Rhetoric, Literature, and Conferences, Oh My!

Reflections on Our October Conference

What is the relationship between critical thinking and the personal, between our contexts and the intellectual work we do in the writing classroom? Our conversations at our Fall ECE Conference often explored the kinds of writing we ask our students to do and the extent to which those arguments serve them in both their educations and, more broadly, in the development of their interactions with the world around them. In the morning session, we met as a large group to discuss small excerpts of student work taken out of context in order to talk about what we see happening in that work and how it makes us think more deeply about the ways we discuss the genres of our students’ work. As we went over these excerpts, we wrote anonymous responses in a web-based program, “Padlet,” regarding moments we found interesting and the audience and genre of each piece. Each of us could see each other’s responses as they came in. Part of the intention of recording these responses was to ask ourselves to think about the ways we read student writing and to reflect on the ways we write assignments.

In that spirit, then, there were a few trends that came from both these responses and from the conversations we had during the session itself: the common terms we use to categorize student writing, as well as the problems those categorizations pose for those of us who are both instructors of literature and of writing. A number of terms came up multiple times: analysis, synthesis, argument, academic (audience/argument), and lens. In some specific examples, there were times where people seemed to not only agree with one another but also take up their terms; when one or two people identified the genre of a piece as an op-ed, for example, many soon followed.

What might these terms tell us about our practices and the ways we read student work?

While some responses and terms varied throughout, there did seem to be a general, common vocabulary that we were drawing on. The linking of two texts, such as Rodriguez and Pratt’s “Arts of the Contact Zone,” we often identified as “synthesis.” While it may seem obvious to us, it seems worthwhile to then ask, what does “synthesis” mean? What is its rhetorical use in writing? How might it gesture at some sort of larger stakes beyond the boundaries of our assignments? Linking two texts together might allow us to discover something new or interesting about each piece, potentially, and this might be its value to us as instructors of literature. At the conference, however, we also asked how students might be able to connect to, or make use of, the texts by using them to talk about higher-stakes issues.

In other words, while we might value synthesis and close, sustained analysis, we can also frame synthesis and analysis as rhetorical tools that allow our students to critically engage with and explore complex ideas. How might an analysis of Slaughterhouse-Five allow our students to think more deeply about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? About the effects of war, and the role writing might play in speaking about or to those effects? Why might arguing that Rodriguez’s memoirs could, perhaps, be considered an autoethnography be something intriguing, inspiring, or exciting? We spent the end of the session thinking about how we can encourage our students to use the valuable things they notice in and across texts to address larger issues – such as, for example, asking students to compile an anthology of excerpts about World War II aimed at veterans and write an introduction to the anthology. What synthesis or analysis looks like will differ depending on the rhetorical particularities of the assignment and each student’s approach to it – in other words, their audiences, the medium, the mode, and their goals/purpose.

For those of us who are instructors of literature, we are, of course, invested deeply in the worth and value of literary texts. Many instructors also have to contend with having to fulfill a certain amount of content each academic year to ensure their students either meet curriculum guidelines and/or are prepared to take an AP test. At times, then, it becomes challenging to balance the demands of the content of the course (literary texts) and the deep work of writing that First-Year Writing courses prioritize. First-Year Writing asks students not to write about texts (whatever genre those texts may be), but rather, to engage deeply with and explore the practice of writing itself, to approach writing as a complex process through which we can encounter and expand on complex questions, particularly as First-Year Writing offers a groundwork of writing and critical thinking practices meant to be cross-disciplinary. If our students need to read Frankenstein, what kinds of questions about the world, various cultural assumptions (for example, regarding gender), scientific practices, etc. might they be able to write towards? What kinds of arguments is the novel making, and how might our students expand on them in new and interesting directions in their 21st century contexts? What kinds of writing can they do that might serve them broadly in future writing practices?

This kind of thinking, I’ve found, has also helped shape my approach to teaching content-based literature courses not housed under First-Year Writing. My initial approach asked what texts they would be expected to read, ensuring I was teaching what I was ‘supposed’ to. However, when I taught a survey course on Poetry, my class consisted of forty students, many of which were not majors. So I had to question my own assumptions about the role of the course. I not only asked, “what kinds of poems will they be expected to know?” but I also asked my students, “why are these the kinds of poems others will expect you to have read in a course on poetry?” Moreover, I asked them to consider the rhetorics of poetry – how it makes use of sound and space, how it both overlaps with and differs from various kinds of speaking, knowing, or writing, how it intervenes into larger cultural arguments. Literary texts don’t need to be static, and we can also address their historical contexts without also neglecting our very real, 21st century contexts at the same time, especially. We can also explore the ways all kinds of texts – literature, film, critical essays, websites, TV shows, etc. – engage their own kinds of rhetoric and composition, and how our students’ exploring those rhetorics can affect their own writing practices.

Several of the excerpts seemed to speak to audiences outside of the field of literary studies. Many found excerpt 2, a reflection on differing cultural practices surrounding food between the United States and China, “authentic” as opposed to other excerpts, although some felt it demonstrated a lot of bias. Similarly, excerpt 3, a strong statement against gender-coded graduation gowns, was seen as contributing to conversations beyond the more specific boundaries of academia or the classroom, but again, some found the tone overly contentious. We might ask ourselves how our students imagine themselves speaking to the outside world and what rhetorical choices they’re making; what sorts of discourses might they be drawing on or mirroring in writing these pieces? Both pieces included use of the first person; in excerpt 2, the student referred to themselves in order to make claims about their own culture. In excerpt 3, the student referred to a “We” in order to establish that they were referring to a whole community. I remember the first academic paper I wrote that sought to fill in what, to me, was a pretty big oversight in the conversation on a Renaissance poet’s work – I recently revived that piece in hopes of publishing it, and realized that I was performing the voice of scholars I had read, trying to match the perceived rhetorical situation of my argument. As a young scholar, even one in his MA, I drew on the tones of voice I was familiar with and attempted to imitate them, still trying to understand how differing rhetorical situations might my affect my writing. Students might be drawing on examples of the genre they’re writing in, ways they’ve heard others speak about similar topics, or their own understandings of how their audience expects them to respond (particularly if they believe their primary audience is us, their instructors).

These students may indeed have been writing in their own voices, and many in the comments on excerpt 2 found it authentic, as I noted above. Nonetheless, these students’ rhetorical situations (both imagined and real) have led them to make certain choices about what they’re presenting, what contrasts they’re drawing, the way they engage with evidence, and what point they’re hoping to make (however we might evaluate the “success” of each student’s draft). We should question and critically think through our own assumptions about our students’ perceived rhetorical situations. Interestingly, for example, there were mixed responses to the fourth excerpt, a video essay taking up Baudrillard’s assertion that “the Gulf War did not take place” – perhaps since it was a video, the various references may have been difficult to catch, but many felt that it had the tone of a “conspiracy theory.” Perhaps it was something about the statement that “the Iraq War did not take place,” the use of images, and the calm tone of the student – either way, that the video was taking a complex idea from a text and using it to then explore a wider issue (the portrayal of war more generally in the media, and how this applied to the Iraq War specifically) was not generally accounted for. It seems crucial, then, to question our own assumptions about various modes of composition – if we assign our students to write an op-ed, why? What kinds of rhetorical moves will they practice, and how do we talk about them with our students? How will they build on a complex conversation? If we ask them to write a video essay, what are our assumptions about voice-over videos? How can we account for those assumptions as we write assignments?

These are all fruitful questions that have no definitive answers – but, as I balance writing an intensive literary dissertation on Romantic poetry and my work in the often separate field of Rhetoric and Composition and writing program development, they’ve proven particularly generative for me in the weeks since the conference. I hope that we can continue reflecting on these questions and practices moving forward.


I Talk Fast

Podcast speed indicatorSometimes my students will tell me I talk too fast. And they’re not wrong. Blame coffee, nerves, my many years spent in New Jersey and New York, or just my usual state of edgy excitement. For whatever reason, I get a high word per minute count when I am teaching. I can promise to try speaking with more measured, spondaic, or prosed deliberation. And yet—and there’s always an “and yet”—there’s something worth considering about the many ways we try to cheat the careful cadence of prepared discourse. In speaking, we often look for ways to thwart the simple left-to-right, top-to-bottom linearity of writing. In simple terms, I think we are looking for ways to say many things at once.

If I’m feeling grandiose, I will compare this to John Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” phase, where he would play as rapidly as he could to suggest chords that, as a saxophonist, he could only arrive at in series, one note at a time. Play these notes fast enough, and they sound like chords.

Stylistically, there are lots of things we can do to play “chords” with our language. I am a big user of the long series of related elements that forestalls closure with conjunctions, commas, em dashes—like this one—, shifts of gear, perhaps taking a moment to remind of the “and yet” in the paragraph above, parentheses (I will sometimes use brackets, too), and whatever else to prevent the sentence from ending; semi-colons can keep the momentum going as well. I want to allow for options and variations in response, and I can’t know what an interlocutor or auditor will choose to take up. Would you like me to call this prose: juiced, like Proust, or At the Royal Roost? Maybe one of these references will work for you, so I’ll include them all.

In written academic discourse, we have footnotes, quotations, winking allusion, direct reference, and all kinds of signposts and gestures for helping a reader choose paths other than the one spelled out by the linear progress of the text’s consecutive sentences. Likewise, the more literary uses of the essay, characterized by digression and the observation/collection of heterogeneous materials, are experiments in saying many things at once. Sometimes, even, an unexpected second section will emerge to mark a shift.

I started this chain of thinking because I have been watching student presentations and noticing that even the best prepared, thoughtful, and productive of presentations often leave other students looking beleaguered and grumpy. What I noticed was an impatience with linearity, a desire to paddle more quickly down whatever prepared river of discourse the presenter was offering. I’m reminded of a surprising conversation I witnessed (via Twitter) about how “no one” listens to podcasts in normal speed now, preferring 1.5x or 2x speeds to better take in the information of these podcasts (many of which in this case were essentially academic lectures). My class watched a Vox video recently that had a similarly amped up audio track. Hyperspeed, manipulated audio is all around us, and I suppose my question is how writing (or even talking) will keep pace. Does even a seminar conversation feel like slow-motion to students raised in a post-talk world?

We can and we should experiment with design and typographical elements to suggest speed and plurality (like this amazing Futurist book). And we’ve got to keep talking about plain, old writing as a still workable technology. But my interest at this point is with sound’s capacity for conveying layered, multiple, flows of information.

In the next few months, I’ll be working on a project that explores elements of creativity and composition through a musical/pedagogical partnership I’ve been developing. That is [he writes, attempting a second pass at similar information], I want to provide forums for experiments with sound, music, and composition that are simpatico with our ongoing FYW work. I’m sure to ask for collaborators soon enough, and I hope to run the Fall 2019 or Spring 2020 conference around this topic. In the meantime, let’s keep talking (rapidly, at the same time) about what’s possible.


***I didn’t really work a reference into this post, but I should mention this remarkable book that has been a support for some of my recent thinking about sound and writing pedagogy. Take a look or listen when you get a chance. You can even download chapters in podcast form so you can listen to them at 2.0 speed.

On Using Infographics in a Composition Course

An infographic about infographics.
A home-made starter infographic. Click on image for full-sized PNG file. 

Skeptic that I am, the whole business of using infographics in a writing course seemed suspicious, unwelcome when I first considered it. Sure, who doesn’t like to punch up a text with some visual flair or some bold typeface choices. And, yes, I see these things everywhere, often in police stations, post offices, and the dreariest corners of the public library. The term “infographic” is off-putting to me, a space-age portmanteau word not too far from “edutainment” or (*shudders*) “chillax.” Can’t graphics be informational? Isn’t information often in graphic form? Do we need a special word for this? And don’t get me started about the inertness of the word “information,” which too readily suggests frozen over Truth rather than a content to engage with critically.

However, at the Digital Media and Composition institute (DMAC, or band camp for writing program administrators), we were introduced to infographics as a mode of composition, and, to my surprise, I quickly became convinced that the very crudeness of the genre could be an asset, that the ham-fisted mechanics of making an infographic via templates might aid rhetorical awareness. That is, because those of us who are not artists or designers require templates—and free ones at that—to make infographics, the almost prohibitive constraints of apps like Canva require a profound awareness of what is not possible. It’s a little like trying to write a paragraph with only the first 12 letters of the alphabet; you can do it, but you’d better put aside your dreams of eloquence. In a strange way, this boxiness is liberating. Our charge is not to teach students professional media skills (heavens, no) but rather to ask what happens when one’s work takes another form. How might you take an aspect of a project you are working on and communicate it to a potentially different audience in this alternate mode? 

I’m not a fan of templates, schema, or universal rules for writing. You won’t find They Say, I Say in my teaching toolbox because the last thing I want to do is settle the question of what’s possible. Genre may be built out of expectations, but this doesn’t mean that each new iteration doesn’t in some way revise that expectation. Templates for infographics, especially those on that small list of free models to draw on (steal from), do feel like sturdy, finite forms. But as a single-class diversion from the openness of the ongoing project or as a way to feature rhetorical appeals and design, I think the infographic can work. I look forward to the conversations about aesthetics that this mini-project opens up. And I’m hopeful that some students will have talents in this area that add things to the class beyond my ability to do so. 

As the visual designer said to his funding source, “we’ll see.”  


About 18 students. Facing each other in pairs. Students leave cell phones in netting at front of room. Lots of physical support for the work of the course, including desks that are mobile, a pleasant room space, a crate for collecting work, the aforementioned netting, and a very wide range of images, texts, maps, signifiers on the walls—[the teacher’s] degrees and college info, some runners’ racing bibs, wigs and crowns (for dramatic performances), a whiteboard with today’s lesson, a map of Greece/Crete, and lots of photos of students. An enormous paper roll about three feet wide. [Update: yes, those are specially chosen curtains, too.]

—Excerpt from site visit notes


One of the new, small traditions of ECE events is my sharing with Kim Shaker the title of a completely obscure but wonderful movie I’ve just seen. I’m a Filmstruck proselytizer, and I can’t help talking about, say, Vera Chytilova’s Daisies (wow, drop everything and watch this tonight) or The Lure (described on the site as a “genre-defying horror-musical mash-up…[which] follows a pair of carnivorous mermaid sisters drawn ashore to explore life on land in an alternate 1980s Poland“). Today I’ve got Agnes Varda’s Mur Murs on my mind. And, yes, it has something to do with teaching writing. I’ll get to that.

My classroom

In the first part of my place-based 1010 course, we examined our campus buildings and grounds. What should an academic space be? was a key question driving our first projects. Also: Who is academic space for? With bell hooks’ essay, “Keeping Close to Home: Class and Education,” and a few other readings, we looked at our campus and explored hooks’ claim that education should be “the practice of freedom.” A frequent point that students made was that our clean, new spaces lacked a feeling of “home.” One student compiled images and descriptions of a student union space at CCSU that functions like a lodge or den, where students can be informal, eat, and watch television (her hierarchy of “freedoms,” not mine). But a second student was even more focused on classroom space, and she argued that the blank white walls of our classrooms communicated a cold, modular indifference to the character of the conversations and work going on in these spaces. She asked why her high school classrooms had been so wonderfully “homey” while the college rooms are so blank.

I had certainly noticed the difference between high school and college settings in my visits to various high schools. My epigraph describes just one of the high school classrooms I’ve visited recently that feels quite different from the arid “multipurpose” room I’ve documented in these photos. But I had never before considered how regional campus students—as commuters—share something significant with their high school counterparts: their sense of community, if they have one, largely comes from what happens in their academic spaces. Residential students at places like the Storrs campus have dorms and dining halls (and a lot more) to build community. (We are familiar with the trope of the college student decorating a dorm or even painting a rock to establish a sense of home or belonging.) I’m envious of the ways that high school teachers transform school spaces into worlds infused by contributions they and their students have made to the classes (so much posted student work!).

When Agnes Varda made Mur Murs, she was living away from home—in California, not France. And she was estranged from her husband. A companion film to her fictionalized, personal story in Documenteur, Mur Murs turns outward, to the stunning public murals painted throughout East Los Angeles. The paintings are massive and often magnificent; I can’t hope to describe them. Most feature people from the community, the artists in most cases overtly countering a feeling of being underrepresented in more conventional art. The murals reclaim and remake space. As Varda puts it, “in Los Angeles, I mostly saw walls—murals as living, breathing, seething walls. Murals as talking, wailing, murmuring walls.” Varda, we can see, finds solace and stimulation in these interactions. Her camera adds yet another layer of connection and documentation.

My classroom (detail)

I’m not about to bring paint to my classroom. I don’t think a 100-foot collage of “the forgotten people” (striking workers, soldiers, nurses, etc.) would go over well with our campus administration. But I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to see our courses as performing a similar kind of community building. To an extent, the work we’re doing in composition is a territorialization—of texts, of academic topics, and of spaces. And often multimodal composition makes this work of reclaiming and remaking more apparent. It was the photographing of our campus that led to these first thoughts. And now, deeper into the semester,

most days include time spent with students projecting work—often photos, maps, and sometimes drawings—onto these blank walls. One student has recently been photographing the tiny, stressed public library spaces in Hartford’s South End. Another has been showing us images of open space that has been fenced and padlocked. I show them a particular building that I photograph every day. The writing and conversations are better when we’ve populated our walls with images and texts that we’ve selected. It doesn’t last long, and the dazed look that students have when the lights come on isn’t entirely about adjustments to light. But it feels, too, like we’re getting past the blank page.

10,000 Steps Forward

I’ve spent the new year devising a completely rebooted ENGL 1010 course, one that fits better with the new location of my campus and with the ongoing developments in UConn’s FYW program. It’s a little unsettling to work with entirely unfamiliar texts, assignments, and processes, but I like the “clean sweep” feel of starting fresh.

I’m trying to take on the call for more attention to multimodal composition, and I’m encouraged by the examples I’ve seen—at Storrs, Hartford, and ECE sites. But I’m aware, too, of how open these terms, multimodal composition, are. It’s a little like getting the suggestion from your physician that you should “add a little exercise” to your daily routine. Sure, I could order a $3,000 RunJumpLift Contraption and drop it in my living room. But maybe I’ll just, you know, walk a little more.

I consider the multimodal wrinkles I am adding to my course a textual version of “walking a little more.” I say this for two reasons. First, I am primarily thinking of multimodal composition as a continuation of work I and my students already do. We write academic essays, which, at their best, take their force from a back and forth between evidence and exploration. Quotation is a kind of technology, a device for bringing other voices—contextualized and transformed no doubt by our work of appropriating them—into the conversation we’ve set up in writing. Similarly, other modes of “capture” such as sound recording, photography, or mapping can extend our understanding of how we might bring the world into our work. Composing, in this sense, is a collecting of evidence that is not just described but also experienced, at least in some clearly still mediated way. So, to return to my metaphor, I’ve added steps to my daily walks—seeing a little more of the park, say, or another block of a road I’ve spent less time on. But I’m not (yet?) throwing out furniture to make room for an all-new apparatus.

In another more tangible sense, I am walking a little more, literally, with my new course. Because we’re involved in a place-based inquiry (“What’s Behind Front Street?”), we are exploring the walkable periphery of our downtown campus, using photography and mapping (and text) to tell the story of our discovery process. This movement through space is buttressed by a set of readings, videos, images, and guest appearances that introduce conversations and arguments about cities and people. Michel de Certeau, for example, tells us that “Walking affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses, respects, etc., the trajectories it ‘speaks’.” Or, from Jane Jacobs: “Any single factor about [a city] park is slippery as an eel.” Although some students may well pull things together into a recognizable academic essay (now with photos!), I expect others to find this more embodied encounter with people and places a poor fit for the familiar forms of the academic essay. No longer just copying quotes from an assigned text as “support,” they have a more unwieldy and multivalent collection of materials. How they compose them becomes a more urgent question. And, if the experience of considering options for design and execution of their projects for 1010 yields some insight into the need for ongoing critical reflection, the time spent wandering in the city will have been worth it.

In time I expect to make more decisions about how I’m defining multimodal composition and what I hope to see with it. I want to add a more actively creative dimension. In the last year, at site visits and in on-campus classes, I’ve often been impressed with student creativity and ownership—presentations with unexpected elements like hand-drawn images, short videos with humorous narration, or one student’s improvised Shakespearean soliloquy, written in 15 minutes but performed, brilliantly, to a rapt class.

At this point, I’m trying to bring a lot of the work back toward a reinvestment in evidence gathering and exploration. Take a look, for example, at this amazing example of an essay discussing digital maps by a cartographer with a deep understanding of both Apple and Google Maps. There are so few words in this carefully argued, wonderfully composed demonstration. And yet, here I am, piling on words within the limitations of this Aurora website (where the images are blocky and the line lengths are too long). I’ve included some images, however, to suggest how I’m taking my first steps toward a more multimodal presentation.

The Ethos, Logos, Pathos Lesson—or, the Question of “Content” in First-Year Writing Courses

Here’s an easy question: If a math teacher teaches math, and a geography teacher teaches geography, what does a writing teacher teach?

Writing, obviously. Like I said, an easy question.

Or at least it seems easy until we consider it alongside another question: Does a math teacher teach math and does a geography teacher teach geography in the same way that a writing teacher teaches writing?

What does it mean to teach writing? A math teacher—we’ll just send our geography teacher to the capital of New Zealand for now—might have her students learn theorems and formulas. Is there an equivalent of theorems and formulas in ECE English classes? Should there be?

I would say that as writing instructors we do have some conceptual frameworks and sets of terminology that can play a role similar to the math teacher’s theorems and formulas. For example, ethos, logos, and pathos. Or the rhetorical triangle, to offer another example. A student can memorize and learn to use these conceptual frameworks in the same way that he can memorize and learn to use a2 + b2 = c2.

But writing isn’t algebra. It isn’t geometry. (It may be calculus, but let’s leave that idea for another post.) So what is the point of portable neat little concept-constellations like ethos, logos, pathos and writer, text, reader?

First, let me argue in favor of portable neat little concept-constellations. I like them a lot. As someone who thinks about writing often—and often has to discuss writing with other people—sets of terms like ethos, logos, pathos help me to recognize aspects of writing that I likely would not have noticed otherwise. It’s like putting on my ethos, logos, pathos glasses. When I wear them, I can see these different concepts in practice.

Sets of terms and conceptual frameworks aren’t just glasses. They’re also the elements of a language that allows me to discuss writing precisely with students and other instructors. Without this language, it would be difficult for me to offer useful feedback. It would be difficult for students to communicate with one another about their drafts or write reflectively about their writing.

But sometimes when I wear those glasses, the big plastic frames block certain areas of my vision even as the lenses help me to see other areas very clearly. If I never take them off, I may even forget that there’s much more to be seen than what is visible in my (admittedly sometimes very useful) EthosLogosPathos-Vision.

And sometimes when I speak my ethos, logos, pathos language, I suddenly find myself trying to express a concept for which the language has no word. But I’m so used to this language that I use to discuss writing—I think in it, I dream in it—I fool myself into thinking that it’s not the language that’s deficient but rather the inexpressible idea. So I push it away.

For these reasons, it’s important to treat our writing-related sets of terms and conceptual frameworks as tools. Depending on the particulars of a situation, a tool may be productive. But a hammer’s no help for cleaning glass. We have to remind ourselves and emphasize to our students (when we introduce them to these tools) that they aren’t always productive—in some cases, they may even be limiting. And when they do start to hinder how we think about writing, we have to be ready to cast them aside and engage openly and flexibly with a writing project.

It may be the same way in real-life math or geography. I don’t know. But that’s certainly not the case for my straw-person math teacher with her theorems and formulas. We do things differently than she does. And when it comes to the teaching of our straw-person geography teacher, we’re on a whole different continent.

For further (and less flippant) reading about possible roles for “content” in writing courses, I highly recommend Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing by Kathleen Blake Yancey, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak. (With your UConn credentials, you should have access to the book in PDF form through JSTOR.)

Thirty Pages

My essay’s like a flock of birds,
It’s almost at 9,000 words.

It’s hard to have a conversation about UConn’s First-Year Writing courses without falling into a debate about how to gloss that most stubborn of lines in all of the FYW canon, that often featured phrase in trochaic pentameter:

 Thirty pages of revisèd writing.

It’s a line that’s been scanned and interpreted by scholars and pedagogues. There are the more orthodox literalists, who read it as a plain requirement to assign thirty pages of revised writing in each FYW course. There are the more liberal interpreters, who see it more as a guideline or recommendation that might flex to meet the needs of a particular situation. And, typical of English departments, there are the “philosophers,” who, drawing on theory from the ‘90s, argue for a ruthless critique of reified generalities. These anxious souls point to the absurdity of “pages” in a course that increasingly depends on digitally-created and circulated work, noting, too, the weirdly flat emphasis on a fixed quantity of writing rather than, say, quality or purpose. (“Positivists,” they exclaim, “there is no greater abstraction than this falsely ‘concrete’ criterion!”)

But enough about me. Let’s take a look at how this phrase is interpreted in the most recent Handbook for ECE English:

Thirty Pages of Revised Writing
Although expressed as a minimum page requirement, the impetus for this element is a desire to have all students in FYW seminars share similar experiences in composing and revising several major writing projects throughout the course. The nature and genre of the writing may shift and develop across multiple assignments, and some instructors may use a wider notion of project or composition that includes something more than just a quantity of pages (e.g., a multimodal assignment).

There’s something in this description for any FYW teacher. We might notice a shift away from sheer quantity of finished writing to an emphasis on project and composition. These terms allow for a more expanded notion of productivity in FYW, and both suggest a heterogeneity of “parts” within a larger goal. One’s project might include drafts, proposals or presentations, ancillary or complementary work, or a whole range of activity that includes writing. Likewise, a composition puts attention on how an assemblage of parts might come together for a particular purpose. In more explicitly articulating the work of the course as an ensemble of diverse modes of engaging with the world, we make room for a conversation in the course about what writing is and how it functions.

Speaking as a fellow teacher of these courses (and not as the arbiter of an exact policy), I will say that I continue to see the value in posing the course in terms of a small number of larger projects (e.g., essays plus a wide horizon of supports to and extensions of these essays). That is, I see the course as a site for pursuing a small number (3-5?) of larger clusters rather than, say, a long series of unrelated weekly assignments. “Project,” for me, connotes something that takes a fair amount of time and ambition to see through. Similarly, I prefer sequenced assignments that build on one another throughout the course.

It’s probably still meaningful to think about the relative work it takes to achieve the most conservative reading of the guidelines, those thirty pages. If I’m asking students to produce an audio clip or a graphic, how is this comparable to producing prose paragraphs? How do I support and evaluate this work? Do I simply subtract a certain number of required pages to make room for this other work? Do I combine, say, presentations and final drafts into a single grade? These are questions that, in a mature writing program like ours, are sometimes best left as questions, as negotiations between students, teachers, and writing program administrators rather than settled dogma. These are rigorous courses, requiring substantial work from students (and teachers). But, at this point, we needn’t count pages like Keats’ Beadsman, telling his rosary with “frosted breath.”

Stefano Della Bella, Thirty Archers and Thirty Pages (1633)

From Classroom to Constellation

Let’s, for a moment, imagine a fairly typical nightmare scenario for a writing instructor: a sudden increase of class size to 50 students. Of course, many instructors already have 50 or more students in total, but I am talking about 50 in a single course. My goal here is not to advocate for such a system (!) but rather to consider how a more sudden quantitative shift might necessitate a significant rethinking of instructor work that might not otherwise happen through the steady drip, drip of small, incremental class size increases.

Filippo Marinetti, A Tumultuous Assembly. Numerical Sensibility.

Our partners in other courses and departments have faced these numbers before, and the “solution” has often been to drastically curtail student productivity to that which can be sorted through standardized forms (like quizzes and tests) or truncated into a few minutes of discussion at the end of a lecture. Although most academics have, at fancy colleges or in graduate school, experienced (and now mourn the loss of) the seminar format, with its student-driven lines of inquiry and its long-form writing projects, the typical college course is still primarily modeled on content mastery that can be demonstrated through testing or in very formatted, conventional writing.

What I want to discuss here, instead, is an experiment with large-scale courses that might still be project-based and student-driven. Accepting that such a course can even be taught is a contentious, even obnoxious claim, perhaps, and, what’s worse, it can seem that I’m flirting with a model of teaching and learning that is complicit with the worst elements of educational corporatism. So, for the record, let me be perfectly clear: I think the ideal class size for writing course remains somewhere between 12 and 15. Within this range, you have enough voices to establish heterogeneity of outlook and experience, but you also have few enough projects to provide detailed feedback over many drafts. And, of course, you get to know students much more readily. A larger or much larger class size strains the capacity of an instructor to provide support for all students, and, in time, usually either necessitates a dismantling of the seminar model or unfairly impinges on the instructor.

But let’s get postprocess here and work within the constraints of our imagined situation. The class size question depends on an understanding that an instructor’s work is finite and that each added student subtracts from this finite sum. And, in terms of direct, one-to-one feedback, this is surely true. The pressure some teachers feel to live up to an often tacit but deeply felt standard of individualized feedback can be enormous. Too often, lengthy written comments on student drafts serve as markers of instructor diligence and time spent (see how much I cared about this one draft?) rather than an effective use of instructor time given the real conditions of many writing courses. So let’s exacerbate those conditions with our experiment with 50 students so that there can be no illusion that a modestly retooled pedagogy will work. What needs to happen, instead, is a remaking of student and faculty expectations for a writing course.

We can ward off that culture of guilt without capitulating to a model of standardized and rigid teaching and learning. But, to do so, we have to acknowledge that the courses themselves must change, and sometimes radically. Some of the things an instructor might need to do in this situation include:

  1. Break the expectation of instructor feedback as primary.
  2. Put responsibility on students to become readers of each other’s work. Sure, we already share drafts, but much more can be done to foster collaborative invention and response within the class itself.
  3. Put responsibility on students to co-author some projects. Consider class-wide composition.
  4. Design courses as environments for interconnectivity and creative composition rather than stages for performing a pre-existing repertoire of competencies.
  5. Introduce and develop key terms and concepts for reflecting on and learning from the composing that happens in the course.
  6. “Solve” the problem of audience by positing the class itself as an engine of both production and consumption. How are you contributing to the class conversation? How can you influence or change the people in the room through your work?
  7. Spend far more class time engaging with student work, openly and in detail. What do we have here? What’s possible here? What comes next?
  8. Save yourself from seeing a project in 100 versions. What a surprise to read a “final” project that isn’t something you’ve responded to before.
  9. Move the modes of communication toward audio or spoken feedback as well as alternative forms of visual feedback (up to, but not including, stickers (heh)).
  10. Ask students to become presenters and curators of their work, always situating larger projects alongside blurbs, introductory texts, working bibliographies, and brief presentations that help others see and anticipate these larger works. (Factor this assembling and presenting work into grades.)
  11. Use class time to develop and test provisional rubrics or evaluative criteria. What does successful work in this project do or look like?
  12. Give feedback that is not on a one-to-one ratio but which uses samples, excerpts, and volunteered student work.
  13. Use digital tools and spaces to more efficiently constellate and circulate student work.
  14. Use office hours or conference time for students who seek more individual feedback. (And lament the loss of more time per student.)
  15. Recognize that other colleagues who teach the other courses that students take have responsibility, too, for helping students become informed, generous, self-aware, and capable writers and communicators.
  16. Take note of what gets lost (and it is a LOT) in large courses, and advocate, when you can, for improvements and support.

You may have noticed that not much here is entirely new. What I’ve described is driven by a consideration of efficiencies, perhaps, but not all innovation must come from economic considerations. Critical pedagogy, for one example, has long advocated for the distribution of responsibility to all class members on democratic principles. Ecological composition asks us to design courses that make use of the affordances of place and technology. And multimodal composition reminds us that even academic communication need not always be lengthy prose paragraphs. Also, a lot of what is proposed here depends not only on instructors and students but on programs. If the goal of these innovations is to help writing teachers build what Byron Hawk calls “smarter environments,” the teachers themselves need to be working in a smarter environment, a site where implementing these changes is developed, modeled, and supported.

Nightmare scenario or vision of the future—tumultuous assembly or artmachine? What we know of the large class is that it is transformative. Now can the teaching we’ve been doing (and the programs we’ve been building) help us anticipate and engage with this transformation?

Piling On

Detail of Hartford Times Building

In late June, we had our first ECE English Summer Institute, a kind of 3-day seminar with a wonderful group of about 20 teachers of FYW courses. Our theme was “Composing Environments for Teaching and Writing,” which meant, in part, a focus on interrelationships between writing and our interaction with specific, local environments. We read a lot about assemblage and assemblage theory (two different things, really), and we thought about how our writing courses might make more use of our interactions with the non-human world and the understanding we gain by collecting, sorting, and assembling objects.

Because I had just a day earlier moved into my very first house, I made a lot of comments about “stuff” and its impact on my current mindset—“Do we really need all these books?” or “Does that pipe in the basement look right?” And, drawing on Jody Shipka’s words about the importance of cultivating a collector’s mindset, Anne (my wife) joked that she’s not a hoarder, she’s “enchanted by the world.” And, yes, if setting up a home is itself a kind of composition, a bringing together of already existing elements into a new space, we have—in bags and boxes in the attic, garage, and basement—resources.

In teaching composition, we sometimes overvalue clean, finite order or the “clarity of thought” that is clear because it is so abstract, so theoretical. Especially early in a writing course, and especially early in a student’s college career, it seems worthwhile to foster creativity, spontaneity, and a sense of the inexhaustible qualities of composition by asking students to be collectors and gatherers, to interact with their environment in exploratory ways and in ways that do not resolve to the simplification of “finding evidence.” Asking students to engage in what Shipka calls “rigorous-productive play” means valuing the work of writing down, photographing, recording, transcribing, interviewing, and juxtaposing.

At our new campus in downtown Hartford, we are experimenting with our new site as a resource for writing. We’ve borrowed some ideas about place-based learning from our neighbor, Capital Community College, and we’re encouraging students to consider the areas just beyond the campus, which include city streets, public buildings, historic structures, parks, cemeteries, a very complex mix of human beings, and so much more. If we want to be on the nose, we can even walk across the street to the Wadsworth Atheneum (free to students and UConn faculty) and gaze directly at a Joseph Cornell box. Enchanted, indeed.

If the individual writers in our courses gather materials from their wanderings, we can, from there, collaborate and invent through writing and composition that engages with this collection. That is, it might be wise to forestall exact matching of purpose (what’s your thesis?) with the work/play of discovery. To me, the FYW seminar shouldn’t be a course in how to write, which poses the real work of writing as a technical matter. It should rather be a course in helping students learn to have something to say, an investigation into writing as relationship, negotiation. When we place value on the collecting and gathering of materials for conversation and writing, we put students in a position to show us something and begin the process of dialogue through writing.


Work Cited

Shipka, Jody. “To Gather, Assemble, and Display: Composition as [Re]Collection.” Assembling

Composition, edited by Kathleen Blake Yancey and Stephen J. McElroy, NCTE, 2017, pp. 143-160.

The 1011 Pivot

I’ve been teaching literature again lately. It sounds, I know, like the admission of a vice (e.g., “I’ve been gambling on horses again.”) But, after so much time dedicated to First-Year Writing and writing-intensive courses, I am teaching my very first UConn undergraduate course without a “W” somewhere in its name. That doesn’t mean that writing isn’t important in this class, but it does mean that, for a change, I must prioritize content coverage and literary analysis. And yet I find that my many years of swimming upstream in promoting the 1011 mindset, writing through not just about literature, have greatly influenced my teaching of literature. I find myself teaching 1011-style even in upper-level courses. In honor of the recent passing of Charlie Murphy, I will describe myself, in this way, as a “habitual line stepper.”

Steven Roberge, Fulcrum
Steven Roberge, Fulcrum (Creative Commons)
When I’m describing how literary texts function in an ENGL 1011 course, I often mention something I call the “1011 pivot.” I use this phrase because I see the course as necessitating a shift in purpose from serving the text (writing to assert a reading of an established authoritative text) to making use of the text (writing to pursue a question or problem that extends beyond the text). Let me be clear about this: much or most powerful literary analysis at least implicitly conjures this use, this extension. But because ENGL 1011 is both cross-disciplinary in purpose and an introduction to habits of mind of academic work, its equally rigorous engagements with literary texts put more emphasis on implications, new sites, and student-driven exploration. The “pivot” moves the center of gravity of the work over toward student goals.
Here’s how I recently described it to my students:
Although it can seem that your performance in an English course hinges on what you can say about something you’ve read, consider inverting this relationship. What can a literary text help you say about something else? That is, how does the literature crystallize complex forces in ways that become useful and illuminating to you? You might review the texts we’ve read in this course. Notice how each serves as a resource for things we still think about today. Each offers expressions and demonstrations of complex social phenomena, and, as time passes, each sheds light on historical processes and transformations, sometimes unwittingly. The goal in writing with literary texts, then, is not merely to offer a “reading” of the text (although interpretation is important). The goal is more purposeful and urgent: how can you make use of this text as an instrument for engaging with the world?
I don’t suppose that FYW pedagogy will have much influence with the English courses on campus, as the faculty teaching these courses are almost wholly distinct from FYW instructors. But in ECE classes, the debate is more active and fluid, as so many teach literary studies concurrently with ECE/FYW. Those teachers who merge AP Lit and ENGL 1011 are especially familiar with these questions. Even so, it’s fair to say that all of us need to be engaged in exploring and working out our own understanding of the literature/composition relationship at the heart of “English.” How have you come to terms with the literary within composition?