Original post: DREAM SCHOOL COMMONS
Over the last few years, I’ve taught in a variety of classrooms: developmental courses at community colleges, adult-education accelerated programs, traditional athletics-motivated universities, and an honors college. Past students wondered about the purpose of taking English composition courses in college. Common retorts from them included, “I already know how to write,” “Who cares about grammar?” “How will this academic research paper help me in the job market?” Students, it seems, are more utilitarian these days: how was this writing class to benefit them in the real world?
We would discuss writing as a way to learn, which in the abstract sense will always be the objective—no matter what degree they are pursuing, we as humans will always learn new things and writing is a tool we can use to process our experiences and improve our critical thinking skills. Writing, in this sense, has value. But for practical students with microeconomics or organic chemistry on the forefront of their minds, learning to write better is not necessarily priority.
At times, the only answer I could give them was “Because it’s required.” As an idealist who routinely questions purpose, I needed a better answer. What is the purpose of taking rhetoric and composition, if students already know how to communicate effectively and do not plan on going to graduate school wherein extensive research papers will consume their life?
As an instructor, I tried to see their needs and structure the class so that it was at least somewhat relevant to their daily lives or eventual goals. Certain classes warranted relevant writing projects: in a technical writing course, my students wrote proposals and feasibility reports. Because this course was directly correlated to their technical degrees, the purpose was straightforward: to prepare them for the workplace. Other courses, such as developmental ones, also seemed to have a clear objective: to further develop their literacy in preparation for the rest of their college courses.
The purpose of writing courses becomes a bit murky when the level of literacy does not diminish the student’s ability to learn or when it is not directly relevant to the student’s degree. The issue of “need” no longer applies, so it feels as if we are wasting each other’s time, simply to meet a requirement. Of course, for the most part, these classes end up being of some use—research writing skills, further developing their critical thinking skills, etc. For the freshman composition instructor, however, it’s a daily battle for students to put in effort.
In thinking about ideals regarding post-secondary education, how can we improve our approach to required curriculum so that it addresses the current needs of our students? What value are we adding to the lives of students?
I’m somewhat ready. Last week, I had to meet with the Writing Director at campus #1 to go over my syllabus for Honors Freshman Composition. This is the class that I had to redesign based on my sub-par evaluations. I spent a few days re-working it–adding a blog component to initiate more discussion, working in some designated “instructor input” sessions, even typing up some formal lesson plans with time marks.
The feedback that I received was that I was heading in the wrong direction. That is, the blog component was propagating the “decentralized” nature of this class, and we want to go the opposite direction (which I thought the “instructor input” sessions would do). It seemed that I was also attempting to cover too many concepts in one session. The Writing Director said that I should try to stick to one or two things (for a 75 min session) that the students can walk away with. (I wish I’d known this earlier.) My concern with this is not having enough content to go over, but I believe it’ll give us the opportunity to thoroughly cover the nuances of these concepts.
Another advice was that I needed to directly tie concepts with practice (their essays). Duh, right? What I had trouble with was the order in which I presented material. Previously, I’d covered a unit on “Academic Writing”–complete with integrating sources, when their next assignment was a personal narrative. (I blame the textbook on this one–academic writing is Ch. 3, while narrative writing is Ch. 4.) Although I’m aware that I can and should deconstruct the book to fit my lessons, I did not particularly think skipping a chapter was a good idea. We’d covered the first two on “Critical Reading” and “The Writing Process”–which is pretty much review–so “Academic Writing” was grouped with that. But I do see the benefit now. This semester, we’ll cover “Academic Writing” with their persuasive essay unit, which does require them to apply the concepts therein.
Lastly, the Writing Director emphasized three things that “professors from other disciplines” want students to learn from composition instructors: 1.) how to formulate a thesis, 2.) how to evaluate text, 3.) how to integrate research. Sounds very simple, and while it’s only about 10% of what I actually do have to cover, this piece of advice will help me focus my lessons.
Learning pedagogy is like learning how to write. Unlike occupations that objectively train you how to do something by following a certain number of prescribed steps, pedagogy and writing urge us to learn through our own process, by trial and error. The Writing Director simply could have given me her tried and true syllabus or sat with mine, pen in hand, to tell me how to structure it, but she didn’t. She asked questions and helped me see my own mistakes. No wonder why she consistently receives great evaluations, per the Associate Dean. I’m appreciative, and I only wish we could have met earlier–like last summer.
Because of having to completely redesign my syllabus (for the second time) for this Honors Comp course, I’m a little behind on my other three syllabi. The semester starts for two classes next week, so the only other one I had to focus on this week was the Comp II at campus #4, which–thank the universe–provided a course plan. I love specificity. And while the course plan can seem rigid to some, it completely lessens the burden of having to pull pedagogy out of my ass within a short period. (I did just get hired a couple of weeks ago.)
The second great thing about this course is that it’s themed: social status and inequality. I’d wanted to redesign the Honors Comp class based on something thematic, but I didn’t have enough time to gather materials. Sometime last semester, I’d looked at the writing programs at the six colleges at UCSD and thought how neat that would be to learn writing concepts based on interesting topics: culture, technology, arts, social justice. At times, it felt as though my composition courses lacked relevance because the content was really repetitive. These students have heard these before. The themes, then, seemed to fill the missing link between “relevance” and “content.”
I have two more syllabi to make from scratch: Comp II (different textbooks) and Technical Writing. But I have until next Monday. Today: much needed play time with my nephews, and then Lauryn Hill, live in concert.
Another university called to ask if I wanted to teach some courses. This is the second semester that the coordinator called way after I’d already filled my schedule. Last summer, after I quit my job and begun my around-the-country train trip, she called while I was around the Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. I’m sure she appreciated the live music and screaming children in the background. She asked me to consider her again for the future. It’s somewhat validating to be in demand. It gives me hope that eventually the demand will be for full-time positions. And I’ll take non-tenure track.
Speaking of, for another post, I’m looking at New Orleans for next school year, if a job pulls through. Details later.
Two poems from my first manuscript were accepted for Lavender Review (#3).
Very happy minus a life issue or two.
At campus #1, the Honors College, I’m teaching 2 sections of Honors Freshman Composition, which I taught last semester. Redesigning the syllabus for this is of the utmost importance because I didn’t do as well as I’d intended. I’m refocusing the reading material, adding more aspects of “instructor input,” and actually constructing lesson plans ahead of time. This particular campus requires a very detailed syllabus complete with daily “topics” or objectives, in-class activities, and all of the homework assignments, so making the lesson plans is really just one step further.
This is day 3 in my attempt to focus on this, but I’m merely in Week 2 of my syllabus. I’ve been reading up on pedagogy through peer-reviewed sources on EBSCO/JStor, at ProfHacker (The Chronicle), and various insightful blogs, so I haven’t been completely unproductive. In the midst of that, though, I created a Tumblr account–another outlet for interconnectedness.
I have so much to do, and I can’t, for the life of me, focus. Last summer, I completed 2 of my 3 syllabi in about a week, while traveling by train. I suppose “movement” and a tight schedule makes me focus, and right now, I do have a week and half with nothing else on my schedule but pilates and jogging. Stagnancy really does a number on my productivity, but tonight, after my last volleyball playoffs of the season, I’m going to buckle down, like I did this morning around 3am. Fifteen more weeks to plan for, and three more syllabi to go (less detailed but all new texts). Shit.
My kitchen table, which is my main desk, currently and usually looks like this:
It’s a good thing that I don’t have kids. I can’t imagine juggling my workload and playload with anything more than my two cats.
As expected, I’ve gone through a steep learning curve this semester. I won some battles: I managed to successfully complete the semester with the amount of workload that I had. My students at campus #2 wanted to sign up for my class next semester. I did not go easy on them, so this was a good sign. And, after submitting my electronic grades to the English Chair at campus #2, he informed me that I could have a Comp 2 class next semester because enrollment was higher than expected. I had to cancel one class at the community college (developmental writing) that I so desperately accepted after the chairs reneged on the Business Writing class, but this is how the game of adjuncts goes. Schedules change. I signed no contracts.
I did lose other battles, though: I did not receive good feedback from my Honors Freshman Composition students at campus #1. Perhaps I’d expected too much out of them, and I did not offer enough guidelines or lectures. As per Honors College tradition, these classes are “collaborative” as opposed to “lecture-based.” Essentially, they read the material and provided a “reader’s response,” and we discussed relevant points in class. Additionally, I overestimated their knowledge of grammar, and I had to essentially provide one-on-one consultations about mechanics. I was advised by the Writing Director that I should probably add an element of “teacher input” to make the experience for them more meaningful, as they tend to miss the importance of collaborative learning.
Another issue was grading. I did not do much to quell their anxieties about what grades they were to receive. Because the essays at the end of the semester (Critical Analysis and Research) were weighed heavier, I felt that giving mid-term grades would be misleading. But these students did not do particularly well on their Persuasive or Critical Analysis, so many of them were worried about their final grades. I should have emphasized that other work, such as freewrites, reader’s responses, group work, workshops, and participation would help boost their grades, given that they completed these successfully.
One class out of 5 is not bad. I’m teaching two sections of Honors Freshman Comp next semester, so I have some work to do in re-designing the syllabus/course.
So far I have 3 preps for the spring semester: Honors Freshman Comp, Comp 2, and Technical Writing. I’m considering adding a 4th, as I have an interview at another private university (evening program, quarter system) on Monday. I’m not sure for what yet, but I’d like to get a literature class.
Every semester, we have a spectrum of students: the slacker, the clueless, the goal-oriented. There are those whose main priorities are the location of the next party–clearly not ready to transition into adulthood. There are those who are overworked, juggling life and the pursuit of a better-paying job. There are those who stare blankly into the room during discussion or not-so-slyly look through their cell-phones.
This semester in my Honors Freshman Composition class, I lucked out with several very involved students. One in particular, a non-traditional student, stands out as intensely enthusiastic about learning. His first paper, a Personal Narrative, was a fictionalized account of his itinerant days. He received an A. I encouraged him to submit to the undergraduate literary journal.
A group project/presentation that involved another student, with whom he had had numerous (ideologically-)combative discussions with during class, caused him some trouble. He wrote a freewrite/critique full of angst–”we SUCKED!”–and proceeded to explain in two pages what had happened.
[Paraphrase:] “I was slighted. She would not take into account my viewpoints or contact me about working on the project. I felt under-prepared because the PowerPoint was not how it was supposed to be. She changed it without my knowledge.”
He spoke to me after class. I assured him that it did not seem as if he was under-prepared, only seemingly exhausted. They received an A for the project.
In contrast, a few weeks later, he led a group of more passive students to create a splendid mock-promotional advertisement for high school students, encouraging them to major in the natural sciences. (The other groups created promotional ads for social sciences, applied sciences, and humanities.) The presentation involved a well-executed script, a recruitment flier, costume (a military-style jacket similar to the character in the flier), even.
The next paper, a Persuasive Essay, appeared to be going in a similar trajectory. He decided to pursue a theory he’d had as a child, regarding a supposed antagonist of an 80s cartoon series being the true protagonist. He meant to expose the screwed-up ideologies of “civilization.” He spent some 30 hours reviewing the entire series again and writing his paper. It was full of brilliant ideas. He received a B+. (The class curve was typical–mostly C papers.)
He spent the rest of the hour fuming, writing responses to all of my suggestions. He requested to speak to me after class. In hindsight, I should have given him a day to process his anger. We had a 3-hour long consultation. We discussed mechanics–whether a comma was necessary or whether to use “who” or “that” for a demonic, animalistic character (an intentional, stylistic choice, he insisted). I assured him that these did not affect his grades. The larger issues–clarity, coherence, organization of his supporting materials–were more difficult to explain.
He’s very much against the mechanical approach of how essays are structured. (I agreed and had encouraged him to exercise some creativity in approach during his Personal Narrative.) Yet, he was adamant that his presentation of ideas was clear enough to the reader. His prose, though, was immensely detailed and complex that it detracted from his overall point, causing me, as an uninformed reader, to be confused, thus making his argument convoluted.
“I still don’t understand. What do I need to do to prevent another B+?”
He wanted concrete answers on how to make his B+ paper into an A paper, and I could only give him suggestions based on what’s expected out of him (to be aware of his audience), as a writer in an academic setting.
This then led to a conversation about general disdain for his college classes–because the system is constricting–possibly resulting in him dropping out after the semester is over. (How does one explain to a student to work within the system if he’s vehemently against it and does not value its conventions?)
“I miss sleeping in trees. I can work for $12 an hour and essentially play all day. Or I can drive an ice cream truck and make $100K a year, working only 5 months.”
“Why are you in college, then?”
“For security. When I get old and can no longer work, society will not take care of me.” (We had discussed in an earlier class about “taker” and “leaver” societies based on Daniel Quinn’s philosophical novel, Ishmael.) “If I get a degree in education, I can spend minimal time preparing and teaching, yet I’ll have security later on.”
“How do you feel about having to sacrifice your ideals to be part of the system?”
My phone rang. He apologized for taking up so much of my time. I encouraged him to come chat with me again.
I’m at campus #2 (in order of “hire”) on MWF, starting at 8am for English Composition I. This class, surprisingly, is near cap at 24. I have a large block in between my first and second class, which starts at 1 pm. Obviously, I hold my office hours then. My two afternoon classes are smaller: 11 and 14 students. My first impression is that I’ll have some trouble keeping the interests of my 8 am students. They are mostly athletes, too, so that’s another layer of challenge.
At campus #1, I’m very much looking forward to my Feature Writing class on TR. I’ve gathered great materials and feel confident about pedagogy (ie, focusing on technique, deconstructing examples, and applying learned methods). It’s creative nonfiction, essentially, which appeals to me (and most people) much more than English Composition. There are only 7 students in that class, so discussions may be a little tough.
In the Honors Freshman Composition course (also TR), I have 18 students, which is one over cap. I did not expect so many. They seem like an inquisitive, bright bunch, so I’m looking forward to lively discussions with them.
Let’s hope I survive this semester without too many bruises.