Postmortems in the Composition Classroom

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt

I recently ran across an article on grading writing that began by quoting a tweet from a fellow Composition teacher that equated grading a final piece of writing with performing an autopsy on a dead body. I have desperately tried to find the article, but to no avail (if you know the article I’m thinking of or recognize the tweet being referenced, please let me know so that I may give the authors credit).  What puzzled me was that this analogy was meant to have a negative connotation (at least that’s how I read it). I by no means support a summative assessment-only form of grading. I, too, emphasize the process of writing and provide formative assessments that seek to help students to internalize the importance of thoughtful revision and careful proofreading before submitting a “final” version of a piece of writing. And, at one point, I too viewed that final version as a relic to be archived with all of the other finished pieces the student accumulated during the term. But several things have changed for me during the past few semesters: 1) I’ve switched to having students blog instead of submitting traditional word-processed essays; 2) I’ve switched to a portfolio system that allows students to select which pieces they wish to be formally graded, allowing them to revise and edit those pieces before adding them to their portfolio; and 3) I read Lauren Griffin’s “An Open Letter to Writing Instructors from a Motived Student,” which included the following eye-opening (for me) observation:

In many courses, I felt like an overworked employee at an essay factory, producing ten to twelve mediocre and forgettable papers — ones that teachers accepted as final drafts that were, in actuality, first drafts. . . . I wish that all of my instructors had challenged me to produce portfolios with five or six mind-blowing papers instead of valuing quantity over quality.

Griffen, in effect, sums up the kind of traditional method for organizing the First-Year Composition course that I had been told to use as an adjunct and everything wrong with that method: a focus on quantity over quality.

These three things have altered the way I view both the student’s writing process and their writing products, in that I now value both as equally important. For one thing, blogging allows students to view their writing as something alive; they see their readers respond to it and, often, realize that their own views of it change as a result.  Since their blog posts are living things, they can be revised and edited after they’ve been published; much like a garden, a blog needs regular maintenance, from pruning dead links to “growing” or expanding upon a previous post. Secondly, as Griffin argues, the portfolio system encourages writing students to make conscientious changes to pieces. As students read through their work in order to select which pieces to include, they often recognize weaknesses in earlier pieces because they see them in juxtaposition with later pieces. Hence, they begin to recognize their own growth and learning.

I have tried various methods for providing both formative and summative assessments of student writing, including utilizing both anonymous peer review for rough drafts and anonymous peer evaluation of finished products. This past semester, I had great success with having students submit a rough draft to me for feedback and then allowing them to evaluate each others’ finished product (these evaluations were not grade-based and had no impact on the student’s grade). The reason why I made this change was because I have realized that, especially for first-semester composition students, peer review is not as effective as I would like it to be. Even in anonymous, guided peer review, students have difficulty providing constructive criticism on someone else’s draft. Emotions are often involved, either on the reviewer’s end (“I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings”) or on the reviewee’s end (“One person said this and another said that, and I’m not sure whose advice to take”). While I think college students need to develop the ability to take criticism, writing is already emotionally fraught for them and the added emotions of peer review seem to make the writing process more, not less, difficult for many students. So, I decided to forego peer review and have students submit their drafts to me for review. While this did require quite a bit of time on my part, I think it paid off in dividends in the students’ final posts. I was able to direct their energies much more effectively than their peers could. I stuck with the minimal marking method and focused on asking questions about the students’ ideas and suggesting areas that needed further development or that seemed off-track. Students responded very enthusiastically to this method and, for the first time ever, I saw students really focusing on revising their writing (rather than the kind of minimalist adding on and editing that often passes for revision with most first-year composition students).

Unlike peer review, students seem particularly adept at evaluating final pieces. I am often amazed at how accurately their evaluations reflect the very things I would have pointed out in my own summative evaluation. I am not sure why this is the case and why they cannot do the same with peer review of rough drafts, but I decided to capitalize on it; since I was investing so much extra time and energy into reading and providing feedback on rough drafts, I completely handed summative assessments over to the students. I did perform a quick read-through of final posts in order to see how much effort the student had put into revising and editing the original draft and I did read through the summative feedback to ensure that student evaluations were accurate. Again, this system was very effective, as it removed the burden of summative assessment off of my shoulders (so that I could focus on helping with the writing process), it gave students multiple assessments of their final product, students were much more honest with each other about weaknesses in their writing, and they genuinely valued their peers’ evaluations and integrated them into their revisions and edits for their portfolio.

Next semester, I would like to add a few more layers of feedback to each piece of writing. I am considering, for example, adding a peer review session back into the process, after my own review of their drafts, to encourage a multiple-draft process. I am hoping that I can model effective feedback methods and encourage students to apply them to their own reviews. I would also like to focus more on the finished product and to integrate a postmortem of that product. I already have students write a reflection on each piece that takes their peers’ summative evaluations into consideration and establishes goals for the next piece of writing. But I would like to encourage students to autopsy their products in a much more explicit way after their emotional attachment to the piece has cooled a bit. While some may view the idea of an autopsy negatively, I see value in the process for FYC students.

Let us consider what, exactly, an autopsy is. It is, foremost, a thorough examination that seeks to determine the cause of death. But an autopsy often reveals much more than the cause of death, including diseases or injuries, both past and recent, that are not directly related to the death but that tell us more about the subject’s life and their relative health. But pathologists are not the only ones who perform autopsies. Game developers also perform postmortems. These postmortems seek to identify strengths and weaknesses in the game and to brainstorm how to improve it in future iterations. I think that having students work in groups to perform postmortems on the pieces they select for their portfolios would be an ideal way to encourage them to both value their final products and consider what they could do to add more life to each to make it an even stronger piece of writing. More than a pathologist, I’d like to encourage my students to become like Victor Frankenstein, seeking to collect the best pieces they can find in order to create something greater than the sum of its parts and imbuing it with life. But, rather than being afraid of and rejecting their creature like Frankenstein, I want them to thoroughly examine it and come to love it, both for its strengths and its faults.


Murder, Madness, and Mayhem: A Role-Playing Game for First-Year Compostion


Murder. Madness. Mayhem. What new horrors lurk in the minds of men and women? Real life is scarier and stranger than any fiction. But an intrepid group of investigators are working to make the world a safer, saner place. No matter how old the crime, no matter how elusive the evidence, no matter how powerful those involved, they will leave no stone unturned in their search for the truth. They have no magical weapons with which to assault the dark things of the world. They simply have their wit, courage, and analytical skills to help them do battle with the horrors they face.

This past week I worked on summarizing the results of my attempt to integrate role-play writing into my second-semester FYC class in an article that I plan to submit for the Fall edition of Virtual Education Journal. For me, reflecting on past classes inevitably leads to a desire to begin planning a new (and hopefully better) iteration. Thankfully, I asked the students to provide me with both anonymous constructive feedback on the class and to talk openly with me about how they would redesign the class if they were taking it a second time. Their feedback had two major themes:

  • While they liked Second Life, many students felt it was too clunky and wasn’t integrated into the class in an effective way
  • Many students expressed a desire to have more f2f role-play

As I began to mull over how best to address the two issues, I decided to focus on finding an alternative to Second Life. I was looking for something with a less daunting learning curve that would allow for more challenge and exploration-based interaction. While nothing really presented itself, I did stumble upon a website that changed the direction of my thinking: Epic Words.

Epic Words functions as a portal for an RPG campaign (an ongoing storyline or set of adventures). A GM (game master) can create a campaign for any RPG and add any registered players to the campaign. The site offers several tools in one central location: character blogs, a campaign wiki, a discussion forum, quest logs, a calendar, a page for awarding and tracking XP, and the ability to create loot that can either be awarded by the GM or purchased by the players from merchants. Intrigued, I began to research the concept of campaigns and the various ways that players use tools and sites outside of the game to continue, reinvent, and hack the game.

As  I browsed through the various campaigns on the site, I began to see just how similar the RPG I had designed for my Spring 2013 FYC II class had been to one of the most popular tabletop RPG’s, Call of CthulhuTaking my cue from the game, I have started to sketch out what I hope will be an engaging and immersive RPG experience for next semester’s FYC II class, remixing and hacking the traditional tabletop RPG as needed.


In Call of Cthulhu, characters are called investigators. Players select the occupation of their character and establish their attributes via dice rolls. Like my class, the nature of the game naturally lends itself to selecting characters who would normally investigate unusual events, such as detectives, psychologists, scholars, etc. I’ll limit my students to occupations that will work with the texts we have in our literature anthology, but will allow them to suggest modifications if they wish. Students will spend some time developing their character’s backstory, creating an avatar for them, and creating a profile for them on Epic Words.


While students really enjoyed working in role-based guilds last Spring, many suggested more inter-role interaction in order to consult with experts on other aspects of their “cases.” So, this time around students will have two guilds: a home guild that will be role-based and an expert guild that will be comprised of representatives from all of the roles who will consult with one another as needed.


The quests will remain the same: students will read assigned “cases” from the literature anthology, discuss and analyze them with their home guild, and select one case to focus on investigating for each quest. They will present their selected case via a blog post, determining what format their character might choose to write about the case in (case notes, interview transcripts, a newspaper/journal article, etc.), and also read and comment (in-character) on other characters’ blog posts.

Boss Level

Last Spring, students selected 1-2 partners to work with to create a penultimate project on one of the term’s cases. While the projects they created were creative, engaging, and demonstrated a deep level of analysis, next term I plan to push the envelope even further and ask students to work in a craft guild to develop and write a piece of interactive fiction about a selected case in which the player has to take on one of the roles from the class game.


There will be no grades in the class. For some of my Spring students, this was frustrating and many of them expressed a need to be able to measure their progress and have an idea of just how successfully they were playing the game (aside from the formative feedback they received from me and their peers). Epic Words provides me with several tools that I can use to provide feedback and progress reports to students.

One form of feedback I’ll use to indicate successful completion of quest-related tasks and puzzles is XP (experience points). This has been very successful this term with my FYC I classes. While this term I’ve had to rely on Blackboard’s grade book  to record XP and provide students with a means of measuring their progress via a leader board (more on this in a subsequent post), next term I can use Epic Words, which will allow students to view their XP on the campaign’s XP page.

A second form of feedback Epic Words allows GM’s to create and award is loot, which has allowed a useful hack of Call of Cthulhu’s investigator attributes and skills. Rather than relying on dice roll to determine the attributes of an investigator, I can do so by awarding them loot for demonstrating mastery of various skills, such as research, analysis, creativity, etc. In addition to awarding them skills, I can also award them cash for participation and completing quests. The players can then use this cash to purchase investigative tools, such as flashlights, fingerprint kits, video recorders, and smartphones, from  a merchant (my merchant is called Doyle & Poe Investigative Merchants). Purchasing investigative tools will make their character more powerful. Again, all of a character’s loot can be tracked in Epic Words.


How does completing quests and collecting XP and loot translate into a final grade in the course? In order to demonstrate the quality of their work and learning in the course, students will have to submit a portfolio of their game artifacts: their best blog posts; their XP; their skills, cash, and tools; and their forum and wiki contributions. They can then use this portfolio to advocate for the grade they feel they’ve earned in the course.


Research has found that aesthetics can have a significant impact on motivation, immersion, and engagement among game players. I am planning to spend much more time on the visual design of the course than I did last term. Epic Words allows GM’s the add a background image and change the color scheme for campaign sites, as well as add images to pages. Being a fan of all (weird) things Victorian, including the neo-Victorian and steam punk movements, I think pulling design elements from these aesthetic styles will work well with the theme of the game.

Once I’ve finalized the components of the class and the campaign site, I’ll post updates here. I hope that this post inspires you to create your own RPG and/or try Epic Words as a tool for managing your games-based learning. I’d love to hear what you think of my ideas, how you’ve integrated RPG into your own classes, or how my post has inspired you to do so.

Tomorrow Never Knows: Theory into Praxis in the Composition Class

photo credit: innoxiuss via photopin cc
photo credit: innoxiuss via photopin cc

In my last post I looked backward at some of the radical pedagogical practices that worked for my students and me this past term. In this post I look forward to the some of the radical pedagogical theories I’m putting into practice.

In my recent Hybrid Pedagogy post “Bring Your Own Disruption: Rhizomatic Learning in the Composition Class,” I outline a radical (for me and my department) new theory of First-Year Composition.

My recent post here, “Extreme Makeover: First-Year Composition Edition,” outlined how I initially planned to put that theory into praxis.

My most recent vision for the organic, rhizomatic FYC course can be found in the syllabus that I created for my FYC 1 class using

I also recently blogged about my ideas regarding incorporating immersive role-play into the second-semester FYC course I’ll be teaching this term. Those initial questions and ideas coalesced into an experimental class that I hope will both engage the students and encourage them to adopt some of the practices and beliefs inherent in my new theory of the rhizomatic FYC class. As I point out to students:

In many ways, role-play gaming has a lot in common with writing. Just like dedicated gamers become immersed in the game, good writers become immersed in their writing and research. As Colby & Colby point out:

Immersion occurs because gamers learn as they play: solving puzzles, learning strategies, and meeting the challenges of the game while staying within the constraints of the game world.

Replace, if you will, the words “gamers” and “game” with “writers” and “writing” and you’ll have an accurate description of the act of writing. Gamers don’t listen to lectures on how to play the game; they learn to play the game by playing it, making mistakes, learning from their mistakes, trying again, and sharing tricks and cheats with fellow players. Similarly, as Joseph Epstein argues, “[W]riting cannot be taught, though it can be learned.” No writer ever learned to write by listening to someone lecture about how to write. Instead, they immerse themselves in the role of writer, learning how to listen, think, take notes, research, and write like a writer by trying, failing, learning from their failures, trying again, and studying other writers. Andrea Lunsford has argued that all writing is performance. If so, then writing is just another kind of role-playing game.

I am both alive with hope and plagued by doubt.

How will students respond to these classes? Will they revel in the open-endedness, the autonomy, the experimentation? Or will they balk and resist?

What risks am I taking by putting theory into praxis? It’s a scary prospect, considering how important many stakeholders (including myself) view the FYC class to be.

Drew Loewe recently tweeted:

Am I just tinkering with FYC and ignoring the underlying problems? What underlying problems does my theory ignore? How can my praxis address them?

Goodbye, Hello: In Which I Look Backwards Before Going Forwards

photo credit: Avard Woolaver via photopin cc
photo credit: Avard Woolaver via photopin cc

The Fall semester has come to an end and the Spring term is about to begin. Each new term brings with it heightened anticipation as we feverishly map journeys of discovery for our students and blueprint what we hope will be engaging and challenging learning environments. It is a strange season of flux as we look forward with one eye and backward with the other, reflecting on what worked and what failed before so that we know what to recycle, repurpose, and reconsider and what to chalk up to experience. We share much with gardeners, who spend the fallow season plotting and planning, first allowing space for the necessary and the reliable, then squeezing in some untried novelties, deciding what needs to be rotated to revitalize the soil, prepping the ground, sowing the seeds, then waiting patiently for the fruits to flower, tending, weeding, brooding, second-guessing, nurturing, assessing.

Before finalizing my Spring classes, I wanted to reflect, in writing, on some of my more experimental practices from the Fall, especially those about which I promised to post follow-ups.

In “Flips, Cartwheels, and 360’s? Oh my?” I posed the question: “What if I asked my hybrid FYC students to help design a 21st century university?” I wondered if they would be willing or able to accept my challenge. I’m happy to report that they accepted it wholeheartedly and did not disappoint me or the 21st Century Classroom Initiative Committee members who attended their presentations (more on those in a bit). I handed the class a real and intensely relevant problem to solve with no conditions or requirements attached (other than the fact that they had to be able to explain their work in 15 minutes or less). Some of the solutions that students developed were phenomenally outstanding. You can see a sampling of what they came up with at Storify.

In a subsequent post, “This Is What a Final Exam Should Look Like,” I shared my discovery of the research slam–part poster session, part poetry slam–and pondered the questions: “What if final exams looked more like [research slams]? What if students shared their learning with one another in the kind of interactive, experiential, small-group method encouraged by the research slam? . . . How powerful would that be?” Pretty powerful, I thought. And it was. Students arrived early and set up their presentations: a collage of tri-folds, laptops, brochures, and scale models. Small groups of students moved from display to display, as the presenters gave a 15 minutes or less overview of their project and answered questions from the audience. Members of the 21st Century Classroom Initiative were also in attendance, asking questions, jotting down student email addresses, asking for links to presentation materials. I wandered from station to station, filming snippets of presentations and conversations. The room was saturated with voices–discussing, questioning, responding, laughing, debating, critiquing. After such a heady experience, I don’t know that I could ever go back to the traditional final exam–those bent heads; those cramped fingers; those flat, stale pieces of paper; that deathly silence.

In “I’m Bringing Paper Back (‘Cause It’s Still Sexy),” I discussed my plans to strike a balance between the digital and the physical in my classes. I had students digitally and collaboratively annotate one of the texts we read, but I provided hardcopies of their annotations in class and had students use them to develop discussion questions. We also practiced blogging on paper first and students responded so favorably that I plan to have next semester’s classes perform peer review on paper versions of every blog post. I’m slowly falling back in love with paper, especially after reading Jody Shipka’s Toward a Composition Made Whole (which I’ve blogged about a lot recently), and I think it will be making an even bigger comeback next term.

In “Hacking Assessment: Redesigning the Numbers Game,” I continued reflecting on my ongoing battle with assessment. I considered two kinds of assessment, in particular, this past term: peer assessment and contract grading. As I reported in a subsequent post, I ended up giving peer assessment a try in my Basic English Skills class with great success, so much so that it is the primary form of formative assessment in both of my FYC courses next term. Contract grading was less of a success, though that had more to do with my lack of clear communication than anything else. Despite providing exhaustive guidelines, on the end-of-term course assessments several students expressed discomfort with not knowing whether or not each criteria was being met as the semester progressed. On the plus side, I’ve only had two grade complaints so far. I plan to improve my communication with students regarding their progress on grade-level criteria and will provide them with assignment checklists so they can have a visual representation of what they have and have not completed.

In “Remediating Remedial Composition,” I expressed trepidation with some of the radical ideas I had for my Basic English Skills class. Overall, I think the class was a success. Quite a few students disappeared (as is unfortunately typical of remedial classes), but only 4 of the 18 students who finished the class did not receive credit for it. I had to drop the VoiceThread assignment (it was technically too overwhelming in an already tech-heavy class), but the blogs turned out to be very interesting (though not mechanically superior) and I discovered another awesomely invigorating collaborative writing method in the silent dialogues I had students complete in Google Docs (another novelty that will be added to my tried-and-true writing practices).

Overall, I would rate the Fall 2012 semester a success for me, but more so for my students. There were those stellar presentations in my FYC classes giving voice to college students facing a radically revolutionized socioeconomic future and needing a radically revolutionized learning environment to prepare them for it. My Basic English Skills students made great strides in pushing themselves beyond their comfort zones and relying on one another for writing support and nurturance. And my Oral Communication students went above and beyond my expectations as they created public service campaigns that not only raised awareness of important issues but provided a means to act on those issues in positive and impactful ways. I think I’m a little closer to a system of assessment that I believe to be both meaningful and fair. I’ve discovered some awesome techniques to integrate into my composition classes and am especially excited by those that foster collaborative writing practices. And from now on I’ll actually look forward to my final exams rather than dreading and rueing them.

And so it’s time to begin a new semester and a new adventure with a whole new set of experiments and discoveries to anticipate.

“Hoe while it is spring, and enjoy the best anticipations.” ~Charles Dudley Warner

Extreme Makeover: First-Year Composition Edition

 Some rights reserved by Pimthida
Some rights reserved by Pimthida

I have decided to do an extreme makeover of my First-Year Composition course. Some things are working quite well for the students–especially blogging as the main writing forum and the portfolio system for assessment–and I’ll keep those, though I’ll be tweaking them. But there are several things that I’ve been doing that are either failing to engage or substantively help the students or that I think I could be doing better–and that may even (gasp) be doing more harm than good.

There are three texts that have recently gotten under my skin and have influenced some of the changes I am thinking of making: “Roland Barthes, Reading, and Roleplay: Composition’s Misguided Rejection of Fragmentary Texts” by James Seitz, “Against Formulaic Writing” by Gabriele Lusser Rico, and Toward a Composition Made Whole by Jody Shipka. I really recommend that you read each them yourself, so I’m not going to spend time summarizing them here. Suffice it to say that each has inspired various aspects of what I plan/hope to do next term in FYC.

Here is an overview of how I’m thinking of structuring the course. Though I’ve outlined my ideas for the course in some detail, my main vision is one akin to free jazz–both in terms of what I do as a teacher and what I invite students to do as writers.

Students Be(com)ing Writers

Rather than having all students blog about a course theme, next term I plan to give students almost complete autonomy when it comes to their blogs. They’ll still have to have a theme for their blog, but that theme will be up to them. I will encourage them to select a theme directly related to their major or, alternatively, to a hobby/passion. They will still need to blog in a purposeful way, but what that purpose is and how they go about achieving that purpose will be something they will need to learn how to decide. Because experience has taught me that getting started is often the most difficult aspect of writing for students, I will encourage them to use their peers and myself as sounding-boards and we will spend quite a bit of class time discussing and practicing various invention techniques, as well as using the silent dialogue activity.

Rather than focusing primarily on formal, academic-style, strictly text-based expository and/or argumentative writing, I also plan to allow/encourage students to experiment with various mediums and genres, including alternative genres, such as comics, fiction, remixes/mashups, images, and videos, and multimodal pieces. I have found that, even when given the option of such non-traditional compositions, students are often reticent to try something so far outside their comfort zones or, in the case of a genre/medium they are familiar with and may already practice outside of the classroom, are uncertain of the appropriateness of such texts within the context of FYC. So next term, I plan to require students to select at least one alternative genre to use and to produce at least one multimodal composition. I plan to work closely with students to make sure these alternative texts are as purposeful as their more traditional compositions, maintaining a focus on exposition and/or persuasion.

Rather than the five reflective questions that I normally ask students to complete for each formal blog post, next term I plan to ask them to keep a writing journal, which will be more open-ended. I am hoping that the open-ended journal format will allow students to be more organically probative about their compositional practices.

Students Be(com)ing Readers

“Blogging is best learned by blogging…and by reading other bloggers.” –George Siemens

As part of the blogging workshop that I’ve started integrating during the first two weeks of class in order to orient students to what blogs are and what can be done with them, I have students locate several blogs on a topic of choice, subscribe to them, and add them to their blog’s blogroll. While I encourage students to read these and as many other blogs as they can/wish, I’m not sure that they ever take me up on the offer. Since next term they will be challenged to build and maintain a blog on a topic that they are either already an expert on or wish to become an expert on, they will need to locate and curate a network of topic experts that they can draw inspiration from and use as resources for their blog posts. So, next term I’ll have students read the blogs related to their own topics listed on the Academic Blogs wiki, subscribe to those they like, and regularly read posts from these and other blogs on their topic that they locate throughout the term. But they’ll also need to do something after they’ve read the posts. What they do will mostly be up to the student–post a response on their blog, add a comment to the post, share it with their social networks with an explanation of why they’re sharing it, etc.–but the point is that they are both frequently reading texts related to their own area of academic or personal interest and using them in some way beyond checking them off of a to-read list.

I usually require students to read and comment on their peers’ blog posts. This has been problematic with some groups because their commenting tends toward the formulaic and superficial, even after I have them study comments on blogs and create a list of good commenting criteria. I am trying to seriously re-think how I integrate comments on peers’ posts, but this has honestly got me stymied, so I may ask the students themselves for guidance on this aspect of the course.

Writing Work/Shop

I’ve never really integrated the workshop method, but this is something I plan to do next term. In addition to peer reviews for each formal blog post, every student will have at least one draft workshopped by the whole class. I want to shift the course’s focus away from outside texts (the reader and two nonfiction books my department requires me to assign) and towards the students’ own texts. Almost every interaction will be focused on what the students are composing and how they are composing/have composed it. We’ll tackle the risks, challenges, and exigencies of both traditionally academic and alternative texts head-on in both a supportive and critical mode.

I’ll also use the workshop to introduce various compositional techniques and tools, but only those that feel relevant and significant at the moment. Since they are the focus and facilitators of the workshops, the students will be encouraged to introduce issues, questions, and techniques to be addressed during the workshops, rather than passively relying on me to decide on what needs to be addressed. My hopes for the workshop method is that it will both aid students in developing and embracing a writing identity (situated within a community of other writers, both within and without their classroom) and help them to experience first-hand the multi-stranded, multi-directional, recursive nature of writing.

Collaborative Assessment

The assessment aspect of the course has been the most difficult to re-consider. While I think that the portfolio system is the best one available at the moment, I have been unhappy with the various methods that I have tried in terms of outlining my expectations and how the final grade will be determined.

I have been very happy with the results of the anonymous peer assessment that I piloted this term and plan to make that an integral part of the assessment process in FYC next term. Taking a cue from Alex Halavais, I’ve also decided to set some very abstract standards for an A in the course: the student must inspire, surprise, teach, or wow us. This reinforces the open-ended, organic nature of the course. And notice the language here: us. Since students will be responsible for assessing each others’ compositions, they will also be responsible for helping me identify those writers who meet this standard. Students can “nominate” a composition for this honor in several ways: sharing the post, commenting on the post, or liking the post via Facebook or Google+ (since the class will be using Google+ as our LMS, a +1 will be required in order to indicate a nomination). A composition will need to receive multiple nominations in order to “make the grade” and a writer will need to have at least two compositions that meet the standard in order to earn an A in the course.

This kind of abstract, open-ended assessment necessitates a new way of having students complete their writing portfolio reflections at the end of the term. Rather than self-selecting pieces for inclusion in the final portfolio, they will need to look to their peers’ responses to their pieces (their assessment form feedback, comments, shares, and likes) in order to select those compositions that made the most impact on their readers and reflect on what aspects of each piece elicited and merited their readers’ attention.


I’m not sure how close this comes to capturing the essence of my vision of the course–one that involves an organicity and improvisational openness that pushes against the expectations of FYC. My hope is that I can encourage my students to embrace this openness and use it as a steppingstone (for the reticent) or springboard (for the more adventurous) into a new identity as a writer and thinker.

These things rarely turn out exactly as you see/plan them, but that is part of the beauty of teaching.

I welcome your thoughts on my ideas and I’ll keep you posted . . .







Remediating Remedial Composition

Osmar Schindler (1869-1927): David und Goliath, 1888 via Wikimedia Commons

I’m a big fan of Mike Rose because I think that what he says makes a lot of sense. I just don’t understand why more university administrators and those in charge of remedial writing courses aren’t listening to him.

If you don’t know who Mike Rose is, you should get to know him by reading his blog or a few of his books, especially Lives on the Boundary, which is the first book of his I ever read. I read it after discovering his seminal article “Remedial Writing Courses: A Critique and a Proposal.” As the title of the article suggests, Rose first critiques the praxis of remedial composition and its theoretical underpinnings and then offers an alternative method for teaching students who require remediation in writing in a way that better eases their transition into the first-year composition course. Rose’s critique, then and now, questions the idea that students who arrive at university with substandard writing preparation need to be taught the very basics of writing, i.e., grammar and mechanics and sentence construction, as though they were primary school students, rather than the adults that they are, and the assumption that the mastery of these basics will somehow allow them to go on to succeed in the typical FYC course and their other college classes. As Rose points out, the entire construction of remedial composition courses dooms them, and by association the students who must take them, to failure:

Many of our attempts to help college remedial writers, attempts that are often well- intentioned and seemingly commonsensical, may, in fact, be ineffective, even counterproductive, for these attempts reduce, fragment, and possibly misrepresent the composing process. I believe we may be limiting growth in writing in five not unrelated ways. (1) Our remedial courses are self-contained; that is, they have little conceptual or practical connection to the larger academic writing environment in which our students find themselves. (2) The writing topics assigned in these courses—while meant to be personally relevant and motivating and, in their simplicity, to assist in the removal of error—in fact might not motivate and might not contribute to the production of a correct academic prose. (3) The writing teacher’s vigilance for error most likely conveys to students a very restricted model of the composing process. (4) Our notion of “basic skills” has become so narrow that we attempt to separate the intimately related processes of reading and thinking from writing. (5) In some of our attempts to reform staid curricula we have inadvertently undercut the expressive and exploratory possibilities of academic writing and have perceived fundamental discourse strategies and structures as restricting rather than enhancing the production and comprehension of prose.

Rose goes on to propose that remedial writing courses do just the opposite of what they (typically) do now. He envisions, and in fact has helped to design and administer, remedial writing courses that don’t assume students can’t meet the challenges of academic reading, thinking, and writing, but actually ask them to dive headlong into the proverbial intellectual deep-end, with the instructor guiding and coaching them as they struggle to navigate  academic discourse and add their voice to the academic conversation. This is not much different from how many of us approach traditional FYC courses. The main difference in remedial courses, at least in my experience, is the crucial need to not allow remediation to be a self-fulfilling prophesy.

In remedial writing courses the challenge is not so much overcoming students’ unfamiliarity with the praxis of academic discourse as it is overcoming the label that students who are placed in remedial classes are given and the expectations (or lack thereof) that are associated with that label. In general, I have found that three types of students end up in remedial writing classes. The first group are those students who know that they have been placed in a remedial class and either resent it (because it does not count towards their degree hours and forms a barrier between them and the “real” classes that their peers are taking) or see it as a judgement on their writing ability and perhaps even on their merits and prospects as a student (I suspect that many of these students hypothesize that remedial is synonymous with “not meant to be here”). The second group of students do not even realize that they are in a remedial class or what that means. These students are often shocked to learn that the class signifies a deficiency on their part and will only count as institutional credit. The third group of students overlap with the other two, but I identify them as unique from their peers because they don’t actually belong in a remedial class but, because of poor testing skills or some other fluke, have been placed there. These students could do very well in my traditional FYC classes and therefore excel in my remedial classes, providing models for their peers to emulate. (On the reverse side of this is the fact that I always end up with a handful of students in my FYC classes who would greatly benefit from a remedial writing class and rarely are able to pass the traditional class).

Because of the precarious emotional and intellectual states of many of these students, the main function of a remedial writing class often becomes one of constant and intense encouragement as you arm your students to go out and meet the forces that they believe have been arrayed against them. If they feel like David going out to meet Goliath, then writing is the rock you must convince them they can sling. They have to believe that becoming a better writer is achievable or you have lost the battle before it has even begun (and it is an ongoing battle that you must fight all semester long). But forcing them to write self-contained paragraphs for a semester is not going to prepare them for FYC. Mollycoddling them with simplistic writing prompts is not going to help them face their next college writing assignment. And knowing a verb from a gerund is not going to help them compare and contrast two psychological theories or analyze a political cartoon or classify and analyze the medical symptoms of a hypothetical patient.

So, I’m doing things a little differently in my remedial writing class this term (the first that I’ve taught in a while) and following Rose’s four-tiered plan, which is founded on real writing challenges (the kind that students will be faced with as college students, not primary school students) that are situated within highly relevant contexts.

The Context

I have designed the class much like a journalism course in that the students will work together to design and publish a blog. The theme of the blog will be completely up to the class. At the moment, students are writing their first blog post, which is their proposal for the blog’s theme. Once students have identified potential themes, I’ll allow the class to vote on which theme they think will be the most interesting to write about this term. Once the theme is selected, the blog will function much like an digital newspaper, with students working together in groups to identify relevant stories, compose the stories, design the post layouts, and publish the stories by a deadline.

The Challenge

Students will write in small groups of three to four, rotating the role of lead editor each week. The week’s lead editor will be in charge of identifying sources for a story and sharing those sources with the other members of the writing team. The team will work together in class to brainstorm and outline the story and the lead editor will draft the story before the next class meeting. At the next meeting, the team will use Google Docs to collaboratively revise, edit, proofread, and design the blog post before the editor publishes the story to the class blog. The writing team will then have to create a VoiceThread that contains both the Google Doc in which they collaborated on the post and the final post itself. I will use the VoiceThread to provide feedback both on how effectively they collaborated as writers/designers and on the strengths and weaknesses of the final post, and the team will respond to my feedback and establish goals for their next post.


My hope is that by having students publish their writing on a blog and select the topic of the blog, they will be more invested in the  act of writing and what they are writing about. Also, by asking students to work in writing teams, I hope to take the onus off of the individual student and provide them with a support group of peers. Because we will be using Google Docs, I will be able to monitor each team’s writing process and function as a member of each team myself. Since the class meets in a computer lab, I can be present both physically and virtually (a veritable hybrid teacher!), depending on where I am needed most by any given group.

The Technology Sticking-Point

I hesitated about using technology so heavily in a remedial course. My first instinct was to teach the course naked (figuratively speaking), going bare bones in an effort to achieve a type of Zen simplicity that I hoped would funnel over into the students’ thinking about writing. I did not want anything to complicate the already complicated relationship that many of these students are likely to have with writing. But in the end I could not get past the power that asking students to “publish it” rather than “hand it in” holds for my traditional FYC classes. I am sure that there will be some students who struggle with the technical aspects of the class and this may stifle their writing progress or even lead them to resent me and/or give up on the class. But I am hopeful that the risk of losing a few students will be trumped by the empowerment that the rest of the students will feel as they make a tangible footprint on the digital landscape.

I may be completely off my head in how I’ve planned the course. It may be that too many of my students will allow the remedial label to narrow their vision and foreshorten their potential. Too many may go into technology panic mode or feel that their writing skills are too inferior to be publicly evaluated and commented on. I may lose my nerve and ask them to abandon the field in mid-battle if I begin to see too much fear or hesitation on their part.

But, as they say, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I’ll let you know how we fare.

In the meantime, if you’d like to read about another instructor who is taking a radical approach to remedial composition, read “A Model for Teaching College Writing,” which describes how Barbara Vance helped a group of struggling writers become a team of documentary filmmakers.

Disrupting the First-Year Composition Course

Image courtesy of ClipPix ETC

At last week’s THATCamp, one of the stand-out sessions, at least as reflected by the responses of those live tweeting the event, was Mills Kelly’s session on disruptive pedagogy. You can see my Storify of the session here.

As the tweets began populating my timeline, I was immediately excited about the idea of disrupting pedagogy and disciplinary values because Kelly’s ideas both validated practices that I am already using and offered encouragement for seeing just how far I can push the boundaries.

The Google Doc for the session has some excellent practical ideas for disruptive assignments, but this one struck me as most relevant for the First-Year Composition course:

Remove the tools traditionally used in a discipline, thereby refocusing attention on underlying assumptions of processes.

This is an especially salient method for disrupting the teaching of writing as more and more writing, including academic writing (the kind of writing that I think FYC courses should teach), becomes digital in nature and, as a result, more openly accessible. As writing becomes digital, many of the assumptions about the rhetorical context and the process that is used to negotiate that context are laid bare (and, sometimes, come up short). Peter Rorabaugh recently wrote about the organic nature of writing, a nature that he argues becomes more pronounced in digital environments:

Organic writing develops in non-linear clusters, like the way organisms develop. Calling writing “organic” is not solely poetic; it’s a concept that permits a clearer view into the pulpy, fleshy process of giving linguistic, visual, and electronic architecture to our ideas.

Traditional approaches to teaching writing at best ignore and, at worst, seek to repress this organicity. The trappings of compositional pedagogy–outlines, thesis statements, length requirements, mandates regarding number and types of sources, bibliographies–seek to exert control and order over the chaotic disorder that characterizes what is essentially a subjective, creative endeavor–a disorder that grows exponentially within the digital environment. It is naive to believe that, at the same time that many of us are requiring our students to write within digital domains, we can continue to teach writing in the same ways that we did for non-digital domains. When a plant becomes root-bound, it has two choices: burst through its container or wither and die. To help prevent either of these scenarios, good gardeners transplant it from its constrictive environment to a new one that will accommodate its growth; but this alone is not enough–the plant will not thrive in its new environment unless its roots are disturbed so that they can probe and connect with their new environment. It is no longer enough to attempt to transplant students’ writing into the new digital domain; if we want them to thrive as digital authors, then we must disturb the roots of compositional pedagogy.

One of the traditional practices that I abandoned quite some time ago is that of “the teaching of writing.” I think that we spend far too much time talking to (or more precisely, at) students about how to write. We require them to read chapters from a writer’s handbook or a textbook on writing; we lecture about the parts of an essay, thesis statements, the writing process (a discreet linear process that moves from pre-writing to proofreading/editing), how to cite sources, etc.; and sometimes we even quiz them on all of this information. There are several reasons why I abandoned this methodology, one being that it fails to recognize the various skills levels of the students. I found it much more effective to direct students to specific resources depending on their individual needs as writers. A student who is capable of articulating an argument and organizing their writing but who has issues with sentence mechanics benefits more from consulting resources and engaging in deliberate practice on sentence construction from the very beginning of the course (rather than having to wait for the class to get around to the mechanics of sentence construction). I have also found that students tend to experience a deeper change in knowledge about writing methods (what we’re trying to teach when we “teach writing”) when they are asked to access resources and receive instruction on skills as they are needed (one method for doing so that takes advantage of hybrid pedagogy is “just in time teaching”). A student who, in the midst of research, cannot find the information they need in the sources in which they are used to looking, will respond more actively to resources and instruction that helps them locate and explore other research options than a student who has not even started the research process.

Rather than spending time “teaching” how to write (and all of the complex, interrelated actions and assumptions that the writer must negotiate in situ) or how to research (and all of the context-based exceptions and muddy points that researchers often run into), I ask students to begin the messy work of writing and conducting research. In the process, I place them in contexts that encourage cognitive disfluency: they are intellectually uncomfortable–out of their depths–but also primed for deep and lasting learning.

This is just one example of how I am disrupting the teaching of writing (of course disruption, like writing, is all about context; what’s disruptive within my particular context may be the status quo within another context). But the discussion that took place around Kelly’s THATCamp session has encouraged me to think of more assumptions about writing and how it can/should be taught that may need to be disrupted as I become less an instructor of academic writing and more an instructor of digital writing. Here’s just a few thoughts that have been itching to be scratched since I read the tweets and the Google Doc that were born out of the session:

Thesis statements: Do we still need them? Do we need to change what a thesis statement is/does? I’ve always taught thesis statements as an answer to a question. Oftentimes, students will persist in using their question as their thesis and I will dutifully remind them that a thesis must be a statement, not a question. Do I need to stop doing that? Could the students be right when they claim that a question can be a thesis and vice versa? Does the openly discursive nature of blogs, for example, place more value on questions rather than answers? Should we be encouraging students to avoid prematurely reaching conclusions before they’ve had the opportunity to engage in the kinds of debates that social media both allows and thrives on? Does it really matter if they ever reach some kind of final conclusion, especially in their freshman year?

Research: What would happen if I told my students that they had to use Wikipedia in their research? Do we need to teach students how to mine social media as a source of research information (as I often do)? I often encourage my students to grapple with issues in ways that others have not or to select topics/texts that others have not analyzed; how do I reconcile this with my program’s requirement for a researched essay? Should we even be teaching research in FYC?

Sources: Do we need to re-think reliability? Can a blog be as reliable a source as an academic journal? I know and read several blogs that I would not hesitate to qualify as reliable, so what does that mean for the kinds of blogs that my students are interested in? Are they less reliable because they’re not written by academics? And, if so, when I qualify those people’s arguments/ideas as unreliable, what implicit message am I sending to my students about their own value as bloggers? Are we being hypocritical when we tell students that their ideas matter enough that they should be published on the Internet but then de-value “Internet sources”?

Citations: Do we still need to teach them? Do we need to change the way we teach them? How do we accommodate both hyperlinks and traditional citations (for non-open access sources)?

I welcome your questions and thoughts on how much we should and/or should not disrupt the FYC classroom. How much longer can we legitimately sustain a methodology that is root-bound? How far can/should we push against the boundaries that we’ve built in an attempt to contain the uncontainable? At what point does the chaos of the rhizome that is digital writing prevent the connections that our students need to make in order for them to be able to exert their own influence on its growth and direction? Or should we encourage them to accept and revel in the rhizomatic nature of writing (and researching and learning) within the digital environment, trusting that the cognitive disfluency will ultimately lead them to become master gardeners of new paradigms?

Rhizome of sedge carex image courtesy of Commercial Gardening, vol. 1 by John Weathers