National Writing Project

Writing in the Wilderness Without a Guide: How Not to Use Journals in the College Composition Classroom

By: John Levine
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2
Date: 2004

Summary: The proprietary value of a journal is lost on students who don't know what journals are all about. In this article, John Levine shares his struggle to direct his students toward meaningful journal writing.


"In April 1992, a young man from a well-to-do East Coast family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mount McKinley. Four months later his decomposed body was found by a party of moose hunters." So begins the captivating narrative Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. I have used this book off and on in my College Writing 1A class at the University of California, Berkeley. Student journals, on the other hand, I have used consistently for seven years. It was only when I stopped to examine my practice of assigning journals that I saw the parallel between my writing students and the protagonist of Into the Wild: both are lost in the wilderness.

While it's true that becoming lost in a semester-long journal assignment is far less perilous than trying to survive a brutal Alaska winter, I must admit that, for some students, particularly those who have never felt comfortable as writers, asking them to keep a journal, with very little guidance from me, is akin to asking them to navigate their way through the wilderness. Only the strong will survive. And of those survivors, how many will actually become better writers?

Ever since my graduate-school days and throughout my years of teaching college composition, I have been an advocate—no, a champion—of journals. Perhaps my enthusiasm is rooted in my own journal practice; my journal is central to my writing life. If I stopped writing in my journal, I would no longer consider myself a writer. And so how could I not assign journals to my writing students? If I am asking them to consider themselves writers—if only for the single semester we spend together—then certainly they'll have to keep a journal. And they'll love and cherish their journals as I love and cherish mine, right?

About Journals (Guidelines for keeping a journal)
Journals are indispensable tools for writers of all levels. The journals of many writers have gone on to be published as works unto themselves. Others have been revised slightly and published as memoirs. No document offers a more personal and insightful guide to an individual writer's process than the journal.

Each of you will keep a journal exclusively for this class over the course of the semester. In your journal, you are to record:

  • responses to reading assignments
  • reactions to class discussions
  • thoughts about your writing process: observations about how you translate your ideas from your head to the page
  • and any ideas you might have in response to any of the items listed above.

Your journal writing should be in two parts. First, you are to record your thoughts as listed above. You should write a minimum of one page each week in this first section. Try to fulfill your page of writing by the first half of the week. Then, let a day or so pass, go back and read what you wrote, and respond directly to that passage in the second part of your journal. Your response to your journal entry should also be at least one page, giving you a grand total of two pages per week. (I'm sure many of you will write more than the two pages/week requirement, but you must write at least that much.) Please write the date on each journal entry.

Other suggested uses for your journal:

  • Keep a list of any new vocabulary words and grammar or usage facts you learn over the next few months.
  • Record your thoughts and feelings as you revise an assignment. How does your attitude toward the piece you are working on change as you `re-vision' the ideas you are working with?
  • Keep track of connections between things you are discovering (about yourself, about your education, about writing, etc.) in this class and things you are learning in your other classes.

I will collect your journal periodically during the term to get an idea of how you are using this tool as you grow as a writer. I will not be evaluating your writing (in terms of spelling, grammar, etc.) so feel free to be as "messy" and experimental as you like. I hope you enjoy this journal exercise and make it a part of your life beyond the College Writing classroom.

If you have any questions about journals, please ask.

During the first week of class, I hand out a sheet of paper with guidelines for keeping journals. (See above) My guidelines are fairly standard. I borrow freely from journal enthusiasts who have published widely on the subject: Peter Elbow, Ann E. Berthoff (in terms of the dialectical format I ask for), Donald Murray, and others. Where I think my practice falls apart, though, is that I expect my students to go it all alone. Writing, like anything else, I proclaim to my class during the first week of the term, takes practice. I am appealing to the shared experiences of the running back who plays for the football team, the clarinet player in the woodwind ensemble, and the engineering major who knows what it's like to sweat over math problem sets. Practice, they have heard many times, is the key to any discipline. And so they take me at my word as they embark on their journal journey. No one—not the athlete, the musician, or the engineer—asks me how they are expected to practice if they haven't yet acquired the skills I'm asking them to develop. And because they don't ask, I don't have to answer them. But I've come to realize that sending them off to write on their own is irresponsible on my part. If I am to be their guide as they learn to write, I must guide them every step of the way. And informal journal writing requires as much guidance as writing a formal text analysis or an argumentative essay.

Although they are, for the most part, gung ho about journaling, Peter Elbow and Jennifer Clarke warn: "It's a mistake to think of private writing (journal writing and freewriting) as merely `easy'—merely a relief from trying to write right. It's also hard. Many students cannot use private writing productively because they haven't developed the cognitive skill of desert island mentation" (1987, 28). The "desert island" discourse to which Elbow and Clarke refer is not unlike the wilderness metaphor I am using. In both cases, the student writers are on their own. However, on the desert island, presumably, they know where they are and where their island is located; in the wilderness, they may be completely disoriented.

I have my students do plenty of writing during class time (brainstorming, freewriting, looping, and clustering), but, stubbornly, dogmatically, I don't allow them to write in their journals during class. My rationale is that journal writing is private, to be performed alone, whenever and wherever the writer chooses (as long as it's not in my class). But this writing is not really private. I collect the journals twice each term. And although some students manage to convince themselves that the only audience they are writing for is themselves, other students hold fast to the fact that I am their audience. Like any other writing for school, this writing is for the teacher. As much as I might encourage them to "feel free to be as `messy' and experimental as you like," they've been in school long enough to know that when a teacher requires you to write, no matter what he tells you to the contrary, you are writing for that teacher. They do not view the journal as a place to stretch their wings, to discover, to disregard academic convention. And why should they? One student, Scott, addresses me directly in his last journal entry:

For this final journal entry, you have asked us to reflect on our journal process: the usefulness, suggestions for improvement, etc... Most likely, you will be reading a lot of journals about this that say, "The journal process has been really helpful." Students write like this because they are afraid that if they tell the truth, it will affect their grade, and I speak from experience. Well, I am going to give honest criticism because that is part of my character, and I think I would be denying you valuable information if I said that I found these journals helpful.

I do not know if I speak for everyone; maybe there are students who actually found the journals helpful. Unfortunately, I did not find these to be helpful or useful at all. I do not think that they have helped to improve my writing skills, and I have heard other students saying how they just B.S. their ways through the journals. I don't think that many of the students understood what the journals were supposed to accomplish. I know that I did not understand their purpose. Most of the time it was a burden to do these journals... I think that if the journals did not exist, I would be at the same writing level as I am now.

Besides asserting his integrity, Scott is offering me a lot to chew on. He sees no connection between writing in his journal and improved writing skills. I could challenge his position, but what is the point if the student writer himself does not see the journal exercise as useful? How many of us would continue riding a stationary bike, lifting weights, dieting if we didn't see—or, more important, feel—substantial results? Would we continue pedaling in place week after week merely because someone told us that riding the bike is good for us? Prove it, we'd say.

Scott is also telling me that he, along with his classmates, is unclear on the purpose of journal writing. And here I am caught red-handed. Because I have to admit that, other than mandating that they "practice" writing, I offer my students no clear purpose. "Just do it" might be sufficient to sell sneakers, but it is not enough to inspire student writers to write.

Finally Scott indicates that students "just B.S. their ways through the journals." It is this item that most disturbs me. Few teachers I know would be comfortable with the knowledge that an assignment they designed was understood by students to be calling for "B.S." And what kind of mixed message is a teacher who stresses critical thinking and precision in writing sending by asking students to engage in an activity that by all appearances calls for empty blather? Scott concludes:

. . . I don't want you to think that I am criticizing your style of teaching. I definitely believe that you have great teaching abilities. . . . Your teaching has definitely made me a better and more critical writer. . . . I just don't think that the journals helped me reach the point I am at now.

Assuming that the last part of Scott's journal entry is not a result of Scott hedging his bets in case I am pegging his grade on his affirmative assessments of the journals exercise, I find Scott's feedback very useful. He is right: many, if not most, students claim that the journals are a good thing. But are they being truthful? Sunny writes:

For me, writing a journal helps me find . . . a new idea.... There are many times that when I was jotting down my own thoughts, a new idea or insight that never existed before in my head would come up and surprise me.... By laying down my idea into visible form, attempting to sum up the vague and unorganized thought into sensible sentences, my idea was clarified, and I was able to see what is at the center of it.

And this from Patrice:

In this class writing journals was very helpful. First, the journals give you more practice with your writing skills. When a person writes on a regular basis, they will more than likely have better grammar and sentence structure. And when you get in the habit of writing you come to like it more and more. Secondly, when you write a journal there is no right or wrong answer. Usually, when writing a journal you give your opinion on certain issues. In our journals we usually have writing prompts, but you can take any and every stand on issues.

When I first read the entries from Sunny and Patrice, I felt satisfied. Their comments confirmed that the journals were working; they were helping these students become better writers. But upon closer examination—and in light of Scott's theory of B.S.—I have to admit that these seemingly positive statements are pretty generic. One could read my journal handout and figure out the "right" thing to say about journals. Though I still believe that Sunny and Patrice are sincere, I have to question how the journal process affected their individual needs. Diana is more specific:

Throughout the course of the journal processing, I found it very helpful in my College Writing class. When John gives the class journal topics that relate to an assignment, I find that the journal becomes my idea draft. Several times I used my journal as a reference into getting ideas for my assignment. For example, when we had to write a journal about Anna Deavere Smith and Robert Coles, I used some of the ideas from my journals to get a start on my essays.

Wayne's final journal entry, on the other hand, is not all good news for me:

Reflecting back to the first time I had to write a journal, I thought that this was going to be another burden for me. As time passed, I found that journal entries can be helpful. They helped me with brainstorming my ideas for the upcoming essays that I had to write. I also used my journal to write summaries of things I read, so I would not forget what I read two or three weeks later. At other times I found the journal as a burden, something that I had to do. Sometimes I have nothing to write about and I have to struggle through a journal entry. So, my feeling toward the journal is kind of mixed. I like the journal when I have something to write about, but hate it when I have nothing to write about.

Wayne gets to the heart of what's wrong with my journal assignment. The "struggle" that he experiences when he has nothing to write about is what I need to examine. While we would all agree that writing involves great effort, journal writing should, ideally, offer a respite from the struggle. I regard my journal as a place where the pressure is off, where I can write painlessly, effortlessly. I suppose I tell myself that journal writing is not really writing; it's writing that doesn't count. But for Wayne and many of his classmates, writing is writing is writing. And it is presumptuous of me to assume that my College Writing students understand their own process enough to control when and how much they struggle.

In addition to asking the students to write about their overall impressions about their journal experience, I also asked them to offer suggestions for improvement. The responses to this prompt yielded a treasure trove of feedback. First, Wayne:

The journal can be improved by giving the students a topic to write about every week. They can either write about that topic or write what they want. This can give the students a backup in case they don't have anything else to write about.

Merlin agrees:

What I did like about the journals was sometimes having actual prompts to work with. The prompts really helped me begin thinking about an idea that I could write about.

Diana goes into more detail:

Suggestions for improvement would be to write more journals relating to the assignments given in class.... Having a journal topic related to the assignment forced me to think about the assignment prior to the time it was due, which is good.

Maritza offers this:

I think if we feel more pressure towards the journals they will get done on time. For example, if you give feedback regarding someone's journal the next day in class or even just hint that you are checking and we feel more pressure to get them done, they will be done. I know I didn't feel a lot of pressure in turning in the journals—which is really bad!

From Maritza, I learn that my loose guidelines and lack of critical oversight left her adrift. She, like many of her classmates, needs more structure and feedback. Merlin is asking for more than direction as she writes. She suggests that a prompt would help her with both halves of her dialectic journal. Wayne and Diana present what should have been obvious to me: I should connect the journal exercise to the rest of the class curriculum. Finally, Kevin offers a half dozen suggestions for improvement, the last of which reads:

One more thing that I think that you should do for next year is to have people send journal entries to each other. This can help with getting to know each other in the class. For example if one student can be assigned one other student, then they can be journal buddies and they can send journal entries about themselves, who they are, and all sorts of different things that would be beneficial to the knowledge and the pursuit of others' knowledge as a whole class. Next year I think that the biggest thing that you can do to increase the success of this assignment is to instead of making the journal seem like something that is not a big deal, flip it around and make it something that has urgency so that it will be placed with more importance inside a student's mind.

It's interesting that many of my students' suggestions align with what composition theorists like Ken Macrorie and Toby Fulwiler recommend: making the journal central to the writing class. Mary Jane Dickerson explains:

Placed at the center of the writing course, journals become the nucleus of writing as act, setting the recursive nature of composing into motion and resulting in texts both inside and outside the journal that show writers beginning to sense the power of their language. Journals, therefore, encourage dialogues between the writers and the texts being written so that writers can gain a richer understanding of themselves as makers and shapers of meaning (1987, 131).

Despite some of their claims that journal-writing seemed like busywork at points during the term, I could see genuine reflection and working out of writerly and readerly problems in individual entries. Scott, who confesses at the end of the semester that he did not understand the purpose of keeping a journal and, thus, did not believe his writing improved through the process of journal writing, entered this in his journal six weeks earlier:

So I have been working on my paper (rough draft due Wednesday), and it has been pretty difficult to come up with ideas for this one. I mean, I could just go for the obvious, but that would be defeating the purpose of coming up with an original idea. It would be really easy to just state what [Robert] Coles thinks and then show how this is demonstrated in two other texts. It would be very "so what?" as our class has keyed the term. Critical writing is difficult, but I think that that is the purpose of this class: to help us become more critical writers.... I really think that this kind of writing has to be taught because this kind of critical writing is difficult.

But as for this current paper, I am thinking of writing about how what Coles says in the beginning of his essay is refutable, and then supporting my argument. I don't know if this is digging deep enough, but I will find out on Wednesday because I have my meeting with John.

What I like about this entry is that Scott is being reflective—not only about the Robert Coles text that is the subject of his papers but also about his development as a critical thinker. And in the second part of his journal, his response to the entry above, he writes:

All right, well I have had a few days to let my paper sit, and I also had the peer editing session as well as my meeting with John. The peers thought the paper was good, and I got some good feedback from Maria and Maritza. However, John was the best help in the process of coming up with a better topic. It is funny because what I actually thought was an original idea turned out to be pretty obvious. The passage that I provided in my essay from Coles as the passage to be refuted was pretty obviously refutable. I didn't dig deep as I thought I had! The context in which I wrote it makes it seem obvious to refute it...I think that when I sit down and really think about this, I will be able to come up with a pretty good idea for a paper. I need to do some reflection and show my way of reading this text. This is going to be difficult, but it is getting less and less difficult to do this kind of writing as the semester progresses.

I wonder, if Scott were to read this entry, he would label it "BS." In fact, Scott's two-part journal entry is exactly what I am looking for. Scott demonstrates his ability to reflect on his own writing process (and product), and though he stops short of elaborating on his ideas in his journal, he resolves to "do some reflection and show my way of reading this text." Ideally, Scott would use his journal to actually reflect on his problem, but given my loose direction, Scott's resolution to give the matter some thought may be all I can hope for. At any rate, in my view the quality of Scott's entry takes a giant step up the prose ladder from B.S. Like an appraiser on the Antiques Roadshow, my job must be to make Scott aware of the value of his ideas.

The students who made the most of the journal exercise were lucky. With little direction, except for the guidelines I handed out at the beginning of the term, they found their way through the wilderness. Others got lost; some stopped handing in journals altogether. (True to my lack of direction with the journal assignment, I do not indicate how much of the final grade is determined by the journals. I simply factor it into the "writing" portion of the grade.)

As of this writing, I have stopped assigning journals altogether in my college composition classes. The matter is by no means closed, but until I develop a step-by-step strategy for guiding my students along the rocky journal path, I'll put this component on hold. If and when I reintroduce journal writing, I will bring the process—as well as the purpose—out of the shadows. Rather than introducing the journal assignment in the beginning of the semester and then not talking about it until the end, I will, as Dickerson suggests, position the journal "at the center of the writing course." If I am going to share with my students this exciting writer's tool, I must share with them everything about it. Sure, journals are "private," but then the premise of my writing course is making writing public, sharing with a community of writers the ins and outs of the writing process. So I have to think long and hard about this glaring contradiction. I'm not certain how I'll guide my next class through the thicket of weekly journal assignments, but I will guide them, and I will share with them my own journal.


Dickerson, M. 1987. "Exploring the Inner Landscape: The Journal in the Writing Class." The Journal Book. Ed. Toby Fulwiler. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

Elbow, P. and J. Clarke. 1987. "Desert Island Discourse: The Benefits of Ignoring Audience." The Journal Book. Ed. Toby Fulwiler. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

Krakauer, J. Into the Wild. 1996. New York: Anchor Books.

About the Author John Levine teaches in the College Writing Programs at the University of California, Berkeley. He is a teacher-consultant with the Bay Area Writing Project.

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