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.

Spring 2019 Conference

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!


Anon, they fierce encountring both concur’d,
With griesly looks and faces like their fates
But dispar minds and inward moods unlike.
—Thomas Hughes, The Misfortunes of Arthur (1587)

When I first started to explore the partnerships that my university writing program had with local high schools, one phrase that got my attention was “concurrent enrollment.” It was a foreign-sounding term, with hints of bureaucracy. At first I favored the related term “dual enrollment” to characterize this negotiation of high school and college curricula in one place. Surely dual nicely describes these two things happening at once. And, in emphasizing two elements, one can stress balance as the appropriate skill in managing the work.

It didn’t take me long, however, to see that an instructor of one of these courses faces far more than two elements. Within the same class, an English instructor may have to address a school-wide focus on a specific theme or activity (e.g., a scholarship application or a letter of thanks), a state-wide emphasis on particular texts or articulated skills, a nationally produced exam such as Advanced Placement, the university-driven FYW curriculum, and more. Other forces include parents, school boards, program coordinators offering suggestions, seemingly endless curriculum reform and development, etc. No, “dual” is overly simplifying. And, after a foray into the OED  and some reflection on what it means to “concur” or to be “concurrent,” I warmed to the term concurrent enrollment as having much greater potential for truly capturing the many elements flowing through these courses.

The epigraph above includes one of the earliest uses of the term, “concur,” a meaning which at the time had a much greater element of clashing, contesting forces than today’s almost polite associations with concurring. “I concur” can signify an absence of debate or “dispar minds.” But the earliest definitions of “concur” included: “To run together violently or with a shock” and “To run together in hostility; to rush at each other.” In time, our more placid, cooperative use of the term has become primary, but we should not completely forget or elide the trace of chaos in the “currents” of these relationships. Concurrency, which suggests flows of water, money, or electricity, has a more dynamic quality, a suggestion, too, of power or of burgeoning force.

When I think of what we are trying to do in these courses, I favor a discourse of circulation and extension rather than one of balance or equivalence. Dual enrollment sounds like compromise. We should not look at these partnerships as sites for simply moving college courses to high school sites, as if doing so could happen without consequences. Concurrent enrollment more fully describes the running together of sometimes competing and contesting forces that have the potential to produce something more powerful and more active because of their combination. Balance may be out of the question, and some chaos may be inherent. But concurrency at least marks the attempt to link and enable something that cannot exist without this experimenting.


A First Post (Introduction)

The world does not need another blog, so let’s not call this one.

And, anyway, most blogs lose steam quickly if they are just a one-way communication from a source to an audience. As faculty coordinator of UConn’s Early College Experience English courses, I communicate with teachers through emails, official ECE documents, and at conferences. Why do I (or we) need yet another place to store more commentary?

Well, I wanted to have an informal “meeting place” where conversation might come out of our experience with teaching these courses. Our ECE English program is massive, and I feel like I am still only just beginning to glimpse and appreciate how ECE teachers harmonize the various requirements and suggestions that come from UConn, their home schools, AP, school boards, and more. Part of my work in 2017 includes getting a much closer look at the ECE courses themselves, including student writing. When I see something in a course that seems exciting, fresh, or just insightful in some way, I hope to, with permission, comment on what I see or have that teacher write a word or two about this aspect of the course.

I do also expect to use the site as a place to “say more” about things I have said in more official places. The teaching of FYW courses continues to evolve nationally and at UConn, and I will want to comment on those things. Early posts will likely reflect more of my own thinking. But I want to foreground collaboration and what teachers (and students) are doing in ECE whenever possible.

Things on this site might change as I learn more about what can or cannot work, but, at this point, my goals in setting up this site include providing a forum for:

  1. Ongoing discussion of the teaching of writing in First-Year Writing courses, especially UConn-branded FYW courses. This includes the circulation of ideas and practices that are currently working in our ECE sections (as well as issues and constraints that we face). Ideally, much of the material in this space will come from teachers themselves.
  2. Ongoing discussion of high school teaching as it relates to college-level writing and general education requirements at UConn and elsewhere.
  3. Further articulation and annotation of evolving program-specific policies.

Finally, because the university-provided WordPress sites attract armies of spambots, the comments section of these posts is turned off. Please contact me with any suggestions, comments, or questions. I will be sure to post relevant discussion followup when it comes to my attention. Thanks for reading!