Wednesday, June 18, 2014

IWAC 2014: Meaningful Writing

More from IWAC 2014 today! What a wonderful conference!

This time I'm going spend some time considering the presentation by Anne Ellen Geller, Michele Eodice, and Neal Lerner about the Meaningful Writing Project, a massive grounded theory study that questions what makes writing assignments meaningful to students and how faculty that have composed these meaningful writing assignments think about writing and writing pedagogy. This particular presentation was focused on the latter.

Disclaimer: I have a very positive bias towards the panel I'm going to write about in this post. I strongly believe in the importance of student-centered research when it comes to describing student learning experiences. I love to hear the voices of writers and educators; narratives are exciting. I also admire an approach that works from a strength-based concept of student learning experiences rather than a deficit one. And of course, Anne Ellen Geller is my dissertation chair, and one of the most kick-ass women I know (for lack of better words).

During the presentation, the team of scholars asked audience members to consider, through writing and discussion, their most meaningful writing assignment. They followed this up by sharing interview responses from three professors whose assignments had been nominated as most meaningful by students involved as participants in the Meaningful Writing Project.

Their big takeaway for the day was that there was no magic formula for a meaningful writing assignment, but that there seemed to be something about student-faculty relationships built into these assignments that shaped their reception. How teachers saw students and how students understood the role of that particular professor really had an impact on how that assignment was done--something I've seen in my own research.

My Meaningful Writing Assignment

In the meantime, what I really want to share is the thinking that I was allowed to do within the context of the discussion of the research. As I said, faculty audience members were asked to consider what their most meaningful writing assignment was. Here is what I wrote:

My favorite writing assignment is the Write for a Change assignment in my first-year writing class. It's a multi-part project where students begin by thinking about what they want to change in the world, no matter how small or big (I encourage them to think locally and consider the ripple effect-- what change could you actually implement?), and then to find a way to advocate that change through writing. First, they write a proposal that includes what they want to change, what form they will use, who their audience(s) is, and why that form and audience is most effective for causing change. Then, they actually all do their projects. They go through a multi-draft process with peer review, but as the projects vary, they can also vary greatly in the drafting process. Some people are writing pieces of websites, some are writing chunks of script, some are doing multiple marketing/PR-like pieces, etc. I typically  have the whole class read each of their proposal drafts and workshop as a whole class. At the end, they each do a very brief presentation on their final project, which sometimes includes the showing of short films or presentations.

The learning goal is to get students to use what they have learned about writing to help them achieve personal goals. I want them to think about genre, audience, and writing as a social transaction. I also want them to learn to use research in real-life scenarios, not just a research paper, and see how it actually part of life beyond academia.

Students only get a grade on this project if they turn it in as part of their final portfolio, as I use contract grades throughout the semester. I give extensive feedback, though. Typically, students are passionate and do a great job. It is hard to assess sometimes, though, because projects can be so different.

I love seeing students learning to use writing to empower them and to help create a better world, in whatever small or large way they think that is. I like giving students opportunities to vent their frustrations, but also learn how to deal with them in productive ways. It is hard to assess them, as I said. I also find it frustrating when students think picking an "easier" topic will get them a good grade. Inevitably, they become bored over the course of the month-long assignment and don't do as well as they would have if they actually thought about what they wanted to change, rather than what they wanted to get in the class.

Students are asked to see the way writing can be used in other contexts based on their own personal view of the world. They have to research and figure out how to do things/forms they may not be familiar with or information they didn't know before that they will have to communicate. They're also being asked to learn writing terminology, such as form, genre, and audience. 

The second part of that process was to talk to a colleague and then to think about what similarities we saw in our assignments and experiences. I really enjoyed hearing about the work a colleague, who I had only met the night before, was doing with her history students, and I saw how, though very different from my own, her assignment also focused on getting students to think, make connections, and engage with the course content. We both agreed that an indicator for a "good" assignment was typically that we were excited to read the student products.

My Meaningful Writing Project

Finally, something that we weren't asked to formally consider, but I couldn't help but think about was their interview question for faculty-- what was the most meaningful writing assignment of your undergraduate experience?

That question was hard for me. I had lots of great writing experiences in college, which is how I wound up teaching college writing. As an English and Communications major, I was always writing. I do see that some of the best writing experiences I had, though, were maybe not the best writing I did, but the ones that let me think about things in new ways or the ones where the professors engaged me in the feedback process. So what were those meaningful writing projects for me?

I loved my independent research project on Children's Fantasy heroes, not only because it was an impressive feat for an undergrad and well-received by others at the school's research conferences, but also because I learned so much from the mentorship process. For example, I didn't know how accept information that didn't fit a box or examine the complexities before this project, but in a one-on-one meeting, my professor explained how that worked. I felt the same way about my poetry independent study, where I worked very closely with faculty and another student who was doing short fiction.

On the other hand, I also loved putting together the final portfolio of public relations writing for an imaginary fundraising event in my Public Relations for Non-profit class, even though I had far less, if any, interaction with the professor one-on-one. It was different, and it was fun. I don't remember the grade, but I do know that I left feeling like I learned something valuable, applicable to the world outside of class, and actually, to this day, I use what I learned while putting that project together whenever I write an email, a memo, web content, or other professional writing genres.

These experiences definitely shaped how I have gone on to teach my own students. I really like project-based learning, and I try to make myself available to students as much as possible, to act as a mentor or role model where possible. For the most part, I came from the same place as my students, nearly literally, as I teach in the same classrooms where I was taught as an undergrad, and I want them to see that my success is not the result of some magic gift of intelligence, but of applying myself, connecting my passions to my school work, and of being willing to put in the time to do something exceptional rather than mediocre. In these ways, I see again how my concept of the ideal student-faculty relationship shapes my assignments. I can also see how understanding what I consider meaningful as a student and a teacher will have an impact on those relationships.

With all that said, the Meaningful Writing Project has a great website:, and the work is set to be published in book-length detail sometime in the near future. I highly recommend everyone read about the methods, the findings, and the interesting stories involved in the research, if for no other reason than to reflect on your own experiences with meaningful writing.

Monday, June 16, 2014

IWAC 2014: Considering "Discipline"

As promised, I'm diving into some of the things that the 2014 IWAC (International Writing Across the Curriculum) Conference presentations prompted me to consider. Today, I'm going to talk more about the wonderful talk given by Melody Pugh, Naomi Silver, and Anne Ruggles Gere called "Interrogating Disciplinarity in WAC/WID: An Institutional Ethnography."

The scholars framed the discussion around what began an institutional review of the Upper Level Writing Requirement (ULWR) at their university, which lead to interviews with faculties and students about their expectations and experiences with these ULWR. What they found was a real struggle with defining disciplines/disciplinarity and whether their concepts of "writing in the discipline" would actually serve students. Many students and professors expressed a desire to explore more genres, but felt that was outside the bounds of "writing in the discipline," which largely seemed to boil down to write academic-journal-style papers. They also recognized the tension between forcing students to learn to use disciplinary writing as a researcher in the field when most of them would not be going on to do that type of work. Students questioned value while professors questioned ethics. It was extremely interesting.

The trio will likely continue working with the extensive data and perhaps publish some of their findings, so I don't want to give away all of their secrets, but I do really want to use their work to think about what it means to be "in the discipline," as they asked the audience to think about. What does it mean to "write in the discipline"? Is "the discourse of the field" only the work published in journals and books? Where do disciplines start and end? How does the way we conceptualize discipline affect how we assign writing?

I thought some of the audience members' questions and comments were very insightful. Here's just a few:
  • Would it be better to consider disciplines as centers rather than closed-off spaces with boundaries?
  • Is the WAC/WID version of disicplinarity just a selling model that positions us in a power relation  over other departments?
  • Is the WAC model more useful than the WID model? Does wider help, or is "honoring of the occasion more helpful"? 
  • It seems that when we consider disciplinarity in writing courses, we get the rhetoric and epistemology stuff, but we seem to miss the "activity systems" part. How can we/should we be more focused on activity systems in the disciplines?

As I prepare my own Writing in the Disciplines course, where my uses of multimodal texts have been minimal and semi-traditional in that they are fairly linear and usually called "papers"-- write a blog, use a screenshot and hyperlinks in an essay, etc.-- I wonder how my own notions of disciplinarity have shaped and possibly limited my students' learning experiences. I thought they should be learning to write as scholars in their disciplines, learning to mimic the style of academic journals, and that there were other types of writing courses to prepare them for those other types of writing (business writing for memos and executive summaries, for example), but I'm not sure they really are getting it elsewhere., especially if this narrow idea of discipline is pervasive throughout the university.

Though I say I focus on genre diversity and teaching students to address contextual/situational elements, I'm now beginning to question my own understanding and application of these terms in my pedagogy. Am I simply (as a panelist said in another presentation) "putting old wine in a new bottle"? What are the alternatives that come with a new definition, especially one that would be more focused on disciplines as centers or conscious of activity systems?

I will be teaching Writing in the Disciplines again in the fall, and while I thought I had pretty much got my syllabus together, I'm now prepared to go back and scrutinize the application of my conception of "discipline." I'm also considering how I can informally replicate some of the work these women did, finding out what they expected from a course called "Writing in the Disciplines," what they learned that was unexpected but valuable, and what they wish they had learned. Suggestions are much appreciated!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

IWAC 2014: Where did the currents take me?

I just returned from the 2014 IWAC (International Writing Across the Curriculum) Conference at the University of Minnesota, and I have to say it was one of my best conference experiences yet. The presentations were engaging, the people were open and friendly, and Minneapolis was a great city.

During my brief two days there, I managed to sit in on 5 panels, one in which I presented, a keynote, and an incredible plenary session. In truth, it made me a little sad that I'm not a WAC WPA because I would have loved the opportunity to implement some of the ideas that were discussed at the universities where I am involved in writing pedagogy.

The Panels

Here is a brief overview of the titles of the panels that I attended:
  • Role Reversal: When Students Teach Faculty in WAC Programs - Deanna Daniels & Brandy Grabow, Kate Ronald & Lucy Manley, and Greg Skutches
  • Writing Beyond the Curriculum - Nicole Papaioannou, Dan Reis & Caroline Klidonas, and KaaVonia Hinton & Yonghee Suh
  • Interrogating Disciplinarity in WAC/WID: An Institutional Ethnography - Anne Ruggles Gere, Naomi Silver, & Melody Pugh
  • Teaching Meaningful Writing: What Faculty Say About Writing Assignments in Their Disciplines - Michele Eodice, Anne Ellen Geller, & Neal Lerner
  • Multimodal Literacy: Writing, Reading, & Transfer - Andrea Glover, Maggie Christensen, and G. Travis Adams
I will take some time to address the larger issues in each of these panels in separate posts, but I wanted to recap some of the big questions that I've started to ask as a result of these panels and some of the discussion that followed. I picked one large question that was sparked by each.
  • Does the campus culture empower students?
  • How can on-campus organizations make use of student writers and also enhance student writing?
  • How do we frame disciplines? Should we moving toward a theory of centers rather than a theory of boundaries?
  • What makes a writing assignment meaningful?
  • Should we shift to a WRAC model (writing and reading across the curriculum)?
These questions may be brief in text, but responses are complex, and the ways in which those responses shape student learning experiences and faculty development are important.

The Plenary

The plenary session focused on creating sustainable WAC programs and was led by an A-team of scholars-- Chris Anson, Kathleen Blake Yancey, Chris Thaiss, Linda Adler-Kassner, and Bob McMaster-- who role-played how they would deal with a failing, under-resourced WAC program (a very cool divergence from the traditional plenary talk). Anson would propose scenarios, building the complexities facing the school bit by bit, and the 5 others would respond on the fly. They did not know what they would be asked beforehand.

 As some who hopes to be a WPA one day, I was really intrigued by how the scholars embodied the different thought processes, concerns, and strengths of each individual involved in a WAC initiative, ranging from department chairs to WAC directors to provosts to students. I thought, aside from having a bit of fun, they were incredibly in-tune with those that they served and incredibly empathetic. It helped me see what I might come up against should I someday be invited to try to enhance or save a WAC program.

The speakers reminded the audience that sustainability went beyond a current context and a current moment and planned for the future. The solution also had to be built within the framework of the local context with input from all stakeholders (as much as possible, that is). Top-down initiatives would feel imposing and oppressive and often fail to effectively use the strengths of the parties involved. Collaboration, where possible, is a wonderful thing.
The most important things I took away were:

  1. Understand the campus climate and be prepared to work within it, even if the aim is to change it. No model is one-size-fits-all when it comes to campus writing initiatives.
  2. Be sensitive to people's fears and frustrations. See challenges as moments for reflection, negotiation, or collaborative education.
  3. Bring joy into the work. Focus on the pleasures of learning from one another and the pleasure of writing.
What seems evident from these talks and discussions is that the people here really care about their students and their colleagues. While many people were doing serious research, it was easy to see how much of it could be put into practice and was largely aimed at contributing to a positive learning environment for everyone involved. IWAC really made me excited about the work I'm doing, the field that I intend to contribute to, and continued interactions with the people who I am privileged to call my colleagues. I'm looking forward to (fingers crossed) attending again in 2016.

I would love to hear from IWAC-attendees about their experiences at the conference and from those interested in campus writing initiatives what to make of some of these big questions and themes.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Back to High School: What Do High School Students Want to Know About College Writing?

Yesterday, I had the distinct pleasure of visiting 7 high school senior English classes with three of my colleagues from the writing center. Our mission was to introduce high school students to the world of college writing before they got there. It was a great day, and I really enjoyed getting to learn what high school students thought about college writing.

While we prepared a great handout that talked about being context-appropriate, making arguments, and campus resources, etc., we wound up turning our original formal lecture with some discussion plan into a Q & A session. Our icebreaker was to have each student write a question or something they'd heard about college writing down and put it in a basket. Then we would read a few anonymously and discuss in conjunction with our planned lecture/handout. This wound up being the heart of each presentation, which tackled most of the stuff we had written down for them anyway.

I thought it was really a great moment. We saw how much high school students already knew and what they feared most. Here are some of the most asked questions:
How much writing is there? 
Is college writing really hard? 
How long is a typical paper in college? 
How many research papers will I write in a semester?
How serious is plagiarism?/Is it really important to use MLA citations?
Of course, most of our answers came with a "it depends" disclaimer, though we told students that they should expect to write in every major and that it was "harder" but only in the sense that it was more advanced (like high school had been in comparison to junior high). My colleague explained that work was scaffolded, typically, and that they wouldn't be expected to write 25 page papers on day one and that different disciplines had different approaches to writing. She also explained that college writing was like going to the gym-- on day 1, no one picks up the 100-lb. weight, but with time, we can lift much more than expected. We reminded them that they were students, and that they were there because they had something to learn, that they shouldn't be discouraged if they didn't find immediate success, but be open to constructive criticism and learning experiences. We also encouraged students to be proactive and to talk to their professors when they had questions or concerns.

Some of the other things they heard about college writing weren't as easy to respond to. For example, one student said something along the lines of "I heard college professors are biased and will grade you poorly if you don't agree with their views." We had to say that, though this wasn't the majority, it was at times true. We  also explained that teachers were people and that inflammatory writing would likely be met with inflammatory grading and that they would have to work harder to prove something they knew a teacher wouldn't believe to be true on the surface. We encouraged students not to go in with the attitude that their teachers wanted them to buy into whatever they thought, though, and to stand by what they were passionate about while being aware that they might have to work hard to make others see their perspective sometimes.

We also had students ask, "Will essay writing be useful outside of school?" This was my favorite question, of course. The one thing I really emphasized was that they needed writing in life. They might not need to write essays, but they would need to be able to show people how their logic process worked and to provide evidence for their claims. They would also be able to use writing to help them reflect and record, something oral communication couldn't do. It was necessary to help them make sense of complex ideas in class and help them succeed in the professional world, but also to be able to change the world in the ways they wanted to. This seemed to resonate with them.

Aside from the advice we offered them, I really learned a lot about how much high school seniors know, how much high school English has changed since I graduated high school 10 years ago, and also how little has changed since I was in high school. The students were still a little immature, loud in the hallways, chatty when they first walked in, etc. At the same time, they were engaged in the conversation about college writing. Their teachers were showing them how to write something other than the five-paragraph theme essay, giving them more non-fiction texts to read, and talking to students about analysis and critical thinking. We were expecting shock when we said you could write something other than five paragraph essays, but there was none; they already knew. It seems like they are better prepared for FYW and college-writing than I was.

Meeting with the high school seniors makes me look forward to teaching FYW again next semester, and of course, I hope they all find success in college and beyond.