The Benefits of Labor Logs for Writing Courses

I woke up the other night unable to sleep, so I thought about why a student, or teacher, should keep a labor log in a writing course. I know, that's probably not what you think about when you lie awake at night, but I feel there are some not-so-obvious benefits that are worth explaining to students and teachers, but really, this post is for students. 

Now, if you are new to labor-based grading or labor logs and you want to learn more about both, which I use together in my courses, you can check out my book on the subject, Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom (2019). It's free online. I've also made a labor-based grading resource page on my website ( with  resources geared for both teachers and students from all over the internet. 

Getty image: Beaver and dam

So what are the benefits of keeping a labor log. In short, there are at least two important benefits for those who keep them, particularly students in writing courses, even if those courses don't use labor-based grading to determine final course grades. Those two main benefits are: 

  • Labor logs allow you to be more mindful of your labor as you do it. 
  • Labor logs afford you the opportunity to reflect upon your labor as a practice over time. 
You'd think that any student who is thoughtful and careful can do both of these things without consistently keeping a labor log, but you'd be wrong. Why? Because much like Apple watches and Fitbits help us keep data on our health in order to make our health more obvious or present, so too does a labor log, when kept consistently. With such technologies, the point is to change our behaviors or actions in order to improve our health. We could think of labor logs in the same way. Much like those beneficial beavers who dam water ways, making them healthier by using a different kind of log, the behavior of consistently keeping a labor log for a writing class can help you have healthier labor. 

If you don't keep data on your labor -- that is, keep track of information on each session of labor you do for a class -- you loose the ability to see that labor in total or over time. That is, you lose the chance to understand your labor from an evidence-based perspective. Without a labor log, what you are left with is simply a felt sense of your labor over the semester or term. While our felt senses are important, relying only on them to understand our laboring often means that the most impactful labor, the stuff that was the hardest or easiest, or weirdest from a class, are what you remember, and those experiences over-influence your understanding of your labor in the class. In short, only having a felt sense, only using our crude recollections of what happened in the past, gives only one limited view, a distorted one, one that could be fuller with some carefully logged details about your laboring.  

Mindful Labor = More Powerful Labor

Consider the first benefit above. Keeping a labor log allows you to be more mindful of your labor as you do it. The principle is pretty simple. The fact that you pay attention to something helps you realize that you are doing it. This seems unnecessary, right. I mean, you know when you read a chapter for a class or write a reflective essay for one, but what exactly do you know about those labors during the acts of doing them? There are many times every day that we instinctively do things, actions, behaviors, and labors without noticing that we've done them, or how we've done them, or what conditions we did them in. Driving is a good example, so is eating, and even breathing. 

Do you remember exactly what happened when you brushed your teeth this morning, or ate your breakfast? How did you feel in the act of brushing? What were you thinking of exactly? How much of the toothpaste was left in the tube or how much did you actually put on your brush? How much time did it take you to brush? Do you recall exactly what time you started brushing? Now, what about last week, say last Monday? Can you answer those same questions about your morning tooth brushing or breakfast then? Or the week before that? 

But what if you could remember particular details of your tooth brushing labor. Imagine what that information, when gathered over time, might tell you about how you brush your teeth. It seems silly. Doesn't it? But you don't know until you gather the data and then look at it over time. More important, what about the labors of reading and writing you do for your writing class? By paying attention to particular, predefined details about your your labors for a class, logging them in some consistent way, you can learn a lot about yourself and how to make your laboring more meaningful, productive, and effective. 

But how is the act of keeping data on your labors helping you be mindful of your labors? Well, the simple answer is that the act of noticing certain details about your labor, such as start times during the day, amount of time it took, where you do the labor, how you felt generally when doing the labor, maybe a simple overall engagement rating for the session of labor, all these kinds of details allows you to notice those dimensions of your laboring during that act of doing whatever you are doing. And doing this recording of data on our labor -- noticing these features of yourself laboring -- actually changes your labor over time. If done right, by paying attention to our labor in labor logs, you can make your laboring for meaningful and sustainable by changing and testing out new ways to labor. Sometimes these changes happen almost unconsciously. 

For instance, I've often found that when students simply notice the quantity of labor they accomplish over a period of time gives them a sense of accomplishment and pride. This then cultivates happier and more engaged attitudes toward the labor now or tomorrow. Being mindful -- that is, paying attention to particular dimensions of your labor -- can make your laboring more powerful, or better and more engaging for you.   

Don't take my word for this mindful impact of paying attention to your labor. Consider some researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science. They found that even at the quantum level (that is, the subatomic level), electrons are affected by being observed. They act differently when we watch them. This is a phenomenon understood by scientists and physicists for some time. The act of observing phenomena affect that phenomena, even if ever so slightly. This is also called the "observer effect" in physics. 

The observer effect has also been found in psychological studies. It's called the "Hawthorne effect," named after a series of studies done in the 1920s in Hawthorne, IL, a suburb of Chicago. In the studies, the researchers wanted to see the effects of different lighting levels on workers' output in the Western Electric factory. What they found was that no matter the change in lighting, the workers' productivity increased, but after the study was over, productivity dropped back to previous levels. This told the researchers that the act of being studied, the act of paying attention to the workers -- and their laboring -- affected their output positively, but when they knew the study was over and were no longer being watched, their behaviors changed back. 

In contemplative circles, this same effect can be experienced in mindfulness practices, and has been shown in studies. The physical, emotional, and mental effects of prayer is one example. Another is mindfulness practices, such as mindful breathing, that many have shown to work in concert with the observer effect. Just paying attention to your breath with the intention of just doing that, or to calm yourself or to be more positive, changes you, opens the pathway to be more calm or more positive. 

Studies have shown good reasons for why mindful breathing is so beneficial and the observer effect is surely a part of its effectiveness. James Nestor has explained that such mindful breathing practices have been around and used for centuries in Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art (2020). Mindful breathing affects your breathing rates and stress levels (cortisol levels), and clears the mind, among other things. Now, there is more going on in mindful breathing practices, but the point I'm trying to make is that when we pay attention to something like when, what, and how we labor in a class, we affect that labor over time because we are systematically observing it. And when we do it intentionally to make it better or more meaningful, we can have that outcome over time. Our labor becomes more powerful because we are more mindful of it. 

See Your Labor as a Practice Over Time

And this leads to the second benefit above. Labor logs afford you the opportunity to reflect upon your labor as a practice over time. Once you begin gathering data on your own laboring, you quickly will have a developing picture of your labor. It is only one kind of picture, but depending on what labor details you gather, it is a picture you would not have otherwise. This also means that you can see what you want to change, and make small, purposeful changes, see what the effects are of those changes, and continue the cycle. You can control your labor more because you can understand it as a practice over time. 

Hero Images/Getty Images - Asian woman reading in bed
For instance, let's say after a month of collecting data on your labor, you looked back at just the reading sessions you've done. You notice that you did your reading sessions mostly after 9 pm in your bed, and your engagement levels for those sessions were generally lower than the few sessions of reading you did earlier in the day on other occasions. What positive changes could you make to your reading sessions moving forward that may help you cultivate more engagement? Perhaps trying to read before 9 pm and not in your bed, then recheck in a month how your engagement levels have been next to the first month of reading.

Now, this may seem obvious, but it is only obvious when you gather data, such as time of day and where you are reading for class, and look at it, then reflect upon what it means and what you might do differently, or what you might maintain. Without the labor log to look back and reflect upon, you are less likely to notice this feature of your laboring. That is, your labor is difficult to see, maybe impossible to see, as a practice over time. You may just chalk up your lackluster interest in the class to "bad teaching" or crapy textbooks. But it could also be that you are doing your labor in such a way and under such conditions that are not conducive to developing engagement. Wouldn't it be great to know this? Seeing your labor as a practice over time that has particular dimensions to it gives you more power over your laboring because you can change or tweak those dimensions. 

Noticing our Conditions

There is one thing that I find many of my students discover after keeping a labor log over a semester or term. They find out that the circumstances of their lives are not always -- or even often -- conducive to them doing good labor for the class. This could mean they have very little time to study, or too many other obligations in their lives that keep them from being able to dedicate the time it takes to do deep learning. While this can be disheartening and discouraging, it should also bring some relief. We all often struggle in difficult conditions, even if those conditions are not the same. Even in a single classroom, our conditions for learning and laboring are often quite uneven.

Life in today's society is not one that affords many people the ability to just go to school, spend the appropriate time learning, soak in the wonderful warm experiences of discovering and being curious and failing and learning more. And this fact not only means it ain't all your fault if you find a course difficult to keep up in or stay engaged. We are not the only ones to blame when we find a course difficult. Our conditions are also to blame. 

But of course, you as a student should do all you can to take your ethical responsibility to labor in the best ways possible for you. Your teacher and course should afford you the room to know these things and exercise your responsibility. Unfortunately, this doesn't solve the unfairness of our society, nor the unevenness of our learning conditions. This is to say that our responsibilities come even in the face of unfair conditions that we do not control completely. 

Noticing that we labor in conditions not completely in our control might also mean that we all, teachers and students, need to organize ourselves and craft ways to push against a society that demands its citizens be educated but provides awful conditions in which to accomplish the labors of getting educated. And in this way, labor logs offer students and teachers ways to not just pay attention to and improve their laboring, but to recognize our common oppressions, oppressions created by our society and its unfair conditions, which is the first step in changing those circumstances for a better, more equitable, and sustainable future for everyone. 


This blog is offered for free in order to engage language and literacy teachers of all levels in antiracist work and dialogue. The hope is that it will help raise enough money to do more substantial and ongoing antiracist work by funding the Asao and Kelly Inoue Antiracist Teaching Endowment, housed at Oregon State University. Read more about the endowment on my endowment page. Please consider donating to the endowment. Thank you for your help and engagement.