ENG 5316: Composition Pedagogy
Dr. Rebecca Jackson
Situating course and rationale
In just the last decade, the materiality of the writing space and writing tools — the computer screen and its interactive and networking capabilities — have been altered to the extent that the still-common image of “basic” writers composing with paper and pencil represents a disturbing disconnect. It is possible that middle-class students will arrive at a state university possessing that basic technical dexterity. I’m less certain that students who enroll at a community college and plan to transfer to a university will be as well equipped. In my position as a part-time English/writing tutor at Austin Community College (ACC) in the last few years, I’ve helped a substantial number of “developmental” writing (and English Comp I) students who don’t have the skills necessary to create word documents, save them, upload them to a course web site, or the intellectual sophistication to distinguish between a web site that exists to advertise a product and one that is suitable for citing as a reference in a research paper. My concern is the degree of disconnect between what developmental writers are being taught today and what they could likely be expected to know by the time they enroll in First Year Composition (FYC). This disparity would most likely constitute yet another “digital divide,” and would adversely affect future students’ ability to function in the 21st century workplace. In one of the few journal articles that directly and extensively comments on the subject, two community college professors discuss the ramifications of the disconnect between developmental writing and digital literacy, and the culture at-large. In “New Worlds of Errors and Expectations: Basic Writers and Digital Assumptions,” the authors write:
… the use of computers in composition is a given, technology is part of the academic zeitgeist. While in the 1980s and 1990s much was made of “the digital divide,” documenting the economic and educational injustice of access to computers, those arguments are largely erased, or forgotten, in a culture where computers are everywhere. With the advent of Web 2.0 and social media, however, a new digital divide is emerging.
(Klages and Clark 32)
In the era of instant publishing, “basic writers” are at an increasing disadvantage. Whereas in previous decades these students and their writing would have been invisible, the digital environment clearly showcases their lack of understanding of edited American English:
Without significant work in digital literacies … basic writers face double jeopardy. They will have the traditional markers and challenges of basic writers coupled with an inability to critically engage and produce in the digital medium. Just as literacy has always been linked to social, cultural, and economic power, so too does this new digital literacy mean access to our newest forms of cultural power. The digital divide is no longer about access to technology, but rather a more complex divide of those who have had the educational access, training, and critical engagement to use technology well as literate cyber-citizens.
(Klages and Clark 47— 48)
Web 2.0 media seems ideal for developmental writers because it emphasizes project-based learning experiences, an arena in which students must periodically access what is or isn’t working. As such, students enhance their ability to not only problem-solve but also to become aware of their thinking, the quality of their thinking, and whether their thinking is improving the outcome of what is being created. This process allows students to combine the metacognitive element and the ability to look objectively at their work, i.e., to judge whether it is becoming more reader-centered than writer-centered. In light of this, I truly believe there is an appropriate place in developmental writing for digital literacies: an exit-level course, a “gateway” course to FYC.
Developmental Writing II with Basic Intro to Writing New Media Texts Workshop
A gateway course to FYC would give students an opportunity to discover how to apply their creative talents and digital literacies to compose academically appropriate web-texts. I envision this course to be a variation on the “special”
learning community courses currently offered at ACC. In developmental writing literature, this could be considered a combination of the Stretch Model and Studio Model, alternative course formats that are credit-bearing and that focus on intensive writing practice (Lalicker 17-20). At ACC, these courses have been implemented as a way to more efficiently mainstream and retain developmental students through engaging, alternative learning communities.
The narrative essay is a standard starting point in exit-level developmental writing courses for a couple of reasons. First, developmental writers typically lack confidence, and telling their stories using a chronologically organized arc is a familiar format. Prompts for these essays often ask students to reflect on a situation or person or life experience that changed them. Brainstorming and drafting such a narrative facilitates connecting prior knowledge to new concepts. As the course proceeds, essay assignments become less and less about the self and more about the self in relation to society — a progression intended to lead to increased awareness that effective college-level writing is more reader-centered than writer-centered.
The Writing New Media Project begins by allowing students to access their strengths as storytellers with expertise in their content matter. Here, the narrative (part 1 of the Writing New Media Project) has been adapted so that students can build confidence, mastery, and agency as 21st writers capable of interpreting, responding to, and producing new media texts. This activity was created to help students connect out-of-school writing literacy with academic essay writing strategies by asking them to reflect upon and reinterpret their personal histories as “writers” of “texts.”
The “Questions” section was adapted from an activity listed in a resource for English teachers interested in expanding the teaching of composition by assigning new media writing projects. The textbook was written by some of the leading scholars in the field including Anne Wysocki, Johndan Johnson-Eilola, Cynthia Selfe, and Geoffrey Sirc (59-61).
Creating a digital form of the essay (part 2) should at the very least provide students with an opportunity to see and experiment with how new media literacies can be incorporated into the development of their own “academic” writing voice. Part 3, interviewing relatives about their literary practices, allows students to practice researching primary sources, and use critical thinking skills to gather and synthesize their findings. The final Writing New Media project requires students to creatively and critically think about how to integrate all the textual elements, including the narrative, their interviews with relatives, and visuals for an effective production to share with an audience — their classmates and instructor.
Course texts and readings
The Writer’s Workplace with Readings: Building College Writing Skills is on the list of approved textbooks for ACC Developmental Writing Skills II courses, an exit-level course designed to prepare students for FYC. It includes the baseline of essentials in one text, plus a workbook that offers plenty of activities on how to define and refine a thesis, etc. Unlike course texts that students are likely to purchase for English Comp I, the textbook combines the grammar handbook and reader. This not only keeps costs down, it makes the amount of “catch-up” work seem less overwhelming than it would otherwise. The handbook component includes detailed grammar reviews to help developmental writers finesse complex sentence structures that combine clauses and coordinating conjunctions, as well as the basic “non-sentence” errors — comma splices, run-ons, and fragments. It covers how to write under pressure, plus everything from writing as a process, brainstorming ideas, prewriting strategies, crafting a thesis, composing essays using various rhetorical modes — Narration, Descriptive, Compare and Contrast, etc. — to the sourcing, citing, paraphrasing, and quoting involved in producing credible research papers. The selection of readings in the “reader” sections illustrate:
- various compositional modes;
- how to address topical social issues that developmental writers are asked to think about when crafting persuasive essays, such as “Are you for or against the right to carry concealed handguns after the tragedy at Virginia Tech?”; and
- short stories that showcase writing as a fine art, or literature.
Mostly, however, the readings function to reinforce the reading/writing connection, and are often followed by prompts designed to stimulate analytical thinking and class discussions.
Other course “texts”
The textbook discussed above does not cover digital literacies or producing new media texts. I read several books to get some ideas on how to create such a course and what kinds of assignments would be useful, including Because Digital Writing Matters, The Digital Writing Workshop, and Multimodal Composition: Resources for Teachers.
However, because I see my course as one designed for exit-level developmental writing students, I think some of the most useful supplemental readings would come from Writing About Writing: A College Reader. Before assigning the first essay on autobiography and techno literacy, I would have students read and discuss Donald Murray’s “All Writing is Autobiography” (56-66) and Deborah Brandt’s “Sponsors of Literacy” (331-352). Other pieces I’d include: “The Future of Literacy” (395-421) and “From Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technologies” (422-441).
The syllabus is aligned with those used in most ACC Developmental Writing Courses. It follows the “master” syllabus in that it includes the required sections, including course outcome goals, etc.
It was a major effort to synthesize all the elements and then add the writing new media component. To keep track of the pacing and sequence of assignments I color-coded them according to category — essay, grammar, etc. I found that this process helped me and the students make better visual sense of the syllabus and its workflow.
Regarding the “About the instructor” portion of the syllabus, I’ve gone back and forth about the efficacy of “sharing” so much about myself. However, I decided to “go for it” because, from past experience teaching developmental writing, I found that “telling” my story has helped me quickly establish rapport and credibility with the class. I let them know that I made it, and I can help them “run the gauntlet” necessary to get to FYC and transfer to a “real school” — a common goal among the students I’ve worked with at a community college.
I envision the pedagogical underpinnings of this course to be a mix of old and new. The course, itself, set up as a workshop/studio, would evoke community and collaborative pedagogies as well as a critical cultural consciousness about the self and technology during a time of exponential cultural changes in writing, communication technologies, and rhetoric.
To teach the material required to pass the timed English exam essays and the other “standards,” including the “research paper,” I’d use process-based approaches to help students streamline their thoughts, define and refine a thesis, and then cogently organize everything on paper in a timely manner. However, the new media writing pieces would allow for a much more open approach to the creative process. For example, the students’ first essay, the autobiography, could very well begin and develop as many do: chronologically. But I can imagine a lot of possibilities for working collaboratively, when students start thinking about and producing “the visuals” in part 2 and again, when they add the “roots” element. Defining the writing space as a digital space, I think, forces students to think, on a basic level, rhetorically in that it requires them to think about whether to present the information as a blog, in which case some of the information would be “read” backwards or as a PowerPoint presentation, which would also require rhetorical strategies in terms of pacing and how to best visually represent concepts. Another option: visuals with accompanying audio – a narrative voice reading a script and/or music in the background. Overall, a WordPress-based website might be the best choice as it would allow for any of the above options, and more. For instance, students would have to review many site design templates to determine which would most effectively present their information. This process would compel students to think through how best to translate a print project into the digital realm, which color palette would work best, and which navigation scheme would work best to help readers find their content.
The “standard” essays and new media projects carry the most weight and are essentially equal in the grade schema. As the course is defined as a workshop, attendance and class participation is valued at 15%, to emphasize the importance of regular attendance and class participation. The journal requirement is intended to encourage the development of a regular writing practice that is more free-form and not “graded,” in the usual sense. The aim is to encourage experimentation and less self-criticism. Grammar carries the least grading weight, because this is an exit-level developmental writing course that focuses more on developing content than on mechanics.
Due to the inclusion of the technology portion of this course, I believe it would be necessary to tweak and update the scope and materials frequently to remain relevant and determine the most effective way to reach and teach students, much more so than other exit-level developmental writing courses I have taught. I would in the future like to look into ways in which course management software might help me gain feedback from students to help improve the course.
Finally, before test-driving this course, I would do a thorough reading of several books that have helped me grasp the prompts and overall pedagogical orientation required when creating such a developmental writing/FYC/new media course hybrid. Texts I would study would include Because Digital Writing Matters, The Digital Writing Workshop, and Multimodal Composition: Resources for Teachers.
Baron, Dennis. “From Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technologies.” Writing About Writing: A College Reader. Boston: Bedford/St.Martin’s. 2011.
Brandt, Deborah. “Sponsors of Literacy.” Writing About Writing: A College Reader. Writing About Writing. Boston: Bedford/St.Martin’s. 2011.
DeVoss, Danielle Nicole, Elyse Eidman— Aadahl, and Troy Hicks. Because Digital Writing Matters. San Francisco, CA: Jossey— Bass. 2010.
DeVoss, Danielle, et al. “The Future of Literacy.” Writing About Writing: A College Reader. Boston: Bedford/St.Martin’s. 2011
Hicks, Troy. The Digital Writing Workshop: Improving Student Writing in Online and Multimedia Environments. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 2009.
Klages, Maria A. and J. Elizabeth Clark. “New Worlds of Errors and Expectations: Basic Writers and Digital Assumptions.” Journal of Basic Writing 28.1 (2009): 32— 49. JSTOR, PDF file. 20 June 2012.
Lalicker, William B. “A Basic Introduction to Basic Writing Program Structures: A Baseline and Five Alternatives.” Teaching Developmental Writing: Background Readings. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2007.
Murray, Donald M. “All Writing is Autobiography.” Writing About Writing: A College Reader. Boston: Bedford/St.Martin’s. 2011.
Selfe, Cynthia L. Multimodal Composition: Resources for Teachers. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press. 2007.
Wysocki, A.F., Johnson— Eilola J., Selfe, C.L. & Sirc, Geoffrey. “Activity 1: Technological Literacy Autobiographies.” Writing New Media: Theory and Applications for Expanding the Teaching of Composition. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2004.