Universal Mentors Association

Structure, combined with freedom, is the route to student engagement.


I’ve long believed that student engagement is the necessary precursor to all learning. 

Sure, you can get students to complete academic work via external motivators like grades or the more nebulous indefinite delayed benefit of climbing the successive rungs of the credentialing ladder, but these are not necessarily the best ways to get students learning.

One of the core elements of engagement is “autonomy,” essentially giving students some element of choice and freedom in the doing of the assignment. The biggest problem with the writing instruction students tend to have received prior to college is that it is highly prescriptive, as they are coached to pass assessments judged on surface-level criteria, rather than given the opportunity to deeply engage with the challenges of writing.

The thing to keep in mind about freedom, though, is that in many cases it’s just another word for having no idea what you’re supposed to be doing. If you want a student to be frozen, unable to produce a piece of writing, just tell them they can write whatever they want.

But how can you privilege freedom in a way that allows students to also take advantage of the benefits of autonomy?

The key is providing structure that allows that freedom to be unleashed.

How to do this can get complicated, particularly if you have specific learning objectives in mind. (This is one of the reasons I worked to corral my learning objectives into a framework that could contain multitudes, what I call “the writer’s practice.”)

Thinking about these challenges reminded me of an earlier period of my life where I was desperate to help total strangers with whom I would barely interact write funny stuff so I could have enough material to publish on the website I was editorially overseeing.

I took over the editorship of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency in July of 2003, sort of by accident when McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers called me and asked if I could “help out” with the site for an unspecified period of time. I was provided significant autonomy in what I wanted to do provided what I published was up to snuff and fit with the overall ethos of the organization. 

At the time, the site was not featuring short humor exclusively, but it was a plurality of the material for sure, and to me in those earlier days of the Internet, humor seemed like the best route for drawing audience. It was also the area I felt the most confident in terms of my editorial judgment.

I set a goal of publishing two to three new pieces of humor per day. While McSweeney’s (under my far superior successor editor Chris Monks) is now flooded with more good submissions than it could ever hope to publish, in those earlier days this was not the case.

Writing a fully-realized short humor piece from an original premise is not easy. It is easier for some people, and seemingly impossible for others, but having read literally tens of thousands of submissions and done my share of trying to write these things, given the blank space of total freedom to try to be funny on the page is much more likely to end in failure than success.

Really, it doesn’t end anywhere because in most cases, the writer doesn’t even make it to the starting line.

So, needing funny things to put up on a website that’s trying to make people chuckle, I realized that I had to give people a couple of playgrounds to work within to provide the necessary structure that would allow them to be funny and free. 

One no-brainer was to break out the many lists that had already been published on the site into its own section and encourage more submissions. Reading even just the titles of the lists could nudge potential contributors toward trying their hands at the form by thinking of a humorous juxtaposition and then seeing what came next.

“Are You Playing Dungeons & Dragons or Doing Your Taxes?”

“Eight Wilderness Survival Tips for Adjunct Writing Instructors”

“The Nine Circles of Renovation Hell”

So, that was good, but not sufficient. I needed other forms that anyone could try. Then inspiration struck.

One day, while eating a plum I experienced my usual frustration with the truly appalling size of the pit relative to the fruit pulp. I imagined what it would be like if rather than a (probably) ancient fruit, I pretended that plums were some kind of new product that I could review and suggest improvements for future models.

That became the first of what I called “Reviews of New Food.”

Because I couldn’t launch a new section with just one piece of content, I also wrote up my take on something called “Uh-Oh Oreos” which had vanilla cookies and chocolate cream. 

I’m pretty sure the third, unbylined review of new food we published on “Mountain Dew type 3: Live-Wire Orange” was by Dave himself. It sounds like him anyway.

Once I had the examples, the submissions started to come in. As I scroll through the archives in a march down memory lane, I see a mix of people who would go on to be professional comedy writers with others who – at least if Google is accurate – have never published another piece of publicly available writing.

That might be my favorite byproduct of my moment of inspiration. I think one of the reasons that the McSweeney’s website has managed to solider on – and is currently thriving – over the last twenty-five years is that it has always created a sense of community and belonging between the publication and the audience. Providing the simple structure was a way to give a swath of the audience that would perhaps never try their hand at writing otherwise, an entry point into being a direct contributor.

Under the proper conditions with structure and examples, anyone can be a writer.

This ethos quite easily carries over to the classroom. One of the first things I try to point out to all students, regardless of the success (or lack thereof) they have had with writing in school contexts previously is that they likely write all the time and are probably pretty effective at communicating in writing in other contexts.

Having reached agreement that they have had previous success at writing, it is then a matter of giving them the next experience which seems explicable and doable. In my first-year writing course, this happens to be a review (though a serious one) which provides students with clear objectives and structure while also giving them freedom to write about anything they want to review.

Over the years I often got the balance wrong, either too much freedom/insufficient structure or too much structure that began to feel prescriptive, but once I knew that trying to balance these things was the key to getting students engaged, at least I had a specific problem to solve.

It wasn’t until many years later that I realized when it came to my teaching, I’d given myself the same thing I’d been trying to provide students, sufficient structure to make sense of a difficult challenge.


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