Essay on the value of first-year writing courses

Of all the words that might be applied to Rush Limbaugh’s recent comments about Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke — "vile," "misogynistic" and "repulsive" come to mind — one word that has no place in the discussion is "surprise." Limbaugh has made a phenomenally lucrative career of such comments, mocking women, minorities, and many others with gleeful impunity. In doing so, he has inspired a small but disproportionately loud army of imitators on talk radio, cable television, and, increasingly, in the halls of Congress, whose rhetorical tactics of misinformation, demonization, incendiary metaphors, and poisonous historical analogies have done much to debase public discourse.

To say that the current state of public discourse is abysmal seems self-evident. Toxic rhetoric has become a fact of everyday life, a form of entertainment, and a corporate product. Aside from Limbaugh, the contemporary rhetorical scene features pundits such as Glenn Beck, who once mused on-air about killing a public official with a shovel, and talk radio host Neal Boortz, who compared Muslims to "cockroaches." Politicians can be equally offensive. Allen West, the Florida congressman, has compared the Democratic Party to Nazi propagandists, while California congresswoman Maxine Waters has called Republican leaders "demons." Given the forces of money and the power that support such discourse, it would easy to conclude that there is no remedy for toxic rhetoric and no credible opposing forces working to counteract it.

Such a view, however, would be mistaken. In fact, there is a well-organized, systematic, and dedicated effort taking place each day to promote an ethical public discourse grounded in the virtues of honesty, accountability, and generosity. The site of this effort is largely hidden from public view, taking place in the classrooms of universities and colleges across the United States. Even in academe, the movement for an ethical public discourse is largely overlooked. Indeed, it has been historically underfunded, inadequately staffed, and generally marginalized. I refer, of course, to first-year composition, the introductory writing course required at many public and private institutions.

To some, this may seem counterintuitive. First-year composition — also called academic writing, writing and rhetoric, college composition and other names — is not typically associated with improving public discourse, much less considered a "movement." To students required to take the course, it may initially be seen as a speed bump, an exercise in curricular gatekeeping best dispatched as painlessly as possible. To faculty who do not teach the course, it may inaccurately be dismissed as a remedial exercise in grammar and paragraph formation, functioning somewhere below the threshold of higher education proper.

Yet the first-year writing course represents one of the few places in the academic curriculum, in some institutions the only place, where students learn the basics of argument, or how to make a claim, provide evidence, and consider alternative points of view. Argument is the currency of academic discourse, and learning to argue is a necessary skill if students are to succeed in their college careers. Yet the process of constructing arguments also engages students, inevitably and inescapably, in questions of ethics, values, and virtues.

What do students learn, for example, when learning to make a claim? To make a claim in an argument is to propose a relationship between others and ourselves. For the relationship to flourish, a degree of trust must exist among participants, which means that readers must be assured that claims are made without equivocation or deception. To make a successful claim, then, students practice the virtue of honesty.

In the same way, to offer evidence for claims is both to acknowledge the rationality of the audience, which we trust will reason cogently enough to examine our views justly, and a statement of our own integrity, our willingness to support assertions with proofs. In offering evidence, we practice the virtues of respectfulness and accountability.

And when students include counter-arguments in their essays, when they consider seriously opinions, facts, or values that contradict their own, they practice the most radical and potentially transformative behavior of all; they sacrifice the consolations of certainty and expose themselves to the doubts and contradictions that adhere to every worthwhile question. In learning to listen to others, students practice the virtues of tolerance and generosity.

First-year composition, in other words, is more than a course in grammar and rhetoric. Beyond these, it is a course in ethical communication, offering students opportunities to learn and practice the moral and intellectual virtues that Aristotle identified in his Nicomachean Ethics as the foundation for a good life.

What does this mean for the future of public discourse? Potentially a great deal. Consider the numbers. The Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA), the professional association of writing programs, counts 152 university and college writing programs in its ranks. Each program may offer anywhere between 10 and 70 writing courses each semester, in classes of 12 to 25 students. Moreover, the CWPA represents just a fraction of the 4,495 institutions of higher education in the United States, serving some 20 million students. This suggests that even by the most conservative estimate thousands of institutions offer some form of first-year writing, and tens of thousands of students each year — likely many more than that — have opportunities to study the relationships of argument, ethics, and public discourse. Indeed, the first-year writing course is the closest thing we have in American public life to a National Academy of Reasoned Rhetoric, a venue in which students can rehearse the virtues of argument so conspicuously lacking in our current political debates.

Should students bring these virtues to the civic square, they will inevitably transform it, distancing us from the corrosive language of figures such as Rush Limbaugh and moving us toward healthier, more productive, and more generous forms of public argument. This, at any rate, is the promise of the long-maligned first-year writing course.

John Duffy is the Francis O'Malley Director of the University Writing Program and an associate professor of English at the University of Notre Dame.

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Essay on whether writing instructors need to assess themselves

Are we holding ourselves to the same rigorous standards we apply to our students? Are we practicing enough of what we preach?

The recent document the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing, developed by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project, posits eight "habits of mind and experiences that are critical for college success": curiosity, openness, engagement, creativity, persistence, responsibility, flexibility, and metacognition.

In a recent exchange on the WPA listserv (subject heading “Measuring the Habits of Mind”) several scholars in writing studies have debated the slippery question of whether these habits of mind can or should be measured or assessed. Most respondents replied with horror at the idea of such motivational terms being put under the scrutiny and micropolicing of assessment. In a passionate reply, one respondent wrote, "If we're going to assess anything, maybe we should start by looking at the conditions in which students are supposed to learn. A student can bring all the curiosity and creativity in the world into a classroom, but it won't help much if what she encounters there is an uninspired, poorly designed course taught by an ill-informed, unreflective dolt who dislikes students as much as the job of teaching (or just spends every hour lecturing 'facts' to students in the manner of Gradgrind)."

In reply to this and other posts, another respondent brought up the fact that a bibliography of selected research accompanies the framework. This teacher-scholar suggests both the importance of and the difficulty inherent in trying to assess (let alone "measure") sociological and psychological habits of mind: "I am sure that it is an odd and willful gesture of our profession, which deals with human beings, to toss so radically out a century of effort by psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychometricians to measure habits of mind — an effort still going strong, though not without plenty of caution, doubt, and resistance within those professions. Indeed, both yearning and qualms have attended the measurement of habits of mind in psychology from the beginning."

While both respondents argue important points to consider in relation to student performances in learning to write and writing-to-learn, the first one above also suggests an important consideration for writing teachers in relation to the eight habits of mind: the fact that these habits of mind should apply just as much to instructors as they do to students. If we ask students to exercise curiosity, then it is only fair to ask: Are we curious as instructors? How do we express that curiosity? Same for openness, engagement, creativity, and all the other terms. It would make little sense, one might argue, to preach to students that they should be exercising (or showcasing or practicing or honing) their engagement and creativity if they are subjected to a teacher in the classroom who drones out boring and uninspiring lesson plans in the classroom.  

Unfortunately, I do not have any magical answers to this dilemma. And I certainly do not have the type of psychometric knowledge our more social-scientifically minded colleagues possess. But I do feel the issue is a crucial one for us to consider. The best I can offer fellow teachers of writing is, let’s continue to practice metacognition in our theory and practice. Continue to read books like John Bean’s second edition of Engaging Ideas for tips, pointers, and expert guidance in ways to design inspiring and motivational writing curriculum. Continue to reflect on what students say about us in our course evaluations, and act on revising our teaching performances (and the habits of mind and action that undergird those self-reflections) if we don’t always like what they say. Perhaps readers of this article can offer further suggestions.

There’s a line from one of my favorite films, "Blade Runner," that applies to this situation. Deckard (Harrison Ford) gives a test to Rachel (Sean Young) to see (assess, measure) if she is a replicant (android) or a human being. Later, while visiting Deckard at his home, Rachel asks, “You know that void-comp test of yours? Did you ever take that test yourself?” Deckard does not reply.

I believe Rachel asks a crucial question that we as teachers should be asking ourselves at least every so often (if not every day). When students — almost always implied — ask us the same question, I hope we can learn how to offer a human-as-possible reply.  

Steven J. Corbett is assistant professor of English and director of the composition program at Southern Connecticut State University.


'The College Writing Toolkit'

Many of the students in today's college writing classroom are career-oriented and have little interest in literature; they also may not be native speakers of English. A traditional approach to teaching writing -- through reading and writing about classic literature -- may not reach these students.

Technology and Teaching Writing

Is it a given that technology enhances the acts of writing, as it does the arts and sciences of film-making, design, engineering, data collection and analyses, and so forth? What about the teaching and learning of writing?

In a flurry of recent exchanges (subject “Writing horse-shoe-of-horse-heading-east Technology”) on the Writing Program Administration (WPA) listserv, scholars in writing studies have argued these points in some theoretical and practical depth. Maja Wilson, from the University of Maine, sums up the argument nicely: "Steve [Krause, of Eastern Michigan University], and others were arguing that to teach writing, you need to teach the tools available now and not teach or allow the tools on their way out (pen, pencil), because if you aren't teaching the tools, you aren't teaching writing. Rich [Haswell, professor emeritus from Texas A&M University], and others argued that, while teaching the use of all those tools can be a good thing, it isn't necessary to teach writing: writing itself transcends the particular tools, so while teaching the tools can be involved in teaching writing, it isn't necessarily the same thing."

I was recently named Southern Connecticut State University, New Haven’s 2011 Outstanding Technological Teacher. While it is a great honor to receive this recognition of my work in teaching with technology, I must admit I was a late bloomer when it comes to utilizing technology in my teaching. Like many of my colleagues who teach writing, I ignored and resisted technology because I simply did not see it as substantially adding any extra learning value for students or for myself. I thought much more like the scholars in the Haswell camp.

But around 2003, colleagues at my former institution, the University of Washington, and I began to ask some serious questions about the value of teaching with technology for student learning. Since then I have been an ardent student — questioning, researching, and experimenting with the value of teaching with technology in my courses and sharing what I’ve learned with colleagues along the way. While the PR discourse surrounding the award has understandably presented the somewhat uncomplicated portrait of a finished exemplary techie teacher product, I’d like to share just a few insights I’ve gathered over the years with fellow Inside Higher Ed readers. I’ll offer some of the shining — as well as not-so-polished — snapshots of a teacher learning tech, in process.

The Ups

While I had used some technology in my writing courses for years, in 2005 I found myself in a position to take advantage of a great opportunity to research, teach and learn with innovative technology. I worked closely with a team of research scientists from the UW Center for Learning and Scholarly Technologies on two studies investigating the effects of transitioning from print to electronic portfolios (ePortfolios) in multiple sections of our first-year composition courses. This project is part of the larger Inter/National Coalition for Electronic Portfolio Research (I/NCEPR). You can peruse the impressions — from myself, and from the director of the UW Expository Writing Program, Anis Bawarshi — of our involvement in ePortfolio research here.

In short, our findings suggest: most students take to writing with technology quite well, and those who do not usually benefit from the practice and explicit instruction; instructors and administrators sometimes need just as much help learning about technological choices and options (let alone teaching them) as students; and online writing environments do not magically produce better student writing — or better teaching practices — but can allow for practice with different composing and teaching skills, which can lead to better writing, teaching, and administering depending on the form (for example awareness of audio, visual, and design considerations).

Importantly, this research quickly began to influence and enhance my teaching. I started using ePortfolios in all my writing courses. In every course I use ePortfolios in tandem with specific learning goals/ objectives. Portfolios allow students time to present their best work for the course and opportunities to revisit works in progress in order to critically and rhetorically analyze and revise their own written products and writing process performances. This also allows me, as the instructor, the ability to see each critical and creative move students are making in their attempts to meet the goals of the particular course. I also use the same ePortfolio online platform for my own simple website, including course webpages. That way, I can help students learn the system much more easily via modeling and my own trial and error experiences.

At about this time, I also started teaching in wired computer classrooms. Within about a year I proclaimed myself teaching in the "paperless" writing classroom. I started having students do all their work online: constructing ePortfolios to house and showcase all their work for the course, using online file-sharing spaces to conduct peer review and response on each other’s written work, and collaborating with each other in and out of the classroom with the aid of their computers.

One of the biggest pedagogical effects this approach has had on my teaching is to allow my classroom to become, more than ever, a real artistic writing studio — a place much like an art studio where students work on their writing in small groups and individually, while I circulate the room facilitating and joining in on student discussions of their written works in progress. This creative classroom fluidity is enhanced even further by the laptop-equipped classrooms designed and maintained at Southern Connecticut State University by William Hochman.

Further, I have taught these paperless writing courses with hundreds of students of all preparation levels and cultural backgrounds. For example, in the basic writing courses I have taught both at UW and here at Southern Connecticut, I have encountered many students who are unfamiliar, and sometimes quite uncomfortable, with negotiating any sort of technology. My technology-infused writing curriculum, I believe, offers students a warm welcome and patient learning process for several important writing-technology skills, including formatting texts, saving and sharing files, and designing simple webpages via their ePortfolios. I have watched students with great tech anxiety become much stronger in their ability to work with technology, witnessing the sense of agency and confidence that all students can gain if they experience an atmosphere conducive to collaboration and sharing, and just the right amount of challenging tasks. One such student, Fallon, started off with all the signs of this anxiety, but she ended up taking enthusiastically to writing with technology. We welcome you to visit her exemplary (though not perfect) ePortfolio with her full permission.

Please feel free to also peruse another, more advanced sample student ePortfolio from a writing-intensive course, English 200W: Writing Context: A Comparative Approach to Written Academic Communication.

Potential Downs (and Ways to Avoid Them)

The enthusiastic embracing of technology, including the idea of the paperless classroom, may strike some readers as quite a lot to consider. The main piece of advice I would give to fellow teachers interested in implementing tech into their teaching is be patient. Murphy’s Law applies to learning and teaching with technology like nothing else. So take it slow and easy. Rather than diving full-tilt into every tech application available, decide on one or two things at a time that you can work into your pedagogy. Always think about what any given piece of technology might add to the quality of your teaching (for example accommodating diverse student learning styles via audio/ visual elements). And always try to develop backup plans in case a given technology does not work.

Talk for just a while with experienced techie-teachers and you will quickly hear all sorts of admonishing stories involving difficulties with slow or inconsistent routing systems, students with varying levels of technological proficiency and savvy, or with students being distracted by Facebook or other online social networks.

Although above I describe how my laptop-equipped classrooms allow for a studio-like artistic environment, students and I have frequently experienced frustrating moments where our online connections get cut right in the middle of some creative activity like trying to post a document online. This has caused me to coach students on ways to back up their work. Flash drives, for example, become invaluable allies because they provide a good way to move documents back and forth from hard drives to online spaces — just in case we lose a connection.

The issue of different levels of student proficiency with tech is another common problem. I’ve often had students — like Fallon above — who had little practical experience with the intricacies of writing and sharing writing online. But this is where the ubiquitous collaborative pedagogy espoused and practiced by writing teachers everywhere helps. Since so much of what we do in my writing classes involves students helping students — as well as themselves — take more responsibility for each other’s writing processes, this same collaborative frame of mind applies to learning to write and share writing in online environments (see my article in Inside Higher Ed on how my peer review process works).

And the issue of students being distracted by social networks like Facebook is a valid concern for any techie teacher. A recent Inside Higher Ed article suggests just how distracting the thrall and temptation to visit online social networking environments in classrooms can be for students. But the article also suggests (and I would agree) that a vigilant teacher can stay on top of the problem of the compulsive web-surfer often simply by watching students' eye movements and gestures. By circulating the room frequently, and training ourselves to be aware of the subtle and not-so-subtle eye and hand movements that can belie a Facebook frequenter, we can take steady steps toward keeping students attentive and on task.

Yet one of the more difficult downs to work against involves faculty attitudes toward teaching with technology. One of the things I’ve noticed, at both a huge R1 like UW and a midsize teaching school like Southern Connecticut, is faculty resistance to teaching with technology. I remember, for instance, trying to sell the idea of ePortfolios to a group of writing program administrators and instructors at the UW. I heard every excuse imaginable, including the potential “downs” we discussed above, and others like "I would prefer not to do online commenting because I have always written my comments out by hand. It is much more convenient for me to bring hard copies with me wherever I might go." (Yep, even in the land of Microsoft and Bill Gates.)

For me, it has often been more difficult to persuade colleagues to buy into experimenting with techie teaching and learning than students. And given the fact that I think of myself as coming late to tech-teaching, I really do understand where these sorts of skeptical attitudes come from. But I have also witnessed just how much tech has to offer our students in terms of tools for enhanced learning. The bottom line is that tech is not going away any time soon. For teachers of college writing — at least in first-year composition — the fairly recent edition of a fifth category to the WPA [learning] Outcomes Statement "Composing in Electronic Environments" makes the links between writing, learning, and technology a crucial pedagogical priority.

Still, I believe we should do what we can as teachers of writing to keep the ups and downs of teaching and learning with tech in critical tension. Let’s try to be careful not to get too high or too low on tech, and with luck our colleagues and students will appreciate our sober points of view.

Why Aren't You Writing?

Last month, I was contacted by a faculty member I had met several years ago at a conference (I’ll call her Claire). Our conversation began like many I’ve had recently, with tears in response to a negative and critical annual review. Claire is a brilliant social scientist, incredibly hard-working, and passionately committed to her scholarship, her institution and her students. While Claire is an award-winning teacher, and far exceeded her college’s service expectations, her publication record was significantly below her department’s standards.

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