Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Composition and Field Journals

A tree photograph from the base into the treetop.
The four modes of communication are narration, description, exposition, and persuasion.

Students generally understand exposition and its uses, learn to use persuasion competently, and usually genuinely like narration.  However, when it comes to description, students have a difficult time using the visceral, specific, detailed language necessary to successfully support a thesis.

When students are given a contemplative assignment, though, like the keeping of a field journal for the duration of a composition course, they become more and more adept at using visceral, specific, and detailed language.  They learn to more accurately describe the world around them.

The Field Journal

A field journal is most often used by scientists and naturalists to record their work in the field. Literally, that could mean a field, but it could also mean a controlled environment, a social space, or in some instances even cyberspace!  It's simply a journal, a personal account, of events that take place while researching, experimenting, or observing with non-judgmental, mindful awareness (or anything in-between). Because students are in various fields, the type of field journal each chooses to create will vary, but the benefits will remain the same: Students will engage in mindful study and be better able to both observe their worlds and communicate those observations to others.

Famous Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg, one of the poets who instituted The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, taught mindful writing using the following instructions. Each step in his instructions requires careful observation and descriptive writing, demonstrating the link between mindfulness and description.

1. Stop in tracks once a day, take account of sky, ground & self, write 3 verses haiku.
2. Sit 5 minutes a day, & after, re-collect your thoughts.
3. Stop in middle of street or country, turn in 360-degree circle, write what you remember. (Ginsberg, 2001)

However, alternatives abound, and these skills can be developed as part of a more general course.

Descriptive Field Journal Assignment


Students will keep field journals as a way to become more adept at observing the world, then using visceral, specific, detailed language to describe their observations to others.


  • Students will need a journal or notebook.
  • Students will need, at minimum, one pencil and a pencil sharpener.


  • Use a pencil to legibly handwrite (print or cursive) three observation entries per week.
  • Place the date and time of the observation at the top of each entry.
  • Place the final word count at the top of each entry.
  • Include digital images, photographs, sketches, or scrapbook items in each entry.
  • Submit your field journal as a physical, tangible item every two weeks.
  • Proofread and revise as necessary, and be certain you have included an "overarching impression" thesis statement for your description (of no less than about 300 words per entry).
  • Consistently work to improve your powers of observation and detailed description.


Compare your ability to observe and describe your world at the start of the course to your ability at the end of the course.  Write a two page self-assessment of the changes.  Have your skills grown? Stayed the same?  Gotten worse?  Be sure to support your assessment with examples from your journal entries.

The WIIFM Students and the Field Journal

Although most students appreciate assignments that are a bit different from the standard research paper or composition essay, some will demand to know why they need to complete this assignment. The key to an effective response is to have the students research ways that description may be used in their chosen fields of study.  This simple assignment can even be given before the field journal assignment starts.  The value of effective description can be shared with everyone as you present the requirements.

From police officers writing reports to nurses describing symptoms on charts, and clients describing the perfect haircut to a hairdresser from the barber's chair, skills in effective description are used on a daily basis.  Give your students a boost in mindful observation and descriptive skills by assigning a field journal for the duration of your class.


Ginsberg, A. (2001). Deliberate prose: Selected essays, 1952-1995. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

Want to read more about pedagogy and writing?  Try

A Playful Lesson for the Composition Classroom
Prewriting the Research Essay: Starting with "I Think"
Teaching Advice for New Adjunct Faculty

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the author for permission to republish.

No comments:

Post a Comment