FYW courses are not lecture courses, and there’s really no need to convert complex, exact discourses over to an asynchronous form. That is, the world will keep turning if your many great points about a particular reading or topic are not featured the way they might be in a face-to-face class session or in a lecture. And yet, we do hope to model a kind of active, winding, never quite finished discoursing. The seminar nature of the course asks us to devise ways for students to practice this ongoing experimentation with ideas and texts. And most of your online course is likely concerned with collecting and circulating (and responding to) student writing of this various nature. As a consequence, the documents we produce for students (announcements, assignment prompts, etc.) should be economical and brief whenever possible. So where should instructors do their thinking?
I’ve had great success with a simple Google Doc that I update from time to time (usually about three times per week). Call it a Journal or Log or something more interesting than that. (When my course had a posthumanist angle, I called this occasional journal “Rhizomes” (a collection of lateral shoots). I like “Penumbra,” too.) In any case, I put a link to this document on the HuskyCT page sidebar, and I often link to it in announcements or assignment prompts. But I make it clear that this is not a required component of the course or a set of “clues” for someone seeking an A. Not everything in school is quantified and weighted for practical use.
Here’s what students see at the top of the journal in my current course:
Q. What is this?
A. The “Notes and Journal” page is a place where I will routinely go to explore the ongoing work of the course, often providing context for things happening on the HuskyCT or Google pages or following up on things that have come up in our work together. Because we (for the most part) will lack class sessions, this is a place for me to annotate, embellish, or wander. You don’t have to read it, but it is meant to provide some of the “talk” that we won’t get in class. And I hope it helps me keep other parts of the course more direct—less wordy. We’ll see.
It’s just as important to keep a similar space for students where they can raise issues or jot down informal thoughts. Forums and drafts and collaborative, shared documents may already provide this. And, if you do set out a space for students, be sure to check in with it regularly (if, in fact, it is set up for you to see).
My colleague, Tom Deans, professor of English and the director of the Writing Center in Storrs, has for years used audio feedback as a mode for responding to student work. It’s quick, relatively low tech, and easily individualized. As with any shift in mode, moving from written comments to audio feedback comes with some gains but also some losses. For example, I like to model writing for students, and written comments, especially end comments, often demonstrate considered, composed prose. But if I’m honest with myself, my comments are just as often hastily composed, and, as decontextualized moments of typed response, they can sometimes miscommunicate tone or emphasis.
Moving courses online reduces our contact with students, and audio feedback is one relatively easy way to bring our voices back into the mix. Maybe now is the time to experiment with using audio feedback. But please remember that some students may still prefer or need written feedback, so be sure to ask them.
Here’s Tom’s description of how he does audio feedback with a link to a brief and useful resource.
When I introduce it at the W Teaching Orientation I do it within the context of all the standard advice for responding, written or audio, but I cite some of the findings of Jeff Sommers: that audio is particularly effective with formative feedback and that students pretty consistently report liking it. I share some of my recent response recordings, which range from less than a minute for one-pagers to 5-8 minutes for most papers, and how I do it: read through paper once; gather my thoughts on 1-3 major revision points; hit voice memo on my iPhone; record; then email the mp4 directly from phone.
Here’s a brief, teacher-friendly short piece on this topic:
In what follows, I discuss asynchronous online teaching. Synchronous teaching (teaching in “real time”) is pretty close to impossible with no preparation, and I advise against it, other than for conferencing. I am also assuming that online teaching will go beyond two or three weeks. Maybe we’ll be luckier than that.
Teaching FYW Online
I designed the online version of ENGL 1010 and taught it for three summers. I found that online teaching of FYW actually yielded student work that was as good or better than that of my face-to-face classes. (YMMV.) Especially because this transition is happening very quickly and without preparation, focus on four major streams of work that can bring the course together:
Use a Learning Management System (such as HuskyCT). Even if you have been using an LMS space for your courses, make sure that all students are comfortable and able to check in and contribute regularly. Review your posted materials and organize, add, and revise to make materials as accessible as possible. You might want to put up a new document (a kind of second syllabus) to articulate the goals, sequence, and resources for the remaining portion of the course.
Communicate (very) regularly. I found that much of the in-class teaching that vanishes in online versions of the course can reappear as regular updates to students via an announcement that appears as both an email and as an archived text. Although I “talked” much less in this form, what I wrote to students helped me practice framing the work of the day in legible terms, and it stayed available as a resource. My communications often began as updates on “where we are” and proceeded into one or two ideas about the projects-in-development, often with examples. Whenever possible, I featured student work.
Use Discussion threads (or blogs or Google Docs or other platforms) that require regular writing from students AND interaction with/response to each other. Use these, too, to share drafts, and ask that peer review happen according to whatever forms or procedures you use via email, with a CC to you.
Use some synchronous elements. If you want to “meet” with students, use Webex, Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom. Small groups are possible (I did it with students who were in China!), but one-on-one works very well. It’s probably best to have some opportunities to communicate more freely in spoken or at least text-chat. But, obviously, your time is limited for setting up and executing one-on-one contact with students. Consider having “office hours” that provide a window when students can contact you.
Work Backward and Define a Quantity of Work
Think about what work you want your students to do by the year’s end. Maybe it’s a final project the includes some reading, workshopping, drafting, revising, and presenting. Once you define that work, build the schedule backwards to allow for the necessary steps to accomplish that work. Your current course schedule may work perfectly well for this process. But think of each week in terms of student production: what work do I want my students to complete in this week? If we have ten weeks, how can you divide the work that must be done into ten parts? [If it’s useful, I can work out a ten-week calendar for an imagined FYW course. Final work would be due during the exam period. Drafts are likely due about two or three weeks before, allowing time for interaction and informal presenting of projects, including peer feedback and possible online conferences. Any readings should happen early on and include postings that are not just responses but that also model the kind of writing you want to see in the formal projects. Clear guidelines are important.]
Don’t Overrate Your Brilliance as a Verbal Communicator
Again, I do not recommend promising real-time online “classes.” Feel free to try, though. My advice is to have at least two or three required moments of significant interaction/response each week. If you feel compelled to share your prepared thoughts with students, either record a brief video lecture or lesson, or compose a text/worksheet for students to read. [Videos in online courses should rarely exceed five minutes.] The gist of the course is student writing; use assigned reading and regular student posting, annotating, projecting as the measure of how the course is going. Try to avoid predictable, unchanging formats for students work (e.g., discussion posts that simply ask students to “respond”).
Google Docs and Forms Are Helpful Tools Pay attention to the affordances of each varying technology. For example, many of us still require Word files for drafts because Word works well for annotation. But Google Docs are great for shared, collaborative work: anything from conference sign-up sheets to shared bibliographies to open-ended collaborative writing. And Google Forms are fantastic for helping organize and standardize student responses. (Forms are essentially collection mechanisms that allow for some narration along the way, such as: In the space below, develop your own example of what Ceraso calls “multimodal listening.”)
Share, Share, Share
As you can tell, I favor a very open course that leaves most of the work that students do open to other students. This has always been the ethos of UConn FYW courses, and, despite so much cultural momentum toward privacy and separation, I think it’s still essential that student work in-process make up the bulk of what you look at and discuss in FYW. You may find, as I did, that online, written communications are actually more engaged and interactive than the sometimes stilted or pro forma face-to-face conversations.
Multimodal composition is now a component of FYW courses, and, for many, it works fine even in online form. For example, students can still create and post photos, sound files, videos, or graphics. But if the changeover to online teaching makes multimodal composition too difficult for the kind of course you are running, you can choose to downplay it in this version of your course.
There’s really so much more to say, and it can help to get to specific examples. We should address, too, the issues with students and accessibility. Are all your students able to get online with something more than a phone? Much of what I’ve written here applies to on-campus teaching but may leave out important factors. Please keep me abreast of the challenges you are facing.
As you’re likely aware, UConn’s ENGL 1010 and ENGL 1011 are in the process of being replaced by a similar course that includes some new emphases mostly having to do with multimodal composition and digital literacy. This change will happen in 2020-2021 at Storrs, but we in ECE will have at least an additional year (and probably two) with ENGL 1010 and 1011. The new course at Storrs is really two connected courses, ENGL 1007/1008, that add up to a single 4-credit unit. Once the 1007/1008 courses are in place, 1010 or 1011 will no longer be offered. [It’s complicated, but try to understand the 1007/1008 combo as a single 4-credit substitution for 1010 or 1011 with many of the same goals and practices.]
We might think of the changeover to ENGL 1007/1008 as essentially a revision of FYW courses that can happen within already existing shells of 1010 and 1011 but which will receive a new name and number in time. The changes are not massive and can be made as updates through ongoing course development. However, there are some specific revisions we have to make, and these revisions raise at least two major questions:
Does 1010 and 1011 content translate to ENGL 1007/1008?
What is the “studio” component (and how can one prepare to teach it)?
1010 and 1011 Content
The first issue shouldn’t be a problem for any course that meets the current guidelines for 1010 or 1011. The central content of FYW courses remains student writing. The assigned reading (or listening, viewing, etc.) helps establish a course inquiry (a set of related topics or questions) through texts that provide content, vocabulary/concepts, impetus, and, occasionally, models for student inquiry. Because FYW courses support cross-disciplinary inquiry, course texts likely vary in genre, mode, or approach. With many (probably most) topics, some “cultural texts” (fiction, film, music, digital media, etc.) can play a valuable role. So, yes, some literary texts can certainly be assigned in 1007/1008. We will do what we can to provide guidelines for transitioning 1011 courses to the new FYW model. But, as has always been the case, no FYW course, even today, should be presented as a traditional literature course with an emphasis on coverage of a genre, period, or author or an exclusive emphasis on literary studies.
The Studio Component
The biggest change to FYW courses is the requirement of a multimodal composition/digital literacy studio component. At Storrs, this is a distinct one-credit component (ENGL 1008) led by faculty other than the instructor of record for ENGL 1007 (the three-credit core course). At Storrs, this studio section will take place in a different space (the studio) and at a different time from the three-credit portion of the course. For regional campuses and ECE sections, however, these two parts are combined into one four-credit course which includes the multimodal/digital literacy component. Most regional campus or ECE sections will not make use of a separate studio space for this work. The “studio” in these cases will simply be the classroom itself.
Studio Pedagogy Resources
Those who attended the 2019 ECE English Summer Institute might remember Steph Ceraso, whose work on sound was central to our audio-featured day. Her work ia a great resource for linking theory to practical pedagogy (and a big part of my current class). I’ve included a link below to a webtext she and Matthew Pavesich put together with a professional designer that explores some implications of shifting a writing course into something closer to a studio model. I’ve also added two links to briefer overviews, including the UConn FYW page.
Matthew Pavesich, “The (Design) Studio Approach to Teaching Writing.” Here. [Studio pedagogy briefly described.]
Steph Ceraso and Matthew Pavesich with Designer Jeremy Boggs, “Learning as Coordination: Postpedagogy and Design.” Here. [A more extensive and fascinating article (with photos).]
There are advantages to having both parts of FYW combined into one course both at a practical level (scheduling is easier) and at a pedagogical level (the studio component arguably has more purpose when joined to the specific work of the course itself). However, we need to take on the responsibility for providing a studio component that is recognizable as an equivalent to the Storrs model, both in terms of time and content.
Time (One Fourth of the Course)
Maybe it’s easiest to think about providing the one-credit portion of the course as a complementary but still somewhat distinct element of the course, something akin to how you might describe conferencing or peer review (as specific components of your ongoing course). And, to make this component fully visible to students, you might consider marking off one quarter of the course as specifically designed for studio work. One model would be to have every fourth class session as a dedicated studio day. This could create a pacing similar to that at Storrs. If your class sessions are much shorter than the 100-minute on-campus versions, you might cluster two or more days around studio work.
What happens in this dedicated fourth of the course is still open to development and discussion. I will continue to share more material related to this as I learn more. Two suggestions:
Use the dedicated time to develop digital or technical competencies/skills that support the intellectual work of the other three credits. So, for example, if you’re teaching a course that includes a visual or graphic dimension in at least some student work, use some of the studio sessions to practice using visual or graphic tools.
The studio time can include technical or exploratory work that has only indirect usefulness for the ongoing projects in the 3-credit part of the course. In fact, students may benefit from occasional divergence from the course inquiry. I have had success with modules designed to be completed in a single class session, including sessions dedicated to photography, infographics, interviewing, audio response essays, walking/mapping, collage, and more. I hope to develop a shared folder of modules with varying focus that we might all contribute to.
Truly, 1008 is not a course in digital media production skills. We’re providing less an expert’s guide to using digital tools than a critical engagement with the rhetorical affordances and constraints of more than written text. Storrs is providing workshops and we will do what we can to glean from these. We will also continue to have sessions dedicated to multimodal composition and studio pedagogy in our conferences and summer institutes.
A tip: the digital products of FYW courses might be presented as prototypes that could (in theory) be taken up by media production specialists. That is, our students’ work does not need to have the sheen and polish of a finished project. It’s more important, for example, that they are able to hand draw a rhetorically effective image than artfully render a pointless image.
We ask that you continue to develop the multimodal component of your 1010 or 1011 courses with an eye toward this changeover to the new courses. By fall, we would like to see all 1010 or 1011 courses include explicit reference to a multimodal component that makes up approximately one quarter of the course. But there will still be time to adjust and tinker over the next year or two.
Sometimes my students will tell me I talk too fast. And they’re not wrong. Blame coffee, nerves, my many years spent in New Jersey and New York, or just my usual state of edgy excitement. For whatever reason, I get a high word per minute count when I am teaching. I can promise to try speaking with more measured, spondaic, or prosed deliberation. And yet—and there’s always an “and yet”—there’s something worth considering about the many ways we try to cheat the careful cadence of prepared discourse. In speaking, we often look for ways to thwart the simple left-to-right, top-to-bottom linearity of writing. In simple terms, I think we are looking for ways to say many things at once.
If I’m feeling grandiose, I will compare this to John Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” phase, where he would play as rapidly as he could to suggest chords that, as a saxophonist, he could only arrive at in series, one note at a time. Play these notes fast enough, and they sound like chords.
Stylistically, there are lots of things we can do to play “chords” with our language. I am a big user of the long series of related elements that forestalls closure with conjunctions, commas, em dashes—like this one—, shifts of gear, perhaps taking a moment to remind of the “and yet” in the paragraph above, parentheses (I will sometimes use brackets, too), and whatever else to prevent the sentence from ending; semi-colons can keep the momentum going as well. I want to allow for options and variations in response, and I can’t know what an interlocutor or auditor will choose to take up. Would you like me to call this prose: juiced, like Proust, or At the Royal Roost? Maybe one of these references will work for you, so I’ll include them all.
In written academic discourse, we have footnotes, quotations, winking allusion, direct reference, and all kinds of signposts and gestures for helping a reader choose paths other than the one spelled out by the linear progress of the text’s consecutive sentences. Likewise, the more literary uses of the essay, characterized by digression and the observation/collection of heterogeneous materials, are experiments in saying many things at once. Sometimes, even, an unexpected second section will emerge to mark a shift.
I started this chain of thinking because I have been watching student presentations and noticing that even the best prepared, thoughtful, and productive of presentations often leave other students looking beleaguered and grumpy. What I noticed was an impatience with linearity, a desire to paddle more quickly down whatever prepared river of discourse the presenter was offering. I’m reminded of a surprising conversation I witnessed (via Twitter) about how “no one” listens to podcasts in normal speed now, preferring 1.5x or 2x speeds to better take in the information of these podcasts (many of which in this case were essentially academic lectures). My class watched a Vox video recently that had a similarly amped up audio track. Hyperspeed, manipulated audio is all around us, and I suppose my question is how writing (or even talking) will keep pace. Does even a seminar conversation feel like slow-motion to students raised in a post-talk world?
We can and we should experiment with design and typographical elements to suggest speed and plurality (like this amazing Futurist book). And we’ve got to keep talking about plain, old writing as a still workable technology. But my interest at this point is with sound’s capacity for conveying layered, multiple, flows of information.
In the next few months, I’ll be working on a project that explores elements of creativity and composition through a musical/pedagogical partnership I’ve been developing. That is [he writes, attempting a second pass at similar information], I want to provide forums for experiments with sound, music, and composition that are simpatico with our ongoing FYW work. I’m sure to ask for collaborators soon enough, and I hope to run the Fall 2019 or Spring 2020 conference around this topic. In the meantime, let’s keep talking (rapidly, at the same time) about what’s possible.
***I didn’t really work a reference into this post, but I should mention this remarkable book that has been a support for some of my recent thinking about sound and writing pedagogy. Take a look or listen when you get a chance. You can even download chapters in podcast form so you can listen to them at 2.0 speed.
Skeptic that I am, the whole business of using infographics in a writing course seemed suspicious, unwelcome when I first considered it. Sure, who doesn’t like to punch up a text with some visual flair or some bold typeface choices. And, yes, I see these things everywhere, often in police stations, post offices, and the dreariest corners of the public library. The term “infographic” is off-putting to me, a space-age portmanteau word not too far from “edutainment” or (*shudders*) “chillax.” Can’t graphics be informational? Isn’t information often in graphic form? Do we need a special word for this? And don’t get me started about the inertness of the word “information,” which too readily suggests frozen over Truth rather than a content to engage with critically.
However, at the Digital Media and Composition institute (DMAC, or band camp for writing program administrators), we were introduced to infographics as a mode of composition, and, to my surprise, I quickly became convinced that the very crudeness of the genre could be an asset, that the ham-fisted mechanics of making an infographic via templates might aid rhetorical awareness. That is, because those of us who are not artists or designers require templates—and free ones at that—to make infographics, the almost prohibitive constraints of apps like Canva require a profound awareness of what is not possible. It’s a little like trying to write a paragraph with only the first 12 letters of the alphabet; you can do it, but you’d better put aside your dreams of eloquence. In a strange way, this boxiness is liberating. Our charge is not to teach students professional media skills (heavens, no) but rather to ask what happens when one’s work takes another form. How might you take an aspect of a project you are working on and communicate it to a potentially different audience in this alternate mode?
I’m not a fan of templates, schema, or universal rules for writing. You won’t find They Say, I Say in my teaching toolbox because the last thing I want to do is settle the question of what’s possible. Genre may be built out of expectations, but this doesn’t mean that each new iteration doesn’t in some way revise that expectation. Templates for infographics, especially those on that small list of free models to draw on (steal from), do feel like sturdy, finite forms. But as a single-class diversion from the openness of the ongoing project or as a way to feature rhetorical appeals and design, I think the infographic can work. I look forward to the conversations about aesthetics that this mini-project opens up. And I’m hopeful that some students will have talents in this area that add things to the class beyond my ability to do so.
As the visual designer said to his funding source, “we’ll see.”
About 18 students. Facing each other in pairs. Students leave cell phones in netting at front of room. Lots of physical support for the work of the course, including desks that are mobile, a pleasant room space, a crate for collecting work, the aforementioned netting, and a very wide range of images, texts, maps, signifiers on the walls—[the teacher’s] degrees and college info, some runners’ racing bibs, wigs and crowns (for dramatic performances), a whiteboard with today’s lesson, a map of Greece/Crete, and lots of photos of students. An enormous paper roll about three feet wide. [Update: yes, those are specially chosen curtains, too.]
—Excerpt from site visit notes
One of the new, small traditions of ECE events is my sharing with Kim Shaker the title of a completely obscure but wonderful movie I’ve just seen. I’m a Filmstruck proselytizer, and I can’t help talking about, say, Vera Chytilova’s Daisies (wow, drop everything and watch this tonight) or The Lure (described on the site as a “genre-defying horror-musical mash-up…[which] follows a pair of carnivorous mermaid sisters drawn ashore to explore life on land in an alternate 1980s Poland“). Today I’ve got Agnes Varda’s Mur Murs on my mind. And, yes, it has something to do with teaching writing. I’ll get to that.
In the first part of my place-based 1010 course, we examined our campus buildings and grounds. What should an academic space be? was a key question driving our first projects. Also: Who is academic space for? With bell hooks’ essay, “Keeping Close to Home: Class and Education,” and a few other readings, we looked at our campus and explored hooks’ claim that education should be “the practice of freedom.” A frequent point that students made was that our clean, new spaces lacked a feeling of “home.” One student compiled images and descriptions of a student union space at CCSU that functions like a lodge or den, where students can be informal, eat, and watch television (her hierarchy of “freedoms,” not mine). But a second student was even more focused on classroom space, and she argued that the blank white walls of our classrooms communicated a cold, modular indifference to the character of the conversations and work going on in these spaces. She asked why her high school classrooms had been so wonderfully “homey” while the college rooms are so blank.
I had certainly noticed the difference between high school and college settings in my visits to various high schools. My epigraph describes just one of the high school classrooms I’ve visited recently that feels quite different from the arid “multipurpose” room I’ve documented in these photos. But I had never before considered how regional campus students—as commuters—share something significant with their high school counterparts: their sense of community, if they have one, largely comes from what happens in their academic spaces. Residential students at places like the Storrs campus have dorms and dining halls (and a lot more) to build community. (We are familiar with the trope of the college student decorating a dorm or even painting a rock to establish a sense of home or belonging.) I’m envious of the ways that high school teachers transform school spaces into worlds infused by contributions they and their students have made to the classes (so much posted student work!).
When Agnes Varda made Mur Murs, she was living away from home—in California, not France. And she was estranged from her husband. A companion film to her fictionalized, personal story in Documenteur, Mur Murs turns outward, to the stunning public murals painted throughout East Los Angeles. The paintings are massive and often magnificent; I can’t hope to describe them. Most feature people from the community, the artists in most cases overtly countering a feeling of being underrepresented in more conventional art. The murals reclaim and remake space. As Varda puts it, “in Los Angeles, I mostly saw walls—murals as living, breathing, seething walls. Murals as talking, wailing, murmuring walls.” Varda, we can see, finds solace and stimulation in these interactions. Her camera adds yet another layer of connection and documentation.
I’m not about to bring paint to my classroom. I don’t think a 100-foot collage of “the forgotten people” (striking workers, soldiers, nurses, etc.) would go over well with our campus administration. But I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to see our courses as performing a similar kind of community building. To an extent, the work we’re doing in composition is a territorialization—of texts, of academic topics, and of spaces. And often multimodal composition makes this work of reclaiming and remaking more apparent. It was the photographing of our campus that led to these first thoughts. And now, deeper into the semester,
most days include time spent with students projecting work—often photos, maps, and sometimes drawings—onto these blank walls. One student has recently been photographing the tiny, stressed public library spaces in Hartford’s South End. Another has been showing us images of open space that has been fenced and padlocked. I show them a particular building that I photograph every day. The writing and conversations are better when we’ve populated our walls with images and texts that we’ve selected. It doesn’t last long, and the dazed look that students have when the lights come on isn’t entirely about adjustments to light. But it feels, too, like we’re getting past the blank page.
I’ve spent the new year devising a completely rebooted ENGL 1010 course, one that fits better with the new location of my campus and with the ongoing developments in UConn’s FYW program. It’s a little unsettling to work with entirely unfamiliar texts, assignments, and processes, but I like the “clean sweep” feel of starting fresh.
I’m trying to take on the call for more attention to multimodal composition, and I’m encouraged by the examples I’ve seen—at Storrs, Hartford, and ECE sites. But I’m aware, too, of how open these terms, multimodal composition, are. It’s a little like getting the suggestion from your physician that you should “add a little exercise” to your daily routine. Sure, I could order a $3,000 RunJumpLift Contraption and drop it in my living room. But maybe I’ll just, you know, walk a little more.
I consider the multimodal wrinkles I am adding to my course a textual version of “walking a little more.” I say this for two reasons. First, I am primarily thinking of multimodal composition as a continuation of work I and my students already do. We write academic essays, which, at their best, take their force from a back and forth between evidence and exploration. Quotation is a kind of technology, a device for bringing other voices—contextualized and transformed no doubt by our work of appropriating them—into the conversation we’ve set up in writing. Similarly, other modes of “capture” such as sound recording, photography, or mapping can extend our understanding of how we might bring the world into our work. Composing, in this sense, is a collecting of evidence that is not just described but also experienced, at least in some clearly still mediated way. So, to return to my metaphor, I’ve added steps to my daily walks—seeing a little more of the park, say, or another block of a road I’ve spent less time on. But I’m not (yet?) throwing out furniture to make room for an all-new apparatus.
In another more tangible sense, I am walking a little more, literally, with my new course. Because we’re involved in a place-based inquiry (“What’s Behind Front Street?”), we are exploring the walkable periphery of our downtown campus, using photography and mapping (and text) to tell the story of our discovery process. This movement through space is buttressed by a set of readings, videos, images, and guest appearances that introduce conversations and arguments about cities and people. Michel de Certeau, for example, tells us that “Walking affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses, respects, etc., the trajectories it ‘speaks’.” Or, from Jane Jacobs: “Any single factor about [a city] park is slippery as an eel.” Although some students may well pull things together into a recognizable academic essay (now with photos!), I expect others to find this more embodied encounter with people and places a poor fit for the familiar forms of the academic essay. No longer just copying quotes from an assigned text as “support,” they have a more unwieldy and multivalent collection of materials. How they compose them becomes a more urgent question. And, if the experience of considering options for design and execution of their projects for 1010 yields some insight into the need for ongoing critical reflection, the time spent wandering in the city will have been worth it.
In time I expect to make more decisions about how I’m defining multimodal composition and what I hope to see with it. I want to add a more actively creative dimension. In the last year, at site visits and in on-campus classes, I’ve often been impressed with student creativity and ownership—presentations with unexpected elements like hand-drawn images, short videos with humorous narration, or one student’s improvised Shakespearean soliloquy, written in 15 minutes but performed, brilliantly, to a rapt class.
At this point, I’m trying to bring a lot of the work back toward a reinvestment in evidence gathering and exploration. Take a look, for example, at this amazing example of an essay discussing digital maps by a cartographer with a deep understanding of both Apple and Google Maps. There are so few words in this carefully argued, wonderfully composed demonstration. And yet, here I am, piling on words within the limitations of this Aurora website (where the images are blocky and the line lengths are too long). I’ve included some images, however, to suggest how I’m taking my first steps toward a more multimodal presentation.
My essay’s like a flock of birds, It’s almost at 9,000 words. —Anon.
It’s hard to have a conversation about UConn’s First-Year Writing courses without falling into a debate about how to gloss that most stubborn of lines in all of the FYW canon, that often featured phrase in trochaic pentameter:
Thirty pages of revisèd writing.
It’s a line that’s been scanned and interpreted by scholars and pedagogues. There are the more orthodox literalists, who read it as a plain requirement to assign thirty pages of revised writing in each FYW course. There are the more liberal interpreters, who see it more as a guideline or recommendation that might flex to meet the needs of a particular situation. And, typical of English departments, there are the “philosophers,” who, drawing on theory from the ‘90s, argue for a ruthless critique of reified generalities. These anxious souls point to the absurdity of “pages” in a course that increasingly depends on digitally-created and circulated work, noting, too, the weirdly flat emphasis on a fixed quantity of writing rather than, say, quality or purpose. (“Positivists,” they exclaim, “there is no greater abstraction than this falsely ‘concrete’ criterion!”)
But enough about me. Let’s take a look at how this phrase is interpreted in the most recent Handbook for ECE English:
Thirty Pages of Revised Writing
Although expressed as a minimum page requirement, the impetus for this element is a desire to have all students in FYW seminars share similar experiences in composing and revising several major writing projects throughout the course. The nature and genre of the writing may shift and develop across multiple assignments, and some instructors may use a wider notion of project or composition that includes something more than just a quantity of pages (e.g., a multimodal assignment).
There’s something in this description for any FYW teacher. We might notice a shift away from sheer quantity of finished writing to an emphasis on project and composition. These terms allow for a more expanded notion of productivity in FYW, and both suggest a heterogeneity of “parts” within a larger goal. One’s project might include drafts, proposals or presentations, ancillary or complementary work, or a whole range of activity that includes writing. Likewise, a composition puts attention on how an assemblage of parts might come together for a particular purpose. In more explicitly articulating the work of the course as an ensemble of diverse modes of engaging with the world, we make room for a conversation in the course about what writing is and how it functions.
Speaking as a fellow teacher of these courses (and not as the arbiter of an exact policy), I will say that I continue to see the value in posing the course in terms of a small number of larger projects (e.g., essays plus a wide horizon of supports to and extensions of these essays). That is, I see the course as a site for pursuing a small number (3-5?) of larger clusters rather than, say, a long series of unrelated weekly assignments. “Project,” for me, connotes something that takes a fair amount of time and ambition to see through. Similarly, I prefer sequenced assignments that build on one another throughout the course.
It’s probably still meaningful to think about the relative work it takes to achieve the most conservative reading of the guidelines, those thirty pages. If I’m asking students to produce an audio clip or a graphic, how is this comparable to producing prose paragraphs? How do I support and evaluate this work? Do I simply subtract a certain number of required pages to make room for this other work? Do I combine, say, presentations and final drafts into a single grade? These are questions that, in a mature writing program like ours, are sometimes best left as questions, as negotiations between students, teachers, and writing program administrators rather than settled dogma. These are rigorous courses, requiring substantial work from students (and teachers). But, at this point, we needn’t count pages like Keats’ Beadsman, telling his rosary with “frosted breath.”
Let’s, for a moment, imagine a fairly typical nightmare scenario for a writing instructor: a sudden increase of class size to 50 students. Of course, many instructors already have 50 or more students in total, but I am talking about 50 in a single course. My goal here is not to advocate for such a system (!) but rather to consider how a more sudden quantitative shift might necessitate a significant rethinking of instructor work that might not otherwise happen through the steady drip, drip of small, incremental class size increases.
Our partners in other courses and departments have faced these numbers before, and the “solution” has often been to drastically curtail student productivity to that which can be sorted through standardized forms (like quizzes and tests) or truncated into a few minutes of discussion at the end of a lecture. Although most academics have, at fancy colleges or in graduate school, experienced (and now mourn the loss of) the seminar format, with its student-driven lines of inquiry and its long-form writing projects, the typical college course is still primarily modeled on content mastery that can be demonstrated through testing or in very formatted, conventional writing.
What I want to discuss here, instead, is an experiment with large-scale courses that might still be project-based and student-driven. Accepting that such a course can even be taught is a contentious, even obnoxious claim, perhaps, and, what’s worse, it can seem that I’m flirting with a model of teaching and learning that is complicit with the worst elements of educational corporatism. So, for the record, let me be perfectly clear: I think the ideal class size for writing course remains somewhere between 12 and 15. Within this range, you have enough voices to establish heterogeneity of outlook and experience, but you also have few enough projects to provide detailed feedback over many drafts. And, of course, you get to know students much more readily. A larger or much larger class size strains the capacity of an instructor to provide support for all students, and, in time, usually either necessitates a dismantling of the seminar model or unfairly impinges on the instructor.
But let’s get postprocess here and work within the constraints of our imagined situation. The class size question depends on an understanding that an instructor’s work is finite and that each added student subtracts from this finite sum. And, in terms of direct, one-to-one feedback, this is surely true. The pressure some teachers feel to live up to an often tacit but deeply felt standard of individualized feedback can be enormous. Too often, lengthy written comments on student drafts serve as markers of instructor diligence and time spent (see how much I cared about this one draft?) rather than an effective use of instructor time given the real conditions of many writing courses. So let’s exacerbate those conditions with our experiment with 50 students so that there can be no illusion that a modestly retooled pedagogy will work. What needs to happen, instead, is a remaking of student and faculty expectations for a writing course.
We can ward off that culture of guilt without capitulating to a model of standardized and rigid teaching and learning. But, to do so, we have to acknowledge that the courses themselves must change, and sometimes radically. Some of the things an instructor might need to do in this situation include:
Break the expectation of instructor feedback as primary.
Put responsibility on students to become readers of each other’s work. Sure, we already share drafts, but much more can be done to foster collaborative invention and response within the class itself.
Put responsibility on students to co-author some projects. Consider class-wide composition.
Design courses as environments for interconnectivity and creative composition rather than stages for performing a pre-existing repertoire of competencies.
Introduce and develop key terms and concepts for reflecting on and learning from the composing that happens in the course.
“Solve” the problem of audience by positing the class itself as an engine of both production and consumption. How are you contributing to the class conversation? How can you influence or change the people in the room through your work?
Spend far more class time engaging with student work, openly and in detail. What do we have here? What’s possible here? What comes next?
Save yourself from seeing a project in 100 versions. What a surprise to read a “final” project that isn’t something you’ve responded to before.
Move the modes of communication toward audio or spoken feedback as well as alternative forms of visual feedback (up to, but not including, stickers (heh)).
Ask students to become presenters and curators of their work, always situating larger projects alongside blurbs, introductory texts, working bibliographies, and brief presentations that help others see and anticipate these larger works. (Factor this assembling and presenting work into grades.)
Use class time to develop and test provisional rubrics or evaluative criteria. What does successful work in this project do or look like?
Give feedback that is not on a one-to-one ratio but which uses samples, excerpts, and volunteered student work.
Use digital tools and spaces to more efficiently constellate and circulate student work.
Use office hours or conference time for students who seek more individual feedback. (And lament the loss of more time per student.)
Recognize that other colleagues who teach the other courses that students take have responsibility, too, for helping students become informed, generous, self-aware, and capable writers and communicators.
Take note of what gets lost (and it is a LOT) in large courses, and advocate, when you can, for improvements and support.
You may have noticed that not much here is entirely new. What I’ve described is driven by a consideration of efficiencies, perhaps, but not all innovation must come from economic considerations. Critical pedagogy, for one example, has long advocated for the distribution of responsibility to all class members on democratic principles. Ecological composition asks us to design courses that make use of the affordances of place and technology. And multimodal composition reminds us that even academic communication need not always be lengthy prose paragraphs. Also, a lot of what is proposed here depends not only on instructors and students but on programs. If the goal of these innovations is to help writing teachers build what Byron Hawk calls “smarter environments,” the teachers themselves need to be working in a smarter environment, a site where implementing these changes is developed, modeled, and supported.
Nightmare scenario or vision of the future—tumultuous assembly or artmachine? What we know of the large class is that it is transformative. Now can the teaching we’ve been doing (and the programs we’ve been building) help us anticipate and engage with this transformation?