College Ready Writing With Dr. Lee Skallerup

Just what the heck is a bad female academic?  It’s what Dr. Lee Skallerup (sometimes) calls herself.  She’s also a mother with a PhD in Comparative Literature who writes about peer driven learning, teaching composition, and other issues related to higher education.  I’d be more apt to call her “Super Woman.”  Lee also co-founded a regular Wednesday night TweetChat where writing teachers come together via the hashtag #FYCCHAT.  It’s on Wednesday nights at nine o’clock if you’d ever like to check it out.   Lee recently joined me for a podcast discussion and also took the time to answer some of my questions about her teaching and writing process.  You can also access the podcast on iTunes by searching for “digital book club.”  My questions for Lee are given in italics and her answers follow.

Can you take me through the highlights of the writing of your
“Peer Driven Learning: Success!” post?  To what degree did you take
notes throughout the semester?  What’s different about writing a
reflection as opposed to the other sorts of posts you write?

I knew that as soon I started blogging about my peer-driven learning
experience (see an archive of the posts here:
that I would have to/want to write a post that looked back on the
entire process at the end of the semester. One of the things about
keeping a running blog/commentary during the semester, it showed me how
much the term ebbed and flowed and how things changed and evolved as
we worked through the uncertain process. I hoped that the title of the
post would be “Success!” but there were points in the semester where I
wasn’t sure. I don’t take written notes during the semester, instead
relying on mental notes and distinct memories both good and bad. I
have to say that the class did leave some pretty distinct impressions
on me, so it was easy to call on those impressions while writing.
Reflections, for me, are much easier to write (in fact, one could
argue that almost all my posts are reflections) because I’m free to
record my thoughts and impressions as they come to me, rather than
have a thesis, evidence, etc, etc, etc. I think that blogging lends
itself quite well to reflection-type writing.

What’s the usual way that an idea comes to you for a post and
are there any that you can remember that came about in a way that
stands out to you as different?

Sometimes I have my posts planned out in advance, sometimes I have an
incomplete idea that I write down and I think about it until the idea
comes together for a post. Other times, I’ll read something or
something will happen that makes me want to write about it
immediately. But possibly the biggest exception to that was my series
of Bad Female Academic posts
that I wrote over the summer. I had been reading and thinking about
the intersection of class, gender, and professional expectations from
higher education and I suddenly got this idea of exploring all the
ways I (and, from the reaction I got from the posts, many, many
others) don’t seem to fit into the higher education mold. I try not
to write out of a place of anger (but I will write from a place of
frustration) and these posts were my way of working through that
anger, that feeling of not fitting in. They were the most fun,
frustrating, liberating, and ultimately rewarding posts that I wrote
and they really helped me to try new things and write about tough
issues on my blog. It also really solidified a virtual community for
me. I’m still getting emails from academics and PhDs for whom the
posts resonate. It’s really been a great thing and I’m glad that I took
the chance to write them,

What sort of things might you say to a blogger
about writing?  The same stuff as you’d say to a writing student about
an essay?

How I write is a little odd. It’s left over from the bad, bad habits I
had a student, which was to write everything at the last minute, which
means I’m really good at “word vomit,” I write fast and I write a lot.
But, I do spend an awful lot of time preparing to write and thinking
about what I am going to write. I read, a lot. This is so important
for students to remember; often they have trouble writing because they
have nothing to say. Reading a lot helps with that. Then, I think. I
tweet out ideas, see what the response is. When I was an undergrad and
a graduate student, I was a terrible insomniac, so I would lie awake
at night basically writing my essays. Now, I start to write once I
have an idea of where I want to go in the post and I just let the
writing take me where it wants to go. More often than not, I have an
epiphany part-way through the post and it’s a fantastic revelation
(for me, in any case). This will often happen when I’m writing papers
now, too. I am, however, absolutely horrible at proofreading my own
work. It’s one skill that I try really hard to teach my students
because it’s so valuable and it’s also really difficult.

Do you think of yourself as a writer?   To any degree you are writing well, how would you say you learned to do it?

I think of myself as an efficient writer; I write fast and I write
well enough. If you need something quickly, I’m perfect. My writing
has gotten better, especially in terms of me being able to find (or,
perhaps more accurately, rediscover) my own voice, and that just came
through practice. I love writing and I’ve always written, from the
moment I knew how. I was very stubborn and very attached to my writing
and that’s something that I’ve slowly improved on. I’ve also gotten a
lot better at adapting my writing to different audiences and purposes,
and this is another lesson I try to get my students to understand.
But, it just comes with a lot of practice and some good feedback from
people. But also developing a critical eye. It’s something I’m still
working on. I let/force my husband to read my work and give me some
good feedback.

Fond or dreadful memories of writing in school?  What else do you write besides blog posts?

English, at least in high school, was my worst subject. But I wrote
and read all the time. I read just about anything I could get my hands
on and I wrote stories, poems, essays, and kept a journal (not to
mention pages and pages of notes to my group of best friends, as this
was pre-texting). I also wrote for the school newspaper and wrote
press releases for my swim team for the local papers. I initially
wanted to be a journalist, but I can still clearly remember in a
literature class where the light finally went on that maybe I could
do/write about literature. I compared “The Rhyme of the Ancient
Mariner” and “Frankenstein.” Something clicked, and at that moment, I
knew that when I wrote essays, I had to include some sort of “new”
insight that I had come up with, and that I could, in fact, do that. I
trained as a technical writer and journalist, which made me learn how
to be brief and concise. Then, I went into grad school, which taught
me how not to be. I’ve always struggled with the “academic” voice.
When I started blogging about higher education, it was like a perfect
merging of all of my training as a writer. I’ll admit here that I also
still try my hand at writing fiction, but it isn’t very good.

Inside Higher Ed Skallerup Torgerson composition teaching

Lee Writes at Inside Higher Ed

Tell me about the audience for your blog.  What effect do you think it’s had on your writing?  Do you see your writing as having evolved since the first posts?

It’s really funny that you ask that. I was reading a blog a while back
and point number 7 was “To be the voice of a group” and the author
pointed to my blog as an excellent example of that particular piece of
advice. I think I speak for those of us who are off the tenure-track,
trying to navigate our way in (and out) of higher education despite
our tenuous positions. The audience tends to be other people in higher
education, although (at least at my old blog) I had some posts that
helped students in their writing. I also write for other people who
are trying to teach writing. My writing has definitely evolved as I am
less afraid of what topics to write about, as well as gaining
confidence in my voice. I’ve been working on that as my blog moved to
Inside Higher Ed, meaning that my audience was, in theory, much larger
than it was before at my old blog. But, I’ve figured out that I’m just
better off being myself, although I’ve also decided that I am going to
use the bigger platform to promote people, causes, and issues that I
think are important.

What nuts and bolts advice might you offer to a blogger?  And I
mean from getting ideas, to thinking in terms of a theme or subject
for the blog, or keeping track of the posts to come?  Is there a dry
erase board or plans on a computer or phone?

Just keep at it. It might take a while to find your voice, and it
certainly takes a while to find an audience, but it’s worth the
trouble. But I would tell bloggers to write about what you are
passionate about and what you either already know or are really,
really passionate about learning more about. I tried blogging about
kids’ TV shows and about swimming, but both of them faded away, as I
wasn’t completely interested in the topics (I thought they’d be catchy
and have a niche audience). It was only until I started to write about
higher education that blogging made sense for me and got “easy.” I
used to keep track of ideas for my blogs as drafts to be written
later. I also just use good, old-fashioned pen and paper beside my

What do you read?  I mean blogs or otherwise.

What don’t I read? I read newspapers (online), local news, blogs on
higher education, on teaching, on writing, on politics, on
entertainment, on pop culture, on just about anything. I also ready
novels (or, I try to read novels) in both French and English,
particularly science fiction and speculative fiction. I love

When and under what conditions do the posts get written?  Email
open?  Checking phone?  Need quiet or doesn’t matter?

At night, after the kids go to bed, on my laptop, with the TV on.
Sometimes, I’ll write them in the afternoon but mostly I use that
quiet time to write and grade for my “day job.” My email is open, my
phone is on, and so is the TV. But once I get into writing a post,
none of that matters. I’m in the moment, writing.

Hey English Teachers and Writers, any suggestions for a class that looks like this?

When I begin to write a syllabus for an upcoming class, I usually first think about the course’s goals and what the assignments should be.  Once that’s decided, I try to plan a schedule that will help us reach the objectives.  As I began this process for my upcoming summer courses, I was feeling kind of bummed out thinking about diving back into that same old work.  Class never ends up much like my ideal writing day, and so I’ve decided to mix up the structure for how I think about planning a course.  I’m starting with what is closer to an ideal writing day for me, and using that routine to give the class structure.  Here’s what I’ve got so far.  I’d love to hear what you think.

Daily Course Structure for Prof. Torg’s Composition Class

For me, to be a writer and thinker means to live within a mass of habits. I believe there might be as many ways to write and think as there are people engaged the acts.  By living in this routine three days a week for six weeks, I hope you’ll begin to think about how to craft your own routine for thinking, or it might be that you’re more of a person who will create an anti-routine.

(20 minutes)    Writing Studies / Annotating a Text

Let’s see what other people have to say about writing.  When I say annotate, I mean that I want you to try and have a conversation with the writer on a copy of their text.  After that, let’s practice using MLA guidelines to integrate the thoughts of others into our own texts.

(5 min)           Warm Up with Rich Language (I provide or you choose?)

Read something that will challenge your intellect, the sort of text that might introduce you to a new word.   Log the word, the context, the title of the work and the author into your daybook.  I think I’ll start you with Poetry magazine.

(10 min)          Teacher as Text.

This is like the first twenty minutes, but you’ll do this on your own with a text of your choosing.  Read something that you’d say is among the best of the sort of text you are trying to write.  I recently adapted my novel and so early each morning I tried to challenge/inspire myself by reading from Alan Ball’s American Beauty and Diablo Cody’s Juno. Look for one writerly observation of which you might make use.  Log the example in your daybook.  Make sure you take good enough notes that you could quote from this text and cite it in a works cited entry for your Writer on Writing Paper.

(20 minutes)    Write a Draft of Something you Need to Write.

Most, if not all of us, write on a computer screen with lots of distractions.  Here, we’re going to try something different:  we’ll write on paper ignoring our cell phone, instant messages, and the latest email to come dinging into our inbox.

(20 minutes)    Small Group Workshop.

Here’s something you might not be used to:  a real audience.  You can share what you just wrote or something that you’ve written and brought in.  It’s best that we all have a copy, but it is also fine if we don’t.  Readers should annotate the text:  underline phrases that get your attention, challenge the thinking, explain what you learn, and ask questions of each other and the writer.

(10 minutes)    A Lesson From Prof. Torg. Usually, there’s something coming up that I need to explain.

(10 minutes)    Work on Your Group Technology Project.

Your group is to make a movie and write a paper that focuses on one aspect of writing studies.

(5 minutes)      What happened worth mentioning today?

Let’s hear from a couple of the writers in the room.  What happened today that you can share?  Is there something you’ve written or read that you are willing to read to us?

(10 minutes)    Prof. Torg on a Text for Grade.

For this portion of the class, I want to show you the best I can what goes on in my head as I read a text written by someone I’m going to have to give a grade.

(10 minutes)    Research at Work.

I’m going to show you clips from a variety of documentaries and/or the work of previous students.  I see these films/texts as examples of those who are asking meaningful questions and pursuing answers.

How can you get students interested in writing or research? Establish writing territories.

Writing Floats on a Sea of Conversation

—Dr. Samuel Watson

It used to be that I would often ask the writers who entered my classroom, “What do you want to write?”  Their most common response was, “I don’t know.”  The following prompts are meant to plant intellectual seeds that each writer might choose to grow.  During one of our first class sessions together, we make lists and talk about them.  Our conversation helps us add to our lists and we are all able to begin to think about what we might write.  I call our responses to these prompts “writing territories,” a phrase I first encountered in Nancie Atwell’s book In the Middle. She explains her own territories as “subjects I’ve written about or might like to, genres I’ve written in or would like to try, and audiences for whom I write….”(120).

Respond to these prompts and pause to discuss your answers.  What my fellow writer says might allow me to add to my list.

1. Make a list of topics you know something about.

2. List the main parts and/or roles in your life.  For example, I’m a teacher, a husband, a father, a runner, and much more.

3. Make a list of places you know well.

4. What is your major?  What do you hope to use it for?

5. Make a list of topics that you wish you knew more about.  Or, what are some classes you wish were offered and that you could take?

6. Do a sample schedule of your life.  Try out a school day, the weekend, summer, and a holiday.  At 8:00 a.m. you….  And then you…

7. List some political/social issues relevant to your life.

Following the creation of these lists, we can all choose to start writing:  tell us about one of these, use this list to begin a research project, or can you tell us a story that comes from one of these territories?

You can check out my You Tube channel for related videos:

You can get a PDF handout for this activity in the blue box on the lower right of my blog page.