A Course Inquiry Journey

One of the aspects of the ENGL 1007 changeover that many instructors are curious about is the course inquiry. The course inquiry is more than just the “theme” of the FYW course — it’s a description of what you and your students are going to explore in this particular class and concretizes the work students might do as writers. In simple terms, the course inquiry sets up the field of inquiry, including texts and contexts, that enables the local and specific work students will do as writers and composers.

A graphic depicting a sample course inquiry titled "Gender and Power Dynamics"
Click graphic see to a full-size version.

Creating a course inquiry may seem like a tall order, but it can be a great way to invigorate your class because it encourages you to step back and see the throughlines that connect the various phases and projects of the course. What is this course setting out to do and how will it accomplish this task through readings and assignments?

We’re working on a short video that describes the course inquiry in greater detail and can be a companion to this post. While we’re putting that together, we wanted to get you started on your brainstorming process for course inquiry.

 


The essential questions that many ECE/FYW instructors often use to structure their courses can be helpful in forming a course inquiry; they just need to be tweaked a little. Flexible, general questions need to be balanced with focused, larger questions that connect to the tangible. We’re inviting students into the challenge of scholarly contribution, where one’s work must both speak to larger questions but also define a fresh and specific locating of these questions.

A Practical Example

For instance, I’m interested in teaching an FYW course that interrogates feminism and women writers. I have some feminist texts and literature by women in mind, but I don’t want my students to feel like I’m simply saying “Sexism is bad” or, worse, risk having them leave the course thinking that we’ve solved sexism. I’m also interested in exploring different aspects of gender and power dynamics beyond those of a “female” perspective (and what is “female,” I wonder?). Essentially, I want to know how gender and power work together to hinder our society and how we can start to rectify some wrongs. In terms of our writing course, then, I want students to find a way to locate and extend these vast, complex questions.

These are some of the essential questions that syllabi on feminism and women writers tend to use:

  •       What does it mean to be feminine/masculine?
  •       What does it mean to be male/female?
  •       What historical events have impacted the rights of women?
  •       How have women fought against oppression?

These are a good start, but they can lend themselves to simplistic and/or erroneous answers and encourage a myth of progression. Revising these, we can develop a list of questions which challenge students to think deeply about gender and which speak to our present moment:

  • What forces shape our perception of “masculinity” and “femininity”?
  • Why do we find it so difficult, even in the 21st century, to avoid falling into the trap of essentialisms?
  • How does the LGBTQ movement and intersectionality complicate power dynamics?
  • What can gender and sexuality protests or events tell us about how we categorize people and distribute power? Is there anything we can learn from these and apply (perhaps with revision) to our current moment?
  • How might gender fluidity /gender nonconformity help us reimagine traditional “male” and “female” roles?
  • How does writing, language, composing with images, etc. contribute to, or foster awareness of, gendered subject positions and/or the insufficiency of gender as a binary construct?

My feminism/women in literature syllabus has become a larger project about gender and power dynamics. This means that students can’t get away with simply saying “sexism is bad,” or arguing over the idea of the glass ceiling. Rather, they are encouraged to interrogate what gender is and why (and when and even if) it matters. Though feminist concerns are societal concerns, many students have a hard time making that connection. With this inquiry, I give them a head start by beginning with the assumption that many communities are connected. This provides focus (gender/power) but also room to explore inquiries which might seem too “risky” to write about in a traditional class on women’s literature. And, because the approach includes documentary and exploratory work—not just arguments or theories—student composers can contribute while still allowing themselves to be shaped or influenced by what they are learning.

My revised questions help refine my inquiry and the readings I should assign. I’m no longer only looking at texts by women and about women, but texts about how gender and power shape our society. This means that I can’t just rely on favorite texts like “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and Jane Eyre, (though I still manage to squeeze in a fair amount of classic literary texts) because they suggest that these issues are in the past and that the categories of “man” and “woman” are solidified. To engage with this inquiry responsibly, I need to bring in more modern texts which reflect our current understandings of gender and power dynamics in the 21st century and whose modalities reflect the ways in which we are having these conversations (through TedTalks, podcasts, TV shows, as well as social media).

From all of this — the questions I would like us to interrogate, the texts which help with this, and some burgeoning assignment ideas – a course inquiry starts to develop: 

How can we balance power and navigate gender oppression in the 21st century? How does sexism manifest in our world now and why do we (men, women, gender non-conforming individuals, gender-fluid individuals) find it so difficult to avoid falling into this trap? In this class, we will grapple with some of these questions through classic literary pieces such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, as well as more modern texts such as Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the documentary film, Anita. With the help of theoretical lenses from Angela Davis’s Women, Race and Class (1981), Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl (2007), and Chimamanda Adiche’s “We Should All Be Feminists” (2014), we will attempt to theorize ways in which we might navigate the evolving understanding of sex and gender to create a more equitable society.


It’s probably clear by now that my syllabus design is not necessarily a chronological process. The course inquiry is naturally tied to assignments — which, in turn, are tied to writing (or course) moves, and Information Digital Media Literacy (IDML). While working on this course inquiry, I frequently bounced around: I developed some questions, then found some texts that would help investigate these questions, then thought about some assignments that might help students develop inquiries, then went back and added more questions, more texts. What I’m saying is that if you feel stuck — either on course inquiry, readings, or assignment design — try jumping to one of the other two and working on that for a bit for inspiration.

To work through this, I started with a mindmap, then moved to Google Slides because it helped me jump around easier. You can see my Google brainstorming here.

Additionally, I’ve created a course inquiry template which you can use to help develop your course inquiry.  I hope you find these  helpful!

Untangling Studio Pedagogy

a pink rope tied into a knot
Image courtesy of pxhere.com

A number of questions came up regarding multimodal work and studio pedagogy at our Fall Conference, “Teaching for Joy and Justice.” In particular, we’ve discovered that many instructors are struggling to wrap their heads around studio pedagogy. We’ve gathered some of the questions from the surveys here and attempt to address your concerns. You’ll notice that some of the answers we provide are provisional. While ENGL1007 has been implemented at Storrs, the ECE course will look somewhat different; we won’t know exactly how this will translate to a high school classroom until we launch the changeover in Fall 2022 and some of this is sure to evolve. We will tackle some of the more difficult questions of implementation in our Working Groups in the coming months. In the meantime, we hope that these answers will help everyone to begin to get a better handle on the changes.


Q: The technology question: How can we conduct studio when students don’t have equal access to technology and/or we don’t have fancy smart rooms?

A: Of course much of the studio work does require access to technology that we cannot assume all students have. This gap can be mitigated through collaboration on projects, which can pool resources, and through use of computer classrooms, when and if those are available. But studio doesn’t need to be tech-heavy. There are options for students to compose in different modalities without using computer technology:

  • Peer review — Peer review, when practiced as an open conversation designed to address the modification of an existing project (through revision), can function as studio work, as a collaborative technology for getting work done. (circulating)
  • Old-school collages—we’re all familiar with this one. It’s easy, and with a good prompt, can be challenging as well. (collecting and curating)
  • Mindmaps and diagrams (on the board, on butcher paper, on notebook paper)—As part of engaging with and contextualizing a topic, you might ask students to create a diagram of different types of research available, or different perspectives that need to be taken into consideration with a hot-button issue. (engaging, contextualizing, theorizing)
  • Storyboarding/Wireframing—Storyboarding is essential in planning a video or podcast assignment and a step that many students tend to skip in the interest of getting to the technology part quicker. Storyboarding forces them to focus not just on the technological aspects of a project, but the message they’re trying to get across. For a website, you could ask the students to wireframe it first: that is, determine the organizational layout on paper before beginning a design. (engaging, contextualizing, theorizing)

Q: Should we be specific about which medium we want a project to be in, such as everyone does a podcast, or should we provide students a list of possible options and let them choose the medium?

A: It’s usually best to build ECE/FYW courses around course inquiries that yield a specific type of project—the interview, the critical essay, the audio project, etc. And, often, the course inquiry can lead into multiple, sequenced projects (e.g., a critical essay can be developed into an audio project). Connecting the texts and ideas driving the work to a more exact mode or genre fosters awareness of the relatedness of methods and goals. That said, there are times when the discussion about possible modes and outcomes advances awareness about affordances and constraints. It seems useful to have some moments where choice or discovery are foregrounded.

Q: How important is it that we are an expert in these different modalities? How do we learn how to use the technology?

A: This is a great question. Many instructors are nervous that they won’t be able to effectively guide their students in studio sessions if they aren’t experts in using the various pieces of software. But studio pedagogy is designed to dismantle the top-down approach to the learning: you’re not supposed to be an expert. You’re not teaching a studio session as much as offering a structured activity. Your students should be encouraged to tackle any tech problems on their own using tech websites, Google, YouTube, etc. Just as important, they should be encouraged to reach out to each other for help on different topics: one student may know how to use Audacity, while another might be familiar with Lightworks; still another might know of a great website to get fair use sound effects. This fosters problem solving and collaboration. In other words, it’s perfectly fine for you to say, “I don’t know.” You can always help that student research their problem (though be careful that you aren’t doing all of the research for them) or address the class and see if anyone already has a solution.

Q: How do I decide which pieces to let students do a traditional style of essay vs. a multimodal style?

A: First, there should be no “versus.” Even the process of writing a “traditional” essay involves the practice of multiple modes. No text is just a single mode. Second, what “traditional style” are you currently reading? Quite a bit of published academic writing in the 2020s makes use of more than just written texts (diagrams, pull-out quotes, graphics, photos, links, layout variations, color, embedded media, and so on). Almost no one publishes lengthy prose that doesn’t at least make use of headers and other formatting or layout devices. And, yes, attending to document design is a move into multimodal work. So we want to emphasize that there shouldn’t be a dichotomy here between “traditional” and “multimodal” essays, as every text includes elements of multimodal work.

There is a commonality in all of FYW work—its critical inquiry and documentation of encounters with texts, objects, ideas, and the world. It’s true that multimodal composition ushers in some welcome development of the course’s aesthetic dimensions, its attention to more than just logical argument. But, in the main, the move to studio pedagogy supports the “traditional” emphasis on carefully constructing a communicative object (a composition) that can make an impact on readers, auditors, viewers. In this way, it is a buttressing of the rhetorical dimension of writing, which often gets left behind when assignments assume a standard or universal mode of communicating.

Q: With studio work, how important is creating a polished product? What if they’re not done in the allotted studio time?

A: Studio time isn’t about creating a finished product. It’s more often about the process of learning how to compose through different forms. You should allot them enough time to be able to tackle a problem—maybe a particularly challenging video project extends over two sessions—but don’t expect them to complete a polished project. It’s important, too, to set aside time for them to do a “gallery walk,” in which they get to see what other students have accomplished (or not accomplished!) by the end of the session. (circulating!)

Q: Is it necessary to have dedicated studio time, or can we integrate the studio approach and mindset into classes on a daily basis?

A: To an extent, we’ve already been doing studio work in ECE/FYW courses. Whenever we put student work at the center of our class sessions and work collaboratively toward a goal, we are in a sense practicing “studio mode.” But the shift to 1007 means that we are now defining the course as having a studio component. At Storrs, the 1007 seminars are attached to a separate one-credit studio section. Everywhere else (including ECE), we have to clearly demarcate that at least one-credit of the 1007’s four credits is dedicated to studio pedagogy. Currently, then, we are requiring that instructors make this one-credit studio component clear on syllabi and course schedules. In time, we may decide that a more organic and fluid relationship between seminar and studio is more appropriate. For now, however, we ask that you include studio days as specific dedicated sessions. (These dates can be flexible, but be sure to include information about studio days, including how many such dates you will have.)


The English 1007 course can seem like a departure from familiar habits and methods of FYW/ECE English, but it’s more of an evolution or refresh, which we hope will become more clear in the next several months. We’re not giving up essay writing or academic modes in the changeover; we’re merely giving proper weight to the role that multimodal work plays in 21st-century composition.

Choosing Readings, Part Two

Scholarship as Impetus and Inspiration

Kari’s recent post on Felicia Rose Chavez’s The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop suggests ways to find texts and sources from beyond the usual, familiar anthologized or textbooked readings—those warhorses that appear so often in syllabi. My post explores another, perhaps unexpected, avenue for shaking things up, published academic texts. Specifically, my goal here is to remind you that some of the most interesting and powerful writing about topics taken up in FYW courses—identity, race, culture, power, gender, etc.—happens in journals and books that escape the notice of the more popular press and media coverage. If we’re looking for texts to provide an impetus for collaborative antiracist work, we might mine the resources that are right amid us. Choosing readings from these texts:

  • provides models for students seeking to compose in academic modes (while also challenging the notion that there are static rules for academic writing)
  • makes use of access enabled by university affiliation (many of these texts are not otherwise free or accessible)
  • and gives students a taste of how antiracist work happens within the university and through its channels

Let’s take the example of Duke University Press and some of its recent publications in its African American Studies and Black Diaspora section, all of which are currently available as free downloadable PDFs through the UConn library. (Links may require sign in and some clicking through.) These texts are interdisciplinary, often multimodal, creative, well-researched, and critically engaged with the problems and possibilities of academic writing. In other words, they are great demonstrations of what can be done in academic settings. These are not easy texts; they invoke and develop theoretical terms and complex histories. But they remind me of the rich, challenging texts that have often served as cornerstones in FYW courses—texts to be worked on and revisited through the course. Here’s a sample:


Sharpe In the Wake cover imageChristina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being is a powerful and poetic examination of Black life, an observation of the ongoing legacies of slavery through meditations on terms of sea travel. Chapters here are designated as “The Wake,” “The Ship,” “The Hold,” and “The Weather.” In a section called “How a Girl Becomes a Ship,” for example, Sharpe studies a photo of a young girl being evacuated in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. The girl stares back at the photographer, and on her forehead, in English, is the work “Ship.” What is one to make of this cryptic detail? Sharpe’s analysis is less about solving the mystery than seeing this image as yet another example of Black lives caught within an ordering mechanism that seems to only see them when their worlds are falling apart. Sharpe’s development of what she calls “wake work” provides a tool for “how to live in the wake of slavery”: “[R]ather than seeking a resolution to blackness’s ongoing and irresolvable abjection, one might approach Black being in the wake as a form of consciousness” (14).

 


Rinaldo Walcott’s The Long Emancipation: Moving Toward Black Freedom, indebted to Sharpe, distinguishes between freedom and emancipation, suggesting that emancipation is ongoing and incomplete, an unfolding process. I’m using two brief chapters from this book in an upcoming unit on funk in my 4000-level course, but I’ve used his article, “The Black Aquatic,” from the open access journal, liquid blackness, as a model for the kind of academic writing I want my students to attempt. That piece, which defines the Black aquatic as “Black peoples’ lived relation in and to bodies of water,” includes first-person writing, photos of the objects it examines (including a still from the film Moonlight and an image of a ship made into artwork), and stylish document design, including pull-quotes, two-column formatting, and bold use of color. We should be inviting students to produce more work that looks and feels like this.

 


Simone Browne’s Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness is a wonderful book I described at last fall’s conference. Browne takes us through both historical and contemporary sites and examples to illustrate the deep connection between surveillance and what she calls the “enduring archive of transatlantic slavery and its afterlife.” And in her detailing of the rising field of surveillance studies, she finds a remarkable consistency in how surveillance, in whatever period, seeks to extract information from bodies it does not understand, a one-way process of “shedding light” on the racialized “dark matter” that gives the book its title. Students might find her fourth chapter, “’What Did TSA Find in Solange’s Fro?’: Security Theater at the Airport,” especially rich and connective: “If the airport can be thought of as a site of learning, what can representations of security theater in popular culture and art at and about the airport tell us about the post-9/11 flying lessons of contemporary air travel?”

 


Brown Black Utopias cover imageJayna Brown, who narrates an account of her own father’s life as a self-proclaimed prophet and seer in her book’s preface, presents Black Utopias: Speculative Life and the Music of Other Worlds as a book about radical longing and utopian dissent. In this work that touches on music, science fiction, spirituality, and more, Brown presents and examines the sometimes disturbing speculative visions of Black utopians, including Sojourner Truth, Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra, Samuel Delaney, and Octavia Butler. I was especially drawn to her positioning of utopian thought alongside mystical and radical feminist strains in works that “refuse to attach themselves to the liberal humanist definitions of freedom and equality” (25). She asks instead, through these works, “What happens if we unmoor ourselves from this world?” (156).

 

 


Tina Campt, in Listening to Images, explains her book’s paradoxical title (and method) as a counterintuitive decision to “listen” to images by noting the value of attempting alternative modes of engagement: “Listening to Images explores the lower frequencies of transfiguration enacted at the level of the quotidian, in the everyday traffic of black folks with objects that are both mundane and special: photographs.” (7) In three short chapters, Campt explores passport photos, early anthropological photos of Africans, and convict photos from the turn of the century. Because these photos of Black lives in precarious situations are staged, compelled, and routinized, they challenge conventional notions of visible resistance or expression. What can we make of what look at first like illegible artifacts or merely functional documents? In exploring the repetition of, for example, the navy blue blazer used in passport photos, Campt seeks “lower frequencies” that tell us more about “quiet soundings” of people navigating paths established by bureaucracy and power.

Image from Listening to Images (Campt)
Image from Listening to Images (Campt)

Choosing Readings, Part One

Getting at the Heart of Antiracist Work in Chavez’s The Antiracist Writing Workshop

Chavez, Felicia Rose. The Antiracist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom. Haymarket Books, 2021.

Book cover of The Antiracist Writing WorkshopThere are a lot of texts out there about antiracist pedagogies and not a lot of time for the average instructor to read them and distill their contents. It’s easy to become overwhelmed, but luckily we’re here to help! In this post, we spotlight a new publication which focuses on implementing antiracist strategies in the classroom, Felicia Rose Chavez’s The Antiracist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom.

Don’t let the title fool you — even if you don’t teach creative writing workshops, many of her suggestions can be tailored for first-year writing and literature courses. Part memoir, part rebellion against the white supremacist model of the creative writing workshop, Chavez’s slim volume offers suggestions for restructuring our teaching that dive deeply into not just how we respond to student work, but how we respond to students as people.

We’re particularly interested in how The Antiracist Writing Workshop can help guide us in choosing texts for our courses. A large part of Chavez’s book focuses on what she refers to as “Completing the Canon.” Though Chavez is specifically speaking to creative writing workshops here — pushing back on the imperative that students “read the masters” — many of her insights are applicable to the first-year writing classroom as well. Chavez encourages instructors to make choices that “promote justice, dignity, and self-love” when designing their reading lists. She suggests that:

Workshop leaders supplement participants’ own writing with a living archive of scanned print material, sourced pdfs, and multimedia art by young people, people of color, women, queer, differently abled, and gender-nonconforming artists. Accessible online, this living archive exposes participants to POC-friendly publishing platforms, multimedia art, and experimental genres. Most crucially, it allows for conversations with the authors themselves, contextualizing the texts within specific lived experiences. The ultimate goal is to invest in our collective integrity by renouncing white universality. Together, we can complete the canon and create a new normal (97).

Chavez offers an extensive (and growing) list of works to help enrich ECE course materials in this Google doc from her website, The Antiracist Writing Workshop.

Additionally, Chavez provides the following questions for instructors who are assessing their courses (45-46):

  • For whom do you design your curriculum? In other words, who is your ideal, imagined student? What assumptions do you make about their background?
  • What norms and values inform your curriculum choices?
  • Do you articulate your own positionality when lecturing? Why or why not?
  • Does your curriculum reflect its geographic location, including the subjugated histories, cultures, and languages?
  • How does your teaching legitimate the experiences and cultures of students of color?
  • How does your teaching affirm the agency of students of color?
  • How does your curriculum require white students to acquire the intellectual and cultural resources to function effectively in a plural society?
  • How do you build a community in your classroom where students learn actively from each other and draw on their own knowledge sources?
  • What can you do to make your assessment criteria show what all students are capable of, drawing on their strengths and promoting their agency and creativity?
  • Now ask yourself, am I read to prepare my headspace for change?

Answering these questions can feel humbling, but in a healthy way. They force us to reckon with the conscious and unconscious choices we make when we construct our syllabi and run our classroom, asking us who we are unintentionally excluding through our practice. Chavez’s work is illuminating, inspiring, and concise. At 180 pages (minus the appendices and notes), it’s something that instructors can read relatively quickly, dog-ear, and return to again. We suggest you take a look!

See Scott Campbell’s Part Two of this conversation here.

Documenting the Moment

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I imagine some of you, like me, are having trouble focusing on academic work with all that’s going on in the world right now, and our students might feel similarly. How can we continue the intellectual work of our FYW courses when there is so much uncertainty in the world, paired with constant new information? One possible way to do this is to face it head on and assign a project that engages your students in conversations about the pandemic.

This could work many ways of course, but I wanted to suggest a short list of exercises that would develop writing skills and fit the goals of the course (and the course moves) while allowing students to process what’s going on around them.

  • Journaling: how are you feeling? How has your life changed? What are your sources of information? How are you staying connected with the outside world?
  • Collecting and evaluating sources: do some research on the virus. Whose voices do you trust/distrust, and why? How does new information change the way you think about your circumstances? Does it change the conversations you’re having with others?
  • Interviewing a classmate and reporting back: develop interview questions. How do you write about an interview? How do you contextualize their comments? When you circulate it among your peers, how do they interpret the interview? What new ideas emerge?

Each activity introduces questions of genre—what are the cues and features of the particular genre you’re writing in? What do genres of collection and documentation, like the journal or the interview, have in common? How do they differ? Likewise, each activity raises issues of mode and offers opportunities for multimodal composition. For example, how does a transcribed interview or quoted remark differ from a short video interview or an edited piece of audio from that interview? What’s at stake when we transform our encounters with the world into texts?

Do you have other ideas for how we might engage our students in (academic) conversations about the moment?

Finally, if you are interested and have time, you might want to read (or even circulate!) this article about a course at the University of Virginia where students are encouraged to “write it down” and keep a record of life during the pandemic.

Finding Materials Online

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One challenge of moving to online teaching so suddenly is the loss of access to certain materials and texts. Your students may not have the novels you plan to teach, and you can’t ask them all to purchase them. So what do you do? I’d love to hear more ideas on this in the comments, but I’ll offer a few suggestions here.

1) You could always cut down on the literary texts you plan to teach. FYW should be first and foremost about composition and production, rather than literary analysis. We unfortunately all have to sacrifice some parts of our syllabi right now and cannot expect our courses to run just as they were planned, so this may be an area for some difficult choices and cuts.

2) I understand that the first option isn’t so easy, or isn’t even possible, for many teachers who teach FYW concurrently with AP Literature or who have literature curriculum demands. So if you’re in that boat, let’s think about ways to find texts for free online. There are so many different places offering free or cheap e-books right now, so this is by no means an exhaustive list, but I wanted to give you a few places to look first:

a. The National Emergency Library “offers free public access to 2.5 million fully downloadable public domain books, which do not require waitlists to view.”
b. The New York Public Library’s website offers e-books and research guides.
c. The Boston Public Library is also temporarily offering a ton of resources online.

We can keep updating this post as we find more resources together, and again, I encourage you to comment below with other ideas or questions!

The Instructor Journal

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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).

Audio Feedback on Student Writing

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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: 

Taking ECE/FYW Courses Online

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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. 

Machine switches

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
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. 

What Else? 
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.

Guidelines for Transitioning to the New FYW Courses

Photo by Fabien Bazanegue on Unsplash

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:

  1. Does 1010 and 1011 content translate to ENGL 1007/1008?
  2. 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).] 
  • The UConn FYW page on Studio Pedagogy. Here

Implementation in Four-Credit Model

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. 

Content

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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. 

    Training

    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. 

    Timeline

    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. 

     

    Much more to come in this ongoing series.