Composition Pedagogy

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What should be on a site about a FYC program?

As one of my writing program administration (WPA) initiatives, I plan to create an information page for the first-year writing program which will be part of the department's web page, linked from the about part.

What kind of information do you think would be good for that kind of site? I'm thinking I may divide it into information for instructors and information for students/parents/alumni/professors from other departments. Obviously I'll want to have information about the curriculum and about placement -- eligibility requirements for the regular first-year writing sequence and for the honors course. East Carolina University has a good instructor resource site. The University of Minnesota also has a pretty good information site. I'd like to get as many ideas as possible regarding the kinds of information different audiences might like to see on such a site.

More bullets, if you can stand them

Even more random bullets of crap -- what a disgrace. Perhaps I should go ahead and tell you that what with my new administrative position, these may be the only kinds of posts I have time to write from now on.

  • My blog reading habits have changed a bit lately. I've especially been reading a lot of good DIY/money-saving/consumption-cutting blogs such as Lifehacker and the blogs on the LifeRemix network:


    Cranking Widgets Blog

    Dumb Little Man

    Freelance Switch

    Happiness Project

    Ikea Hacker



    No Impact Man

    Pick the Brain

    Success From the Nest

    Tim Ferriss' Four Hour Workweek Blog



    Zen Habits

  • I've learned a lot about placement in the last week, as 95% of my time has been devoted to analyzing various cases. We use a system which places students in writing courses (basic, intro, or honors) according to their test scores, but we also have teachers assign a diagnostic essay on the first day of class, which we use as triangulation to make adjustments to the placement decisions if appropriate. To be sure, I'm no embracer of high-stakes testing and teaching to the test; however, I haven't been able to help but notice that the quality of the writing samples has been consistent with ACT and SAT verbal scores in most cases I have reviewed. The exceptions are the cases in which the test scores are okay, but the writing reveals problems; I suppose these cases demonstrate the need for writing-to-learn approaches over drill-and-test approaches.
  • Next up on the administrative agenda: syllabus review. This check is going to be pretty basic; I and other members of the first-year writing committee are going to look for the following:

    1. Is there a breakdown of how the grade will be calculated?
    2. Is there a brief description of each assignment? (Note: something like, "Essay 1, personal narrative, 3-4 pages")
    3. Is the attendance policy clear and in accordance with university policy?
    4. Is the plagiarism policy clear and in accordance with university policy?
    5. Are the appropriate textbooks in the "required materials" section?
    6. Does the instructor provide contact information and office hours?
    7. Is there a course description?
    8. Are emergency evacuation procedures listed?
    9. Is the disability policy clear and in accordance with university policy?

  • After syllabus review comes faculty development workshop planning. We're already planning a diversity workshop, and there are other possibilities. Others have expressed interest in workshops on responding to student writing and on plagiarism, and of course I will take instructors' needs into consideration when deciding on topics for workshops, but those two topics have been done and done and done some more (though I have some good ideas for how to shake up a plagiarism workshop and make it new). One I'm interested in would be a workshop on monitoring students' mental health. After the tragedy at Virginia Tech, this is especially important, and I'm convinced that things are going to change for writing teachers because of it. At stake are students' privacy and freedom of speech, weighed against the safety of the student body. What should writing teachers do when they are disturbed by student writing or believe a student is mentally disturbed? Is a recommendation to talk to someone in student mental health services enough anymore?
  • Also: I HAVE TO work on research, sometime, somehow -- I'm devoting this weekend to it, actually. It's been so hard to set boundaries these first couple of weeks, when so many (very nice and collegial, mind you) people need to talk to me. Everyone in my department and on the WPA listserv has said that it gets better, that the beginning of the semester is the busiest time, and I hope they're right.
  • Oh yeah, and I'd like to exercise today. I'm thinking about going swimming in our apartment complex pool.

For a WPA...

(that's Writing Program Administrator)...the beginning of the semester is especially busy. This state of business is compounded when you're starting a new job. Point is, blogging will continue to be light for a while. You might even say that I'm on hiatus.

MMTOR on Wardle and Downs article

Those of you on the WPA list may have notice the article that's sparked all kinds of excited discussion:

Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning “First-Year Composition” as “Introduction to Writing Studies”
Douglas Downs and Elizabeth Wardle

In this article we propose, theorize, demonstrate, and report early results from a course that approaches first-year composition as introduction to Writing Studies. This pedagogy explicitly recognizes the impossibility of teaching a universal academic discourse and rejects that as a goal for first-year composition. It seeks instead to improve students’ understanding of writing, rhetoric, language, and literacy in a course that is topically oriented to reading and writing as scholarly inquiry and that encourages more realistic conceptions of writing.

That abstract doesn't tell us much, but the article is based on research and observation from pilot courses taught by the authors. They include case studies, but I haven't finished the article yet, so I'll stop there. I do plan to post a detailed review tomorrow, so if anyone else would like to get in on an MMTOR (Massive Multi-Thinker Online Review), or event, or seminar, what have you, let me know.

Peer Review Activity Using Johari and Nohari Windows

I always like to salvage good ideas from the web, repurpose them, and bring them into the writing classroom. I realize that I've never blogged about one I tried last fall which went really well.

Remember the meme about the interactive Johari windows and Nohari windows? I decided to try that with a peer review activity. I made copies of the Johari and Nohari windows -- a two-sided handout -- to accompany their peer review questions.

I asked students to (among other things) circle at least three words from each window which describe the draft in some meaningful way, then write an explanation of why they chose those words (preferably referring to specific passages in the drafts). I found that this heuristic was especially good for giving feedback on personal narrative essays, as students often have a hard time figuring out what kind of commentary to give on those. With the windows, they were able to respond to the writing, the authorial persona, and the tone in really substantive ways. The students also have more social license to give honest negative feedback because they have the excuse of "well, she's making us pick at least three negative words..." Finally, the windows let the students talk about the Johari words in nuanced ways. For example, "sentimental," "tense," "nervous," "shy," and "quiet" are on the Johari (more positive) window, but those could be used as negative terms as well.

I'd recommend the Johari/Nohari method for any composition teacher looking to shake up peer review.

Assessing Sophistication

I am on a team of judges for an essay contest. There are around fifty entries in the contest, so I decided to make my selections in a series of cuts. I recently did a first pass over all of them, choosing some to advance to the next round. As I was making the cuts, I wrote down the reasons for the first few decisions I made, then used those criteria to assess the rest. I figured I'd post the criteria here both to get feedback on them and to save them for future retrieval.

I made my decisions primarily using the criterion of general sophistication, but what does that mean? Here's a more specific idea:

  • Choice of topic -- while it may be true that some of these topics were suggested by an instructor, I tend to assume that the student has final say in the decision of what to write about, and I chose papers with thoughtful, fresh, unusual topics. While students certainly can do something different with a topic such as underage drinking, it doesn't usually work out that way in practice. I tended to award more cachet to a paper with a topic such as "public education's use of for-profit consulting corporations" than a topic such as "doing drugs while pregnant." By the way, in writing studies, there's a term for that: a "cheerleader paper," an argument no one would possibly argue against. What reasonable person would argue that a woman *should* do illegal recreational drugs while pregnant?
  • Command of material -- some of the papers read like they were parroting the investigative style of television news of the 20/20, Today Show, or Dateline NBC variety.* That is to say, they read more like a recital than an argument, they oversimplified the topic, and they repeated banal messages (eat more fruits and vegetables, and do thirty minutes of cardiovascular exercise a day). The papers I chose to go to the next round had more of an authorial presence -- there's an author in these papers who is clearly in control of the subject matter. Some of the papers I chose also used personal experience and/or vivid physical description (pragmatographia) in interesting and effective ways to bring the material to life.
  • Marshaling of evidence -- this is related to "command of material." In the papers I chose, there seems to be evidence which is deliberately chosen (not just a data dump) and arranged in order to make specific points. In the marshaling of evidence, these writers seem to have an awareness of the credibility of sources. These papers' writers were also better at integrating source material into their own arguments.
  • Looking beyond the obvious -- this is related to "command of material" as well insofar as the stating-the-obvious papers were the more recital-esque ones. The writers of the more sophisticated papers seemed thoughtful enough, for example, to recognize when an argument was facile, when a representation was stereotypical, or why a proposed plan to address an issue wouldn't work. They also demonstrated their understanding and consideration of differing views.
  • Bibliography -- the papers I chose tended to cite more, and more credible, sources. By the way, all the entries are research-paper type essays.

* Imitation is fine, actually; I understand the impulse to try on various authoritative voices. In fact, it's a good rhetorical strategy. My disappointment with the 20/20 papers has much to do with mass media discourse, and again, I don't know much about the context -- they could have had teachers who assigned 20/20 in class, for all I know. I contend, however, that more sophisticated readers and writers can recognize the canned quality of that style and try to avoid it.

Practicum Bibliography

I got some very helpful comments on the last post about the practicum I'll be teaching this fall. Now I want to get some feedback about readings I'm thinking about assigning. I should say first that at ULL, graduate students take a practicum and a separate composition theory course, which I'll be teaching in the spring. I think this sequence is good; graduate students get the bulk of their exposure to theory after they've had a semester of teaching experience and can perhaps do a better job seeing how the theory can be applied to practice. This way, I'm not dealing with a roomful of graduate students who are starved for practical knowledge about managing the day-to-day tasks involved in teaching a writing course and trying to deflect their needs and redirect them toward composition theory.

Truth be told, I've never thought that theory-precedes-practice approach was very productive. I was in a similar situation in my M.A. program, and while the professor was excellent, most of the students were desperate to talk about specific problems they were having in class, and it frustrated them to have those discussions pushed aside to talk about George Kennedy's "A Hoot in the Dark: The Evolution of General Rhetoric," Bitzer and Vatz, or even Ede and Lunsford's "Audience Addressed/Audience Invoked" -- though I myself am grateful to have been assigned these. I really think that the struggle to make the pedagogy course an introduction to the field of composition studies increases hostility toward composition studies. Sure, some people aren't going to take composition seriously anyway, but it's still nice not to have to do everything all in one course.

The readings for the practicum, then, are going to be nuts-and-bolts practical. We only meet for one hour once a week, and I expect that for some meetings, we won't have readings at all but will have presentations or discussions of classroom experiences instead. I'm pretty sure I'm going to order The St. Martin's Guide to Teaching Writing and supplement it with a few other readings. If you can think of a better book, please let me know, but I actually really like the St. Martin's Guide.

"Why I (Used to) Hate to Give Grades" by Lynn Bloom

Responding to Student Writing
Straub, Richard. “The Concept of Control in Teacher Response: Defining the Varieties of ‘Directive’ and ‘Facilitative’ Commentary.” College Composition and Communication 47 (May 1996): 223-51.

excerpt from Errors and Expectations, Mina Shaughnessy
Robert J. Connors and Andrea A. Lunsford, "Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research"

Designing Writing Assignments
Chapter 13, Developing Writing Assignments, from A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers, Erika Lindemann and Daniel Anderson

Syllabus and Course Design
Chapter 15, Designing Writing Courses, from from A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers, Erika Lindemann and Daniel Anderson

I need the most help with the following, though I'd like suggestions for all of the topics:

Plagiarism, Citation, and Authorship (there's so much to choose from here)

Teaching Philosophy (there's got to be a good essay about developing a teaching philosophy and articulating it in a statement)

Teaching Portfolios (see above -- is there anything in our field about this?)

Classroom Management, Teaching Persona, Authority (i.e., ethos, performance)

Request for Feedback: Composition Practicum

As part of my new position as a first-year writing director, I will be teaching the composition pedagogy practicum this fall. I already have a lot of ideas for readings and such, but the practicum meets once a week for 75 minutes, so I need to be judicious about how I use the time. In no particular order, here are some topics I'm thinking about covering. How would you rank these? If you could reorder these based on importance (1 most important, 18 least important), how would you do it?


1.syllabus design
2.assignment design
3.eliciting class participation/discussion
4.activities for class (exercises)
5.grammar (when to bring it in and how)
6.grading papers – norming, time management, techniques
7.class observations: why they're done, how they're useful, etc.
8.classroom management, teaching persona, authority
9.teaching philosophy statement
10.teaching portfolio to teach argument, logic
12.ways to use technology in teaching Take 20
14.responding to student writing (not grading)
15.plagiarism, citation, authorship to organize peer review activities
17.designing short, informal writing prompts (minute papers, weekly posts/responses, etc.)
18.student evaluations: how to interpret the numbers, departmental mean, how they're used, mentoring procedure in case numbers are very low, how to put them in perspective, etc.

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