As a teacher, I feel a gnawing obligation to push my students to revise their work. I try to convey to them the notion that writing is inseparable from thinking. We don’t ask them to write research papers because we think they already know so much about bio-ethics or what have you. We ask them to write so that they learn and grow. What they know now is not all they will know later. The papers that we grade are simply documents of each student’s engagement with the process of learning at the time the assignment is due. This, of course, doesn’t mean that the student stops thinking about what they’ve learned. It simply means that their “final” paper is a kind of photograph. It is a frozen image of their intellectual development at a given moment in their lives. Sometimes, unfortunately, that image resembles a Neanderthal preserved in an ancient glacier. This can be distressing, but often the captured moment instead suggests Monet – beautiful, impressionistic, still un-crystalized visions of intelligence inherent and always coming into focus, yet to be fully realized. Aesthetic beauty in progress.
Teachers too must think, I think, and therefore should constantly revise as well. A class, like a term paper, is a document of the teacher’s abilities and experience at the time it is scheduled. Ready or not, here Gen Ed comes. This post then is an occasion for me to reflect on how I would approach teaching a certain class again, armed with the experience of this semester. This past semester, I taught Freshman Composition using a new syllabus and a textbook that was new to me as well. This course was designed in light of the experience I’ve had teaching Freshman Comp in the past and those grand failures and modest successes dictated much of what I did this time.
I strongly believe in the value of liberal arts traditions (see the title of this blog after all). This disposition comes not only in theoretical form, through my dissertation, but also practically, from my teaching experience in composition classrooms. The following statements are bound to offend someone, but . . . Pedagogical approaches that prize the mechanical, objective “skills” of writing too often miss the point of struggling, failing, growing, and thus thinking. On the opposite end of the spectrum, sexy-time topical composition courses often push aside the formal writing practices that encourage thinking to support immediate political and social agendas. Both approaches are mechanical in the end, and both inhibit the educational potential that a seat at the window above Matthew Arnold’s “darkling plain” provides.
With my insufferable idealism stated and out of the way then, how this applies to my composition class is as follows:
From day one, I instill the connection between writing and reading. Academic writing is a conversation much larger than any single individual and the person who merely wants to state their opinions is a bad conversationalist. Therefore, I sequenced my assignments in the following manner – Summary Paper, Response Paper, Formal Analytic Paper, and Academic Book Review. This sequence of assignments was meant to mimic the process of academic conversation while taking time to dwell on each element of the process. Denying students their “opinions” at the beginning was a painful, but necessary step in this process. Some of them never got it, of course, but most did, and this struggle paid dividends at the end of the semester, when I received much better book reviews than I might have otherwise.
For me, the best decision I made was with the final book review assignment. I was asked by my department to use They Say/I Say by Graff and Birkenstein and I’ve always struggled teaching from that book in the past. My solution to the problem this time was to use the book not exclusively as a teaching tool, but also as an object of analysis. We studied rhetoric all semester from our main textbook, From Inquiry to Academic Writing, by Greene and Lidinsky, which gave us the foundations for the sequence of assignments leading up to They Say/I Say. Our final unit, then, became both a review of the concepts we’d already studied (with Graff and Birkenstein providing a lighter, fresher approach to essentially the same material) as well as an opportunity to apply the lessons of that sequence to a real object, thus allowing students to take part in a real academic conversation.
By and large, though I have yet to look at the course evaluations, I felt the course was extremely successful. I did, however, learn a great deal along the way. First, this generation is particularly good at communicating in certain rhetorical situations, namely texting/tweeting/facebooking-speak. It is, I think, a mistake to simply write that fact off as a generational character flaw. Instead, I hope to build on that strength by making that kind of communication an object of rhetorical analysis from the beginning of the course. My hope is that I can help them identify rhetorical structures and practices in this familiar form of communication and use that to strengthen their ability to see and replicate similar practices in more conventional forms of writing. For example, the hashtag in a tweet is a kind of recognition of audience and rhetorical situation is it not? By employing that textual device, the writer (tweeter?) directs his communication to a specific conversation. What ways do we do that in academic conversations? These questions might lead to pedagogical breakthroughs for some students.
Similarly, I think that I will replace my standard Reading Response assignment with a possibly more familiar blog requirement. In other words, instead of having students come to class with response forms and discussion questions, I will ask them to keep a weekly reading/reflection blog on our in-house online system. This will (in theory anyway) open up the “comment” feature of this interface as a means to further emphasize the conversational nature of academic thought.
Finally, in future semesters with this course, I hope to develop a program in which students will sign up for a certain class meeting and present a very short (5 minute) summary of some grammatical or textual concept in the English language of their choosing. This will be meant to encourage engagement and individual initiative in the course. Most of my students come to class engaged and eager to participate, however, there are a significant number who do not and I hope to stand against that in my teaching. Without engagement, writing and, by definition, thinking are in peril.
If anyone happens to read this, I would love to hear from you in the comment section below (or email I suppose). A conversation about this would be most helpful for me.