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. 

    Assignment Hall of Fame

    To continue our conversation about the role of literature in the composition classroom, I want to show off three excellent assignments from current ECE English teachers that are particularly interdisciplinary and inquiry-based and that prompt students to write through literature rather than just about it. These assignments are, of course, not the only ways that this work can be done, but if you are thinking about how you might build a future course that pushes beyond literary analysis (as ECE English classes do), then you might use these assignments as models.

     

    Writing about Language

     

    Dr. Patti Lee-Muratori teaches an ECE English/Humanities course at New Fairfield High School. You can see her materials and learn more about her teaching on her website. The assignment that I want to draw your attention to in this post focuses on the relationship between power and language.

     

    This assignment begins by reminding students of its context. They have been discussing several literary texts, films, television shows, and sociolinguistic studies in order to make “observations about the struggle for power between and among those who have it and those who are blocked/oppressed/marginalized/objectified/demonized… in order to prevent them from achieving equality.” Already, this project is interdisciplinary and pushes the students to think beyond literary analysis. The project is inquiry- and thesis-driven, and the goal is “to push our conversation about power and language forward in a new way.”

    Writing about Stories

     

    Linda Ventura-Clements teaches a combined English 1011/AP Literature and Composition course at Mark T. Sheehan High School. She has an assignment that considers the “blurred lines” between fact and fiction and explores the cultural function of storytelling.

     

    The project begins with literary texts, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, where characters talk about the need to lie in order to get at a deeper truth. The first part of the project is a creative, scaffolding assignment which asks the students to “lie” about an actual event that happened to them or a family/friend as a way to experience first-hand how an author “lies” or “distorts” the facts in order to create truth. The major assignment asks students to use these texts (and others of their choosing) as evidence to make an argument about the nature of storytelling and specifically of blurring the lines between truth and lies. The students are using literary texts as evidence, and thinking about their social function, in order to make a cultural or philosophical argument.

    Writing about Institutions

     

    Caitlin Donahue teaches English 1010 at Stafford High School. In a unit on dystopian American literature, she has her students write a paper about an institution or organization in our society and the power structure within it.

     

    This assignment, like the other two, begins with a literary and theoretical context: the students have been watching The Truman Show and reading Fahrenheit 451, “The Allegory of the Cave,” and “Panopticism” from Discipline and Punish, among other texts. They have been analyzing “how education functions as an institution regulating its members.” In this project, they use those texts and conversations as a starting point (and as evidence, later) to analyze a social institution or organization in their lives or community. The assignment asks them to use the readings from the unit “to serve as points of comparison, contrast, or extensions to [their] analysis,” moving beyond simple literary analysis.

    I came across these assignments while reading the submitted materials (there are a lot, and we are making our way through them!), so I may do a few more posts in the coming weeks as I find other examples. Feel free to reach out to me if you’re doing work that speaks to the questions from our fall conference or have ideas that you’d like to share here!

    Fall 2019 Conference: Connecting Literature and Composition Pedagogies

    On October 25th, we held our fall conference on the relationship between literature and composition pedagogies and the role of literature in the composition classroom. As we face changes in the FYW program, it’s important to consider what skills we have as literature scholars that can and do transfer to our composition classes and to the teaching of writing across disciplines.

    We decided to use an excerpt from Ocean Vuong’s 2019 novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous as a common literary starting point, which shaped at least the first half of the conference. Vuong is a Vietnamese-American poet and novelist who grew up in Hartford, and the excerpt we chose from the novel describes the nail salon in which the narrator’s family works and his mother’s experience with a customer with an amputated leg. That excerpt, and a recording of it, can be found here.

    In our opening session, Scott Campbell outlined the main questions we wanted to address throughout the conference:

    • How should we approach a literary text?
      • Do you come to it as someone seeking to interpret it? (Is it a literary object?)
      • Do you think about how it addresses a reader or conveys an argument? (Is it a rhetorical object?)
      • Do you think about how it conveys history, experience, place, identity? (Is it an evidentiary text?)
      • What else is possible?
    • What can students produce, with a literary text as a starting point?
      • How can we ask them to compose through or with literature rather than just about it?
    • What are the advantages of turning to literary or cultural materials in the midst of a cross-disciplinary inquiry?

    In each of our first breakout sessions, we discussed possible ways to teach the excerpt from On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. We had one session on multimodal assignments, one on major project assignment sequences, and another on research projects. We also had sessions on in-class composition and in-class activities and discussion. All of the materials for each of those sessions can also be found here. In our second breakout sessions, groups of teachers workshopped and brainstormed for their own classes. We considered how we teach writing through literature now and how we might do it in the future.

    We ended the conference (after a delicious Thanksgiving lunch) with a dress rehearsal of a panel presentation for another conference, NCTE 2019. In “Off Campus but in the Conversation: Acknowledging Complexity in High School-College Partnerships,” Scott Campbell, Lalitha Kasturirangan, Emily Kilbourn, Kristen Mucinskas, Jeff Roets, Lauren Shafer, and Marc Zimmerman explore the variability of sites within a dual credit/concurrent enrollment program. They consider how their presumed marginal role within the university might be better understood as a significant contribution to the university itself.

    In some ways, this conference asked more questions than it answered, but that’s how it should be. We had many productive conversations that will not and should not end with the end of the conference. We all know that there is value in keeping literature in the composition classroom, and it’s important that we’re able to articulate that value, to ourselves, to our students, and to our administrators. We also all know that there’s a difference between literary analysis and writing through literature, but there is an overlap in those pedagogical skills.

    Thank you so much to all the presenters and participants for a really engaging and complex conference. We hope that these conversations will continue!

    If you would like to be involved in future ECE conferences, please reach out to me (Hannah), Scott, or Jason.