I’ve been recuperating after the two-week marathon of reading and writing that brought the Fall 2012 semester to a close. Thinking back on it now, I can reasonably guestimate that between the student papers I had to read (finals, revisions of earlier assignments) and my own projects I had to complete, I read or wrote somewhere near 120,000 words from November 30th – December 12th. I had originally intended to write this reflective piece after finishing the first semester, but think now that it was better to wait (read: be lazy). I’ve gotten some distance, and my brain has reassembled somewhat. I’m ready to move forward.
In moving forward, I feel I must look back on what I managed to accomplish in my first semester teaching College Composition I, and what I can be applied to College Comp II, which I start teaching this week. I’m trying to keep an eye toward the student experience. As I’ve acknowledged here already, I know that I defaulted to a mode of instruction too basic and safe: four papers, too much lecture, reliance on teaching the classic research paper model as the exemplar of college writing. For the uninitiated, this of course sounds like what students should be learning, so why would I be dissatisfied? I absolutely do not regret covering what I did. A first-year writing course should be concerned with coherence, detail, support, revision, research, audience, among many other aspects of “good” writing. So my first semester teaching comp was a success in that I covered what I needed to, but was that enough? I don’t think so.
I’d like for students to be engaged by more than an expectation that they will be engaged – I want that to be a more natural, organic relationship than my last class necessarily supported. I think a lot of the difference between a merely successful learning experience and a valuable learning experience comes from this gap. I also want to tread carefully here; I’m fully aware of the cliché college instructor in jeans and corduroy blazer, pleading for his students to “write whatcha feeeeeel, man!” Assignments and activities have to mean something to the student, but I am here to accomplish the above musts of a composition course.
I’ll have the opportunity to apply these lessons to College Comp I (1101) the next time I take up sections, presumably next fall semester, but I’ve also let this dissatisfaction inform how I approach College Comp II. I’ve decided to abandon the series of increasingly difficult papers model and instead focus directly on the writing process in manner that will be more innately appealing. I hope to do that in two ways. First I’ve organized the material of the course around something contemporary that many students are already steeped in without knowing it. Using the (E)Dentity reader (edited by Stephanie Vie), a collection of somewhat recent essays on issues of digital identity and negotiating online experiences, I believe students will find the topic relevant to whatever modes/arenas they conduct themselves in digitally. This is hopefully scalable across multiple levels of digital identification, from the deeply-immersed to those who may have little or no online presence. Ideally, everyone can find a place on the spectrum where they can say “here is where I am comfortable” or another where they can say “here is where I want to be.” The challenge from this topic will be keeping the conversation from reducing down too simply about services and ignoring deeper thought about digital identity.
The second way I anticipate this model can help students is by trying to replicate a level of scholarship that should hopefully exceed the complexity of writing they’d face in the near future. Essentially, I hope to have them construct a significant piece of scholarship that they can be confident would measure up to the scrutiny of the same community we constantly ask them to draw from for their research – academic research journals and edited collections. This may seem like too much to ask of someone so new to college-level writing, but I believe it can be reduced down to a series of parts that, taken alone, wouldn’t be cause for much stress. This is where the emphasis of process comes in, by showing how simple it is to assemble a process that accomplishes a great deal of work – something will be asked of them countless times over the next 3+ years of education. It may seem hard – and it would be insanely harsh of me to ask for what I will if I did so as a final paper assigned only weeks before it was due – but my ambition is to show them the benefit of a plan.
I’m fortunate in that I’ve recently experienced a unique approach to doing just this. Toward the end of my MA studies at University of Michigan-Flint, James Schirmer conducted a summer session graduate class modeled loosely after the idea of a “Book Sprint.” In short, the ~15 grad students in that class collaboratively conceived, planned, researched, and wrote an edited collection on a single topic, with the idea of book-level publishability as an end goal. I loved the class concept and enjoyed the process. It made a large project accessible and frankly not at all intimidating. I hope to replicate that same effect for my Comp II students. From my syllabus, introducing the modified version of the course James and I have come to call Text Dash:
This section of ENGL 1102 is modeled loosely on a method of compressed, focused, collaborative writing academics sometimes use to rapidly produce a collection of scholarship on a narrowly-defined topic. In a traditional “Text Dash,” the text is crafted from idea to finished product over the course of a long weekend. In ENGL 1102 we have the opportunity to space that out a little more. Over the course of the semester, you will gradually build the familiarity, resources, and skills necessary to collaboratively produce a well-informed and informative text of scholarship.
At the end of this course, you should be more than prepared to meet the demands of the academic writing assignments you will encounter as you continue at Georgia State University. (emphasis added here)
The Text Dash model will take students from familiarizing themselves with the in-progress discussion, through deciding what they can add to that discussion, to writing a fully realized, coherent, collaborative discussion of their own. From there, the course will replicate the process of taking on so large a project, and as a result, more organically cover all the things we think “good” writing must exhibit. The course will be divided into phases of preparation, research, drafting, and revision before submitting a “final” copy. Only one single paper will be written throughout the entire semester, but the process will space students evenly through the major requirements of pretty much any sizeable writing project, and all with the goal of something in-depth and publishable.
The last sentence from the syllabus above is exactly what I want from this course and why, as daunting as this class may sound to my students now, I’m betting they will stick around. While I won’t necessarily ask the same length of writing that such edited collections normally would, and my primary aim is not to actually publish their work (putting completely aside concerns of whether I even can ask them to put their work out, or what form it can legitimately take), I do hope they arrive on the other side of the class thinking that it wasn’t all that bad taking on so large a project. Ideally, the projects they face in the coming semesters can then be greeted not with panic or stress, but instead with “I’ve done something bigger than this. Let’s get started.”