Finding Materials Online

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

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

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

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

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

The Instructor Journal

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FYW courses are not lecture courses, and there’s really no need to convert complex, exact discourses over to an asynchronous form. That is, the world will keep turning if your many great points about a particular reading or topic are not featured the way they might be in a face-to-face class session or in a lecture. And yet, we do hope to model a kind of active, winding, never quite finished discoursing. The seminar nature of the course asks us to devise ways for students to practice this ongoing experimentation with ideas and texts. And most of your online course is likely concerned with collecting and circulating (and responding to) student writing of this various nature. As a consequence, the documents we produce for students (announcements, assignment prompts, etc.) should be economical and brief whenever possible. So where should instructors do their thinking?

I’ve had great success with a simple Google Doc that I update from time to time (usually about three times per week). Call it a Journal or Log or something more interesting than that. (When my course had a posthumanist angle, I called this occasional journal “Rhizomes” (a collection of lateral shoots). I like “Penumbra,” too.) In any case, I put a link to this document on the HuskyCT page sidebar, and I often link to it in announcements or assignment prompts. But I make it clear that this is not a required component of the course or a set of “clues” for someone seeking an A. Not everything in school is quantified and weighted for practical use.

Here’s what students see at the top of the journal in my current course:

Q. What is this?

A. The “Notes and Journal” page is a place where I will routinely go to explore the ongoing work of the course, often providing context for things happening on the HuskyCT or Google pages or following up on things that have come up in our work together. Because we (for the most part) will lack class sessions, this is a place for me to annotate, embellish, or wander. You don’t have to read it, but it is meant to provide some of the “talk” that we won’t get in class. And I hope it helps me keep other parts of the course more direct—less wordy. We’ll see.

It’s just as important to keep a similar space for students where they can raise issues or jot down informal thoughts. Forums and drafts and collaborative, shared documents may already provide this. And, if you do set out a space for students, be sure to check in with it regularly (if, in fact, it is set up for you to see).

Audio Feedback on Student Writing

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My colleague, Tom Deans, professor of English and the director of the Writing Center in Storrs, has for years used audio feedback as a mode for responding to student work. It’s quick, relatively low tech, and easily individualized. As with any shift in mode, moving from written comments to audio feedback comes with some gains but also some losses. For example, I like to model writing for students, and written comments, especially end comments, often demonstrate considered, composed prose. But if I’m honest with myself, my comments are just as often hastily composed, and, as decontextualized moments of typed response, they can sometimes miscommunicate tone or emphasis.

Moving courses online reduces our contact with students, and audio feedback is one relatively easy way to bring our voices back into the mix. Maybe now is the time to experiment with using audio feedback. But please remember that some students may still prefer or need written feedback, so be sure to ask them.

Here’s Tom’s description of how he does audio feedback with a link to a brief and useful resource.
When I introduce it at the W Teaching Orientation I do it within the context of all the standard advice for responding, written or audio, but I cite some of the findings of Jeff Sommers: that audio is particularly effective with formative feedback and that students pretty consistently report liking it. I share some of my recent response recordings, which range from less than a minute for one-pagers to 5-8 minutes for most papers, and how I do it: read through paper once; gather my thoughts on 1-3 major revision points; hit voice memo on my iPhone; record; then email the mp4 directly from phone.
Here’s a brief, teacher-friendly short piece on this topic: 

Taking ECE/FYW Courses Online

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In what follows, I discuss asynchronous online teaching. Synchronous teaching (teaching in “real time”) is pretty close to impossible with no preparation, and I advise against it, other than for conferencing. I am also assuming that online teaching will go beyond two or three weeks. Maybe we’ll be luckier than that. 

Machine switches

Teaching FYW Online
I designed the online version of ENGL 1010 and taught it for three summers. I found that online teaching of FYW actually yielded student work that was as good or better than that of my face-to-face classes. (YMMV.) Especially because this transition is happening very quickly and without preparation, focus on four major streams of work that can bring the course together:
  • Use a Learning Management System (such as HuskyCT). Even if you have been using an LMS space for your courses, make sure that all students are comfortable and able to check in and contribute regularly. Review your posted materials and organize, add, and revise to make materials as accessible as possible. You might want to put up a new document (a kind of second syllabus) to articulate the goals, sequence, and resources for the remaining portion of the course. 
  • Communicate (very) regularly. I found that much of the in-class teaching that vanishes in online versions of the course can reappear as regular updates to students via an announcement that appears as both an email and as an archived text. Although I “talked” much less in this form, what I wrote to students helped me practice framing the work of the day in legible terms, and it stayed available as a resource. My communications often began as updates on “where we are” and proceeded into one or two ideas about the projects-in-development, often with examples. Whenever possible, I featured student work. 
  • Use Discussion threads (or blogs or Google Docs or other platforms) that require regular writing from students AND interaction with/response to each other. Use these, too, to share drafts, and ask that peer review happen according to whatever forms or procedures you use via email, with a CC to you. 
  • Use some synchronous elements. If you want to “meet” with students, use Webex, Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom. Small groups are possible (I did it with students who were in China!), but one-on-one works very well. It’s probably best to have some opportunities to communicate more freely in spoken or at least text-chat. But, obviously, your time is limited for setting up and executing one-on-one contact with students. Consider having “office hours” that provide a window when students can contact you. 
Work Backward and Define a Quantity of Work
Think about what work you want your students to do by the year’s end. Maybe it’s a final project the includes some reading, workshopping, drafting, revising, and presenting. Once you define that work, build the schedule backwards to allow for the necessary steps to accomplish that work. Your current course schedule may work perfectly well for this process. But think of each week in terms of student production: what work do I want my students to complete in this week? If we have ten weeks, how can you divide the work that must be done into ten parts? [If it’s useful, I can work out a ten-week calendar for an imagined FYW course. Final work would be due during the exam period. Drafts are likely due about two or three weeks before, allowing time for interaction and informal presenting of projects, including peer feedback and possible online conferences. Any readings should happen early on and include postings that are not just responses but that also model the kind of writing you want to see in the formal projects. Clear guidelines are important.]


Don’t Overrate Your Brilliance as a Verbal Communicator

Again, I do not recommend promising real-time online “classes.” Feel free to try, though. My advice is to have at least two or three required moments of significant interaction/response each week. If you feel compelled to share your prepared thoughts with students, either record a brief video lecture or lesson, or compose a text/worksheet for students to read. [Videos in online courses should rarely exceed five minutes.] The gist of the course is student writing; use assigned reading and regular student posting, annotating, projecting as the measure of how the course is going. Try to avoid predictable, unchanging formats for students work (e.g., discussion posts that simply ask students to “respond”).

Google Docs and Forms Are Helpful Tools
Pay attention to the affordances of each varying technology. For example, many of us still require Word files for drafts because Word works well for annotation. But Google Docs are great for shared, collaborative work: anything from conference sign-up sheets to shared bibliographies to open-ended collaborative writing. And Google Forms are fantastic for helping organize and standardize student responses. (Forms are essentially collection mechanisms that allow for some narration along the way, such as: In the space below, develop your own example of what Ceraso calls “multimodal listening.”)

Share, Share, Share

As you can tell, I favor a very open course that leaves most of the work that students do open to other students. This has always been the ethos of UConn FYW courses, and, despite so much cultural momentum toward privacy and separation, I think it’s still essential that student work in-process make up the bulk of what you look at and discuss in FYW. You may find, as I did, that online, written communications are actually more engaged and interactive than the sometimes stilted or pro forma face-to-face conversations.

Multimodal Composition
Multimodal composition is now a component of FYW courses, and, for many, it works fine even in online form. For example, students can still create and post photos, sound files, videos, or graphics. But if the changeover to online teaching makes multimodal composition too difficult for the kind of course you are running, you can choose to downplay it in this version of your course. 

What Else? 
There’s really so much more to say, and it can help to get to specific examples. We should address, too, the issues with students and accessibility. Are all your students able to get online with something more than a phone? Much of what I’ve written here applies to on-campus teaching but may leave out important factors. Please keep me abreast of the challenges you are facing.

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!