Teaching Revision with Manuscripts

By Jennifer Daly

Synthesis of an Idea:

During this summer’s National Endowment for the Humanities two-week seminar “Transcendentalism and Reform in the Age of Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller” we would get together for discussion forums on everything from our own writing to pedagogical practices to activism inside and outside the classroom. One evening, a professor had mentioned the Digital Thoreau Project as a way to show the students the synthesis of Walden and to track the very deliberate changes Henry David Thoreau made in each of the manuscripts.  After much thinking, I had the thought that this could be done with almost any writer—as long as there was a manuscript. I decided that I would utilize manuscripts to open a conversation about process and revision with First Year Writing students this year and see if it was accessible to them.  There was a chance that they a) wouldn’t care, or b) it would fly over their head never to be seen or heard again.  I was hoping for many things—none of which involved calling the lesson plans a total loss.

A huge part of the revision process is being able to disagree with yourself, and I think this is something the students grapple with the most. I know I did when I was a student, and I still do today. Just recently I was reviewing an essay I had written a few years back to prepare applications for PhD programs, and as I reread the essay and worked on some revisions, I realized that I did not agree with myself at all. Cue existential crisis—do I even know myself?! This is a story I have told all of my classes this semester. It is important for them to know that it is ok if they reflect on their work and find that they don’t agree with it.  That means they are growing and learning: the two most important results of their educational career.  I had difficulty with this, and I tell them about how I reached out to my own mentors in a state of panic (thank you, Caroline Dadas and Tatum Petrich!). I like to think they find it amusing while also absorbing the notion that it’s ok if they don’t agree with their former selves.

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