; that is, if they answered the prompt they would receive full credit. The students were either verbally informed of the prompt or they would read the prompt in the form of a tweet from the instructor. Students were given a specific amount of time to complete the prompt. Prompts on paper would end when the majority of the class was finished writing. Students were signaled that they had one minute to finish their thought. Papers were then passed to the teacher. The time for Twitter prompts was based on how many students had tweeted. Often, students would tweet and then communicate or respond to other students’ answers. When the timeline for the class became solely conversation, students would be signaled that they had one minute to finish their tweet. Students would then be asked to close their laptops or turn to the front of the room for the next instruction.


Participants
       The participants were the 22 undergraduate students enrolled in English 151: Writing & Rhetoric course. The majority of the class was comprised of freshman students; there were two sophomore students and one junior-level student.


Materials
       The required material for this activity was a computer. Although in a computer classroom, students often brought in their personal laptops. On particular days, only a few students would access Twitter via a school computer.

Analysis and Conclusions

       Free writing on Twitter seemed to improve the class rapport, but it did not seem to create the focus of thought and ideas that writing for a longer period of time might bring.


       It appears that short answer prompts were often relied on to work with the 140-character limit, which ultimately defeats an academic purpose for free writing. Almost all free writes done on Twitter were informal or personal; the visual rhetoric unit, an examination of logos, ethos, and pathos, and the class research day included formal answers or answers that related to class discussion. This means 3 out of 18 free writes done on Twitter were intended to function academically. The remaining 15 free write prompts were intended to improve the class rapport, channel the students’ energy into a question, release students’ creativity, or allow the teacher to get to know the students. Thirteen percent of total tweets by the instructor (24 out of 178) were associated with the free writes, whether to state the prompt, to answer a prompt, or to communicate with students about their answers.


       Perhaps the most positive aspect of free writing on Twitter is the sense of community it created for the class. Often students would answer the prompt and use remaining time to respond to other students. This was either in the form of encouragement or approval. Because of this form of low-stakes writing—which often worked as kind of conversation on a random topic—the students seemed to become more comfortable with both using Twitter and with talking to their peers.


       Free writing on Twitter could be an effective tool if the writing leads to further writing or discussion. Because of the character limit, free writes would need to be devised in a way that the answers could either spark or lead into class discussion. Free writes on Twitter could also work as the beginning of another prompt for an extended free write on traditional paper. In this way, the instructor scaffolds the writing so it evolves from being very low stakes and informal to writing that continues to be considered low stakes but can involve more critical thinking.