The Tibetan monks who spend weeks stooped over elaborate sand paintings, perfecting each razor line of crystals, only to suddenly sweep it all away, know what they are dong. Their casual destruction reminds us that our projects, along with life itself, are provisional, like waves rising and falling in the sea. Why then is revision such a difficult skill to teach and such a challenge to fully embrace?
We’ve probably all played the revision game with students, and maybe with ourselves, in which requests for real transformation are diluted into mere tweaking. A submitted work, because it has been submitted, can feel essentially done, even if it was only initially intended to be a first draft. My experience with undergraduates in writing intensive general education courses, in college writing courses, and even with graduate students, is that actual revision is an attitudinal orientation most don’t achieve. My focus here, then, is not on particular strategies for revision — there are many brilliant, readily available ones out there — but on the deeper power of revision per se. My aim is indirectly practical, though, since a great obstacle to fully engaged revision is a lack of will. It’s hard to get too excited about revising when the only apparent payoff is a slightly better grade on a paper that no one will probably ever read again.
I flesh out a more expansive notion of revision by imagining the difference between making a marble bust and a sandcastle. Eventually, the bust will be declared finished, for all sorts of reasons, including time and material constraints. At some point, further chipping away seems more destructive than creative. There is, then, a more or less natural limit, inherent in the activity itself. With sand as medium, though, the completion point is more arbitrary. I call it a day because of sunburn, or hunger, or because the tide is nipping at my ankles. Sandcastles are fun precisely because of the abundance of material, the low stakes, and the intrinsic and endless revisability of the whole endeavor.
A comparison between digital and film photography also enriches my sense of what revision might be. As anyone who’s done both kinds of photography knows, the difference is much more interesting than one of mere technological means. As when working with marble, part of the joy of film shooting is connected to its material limits. The discipline forced on the photographer by the nature and cost of the film and processing hones artistic vision and technically mastery. On the other hand, the nearly magical flexibility of digital, of being able to instantly and recklessly shoot a zillion frames, is also a creative boon. Although these activities look alike — one is just sculpting or taking pictures — there are interesting distinctions, and ones that mirror academic work.
Except for some intentionally-focused writing courses — creative writing comes to mind — many instructors suggest that the term papers or other class projects are products meant to result from skills and knowledge gained during the semester. The paper becomes, then, a kind of artifact of the class experience, not unlike a lumpy ashtray made in a junior high shop class. It’s different, though, when, instead, the paper is seen as a kind of excuse for deeply engaging in the processes of revision and reflective thinking. Then, the final “product” matters but primarily as a gauge and heuristic for facilitating careful reading and thoughtful reflection. I could see this more clearly when I realized that many people run in organized marathons not just to achieve the obvious goal but for the rigorous training motivation the race provides.
Just as some especially fit people can successfully complete marathons without really being transformed by weeks or months of training, so too some skillful students can submit technically fabulous term papers, relative to their peers, without stretching themselves intellectually. By focusing on the process rather than the product, then, I am then more likely to help both the best and worst students improve. It’s not that the product doesn’t matter — it is, of course, part of how we measure the effectiveness of the process — but when it becomes the overriding focus, the opportunity to develop an ethos of revision can be missed.
I say “ethos” here, rather than “skill,” because I think the true power of revision isn’t just that it can help students become better academic writers, readers, and thinkers. Rather, the critical self-reflection required for genuine revision is connected to the deeper self-scrutiny associate with living an authentic, examined life. Asking questions of one’s paper — Why did I think that? Could my claim here be wrong? Am I actually saying what I mean? Did I misrepresent that author’s point? — can become a portal into considering one’s way of orienting to others and to the world. In other words, academic revision can become a point of access to the delicious ongoing revisability of our very selves.