Though we know that midprocess conferring with each writer is the most effective way to elevate student writing, we are faced with an unforgiving reality: We can’t get to every writer when they need us. There are too many students and not enough time (Kelly’s classes averaged 38 students). Because of this, we must help our students to provide meaningful feedback to one another. We have found the most effective way of doing this is to place our students into small writing groups.
Writing groups, however, are not to be confused with peer editing groups. We do not put students into groups to edit each other’s drafts. We have two issues with this practice. One, our students’ developing understanding of grammar and sentence structure is often not strong. They make incorrect edits on their peers’ drafts, or simply say, “It looks good to me,” and nothing is gained for either writer. And two, when students believe the mission of reading someone else’s draft is limited to finding mistakes, they develop a tunnel vision that doesn’t address the bigger issues of the piece. Too many students clean up their own rough drafts instead of diving deeper into the content of them. “Is my comma in the right place?” is not the same conversation as “What do you know about my brother after reading this scene?” We want students hungry to communicate well, not just edit. We seek to build a community where students work through questions and hesitations as they write together. Who cares if the piece is flawlessly edited if the essay is underdeveloped and lifeless?
Often, when we’re weighed down with work and responsibilities, it can feel hard to be curious about the world around us. We may not readily conjure the same natural curiosity we had when we were kids and spent much of our time asking questions and learning about how things worked.
Cultivating this mentality in our adult lives requires thinking about what makes us want to learn in the first place. Curiosity is, very simply, a desire to know more about things. There are two forms of curiosity: a specific curiosity, which focuses on a particular topic, and a general curiosity, which is the desire to learn about everything.
There certainly are some people who have a deep natural desire to know a lot about a variety of topics. I call these people expert generalists. They have two psychological traits that drive this desire to learn: They are high on the personality trait of openness to experience—meaning that they find new ideas appealing. They are also high on the trait of need for cognition—so they like to think about things. This combination means that when they are introduced to a new topic, they are driven to think a lot about it.
Everyone is saying it: 2021 was the year for African literature. Writers from the continent scooped the Nobel, Booker, Goncourt and Camões prizes. And these honors — arguably the highest-sheen literary awards in the world — do not make up even half the list. The Neustadt, or “American Nobel,” and International Booker Prizes went to Senegalese writers, and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade to a Zimbabwean one.
In light of this sweep, it’s fair to ask what the African books and writers feted last year by Western nations have in common. The best answer is simple: very little. The novels honored last year run a very wide gamut, of genre and style and political outlook, as well as more obvious things like nation, race and ethnicity.
That’s a good thing. While Africans don’t need to be told that no one person or book can represent a huge, culturally and linguistically diverse continent, readers from Western countries have been slow to grasp that fact. The sheer diversity of last year’s winners — from Damon Galgut’s Booker Prize-winning South African farm novel “The Promise” to the Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah’s subtle examinations of emigrant Zanzibari life — puts the point beyond any doubt.