Skip to content

Composition Forum 28, Fall 2013

Writing and Healing from Trauma: An Interview with James Pennebaker

Bookmark and Share

Molly Hurley Moran

Abstract: In this interview, social psychologist James Pennebaker discusses the positive effects that writing about trauma can have for writers. When asked about student veterans, in particular, Pennebaker makes it clear that he would neither encourage nor discourage veterans to write about their war experiences, but that he would encourage them—and would, in fact, encourage all students—to write about emotionally significant issues. However, he would encourage students to do so for short periods of time only, and not as graded assignments.

Social psychologist James Pennebaker can arguably be called the father of the “writing-and-healing” movement, a multi-disciplinary field that has garnered considerable attention in recent years. Pennebaker’s groundbreaking 1990 book, Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, caught the eye not only of fellow psychologists but also of researchers and practitioners in medicine, neuroscience, and counseling, and eventually of those working in the fields of creative writing and composition studies. In the book, Pennebaker describes his initial “a-ha” experiment, conducted at Southern Methodist University in the 1980s, that caused him to suspect that writing about trauma can alleviate its negative effects and lead to improved physical and emotional health. Pennebaker then goes on to discuss the various follow-up experiments that appeared to confirm this link.

In the years since the publication of Opening Up, many other researchers and scholars have explored the effects of this kind of writing—called, variously, trauma writing, healing writing, disclosure writing, expressive writing, and personal writing. For example, there have been studies examining its effects on the brain, on the nervous system, on the immune system, and on cognition (e.g., the articles collected in Stephen Lepore and Joshua Smyth’s The Writing Cure); books testifying to the therapeutic role such writing plays in the treatment of cancer patients (e.g., Sharon Bray’s When Words Heal); works demonstrating how the act of creative writing can be healing (e.g., Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and with Others and John Fox’s Poetic Medicine); and academic texts discussing the implications of trauma writing for the college composition classroom (e.g., Jeffrey Berman’s Risky Writing, Judith Harris’s Signifying Pain, Marian MacCurdy’s The Mind’s Eye, and the NCTE publication Writing and Healing). In addition, many writers have discussed how journal writing or memoir writing about a personal trauma helped them to heal (e.g., Louise DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing and Susan Zimmerman’s Writing to Heal the Soul). Other indications of the growing interest in writing-and-healing are the development of narrative medicine courses and programs (e.g., at Columbia and Duke), the burgeoning of journals focusing on the connection between medicine and humanities (e.g., Literature and Medicine, Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine, and Journal of Medical Humanities), and the sprouting up of writing workshops for victims of cancer, AIDS, rape, domestic violence, and other traumas.

Pennebaker, who is currently Chair of the Department of Psychology at University of Texas, Austin, has continued to pursue his work in writing-and-healing, publishing numerous articles since Opening Up, as well as a guided journal for victims of trauma (Writing to Heal, 2004). His examination of the linguistic features characterizing the writing of those who heal from trauma versus those who do not ultimately led to his discovery that everyday, functional words (prepositions, articles, auxiliary verbs, pronouns) reveal more about people’s thoughts, emotions, and behavior than do content and descriptive words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs). He published his findings, based on computerized text analyses of hundreds of thousands of letters, poems, books, blogs, Tweets, and other texts, in his 2011 book The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say about Us. A best-seller, this work, like Opening Up, is a cross-over book: appealing to both a scholarly and a popular audience.

I became acquainted with Pennebaker’s work though my own first-hand experience with the phenomenon of writing-and-healing. In the wake of my sister’s disappearance and murder in the mid-1990s, I found writing to be the only way to make sense of the tragedy. After publishing the resulting memoir, Finding Susan, I began to take an academic interest in the phenomenon I had experienced, intrigued by the possibility that healing writing might effectively be used in the college composition classroom. In my research, I came upon Pennebaker’s fascinating work, and my hunch that it held pedagogical possibilities was strengthened by the fact that Pennebaker was chosen to be a featured speaker at the 2008 Conference on College Composition and Communication.

Although Pennebaker has not focused specifically on military veterans, his finding that writing can help victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) clearly has implications for this population. Because many veterans suffering from PTSD are entering or returning to college, composition teachers can benefit from learning about his work. With this goal in mind, I conducted a phone interview with Pennebaker—who asked me to call him Jamie—on July 20, 2012. What follows is a transcript of that interview, with a few explanatory notes inserted in brackets.

Molly Hurley Moran (MM): First of all, thank you very much for agreeing to do this interview, Jamie. I’m going to ask you a series of about nine or ten questions that will begin with a focus on your interest in writing and healing and then move increasingly specifically into connections between that phenomenon and the teaching of writing in college composition classes, particularly classes that may contain military veterans returning to college. So, to begin: in the first chapter of your book Opening Up, you describe how excited you were when your early experiments began to suggest that writing about trauma can result in improved physical and psychological health. In an amusing anecdote, you describe coming home from work one day during this heady period and receiving a phone call from your brother, who asked what was new. After you regaled him with a description of your experiments and findings, he replied, “That’s it? What’s the big deal? Everyone knows that.” He was referring, of course, to the clichéd wisdom that it’s healthy to get things off one’s chest. But, as you explain in your book, this is a simplification and a distortion of the connection you have found between writing and healing. In order to clarify your theory for readers new to your work, can you describe your seminal experiment and the hypotheses and subsequent experiments that stemmed from it?

James Pennebaker (JP): I should start by pointing out that my background is not in literature, it’s in psychology, but I’m not a sort of traditional kind of touchy-feely type of psychologist. I actually came across this idea almost by accident. I discovered that if people have some kind of upsetting experience in their lives that they keep secret, this is associated with a host of health problems. And I think that one reason is that when you are holding a secret you are hyper-vigilant and you’re not able to work through issues. And so it occurred to me that it might be valuable if I set up an experiment in which I had people come in and talk about emotional upheavals that they hadn’t talked about with others. But the big problem with talking is that you [the subject, i.e., the person doing the talking] have a reaction; that is, you don’t know how the other person is going to react. Then it occurred to me it might be beneficial to have people write about something they had kept secret rather than talk about it. And it also occurred to me that it might make sense to have them write about it multiple times. This would give them a chance to reflect on it and work through the issues. So, my original study on this was really a speculative study where we got about fifty students and half of them wrote about a big emotional upheaval or traumatic experience, ideally one they hadn’t talked about before, and the other half of the people we had just write about superficial topics. To make this be a good experiment, we determined who would write about emotional issues and who would write about superficial topics just by a flip of a coin. We were able to get the subjects’ permission to access their student health center records, and we could now track what happened to their physical health in the months after writing compared to before writing. What we found in that first study was that writing about a traumatic experience was associated with improvements in physical health. People in the experimental group went to the student health center at about half the rate as people in the control group.

That first study really was a profound experience for me. First of all, it was clear that when people were given the opportunity to write about traumas, they wanted to do so. Further, they wrote beautifully. It was very different from when they wrote term papers for my classes. Finally, the writing had a profound effect on them. Not only was there an improvement in health, but I would be walking around campus and people would sometimes come up to me and thank me for letting them be in my experiment. That had never happened to me before!

So, that was really the beginning of a whole series of studies that I did, and then other labs began to look into this and over the years, there have probably been around 300 studies that have been published that rely on this method.

[The specifics of Pennebaker’s seminal study, conducted in 1983, are as follows: Forty-six student volunteers were randomly assigned to write either about a superficial topic (such as to describe their dorm room) or a traumatic topic. The latter subjects were told to write about a trauma from one of three perspectives: (1) just vent their emotions about the trauma without explaining any of the facts surrounding it; (2) just describe the facts of the trauma, with no mention of the emotions associated with it; (3) describe their deepest thoughts and feelings about the trauma. Students wrote in a private cubicle for 15 minutes a day for a period of four consecutive days. Code numbers rather than names were used on the essays, to maintain anonymity and confidentiality. The overall findings were that during the six months following the experiment, those students who wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings regarding a trauma had significantly fewer illness visits to the campus health center than did those in the other three groups; these same students also experienced a 50% reduction in illness visits compared to their rates before the experiment. Furthermore, in a questionnaire administered four months after the experiment, the students in this group showed greater improvement in moods, outlook, and sense of physical well-being than did the students in the other groups.]

MM: One thing I wanted to ask about is whether expressive writing is more therapeutic for certain kinds of people than for others. I gather from your book that it is most effective for people who have never opened up before about their trauma but that it can also be effective for people who have talked so much about their trauma that they have become glib or maybe hardened into a certain way of looking at it and so writing about it can make them explore it more deeply. So, could you talk a little about who this kind of writing seems to be most beneficial for?

JP: Well, the answer to this question is not as straightforward as I’d like it to be. This kind of writing does seem to work best for people who find themselves thinking about, obsessing about, worrying about, dreaming about emotional upheavals that have occurred in the past. In other words, these are issues that are not resolved by the person. If you’ve had some kind of traumatic experience and you don’t think about it, I don’t really think writing’s going to be helpful for you. So that’s the first issue: it’s got to be something that you’re still living with. The second consideration is the timing. If it’s been a major traumatic experience that’s happened in the last few days, maybe even weeks, writing may not be good for you. In other words, I generally think of writing as being beneficial if someone is thinking about something too much—which I realize is kind of an ambiguous rule—and for too long of a time, but if somebody close to you died suddenly, say two weeks ago, and you’re thinking about it all the time, I’d still call that within the period of normalcy. But if it’s now a year later and you’re thinking about it all the time, that’s probably too much. So, immediately after an upsetting experience, if you want to write about it, sure, go ahead, but I would never push anyone to do it. For example, you and I are talking today right after learning about the murders in the theater showing the Batman movie [our phone interview occurred about 12 hours after the movie theater massacre in Aurora, CO]; if I were a teacher and had students in my class who’d witnessed or been affected by this tragedy, I would not have them write about it in the first two weeks or three weeks afterwards. I would not force people to do emotional processing immediately afterwards. All the evidence suggests that’s probably not beneficial. We don’t have sufficient defenses immediately after a trauma.

MM: One thing you wrote about in Opening Up is that when you analyze the essays written by subjects in your various experiments, the people who seem to have the most therapeutic benefits are people who have used a lot of positive content words, some negative content words, plus cognitive words such as “realize,” “believe,” “because,” etc. Can you talk a bit about the idea that there is a certain way of writing about a trauma that seems to be more helpful in freeing oneself from being obsessed with it?

JP: Right. This is also another interesting thing, especially for somebody in rhetoric. There’s a big difference between pouring out your emotions about a trauma and constructing a story or narrative about it. In other words, very often someone will come in to one of the experiments on writing, and the first day that they write about a trauma, they will write about it beautifully. They’ll give it context; there’ll be a beginning, middle, and end. It’ll be a very good story. In my opinion, those people do not benefit from writing. They already have a story. The people who benefit the most are the ones who on the first day of writing often have almost a stream of consciousness or almost a random series of events, and over the course of the writing, they start putting it together, constructing a story out of it.

MM: So, does this mean that writing about a trauma is not as beneficial for reflective, analytical people, because they’ve already done this work in their mind or perhaps in their discussions with friends or with a therapist? Or can it still be beneficial for such people?

JP: Yes, it can be. It’s interesting. In my experience--my original research had these people write about their traumatic experiences for three or four days for 15 or 20 minutes per day—in my experience, I almost think that that’s enough. If after about three or four days you don’t feel as though you’re making progress or you’re not getting any better, then writing may not be what’s good for you. There are some people who are overly reflective, who tear at that scab over and over and it never heals, and I think that being too self-reflective, too ruminative is really not healthy at all.

MM: Your analysis of the writing style of those who ended up benefiting most from writing about trauma revealed that they used a lot of cognitive and cause-and-effect type words, like “realize,” “understand,” “because,” “therefore,” and so on. Now, I know that explicitly instructing people to use such words in their writing cannot cause them to be reflective about their trauma, but I’m wondering if there are ways that a therapist or teacher could elicit this kind of writing from clients or students and hence could help them heal more effectively through writing? For example, they could be instructed to look at the trauma from different points of view. Do you think that this kind of instruction might give rise to the kind of reflective, cognitive, story-constructing writing that appears to be most beneficial?

JP: Yes, I do. And I think getting people to look at this at the word level is not beneficial, but if a person is becoming too ruminative, they’re talking too much about their own thoughts or feelings, a good therapist will say stop a second, look at this from other people’s perspectives—what is your friend, or whoever else is involved, what do you think their view is? That’s really important, I think—to look at things in multiple ways. You see this in natural coping. Immediately after a horrible trauma, there’s no humor to it, but as you get a little more distance, you can laugh about it. What laughing is—when a person gets to the point of laughing, they have a more distanced perspective.

MM: What about the difference between talking about it and writing about it? Obviously if they’re talking about it, the advantage there is that the therapist can jolt them back into looking at it from a different perspective, but you indicate in your book that it can be more effective, actually, to write about trauma and emotional issues than to talk about them. Can you talk a little bit about the difference between talking about trauma and writing about trauma, that is, about why the latter can yield benefits that the former cannot?

JP: I’ve always felt that there are two really significant differences between writing and talking. One of course is that with talking, there is an immediate audience for feedback, which can be both positive and negative. The second is speed, in terms of how quickly you are putting words and thoughts out. Writing, almost by definition, is a slower process. You’re almost forced to bring about structure in what you’re saying. You’re not going to be distracted. You’re in a room by yourself focusing on this topic. The social aspect is a really complicated one because first of all, there’s now fairly convincing evidence that talking is beneficial if the other person validates what you’re saying. And therein is a very interesting issue. We all want to be validated, so if I start to tell you anything about a traumatic experience, and it’s something that’s potentially humiliating, and I’m watching your face really closely and I perceive any kind of disapproval or anything, what I will do is subtly change my story. In my experience, people may not tell their therapist about a really critical issue, maybe for many, many sessions or sometimes ever, simply because it’s just too threatening. The beauty about writing is that it’s for you and you alone; there’s nobody to hold back anything from, and you’re able to confront it.

This is a really touchy issue for teachers. I am very nervous about having people write about emotional upheavals that they turn in for class, because, especially when it’s graded, you are essentially putting the kid in a terrible bind, which is “I’m putting my soul on the line, and I’m writing about some kind of traumatic experience, and then I get a C on it?” You know, how do you deal with that? There’s also this issue that people don’t tell secrets sometimes because they think people will think less of them, and the reality is that sometimes we do think less of people when they tell these horrible stories, even though they’re putting their souls on the line. It’s really a terrible bind for the student.

MM: I’ve heard too of composition teachers saying that when they’ve taken the approach of assigning students to write about a personally upsetting experience, often the students will think that it has to be something extreme, and they’ll feel bad if they’ve just had these middle class lives without any major suffering or traumas. So this type of assignment can boomerang that way too, and this kind of leads into the area that I wanted to steer our conversation towards. You have often pointed out—for example, in this interview but also in your writings—that your research and views are coming from a social psychologist’s perspective and not from that of a linguist or literary scholar. However, your work overlaps with the interests of linguists and literary scholars since you are looking at language. And so I wanted to ask you how you feel about the fact that in a way your work has seen a cross-over into writing instruction, as evidenced by the fact that you were asked to be a featured speaker at the CCCC a few years back. Do you feel that your work does have implications for the teaching of composition in college and high school?

JP: That’s a very interesting question. Of course, I’m flattered to think that it could. I do think there are interesting ways to at least think about how writing about emotional and personal issues can lead into better thinking among students and also help them learn. So there are two issues. One is that writing is a mode to make people psychologically healthier, and that of course is the work that I’ve done. But the other issue that I’m also interested in—because I’m also a teacher—is how can you use this to make students learn better, and I think I also talk about this in Opening Up. Years ago as part of a team-taught interdisciplinary course, I had students write about their emotions and thoughts surrounding the British East Indian Tea Company, which on one level is the most ridiculous idea you’ve ever heard. But what I loved about it is that students actually got into it, and they learned the material much better. The class discussion went much better because what they started to realize was that this really esoteric topic that they had thought had no personal relevance to them actually was personally relevant—that many of the issues surrounding what was going on in India and Great Britain at the time are relevant to life today.

[Pennebaker does talk about this experience in Opening Up. Several years ago, he conducted an experiment in a team-taught course he was participating in at SMU entitled Social and Political Institutions from 1854 to the Present. Students attended two large lecture classes per week as well as a small weekly discussion section in which the section instructor tried to generate a stimulating intellectual discussion about the topics of the week. However, because students tended to feel both bored and overwhelmed by the material in the lectures, the discussions never really got off the ground. Pennebaker and his graduate-student assistants, who each led a discussion section, began an experiment in which they started the class with a brief overview of the main ideas of the lectures and the readings and then instructed the students to write for ten minutes about their deepest thoughts and feelings about one of the topics. The students turned in their writing but they were never graded on it. Pennebaker was amazed by the change this assignment wrought in the discussion. He says that in his own section, before implementing the writing component, it had been impossible to get a discussion going unless it had nothing to do with the topic. But after the writing requirement was implemented, the discussion became rich, with students contributing interesting and insightful comments on topics they previously could not relate to. In addition, absentee rates dropped and performance on essay exams improved dramatically. He and his research assistants have since then used the in-class writing system in other courses, with equal success. Pennebaker says students acknowledge that the writing forces them to assimilate and integrate ideas and hence to learn the subject matter more deeply.]

MM: Yes, I remember reading about that experiment, and you discovered that the discussion and the academic performance of the students that were in the experimental group were better than those of the students that were in the control group that hadn’t done the pre-writing before the discussion, isn’t that right?

JP: Exactly, yeah.

MM: That is really interesting. Well, now let’s turn to the topic of the special issue of Composition Forum, which is addressing the concerns of college composition teachers who have returning military veterans in their classrooms, especially veterans who have seen combat and may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. I wanted to ask your thoughts on special considerations for dealing with the writing of such students. Do you think that the composition teacher should encourage these students to write about these experiences in a journal or some other kind of ungraded, low-stakes writing, or do you think the teacher should steer away from having them write about such topics?

JP: My view is always to give people the opportunity to write about things that are bothering them, telling them “if you find that you are thinking about something too much, worrying about something too much, write about it, put it in a journal or whatever.” But at the same time, if they start writing about it and they start losing control, if they start flipping out, if they get too disturbed, they should stop writing about it. In other words, use writing as a tool to deal with upsetting thoughts and experiences, but if these topics are too overwhelming, don’t have them continue writing about them. So I think that would be my strategy.

You know, it’s also interesting—it gets back to that issue of the upper middle class kid who doesn’t have a “big enough” trauma. One of the things I’ve learned over the years—it’s been a real eye-opener—is that very often when we do these studies and we’re dealing with, say, maximum security prisoners or people with HIV or people who have lost their jobs, and on and on—is that I’ll go in and give them the instructions, “Okay, I want you to write about your diagnosis of AIDs or your diagnosis of cancer or losing your job, and in doing this you might tie this into other issues in your life.” The instructions are always vague like this, and I am always struck with how rarely people write about the topic. Hardly anyone writes about AIDS or losing their job, etc. They write about issues that maybe the trauma, like being diagnosed with AIDS or losing their job, helped foster, but most of the issues that we think are the problems hardly ever are the problems. So the veteran who might be suffering from PTSD –the issues that are really bothering him [or her] may not be seeing violence in the war; it really might be really horrible conflicts with family or parents or kids or God knows what. So that’s why I would neither encourage them nor discourage them from writing about war experiences, but rather would encourage them to write about emotionally significant issues.

You know, another issue that’s also relevant –or what can also be helpful—is to have them write about these deeply personal issues for themselves, and that would be something they don’t turn in. Then, have them write a fictionalized version of what they’ve written and have them do it in a way that is somehow safe so that they do not feel they are being judged about their experience.

MM: That’s a good idea. What about precautions teachers should take if they do suspect that the writing done by either veterans or other students has triggered something that may be psychologically or emotionally destructive? What should college teachers do if they suspect that this is the case?

JP: Well, I guess that I would approach it in two ways. The first thing I’d do would be to talk to the student directly and get a sense of their emotional state. Then I’d offer to take them to a counselor or refer them to one. That would be what I would do. If there is a clear and present danger of suicide or danger to others, then I guess I would immediately seek help from somebody else in the school. But in my experience, that is a very rare phenomenon.

MM: Have you done any recent experiments with veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan?

JP: We have, actually. We did do a project with couples who had been reunited, where one of the two—usually the male—had been deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq and came back. But that study was focusing more on the couple and on their relationship than it was on war experiences or anything like that.

MM: And you did a writing experiment with them?

JP: Yes, we had both members of the couple write, and we tracked how beneficial the writing was in terms of the quality of their relationship.

MM: What about in general—when you think of college freshmen, 18 or 19 years old, and part of the purpose of a college education being to foster healthy psychological growth, what would be the ideal way for those of us who do teach writing to these students—and obviously we’ve moved away from the old approach of teaching writing by teaching grammar—to do so in a way that will help them grow both emotionally and intellectually? I know this is a big question, but how would you approach it? [Would you] be inclined more towards the expressivist approach—i.e., that of Peter Elbow, Donald Murray, and others who advocate personal writing—than to a focus on academic writing per se? Could you comment on whether you do have any thoughts about the way composition is taught or should be taught?

JP: You know, I don’t know enough about that, and, again, I approach the topic of writing from two perspectives. From a therapeutic perspective, one tool that is really beneficial is giving students just the awareness that writing about an experience, even if it’s only for five or ten minutes, can be beneficial, and having them do that occasionally, and not as a graded assignment, for the first five or ten minutes of class can show them how beneficial it is—that it is a really powerful coping tool. The other perspective, speaking as not a psychologist but as a teacher, is that students really do need to be taught to write. This is out of my field of expertise, but I don’t know that teaching grammar per se is the most effective way. This gets into the world of education. And I will say, I deal with huge numbers of students; I teach a giant introductory psychology class, and I have them do four writing assignments that are only graded on whether they turn them in or not. I would say that by and large, I see an improvement in their writing as a result. They often don’t understand punctuation too well, but with spellcheck, they’re writing a little bit better than they did in the past. Maybe they’re writing a little bit more emotionally, but they do seem to write reasonably well.

MM: Well, that’s interesting that you say that because in my experience—well, in a typical composition class, I start with more personal writing and then gradually move on to more “academic” writing and research paper writing. But I find that when I read their papers, the personal ones are richer. The language is often more vivid and I think it’s because they are engaging with the topic and the activity more, whereas when they are writing about topics that they think are academic, they fall into a kind of stiff or wordy way of writing; they seem to be straining to sound important. But the fresher language comes across in the personal writing. So I guess the trick is to—well, to do what you are talking about: to somehow make them connect personally with the academic topic. And that’s the challenge in teaching writing courses. But it may be that the kind of free writing on academic topics that you tried in the discussion sections in that team-taught course is the way to help students to connect personally with such topics. And one thing that I find interesting about your own writing and that makes it so engaging is that you bring in your personal experiences, you show that often your personal experiences were what triggered insights that led to your academic research and experiments. Both of your books—Opening Up and The Secret Life of Pronouns—could have been written in a more formal, academic manner. Did you consciously decide to write in a more personal way and to engage more closely with the reader?

JP: Well, yeah, but the reality is that it’s a lot easier to write a book that way! It’s kind of like teaching. When you are more personal in your teaching, and you tell stories, people understand it better.

MM: Yes, and that’s probably why your books have reached a general audience as well as an academic audience. Well, let me just wind up by asking you about what directions your research is going in now. I know you’ve moved from your early work on writing and healing to an interest in textual analysis—i.e., to an interest in what people’s word choices reveal about their personality and emotions. Do you want to comment a little bit about that work and maybe where it’s leading?

JP: Okay. Well, about ten years ago, I started creating online exercises where people would write about a particular topic, and, when they finished, they would push the SUBMIT button and we would then use our computerized text analysis program to give them feedback about their writing.  For example, if you follow the link to the exercise page of my website for The Secret Life of Pronouns [], you will be taken to an exercise where people are asked to describe an ambiguous picture. After typing a story relevant to the picture, you submit it, and the computer analyzes your words looking for different themes. I love this kind of program because it’s fast, simple, and understandable.

After creating several different types of exercises, it occurred to me that we could build a system where we could have two people simply chatting with one another while our computer program analyzed the words each person was using.  Originally, we were able to give the two people feedback about their interactions.  For example, we can tell them how much each person contributed, how similar they were in their writing style, and even the degree to which they stay on the assigned topic.  From there, it occurred to me that we could get groups of students to start working together in online chat rooms in the classes I was teaching.  We could use this text analysis method to serve as a “person” who could help the group dynamics. Imagine being in high school or college and being assigned to work with a group on a class project.  Every now and then, the computer comes in and gives you personalized feedback such as, “your group is working quite well together--you are all paying attention to one another.”  Or, “in the last five minutes, you have talked far more than anyone else. You might sit back a little and encourage some of the other people to contribute.”  Or, “your group seems to be straying from the topic at hand.  Try to focus more specifically on the assignment.”

You can see the potential for this method.  We are seeing if we can train students to work together more effectively in a non-threatening manner.  Our preliminary findings are quite promising.  We are now beginning to apply this to very large in-class and online classes of 500 students or more.  The goal is to try to personalize education by having students work more closely with others.  I think the reason I’m so enthusiastic about this is because we are using some of the esoteric work I started many years ago on natural language to bring about meaningful changes in the classroom.

MM: This sounds fascinating. I look forward to reading the book that will no doubt eventually be the result of this project—another best-seller, I predict!

Works Cited

Anderson, Charles M. and Marian M. MacCurdy, eds. Writing and Healing: Towards an Informed Practice. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2000. Print.

Berman, Jeffrey. Risky Writing: Self-Disclosure and Self-Transformation in the Classroom. Amherst, MA: U of Massachusetts P, 2001. Print.

Bray, Sharon A. When Words Heal: Writing through Cancer. Berkeley, CA: Frog, 2006. Print.

DeSalvo, Louise. Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives. Boston: Beacon, 1999. Print.

Fox, John. Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making. New York: Jeremy Tarcher/Putnam, 1997. Print.

Harris, Judith. Signifying Pain: Constructing and Healing the Self through Writing. Albany: State U of NY P, 2003. Print.

Lepore, Stephen J. and Joshua M. Smyth, eds. The Writing Cure: How Expressive Writing Promotes Health and Emotional Well-Being. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2002. Print.

MacCurdy, Marian Mesrobian. The Mind’s Eye: Image and Memory in Writing about Trauma. Amherst, MA: U of Massachusetts P, 2007. Print.

Moran, Molly Hurley. Finding Susan. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2003. Print.

Pennebaker, James W. Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions. 1990. New York: Guilford, 1997. Print.

---. The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say about Us. New York: Bloomsbury, 2011. Print.

---. Writing to Heal the Soul: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional Upheaval. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2004. Print.

Schneider, Pat. Writing Alone and with Others. New York: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.

Zimmerman, Susan. Writing to Heal the Soul: Transforming Grief and Loss through Writing. New York: Three Rivers, 2002. Print.

Bookmark and Share

Return to Composition Forum 28 table of contents.