The curriculum for the English communication course I taught this semester emphasized regular reflection. After each major assignment, the students had to write about their writing and editing process. The reflections were low-stakes assignments worth only 5 points each, and they were meant to help the students learn the nebulous, elusive concept of progress and continual growth. In a way, the main takeaway of the class was the idea that communication is not just a product, but a process.
As a writer, I know the benefits and enjoy the act of reflecting, perhaps too much. I’ve been journaling since 2009, have been blogging for the majority of this decade, and in some way I feel vindicated when pedagogy texts tout the benefits of such practices. When I explain to my students why these reflections matter, I hope my enthusiasm is contagious (though I know that that’s not exactly always the case).
But the way my students are taught to reflect is not the way I reflect. Their way is better. The reflection prompts give a list of questions that serve as starters. They are told to be specific, to quote directly from their assignments, to provide evidence of their thinking. When I reflect, my sentences are often vague, describe a series of events rather than demonstrate metacognition, and I’m not reflecting on anything in particular, just writing about my day in order to satisfy my craving to put ink on a page.
As I write this blog post, my desk has a copy of The New Yorker open to an essay I want to analyze in preparation for teaching rhetorical analysis to my students next semester. My winter break plans include doing the major assignments that are required of my students so that I’m familiar with the work and questions they may have. The main textbook I’ll be teaching from, Everything’s An Argument, outlines skills I need a refresher on. There’s a reflection prompt after each assignment, which I will also complete so that I can remember the challenges and joys of writing a rhetorical analysis of a David Sedaris essay.
But I have yet to figure out a way to reflect so specifically on everything—on all of life, on this decade.
In the final essay I had workshopped in a Nonfiction class I took this semester, I wrote about the journaling habit I started during my senior year of high school, ten years ago. My areas of concern felt sprawling when I was seventeen, though I imagine that they were actually very tightly circumscribed to immediate topics: friendship drama, the college application process, and whatever pop music sensation I was a fan of at the time.
I say that I imagine what my concerns were at the start of the decade because I don’t yet know; I haven’t really revisited that first notebook. Ever since I started journaling, I have left the last page blank, reserved for ten years after the completion of that notebook. My first ten-year “anniversary” is coming up on January 5th, 2020.
In a way, the 2010’s have been a decade of gathering material, and the next decade will comprise regular reflections where I’ll be confronting concrete evidence of my thinking and learning and living.
I’m not sure what to expect. When I think about the moments that feel personally monumental in the past ten years, I may find them unconsciously (or consciously) minimized in my journals. Or I may find a fixation that I don’t remember, or misremembered. I will feel embarrassed at times, and will definitely feel an occasional frisson of shame at some of my past actions.
The final reflection prompt my students had to answer this past semester had, essentially, three parts: look at who you were at the start of the semester, summarize how you have changed to reach your present moment, and create a plan for continuing your progress in the future. A good reflection has all three parts, and I often find difficulty in balancing all three. I linger in the past (sometimes too much), and I’m happy to meditate on who I am in the present. But who do I want to be? What shame do I want to eliminate, or minimize if I can’t erase it entirely? How do I want to be better than who I am today?
Because that’s the only thing I know for certain about the past, my present, or future: I just want to be better.