Sustainable (vs. Disposable) Writing: A Proposal

My last assignment in the Army Reserves was faculty at the Army War College. There I developed and continue to teach an elective on organizational culture and change. In this course the students don’t write their final paper for me – they write an article for publication.

In my leadership elective at QU writings are always meant for a peer audience.  They write to share their insights, to add to their community’s knowledge. They write, as we do, to spark debate.

We’ve tried to do some of this in FYS.

In either case I don’t want my students writing their papers to prove to me that they did the work.  These assignments are often dreadful, a tap dance.  No matter my words on trust, it’s an action that says “prove it.”

Both of us know it’s a shorted lived “product” and more often than not it’s in the trash five minutes after I issue a grade.  No matter how well these papers reinforce the learning, I could argue that this disposable writing (Wiley, 2015) is a waste of time for both of us.

I want students to write because they have something to say beyond the confines of my prompt.  (Pointedly, my “prompt” is often, “what insight to you want your peers to know?”)

I want them to see themselves as budding scholars – with something to say.

David Wiley (2015) calls this sustainable writing. They write for a public audience and purpose.  To be sustainable, their work must have meaning beyond the seminar.

It’s even more powerful (as in my military elective) when they send their work to a journal for review.

Yes, I’m being a bit unfair to the function of writing as a tool for learning.  The pejorative “disposable” suggests that asking a student to improve their thinking or frankly their writing through writing is wrong headed.  It’s not.

They’ll always be room for the term paper.  But what if?

What if enabled more sustainable writing?  What if we reentered student writing away from the professor as audience to their peers, or the greater world?

What if, after researching their class wicked problem they reviewed and revised a wiki page?  What if they do the same as they develop their guiding question?

Paul Pasquaretta used to create a literary journal in his QU 201 class.  What if we published the best FYS essays as part of an undergraduate scholarly journal of inquiry?

Would all of them work harder because it mattered more?  Likely, no.  But what if one student found a voice in her writing that otherwise would be left in the trash?

It’s something to think about.

We’re asking each student to write a final paper for FYS.

It’s a prompt that asks students to revisit their FYS experience, to think about their thinking.

We ask them to describe how they believe they will use the process and tools of ‘Inquiry & Integration’ as they move forward in their education.  It’s a reflection that goes beyond a recounting of days.  It’s a “meta-analysis”.

As far as the learning science goes, having them retrieve what they did, connect it to their current work in meaningful ways, and predict what it’ll do for them down the road are all powerful tools to reinforce learning.

What if it were more than their own “meta-analysis”?

Ask you students how they would change their writing if next year’s FYS students were reading their work?

If by next October you’re sharing ePortfolio links to these writings with your new students, can you see a connection forming that goes beyond the ego-centric?

I do.

And it’s something I’m strongly considering.  What say you?



Wiley, D (2015, August 3) An Obstacle to the Ubiquitous Adoption of OER in US Higher Education (Blog Post) Retrieved from


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