Opening wide and focusing in: A tension in teaching research and writing

A colleague in a faculty seminar on teacher research (back in 1999) participated in the first class of the research and writing course as if he were a student. The class consisted mostly of an overview from me of the phases of research and engagement; a Q&A session with a student from the previous year’s class (during which I left the room); and some freewriting, rough drafting, and peer sharing of an initial project description. The colleague, Emmett Schaeffer, commented afterwards on the oscillation the students faced between opening wide and focusing in and on the students being “dazed” about how much was opened up and put in play during this first session (Box 1). As my thank you email expressed (Box 2), having someone else see what was going on helped me articulate and “own” a tension that runs through my teaching.

Box 1. Comments from a colleague on the student experience at the start of the research and writing course

→ on “divergent” thinking
> certainly, at first, and, if I understand correctly, throughout the process,

  • you think one engaged in research and engagement should remain open,
  • both to others and their opinions, but also to one’s “divergent” (from one’s
  • conscious, explicitly formulated path) thinking, feeling, etc.
    • –sort of [1] opening wide, [2] focusing and formulating,
    • [1] opening wide, [2] focusing and formulating circle
    • [1] the “opening wide” could take the form of:

OpeningOutIn.jpg any less than fully formulated thinking
free writing
sharing (with a partner, teacher, group) one’s
formulations (written or oral)

      • then,
      • being fully attentive to what one has expressed
        • (intended or otherwise), as well as to feedback
    • [2] the focusing and formulating stage could take the form of:
      • oral/written formulations with an explicit purpose and
      • more (always simply comparative) fully formulated

→ what about students being “dazed,” “overwhelmed” and “confused”?
>> (and perhaps not only at the beginning)

  • My guess as to purpose:
    • (of course partly you don’t choose this outcome, it’s rather a
    • function of students’ previous training
    • but to some extent I think it’s inherent in your approach
    • and philosophy)
  • 1. experiential learning – It’ll become clear through doing it
    • (and reflecting on the doing that requires some doing).
  • 2. everything up in the air (not settled, in place, foreclosed, etc.) to
    • maximize a. vision of possible outcomes
      • b. their agency in influencing settling
      • c. model of anxiety and confusion inherent (at first)
      • in sharing and remaining open, while
      • proceeding to try various ways to “sort things out”

Box 2. Thank you email about the affirmation-articulation connection

I really appreciate your keen observations and the work you did in
synthesizing them into the notes. What we did together was rare and
special — I could only remember one other time I got a colleague’s
observations that affirmed but also helped me articulate and own what I was
doing. That time was an ESL and Spanish teacher who had asked
to visit a class of mine about biology and society. She noted my comfortable
use of ambiguity. Much followed for me from her naming this. In fact, I suspect
that the affirmation-articulation connection is a key to the observed
person doing something productive with the observations.

About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012,

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