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
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Building a Better Blogging Assignment Redux

photo credit: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com via photo pin cc

One of the sessions at last week’s THATCamp dealt with the issue of designing a better model of student blogging. You can view my Storify of the session here.

I thought that I would add some of my own ideas and discuss how I address some of the issues raised during the session (since, unfortunately, I couldn’t be there).

As noted on the session’s Google Doc, a major problem with requiring students to blog is that the large majority of them are unfamiliar with blogs, so we need to identify effective methods for acculturating them to the genre. Since I’m an advocate of immersive learning, I’ve found that many students begin to “get” blogging by spending a good deal of time actually doing it. But I’ve developed a few orientation assignments that help them get off to a good start.

  • Require students to locate, deconstruct, assess, and subscribe to blogs on topics that interest them: As homework during the first week of class, I have students locate several blogs on a topic that they’re interested in. They pick the best three and subscribe to them. While exploring blogs on their topic, they create a list of criteria for an effective blog. We use a class meeting to collate their criteria into a master list that they can then use as a checklist for their own blogs. Next term I’m planning to expand this assignment by having students work together to deconstruct a blog.
  • Teach them how to comment: This is something that I still struggle with. I provide students with several resources on commenting, including those mentioned at the session; nonetheless, many of them provide largely superficial comments. Next term I plan to have students read and assess comments on the blogs they’ve subscribed to and add their own comments. Similarly to the assignment above, students will work together to establish criteria for effective commenting.

A second, and equally important issue, is the logistics of blog management, both for yourself and the students: controlling pacing (so that you don’t have to deal with an influx of posts and comments at the last minute), encouraging engagement with the blogs (both their own and their peers’), and assessing the blogs.

  • Establish submission guidelines (and stick to them): I establish strict deadlines for post submissions and stick to them from the very first post. I generally make the deadline the night before class in the case of totally face-to-face courses. For my hybrid courses, the deadline is on the day that we do not meet. Either way, I set the deadline for a time well before I and other students need to access the blogs.
  • Encourage engagement with peers’ blogs: I require that students subscribe to each others’ blogs and read and comment on a certain number of them each week. I’ve tried to encourage more depth to their comments by staggering the due dates for posts and comments (generally they have 12-24 hours after the blog post deadline to read and respond to peers’ posts). I’ve had even better success this past term with combining this with rotating students’ roles between posters and readers/commenters. This allows them to fully focus on and engage in their role. This method requires reducing the number and frequency of posts for each student, but I think that the pay-off will be worth it, especially by placing as much emphasis on their comments on others’ blogs as on their own blog posts (which means that I’ll have to invest more time into assessing their comments somehow).
  • Make the blogs an integral component of the course: I try to immerse students in their blogs as much as possible because I’ve found that the more they blog, the better bloggers they become. I now require that all of their writing be done on their blog and I ask them to blog and comment on blogs as frequently as possible (at least once a week). I think that it’s a major mistake to have students blog but then not integrate the blogs into the classroom interactions in some way; this encourages students to view the blogs as secondary to the other class work. In my literature courses, the students’ blogs become the fulcrum for the class discussions. I encourage students to pick the most thought-provoking for us to look at together in class. In my FYC courses, I pick one model post each week for us to critique as a class, asking students to assess the post in small groups, looking for reasons why I selected the post as being a good model. Since the class uses Google+ as a virtual learning space, I also “plus 1” those posts that are especially thought-provoking, well written, and/or visually appealing (I encourage students to do this, as well); this provides students with almost instantaneous feedback and encourages those who might not have read and/or commented on the posts to do so. This also results in a type of gamification of the blogs, as some students begin to work to earn “plus 1’s” from me and their peers. Next term, I plan to also encourage students to use other social media to promote and “like” their peers’ posts.
  • Involve students in the assessment of their blogs: In a previous post, I outlined how I require students to self-assess their writing. I have been happy with the way I’ve asked students to create a portfolio of their blog posts to submit to me at the end of term, rather than assigning a grade to each individual blog post (I’ve tried to eliminate traditional grades as much as possible in my classes). Normally, I have students do this via a final assessment form that they fill in and submit to me via email, hyperlinking to specific posts that they want to include in their assessment, and discussing in detail why they selected them and how they demonstrate what they’ve learned about writing. But I’m considering remixing Mark Sample’s idea of a blog audit; I think that making their reflections public on their blogs will encourage an even deeper consideration of who they are as writers and what they’ve done as bloggers over the course of the term, mirroring the way that many bloggers use their blogs as reflective spaces. I also like his idea of having students revisit and revise some of their old posts, which is something I used to encourage students to do with their writing before I switched to blogs, and would like to re-incorporate into their portfolio creation.
  • Utilize formative and peer assessment: This is still something that I’m tweaking. So far, I’ve found my method for providing formative assessment effective (and students have indicated the same). What I haven’t been able to integrate as effectively is peer assessment. I would love to use a badge system, like Mozilla’s Open Badges, but I haven’t had the time to figure out the best way to do so (or if it’s even possible, since I don’t know how to code or if it’s necessary to know how to do so to use the program, two issues I’m hoping to remedy soon). In the meantime, I’ll encourage the use of readily available social media feedback systems such as Facebook’s “like” and Google’s “plus 1” buttons.

A third issue that seems to have been prevalent during the session is that of how to allow for disruption and alternatives within the blogging domain.

  • Allow/encourage alternative uses for blogs: Since I require that students publish all of their writings for the class to their blog, this means that sometimes their blog posts contain nontraditional material (although I always try to help students understand that, with the advent of photoblogs, vlogs, and podcasting, there is no longer such a thing as traditional blog content). For example, this term I’m requiring my FYC students to use Storify to create their annotated bibliographies and then embed their stories into their blogs for comment by me and their peers. Last term, my students participated in DS 106, which meant that their blogs became populated with memes, mashups, animated gifs, and sound clouds.
  • Disrupt the digital environment: Interestingly enough, as participants were discussing Mills Kelly’s ideas about disruptive pedagogies and then subsequently considering ways to disrupt student blogging, I was blogging about Paul Fyfe’s theory of teaching naked and considering how to disrupt the digital environments within which I ask my students to work. One idea that I blogged about that serendipitously showed up on the blogging session Google Doc is that of requiring students to engage with and use their blog posts in non-digital ways. I think that this is an aspect of student blogging that needs more attention and I hope that a conversation can develop around it.

These are just a few of the blogging methods that I have found effective and, as indicated, I’m still working at improving some of them. I encourage those who require their students to blog or who are thinking of doing so to help continue the conversation here, on my Storify of the THATCamp session, on Mark Sample’s THATCamp blog post, or on Twitter (use the #thatcamp hashtag).

Disruptive Pedagogy: THATCamp 2012

  1. placesense
    some disruptive pedagogies: alternate histories, destroy (repurpose books), invert teacher/student, reverse engineer artifacts #thatcamp
    Fri, Jun 15 2012 11:58:15
  2. historyshack
    Disruptive Pedagogy in History idea. Paper that’s all footnotes and samples, and the reader must write/guess the interpretation. #THATCamp
    Fri, Jun 15 2012 12:08:06
  3. footnotesrising
    mills didn’t put my idea on board: reverse engineer historic artifact from non-material evidence. not disruptive enough? #thatcamp
    Fri, Jun 15 2012 12:09:24
  4. rogerwhitson
    disruptions: destroy books, skim, degrade efficiency, plagiarize, exercise in obsfucation, argue for meaninglessness #thatcamp #disruptive
    Fri, Jun 15 2012 12:12:02
  5. wynkenhimself
    disruptive pedagogy idea from @amandafrench: teach librarians to withhold information #thatcamp
    Fri, Jun 15 2012 12:13:13
  6. wynkenhimself
    @ranti @amandafrench Misinformation would probably be more disruptive than withholding. #thatcamp
    Fri, Jun 15 2012 12:19:18
  7. amandafrench
    It occurs to me that this Disruptive Pedagogy workshop doesn’t have much to do with technology. As if anyone cares. #thatcamp #disruptped
    Fri, Jun 15 2012 12:24:36
  8. briancroxall
    @amandafrench Technology in the classroom is already disruptive to traditional humanities. Makes total sense. #thatcamp #disruptped
    Fri, Jun 15 2012 12:25:52
  9. footnotesrising
    @amandafrench disruptive pedagogy is hacking! and we’re hacking an apparatus if not a “technology” per se… #thatcamp
    Fri, Jun 15 2012 12:28:00
  10. wynkenhimself
    Disruptive pedagogy is a way of making students take seriously the fundamental principles of what we’re teaching, says Mills. #thatcamp
    Fri, Jun 15 2012 12:28:11
  11. PhDeviate
    Disruptive pedagogy folks: This http://bit.ly/A3Beq3 describes one of my most disruptive, and successful, lessons ever #THATCamp
    Fri, Jun 15 2012 12:30:07
  12. placesense
    In the end, explain why you’re doing this in this way….be transparent about why you’re being disruptive. #disruptped #thatcamp
    Fri, Jun 15 2012 12:32:24
  13. samplereality
    Some disruptive pedagogy: designing a game instead of writing a paper. http://ow.ly/1NPeU9 #thatcamp
    Sat, Jun 16 2012 16:05:58
  14. briancroxall
    My disruptive pedagogy, a group, crowd-sourced final experience: http://bit.ly/syyLqX #thatcamp
    Sat, Jun 16 2012 16:07:41
  15. readywriting
    My disruptive pedagogy: peer-driven learning #THATCamp
    Sat, Jun 16 2012 16:08:30
  16. writerswriting
    .@samplereality Great idea! Did #thatcamp disrupt disruptive pedagogy? e.g. Discuss how disruption could stem from position of privilege?
    Sat, Jun 16 2012 16:13:34
  17. trentmkays
    I think for something to be a “disruptive” pedagogy, it needs to disrupt something, no? So, what does yours disrupt? #thatcamp
    Sat, Jun 16 2012 16:21:02
  18. briancroxall
    Another great disruptive pedagogy idea is @pfyfe’s “How Not to Read a Victorian Novel”: http://bit.ly/MgV8Me. #thatcamp
    Sat, Jun 16 2012 16:21:21
  19. samplereality
    Mills Kelly makes the crucial point that disruptive pedagogy doesn’t have to be disruptive all the time. #thatcamp
    Sat, Jun 16 2012 16:30:32

Building a Better Blogging Assignment: THATCamp 2012

  1. historyshack
    At #studentblogging, we keep talking about modelling good blogging/commenting. Would it be productive/disruptive to model the opp? #THATCamp
    Sat, Jun 16 2012 12:14:25
  2. retius
    Writing for specific alternative audiences: really cool blogging assignment with a lot of potential. #THATCamp
    Sat, Jun 16 2012 12:25:40
  3. ldhunter
    Use a portfolio system in student blogging. #thatcamp
    Sat, Jun 16 2012 11:42:57
  4. historyshack
    Mills Kelly’s disruptive ways are being invoked at the student blogging session here at #thatcamp
    Sat, Jun 16 2012 11:40:18
  5. rogerwhitson
    Ed Gallagher – Am Lit course – entire grade was based on student blogging. #thatcamp
    Sat, Jun 16 2012 11:33:13
  6. rogerwhitson
    Blogging: opportunity for summarizing, ask questions, etc. #thatcamp
    Sat, Jun 16 2012 11:29:42
  7. rogerwhitson
    Blogging with students creates an interactive community. Highlight some of the best posts. #thatcamp
    Sat, Jun 16 2012 11:18:15
  8. ldhunter
    Encourage students to use “more than words” in their blog posts. #thatcamp
    Sat, Jun 16 2012 11:44:33
  9. ldhunter
    Small group blogs are a great alternative to single-user and multi-user blogs. #thatcamp
    Sat, Jun 16 2012 12:17:35
  10. ldhunter
    Have students produce “teaching carnival” kind of blogs that aggregate content from other blogs. @rogerwhitson #thatcamp
    Sat, Jun 16 2012 11:43:39