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.
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:
FYW courses are not lecture courses, and there’s really no need to convert complex, exact discourses over to an asynchronous form. That is, the world will keep turning if your many great points about a particular reading or topic are not featured the way they might be in a face-to-face class session or in a lecture. And yet, we do hope to model a kind of active, winding, never quite finished discoursing. The seminar nature of the course asks us to devise ways for students to practice this ongoing experimentation with ideas and texts. And most of your online course is likely concerned with collecting and circulating (and responding to) student writing of this various nature. As a consequence, the documents we produce for students (announcements, assignment prompts, etc.) should be economical and brief whenever possible. So where should instructors do their thinking?
I’ve had great success with a simple Google Doc that I update from time to time (usually about three times per week). Call it a Journal or Log or something more interesting than that. (When my course had a posthumanist angle, I called this occasional journal “Rhizomes” (a collection of lateral shoots). I like “Penumbra,” too.) In any case, I put a link to this document on the HuskyCT page sidebar, and I often link to it in announcements or assignment prompts. But I make it clear that this is not a required component of the course or a set of “clues” for someone seeking an A. Not everything in school is quantified and weighted for practical use.
Here’s what students see at the top of the journal in my current course:
Q. What is this?
A. The “Notes and Journal” page is a place where I will routinely go to explore the ongoing work of the course, often providing context for things happening on the HuskyCT or Google pages or following up on things that have come up in our work together. Because we (for the most part) will lack class sessions, this is a place for me to annotate, embellish, or wander. You don’t have to read it, but it is meant to provide some of the “talk” that we won’t get in class. And I hope it helps me keep other parts of the course more direct—less wordy. We’ll see.
It’s just as important to keep a similar space for students where they can raise issues or jot down informal thoughts. Forums and drafts and collaborative, shared documents may already provide this. And, if you do set out a space for students, be sure to check in with it regularly (if, in fact, it is set up for you to see).
My colleague, Tom Deans, professor of English and the director of the Writing Center in Storrs, has for years used audio feedback as a mode for responding to student work. It’s quick, relatively low tech, and easily individualized. As with any shift in mode, moving from written comments to audio feedback comes with some gains but also some losses. For example, I like to model writing for students, and written comments, especially end comments, often demonstrate considered, composed prose. But if I’m honest with myself, my comments are just as often hastily composed, and, as decontextualized moments of typed response, they can sometimes miscommunicate tone or emphasis.
Moving courses online reduces our contact with students, and audio feedback is one relatively easy way to bring our voices back into the mix. Maybe now is the time to experiment with using audio feedback. But please remember that some students may still prefer or need written feedback, so be sure to ask them.
Here’s Tom’s description of how he does audio feedback with a link to a brief and useful resource.
When I introduce it at the W Teaching Orientation I do it within the context of all the standard advice for responding, written or audio, but I cite some of the findings of Jeff Sommers: that audio is particularly effective with formative feedback and that students pretty consistently report liking it. I share some of my recent response recordings, which range from less than a minute for one-pagers to 5-8 minutes for most papers, and how I do it: read through paper once; gather my thoughts on 1-3 major revision points; hit voice memo on my iPhone; record; then email the mp4 directly from phone.
Here’s a brief, teacher-friendly short piece on this topic:
In what follows, I discuss asynchronous online teaching. Synchronous teaching (teaching in “real time”) is pretty close to impossible with no preparation, and I advise against it, other than for conferencing. I am also assuming that online teaching will go beyond two or three weeks. Maybe we’ll be luckier than that.
Teaching FYW Online
I designed the online version of ENGL 1010 and taught it for three summers. I found that online teaching of FYW actually yielded student work that was as good or better than that of my face-to-face classes. (YMMV.) Especially because this transition is happening very quickly and without preparation, focus on four major streams of work that can bring the course together:
Use a Learning Management System (such as HuskyCT). Even if you have been using an LMS space for your courses, make sure that all students are comfortable and able to check in and contribute regularly. Review your posted materials and organize, add, and revise to make materials as accessible as possible. You might want to put up a new document (a kind of second syllabus) to articulate the goals, sequence, and resources for the remaining portion of the course.
Communicate (very) regularly. I found that much of the in-class teaching that vanishes in online versions of the course can reappear as regular updates to students via an announcement that appears as both an email and as an archived text. Although I “talked” much less in this form, what I wrote to students helped me practice framing the work of the day in legible terms, and it stayed available as a resource. My communications often began as updates on “where we are” and proceeded into one or two ideas about the projects-in-development, often with examples. Whenever possible, I featured student work.
Use Discussion threads (or blogs or Google Docs or other platforms) that require regular writing from students AND interaction with/response to each other. Use these, too, to share drafts, and ask that peer review happen according to whatever forms or procedures you use via email, with a CC to you.
Use some synchronous elements. If you want to “meet” with students, use Webex, Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom. Small groups are possible (I did it with students who were in China!), but one-on-one works very well. It’s probably best to have some opportunities to communicate more freely in spoken or at least text-chat. But, obviously, your time is limited for setting up and executing one-on-one contact with students. Consider having “office hours” that provide a window when students can contact you.
Work Backward and Define a Quantity of Work
Think about what work you want your students to do by the year’s end. Maybe it’s a final project the includes some reading, workshopping, drafting, revising, and presenting. Once you define that work, build the schedule backwards to allow for the necessary steps to accomplish that work. Your current course schedule may work perfectly well for this process. But think of each week in terms of student production: what work do I want my students to complete in this week? If we have ten weeks, how can you divide the work that must be done into ten parts? [If it’s useful, I can work out a ten-week calendar for an imagined FYW course. Final work would be due during the exam period. Drafts are likely due about two or three weeks before, allowing time for interaction and informal presenting of projects, including peer feedback and possible online conferences. Any readings should happen early on and include postings that are not just responses but that also model the kind of writing you want to see in the formal projects. Clear guidelines are important.]
Don’t Overrate Your Brilliance as a Verbal Communicator
Again, I do not recommend promising real-time online “classes.” Feel free to try, though. My advice is to have at least two or three required moments of significant interaction/response each week. If you feel compelled to share your prepared thoughts with students, either record a brief video lecture or lesson, or compose a text/worksheet for students to read. [Videos in online courses should rarely exceed five minutes.] The gist of the course is student writing; use assigned reading and regular student posting, annotating, projecting as the measure of how the course is going. Try to avoid predictable, unchanging formats for students work (e.g., discussion posts that simply ask students to “respond”).
Google Docs and Forms Are Helpful Tools Pay attention to the affordances of each varying technology. For example, many of us still require Word files for drafts because Word works well for annotation. But Google Docs are great for shared, collaborative work: anything from conference sign-up sheets to shared bibliographies to open-ended collaborative writing. And Google Forms are fantastic for helping organize and standardize student responses. (Forms are essentially collection mechanisms that allow for some narration along the way, such as: In the space below, develop your own example of what Ceraso calls “multimodal listening.”)
Share, Share, Share
As you can tell, I favor a very open course that leaves most of the work that students do open to other students. This has always been the ethos of UConn FYW courses, and, despite so much cultural momentum toward privacy and separation, I think it’s still essential that student work in-process make up the bulk of what you look at and discuss in FYW. You may find, as I did, that online, written communications are actually more engaged and interactive than the sometimes stilted or pro forma face-to-face conversations.
Multimodal composition is now a component of FYW courses, and, for many, it works fine even in online form. For example, students can still create and post photos, sound files, videos, or graphics. But if the changeover to online teaching makes multimodal composition too difficult for the kind of course you are running, you can choose to downplay it in this version of your course.
There’s really so much more to say, and it can help to get to specific examples. We should address, too, the issues with students and accessibility. Are all your students able to get online with something more than a phone? Much of what I’ve written here applies to on-campus teaching but may leave out important factors. Please keep me abreast of the challenges you are facing.
As you’re likely aware, UConn’s ENGL 1010 and ENGL 1011 are in the process of being replaced by a similar course that includes some new emphases mostly having to do with multimodal composition and digital literacy. This change will happen in 2020-2021 at Storrs, but we in ECE will have at least an additional year (and probably two) with ENGL 1010 and 1011. The new course at Storrs is really two connected courses, ENGL 1007/1008, that add up to a single 4-credit unit. Once the 1007/1008 courses are in place, 1010 or 1011 will no longer be offered. [It’s complicated, but try to understand the 1007/1008 combo as a single 4-credit substitution for 1010 or 1011 with many of the same goals and practices.]
We might think of the changeover to ENGL 1007/1008 as essentially a revision of FYW courses that can happen within already existing shells of 1010 and 1011 but which will receive a new name and number in time. The changes are not massive and can be made as updates through ongoing course development. However, there are some specific revisions we have to make, and these revisions raise at least two major questions:
Does 1010 and 1011 content translate to ENGL 1007/1008?
What is the “studio” component (and how can one prepare to teach it)?
1010 and 1011 Content
The first issue shouldn’t be a problem for any course that meets the current guidelines for 1010 or 1011. The central content of FYW courses remains student writing. The assigned reading (or listening, viewing, etc.) helps establish a course inquiry (a set of related topics or questions) through texts that provide content, vocabulary/concepts, impetus, and, occasionally, models for student inquiry. Because FYW courses support cross-disciplinary inquiry, course texts likely vary in genre, mode, or approach. With many (probably most) topics, some “cultural texts” (fiction, film, music, digital media, etc.) can play a valuable role. So, yes, some literary texts can certainly be assigned in 1007/1008. We will do what we can to provide guidelines for transitioning 1011 courses to the new FYW model. But, as has always been the case, no FYW course, even today, should be presented as a traditional literature course with an emphasis on coverage of a genre, period, or author or an exclusive emphasis on literary studies.
The Studio Component
The biggest change to FYW courses is the requirement of a multimodal composition/digital literacy studio component. At Storrs, this is a distinct one-credit component (ENGL 1008) led by faculty other than the instructor of record for ENGL 1007 (the three-credit core course). At Storrs, this studio section will take place in a different space (the studio) and at a different time from the three-credit portion of the course. For regional campuses and ECE sections, however, these two parts are combined into one four-credit course which includes the multimodal/digital literacy component. Most regional campus or ECE sections will not make use of a separate studio space for this work. The “studio” in these cases will simply be the classroom itself.
Studio Pedagogy Resources
Those who attended the 2019 ECE English Summer Institute might remember Steph Ceraso, whose work on sound was central to our audio-featured day. Her work ia a great resource for linking theory to practical pedagogy (and a big part of my current class). I’ve included a link below to a webtext she and Matthew Pavesich put together with a professional designer that explores some implications of shifting a writing course into something closer to a studio model. I’ve also added two links to briefer overviews, including the UConn FYW page.
Matthew Pavesich, “The (Design) Studio Approach to Teaching Writing.” Here. [Studio pedagogy briefly described.]
Steph Ceraso and Matthew Pavesich with Designer Jeremy Boggs, “Learning as Coordination: Postpedagogy and Design.” Here. [A more extensive and fascinating article (with photos).]
There are advantages to having both parts of FYW combined into one course both at a practical level (scheduling is easier) and at a pedagogical level (the studio component arguably has more purpose when joined to the specific work of the course itself). However, we need to take on the responsibility for providing a studio component that is recognizable as an equivalent to the Storrs model, both in terms of time and content.
Time (One Fourth of the Course)
Maybe it’s easiest to think about providing the one-credit portion of the course as a complementary but still somewhat distinct element of the course, something akin to how you might describe conferencing or peer review (as specific components of your ongoing course). And, to make this component fully visible to students, you might consider marking off one quarter of the course as specifically designed for studio work. One model would be to have every fourth class session as a dedicated studio day. This could create a pacing similar to that at Storrs. If your class sessions are much shorter than the 100-minute on-campus versions, you might cluster two or more days around studio work.
What happens in this dedicated fourth of the course is still open to development and discussion. I will continue to share more material related to this as I learn more. Two suggestions:
Use the dedicated time to develop digital or technical competencies/skills that support the intellectual work of the other three credits. So, for example, if you’re teaching a course that includes a visual or graphic dimension in at least some student work, use some of the studio sessions to practice using visual or graphic tools.
The studio time can include technical or exploratory work that has only indirect usefulness for the ongoing projects in the 3-credit part of the course. In fact, students may benefit from occasional divergence from the course inquiry. I have had success with modules designed to be completed in a single class session, including sessions dedicated to photography, infographics, interviewing, audio response essays, walking/mapping, collage, and more. I hope to develop a shared folder of modules with varying focus that we might all contribute to.
Truly, 1008 is not a course in digital media production skills. We’re providing less an expert’s guide to using digital tools than a critical engagement with the rhetorical affordances and constraints of more than written text. Storrs is providing workshops and we will do what we can to glean from these. We will also continue to have sessions dedicated to multimodal composition and studio pedagogy in our conferences and summer institutes.
A tip: the digital products of FYW courses might be presented as prototypes that could (in theory) be taken up by media production specialists. That is, our students’ work does not need to have the sheen and polish of a finished project. It’s more important, for example, that they are able to hand draw a rhetorically effective image than artfully render a pointless image.
We ask that you continue to develop the multimodal component of your 1010 or 1011 courses with an eye toward this changeover to the new courses. By fall, we would like to see all 1010 or 1011 courses include explicit reference to a multimodal component that makes up approximately one quarter of the course. But there will still be time to adjust and tinker over the next year or two.
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!
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.
We are introducing a new feature to the ECE English website. Each semester we will feature an ECE English teacher’s writing assignment or in class activity as a way to showcase and celebrate the excellent work our teachers and students are doing in ECE. Do you have an assignment or activity you’d like to share? Please email ECE English at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On a rainy Friday afternoon, I sat down with Susan Laurencot in her classroom at Montville High School. Laurencot has been a certified ECE teacher since 2015. I asked her what originally drew her to the ECE program.
“[ECE English] has freed me up to be more creative with my kids, and it has allowed me to make a case against formulaic writing.”
Laurencot participated in the Connecticut Writing Project (CWP) Summer Institute when she was first certified as an ECE teacher. During the CWP Summer Institute, she researched writing without a formula, and says this was a primary inspiration for the development of her ECE English course.
Currently, her course is interdisciplinary with ECE History. Titled “What Haunts Us,” the class explores the lingering consequences of major historical American events.
One writing assignment she shared with me asks students to consider one of those lingering consequences, what Laurencot calls a “critical issue,” from the expansion of the American West. This is a multimodal assignment, and student work gets posted to Laurencot’s blog Raise Your Voice. Students also write a reflective piece in which they explain and defend their design and composition choices.
Laurencot explained that she wants students to be intentional when it comes to multimodal writing: “Don’t just add a photo because this is a ‘multi-modal’ project. Why did you add it? How does it enhance the reader’s understanding of your topic?”
She resists providing prompting questions in order to encourage students to move away from formulaic writing. Instead, Laurencot wants them to be motivated by their ideas, and more importantly their audience.
Typically, a student’s audience is their teacher. With a multimodal assignment like Laurencot’s, the audience is extended beyond the classroom with the use of hashtags. Each student has to research hashtags that define or target the audience they’re interested in reaching. For example, one student blog post titled “Feminism: How Centuries of Negative Connotation Continue to Haunt America” uses the hashtags #WomensReality, #EverydaySexism, and #IAmANastyWoman.
Another student wanted to challenge herself by giving a presentation in the style of a live TedTalk. The student’s critical issue was sexual assault against women, particularly native women as the class had read Tracks by Louise Erdrich. For her presentation, the student set a timer on the large smart board in the classroom without explaining why. During the presentation, the timer would go off and the student would reset it, again and again. At the end of the presentation, she asked the class if they noticed how many times the timer went off. According to the student, every time the timer went off another woman was sexually assaulted in this country. It was a powerful performance, and an example of how multimodal encompasses the gestural, as well as the digital and analog.
I asked Laurencot if students immediately embraced this kind of assignment, or if they were hesitant about moving away from the traditional essay.
She laughed and said, “They’ve heard rumours, ‘Laurencot does not like formulaic writing!’ So they’re a little bit unnerved. Kids are like, I can’t write like that.” Laurencot acknowledges that it’s challenging for some students to leave the formula behind, but also incredibly rewarding for student and teacher alike.
One change Laurencot would make to this assignment in the future is to encourage students to compose multimodally for all of their writing assignments. This year, students tended to see multimodal as a discrete assignment, instead of as a way to approach composition in general.
Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts in the Classroom
Our conference this spring was inspired by Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. Collaboratively written by Linda Adler-Kassner, Elizabeth Wardle, and many other composition scholars, Naming What We Know determines and describes the threshold concepts of writing studies.
A threshold concept is troubling, transforming, and transferable. It is troubling because it challenges commonsense ideas; it is transforming because once we understand a threshold concept, we can’t go back to how we used to think; and it is transferable because it can be used in multiple disciplines, as well as outside of academia.
We used Naming What We Know and it’s five major threshold concepts (and thirty subconcepts!) to organize our ECE conference. Each breakout session engaged with a major threshold concept of writing studies. For example, for the threshold concept “Writing is Social and Rhetorical,” we began by investigating commonsensical notions of writing and writers. We did a Google Image search of “writing” and “writers.” “Writing” yields images of disembodied hands using a pencil. Images of “writers” often show a single person, usually older, white, and male. Oddly, they’re using a typewriter or fountain pen. It takes some scrolling until you get to someone using a laptop. We discussed how these images communicate an idea of writing as isolated, clean, and exclusive; in fact, as the threshold concept demonstrates, writing is collaborative, messy, and all of our students are already writers. Part of our work as writing teachers is to challenge received ideas about writing. But how do we do that? How might these threshold concepts transform our teaching of writing?
Each breakout session adapted an assignment or activity that in some way speaks to their threshold concept. The threshold concept “Writing Takes Recognizable Forms” describes the necessity of writers to evaluate their rhetorical situation in order to choose, adapt, and/or create the appropriate genre. One group of teachers described an assignment where students are tasked with creating a teen health magazine about authentic student health issues. This assignment asks students to work within a known genre (the magazine) and adapt it to speak to their peers. Students learn the conventions of magazines–the values and practices the genre enacts–as well as how flexible genre can be to the needs of writers and readers. In the breakout session on the threshold concept “Writing is a Cognitive Activity,” participants explored the relationship between writing and the brain. One proposed activity for introducing cognition or metacognition into the writing classroom is to have reflective writing assignments that asks students to consider the affective domain of writing. Another proposal was to ask students to record themselves composing, perhaps using screen capture. This would direct students to consider how their writing is a way of thinking; how their writing shapes their thinking and vice versa.
All of these activities were shared during a large group discussion just before lunch. You can find more about threshold concepts and the activities we brainstormed at the ECE English website here. Click on the Session Materials folder to be taken to slides made by each breakout session. I’ve only highlighted a few examples of threshold concepts in the classroom here, but you’ll find many more in the slides. We also provided a brief overview of the developing Writing Across Technology (WAT) curriculum in First Year Writing.
The day ended with a meeting of the interest groups. In the multimodal interest group, we discussed the specific challenges facing ECE teachers when incorporating technology into the classroom. It was a very productive conversation for sharing workarounds, but also brainstorming how these challenges may be addressed in the future.
Thank you to all the participants and presenters for a wonderful day!