End of Semester Wrap-Up, Thurs, 12/01

Closing Thoughts

At the end of each of my courses I ask students to reflect in a number of ways about the work they’ve done over the past several weeks. While the specific questions I ask vary a bit from course to course, I tend to return to some version of the following:

  1. Narrative: Tell the story of your work in this class this semester. Where were you—as a reader and a writer—at the start of the term? Where are you now? How did you get there? What were some key turning points (or stuck points) in the unfolding of this story?
  2. Snapshot: If you had to pick one moment or event to stand for your experiences in this class, what would it be? Try to describe that moment as vividly as you can.
  3. Accomplishment: What piece of work for this class do you feel most proud of? Why? What did you learn in doing it?

I thought it might be interesting if you spent 10 or 15 minutes thinking in writing about these questions in relation to the course you’ve just taught. Don’t feel you have to respond to all three questions. A full answer to one or two of them would be great. We’ll read and talk about your responses when you’re done.

And, fyi, here’s the Seminar in Composition I taught this semester at Delaware, on Writing About Repair.

My Thoughts

Sorry I was unable to participate in what seemed, from the phrases I could pick up here and there, to be an interesting conversation about responding to student work.

I think the draft that Caroline shared showcases perhaps the two biggest challenges facing beginning student writers: (a) having a point or idea that drives your writing, and (b) finding the right voice or register to use in making that point. I agree with the comments I could hear—which were basically to tell the student to foreground the idea or question driving his essay, to give his readers a better sense of what all his evidence was evidence of. I’m not sure that I would try to guess myself at what the writer was trying to say, though. Maybe he wants to write about gender, maybe not. Rather, I’d ask him to begin his next draft by explaining some of the binaries he lists near the end of this piece: “homeliness” vs. “foreignness”, or “humbleness” vs. “violence (?), or “desire” vs. “war”. That is, I’d try to get him to build on some of the keywords and ideas he has already introduced.

I read the writer’s style, which truly is strange, as a kind of tortured effort to mimic a discourse that he doesn’t really know yet, to sound like what he thinks an academic or intellectual might sound like. David Bartholomae has written a much-admired essay called “Inventing the University” about this. One way of trying to get him to tone down his style might be to ask him to write a brief summary or abstract of his piece for someone who has read neither his essay nor Babel. That might push him to explain some of his key terms and oppositions in plainer English.  But I suspect it will take him a while to work through the anxiety that I think is behind many of his very odd and inflated sentences.

I actually feel a little more impatient with the author of the Calvino essay. I’m not entirely sure he has actually read Invisible Cities. But even if he has, he doesn’t analyze the novel so much as use it, inkblot fashion, as a mere starting point for some sort of pop philosophical riff. I don’t think I learn anything new about Calvino from this. I’d be interested to hear how Isobel responded, but I think I’d be tempted to tell the student that he needs to start over, to try something else.

And what most intrigues me about the Mill-Carlyle essay are the comments in red. Are they the student’s reading of his own piece? Because they seem oddly more insightful than the piece itself. Again, I wish that technology allowed me to hear more about this essay and the course it was written in.

From left field,






Getting to know you, late in the game

After our last class, one of my students came up to me after the class and wanted to offer some feedback. I have heard teachers complain about things like this, especially in the context of young-looking women being offered unsolicited teaching advice from men in their class. However, this student was respectful and framed the advice as the kind of advice he would like to get from his students (I guess he must be teaching a DeCal or something?). And most of his suggestions were actually pretty on the mark! (We are planning to do a midterm evaluation soon anyway to gather precisely this kind of feedback, so I guess Christmas just came early.)

His main focus was on the relationships between students in the class–namely that there really aren’t any. Between the shifting enrollments at the beginning of the semester, and the sheer size of the class, we never did any kind of generalized “ice-breaker.” We also haven’t explicitly encouraged the students to learn each other’s names. And, of course, there is the “ping-pong” structure of discussion that we have lamented in our Koshland conversations. This student was totally right to bring to our attention that we haven’t done enough fostering of in-class community, and we are planning to address it in our next section, but I wanted to see if anyone has any suggestions.

See, I think there are two reasons we haven’t done this. One, I’ve never come up with what seems like an actually useful “icebreaker” type exercise. So if anybody has a recommendation for something they’ve done with students, please let me know! And two, I don’t know how to do an icebreaker with almost 40 students that won’t take up the whole class. With 80 minutes of meeting time, if everybody talks for two minutes (which is kind of a long time, but with pauses and trying to think of a clever answer, etc., actually not totally unrealistic), that’s an entire class. If we had a truly substantive exercise that would in fact have the effect of fostering community and mutual interest/appreciation in the students, I wouldn’t hesitate to use a whole class on it–but I shudder to think of a full hour and twenty minutes spent with them each in a row saying their name, intended major, and favorite movie/animal/place/whatever. How do you make a group so big feel intimate, and do it in such a way that the 35th person to introduce themselves isn’t talking to a room full of sleeping peers?

Thanks everybody, and here’s hoping you have some fabulous ideas I can steal!!

Student writing when the text isn’t literary

Hi all, I’d like to give you a little update about how my students’ first essay is going, since it’s a somewhat experimental assignment and it felt like a risk. In a nutshell, they are writing an essay about a person they know using three texts associated with that person. Common choices have been songs, text messages, Instagram posts, clothing, and (controversially) hairstyles. So far I have received and read the first two phases of this assignment: an initial analysis of just one text, and the first draft.

I was pretty pleased with the results of the first phase (analysis of one text). In particular, I found myself far more interested in what they were writing about than I have been with the typical “diagnostic” essay, which in past classes was frequently an uninspired Shakespeare commentary. I could tell that they were much more interested, not only in what they were writing about but also in how to write it. And they intuitively made the analytical moves that I’ve been trying to hammer into teenagers’ heads for the past four years, like the “although” thesis statement. For example: Although it seems like Angelina is confident person, those who know her well can see that confidence is her way of protecting herself. One of my students produced this argument without me having to say anything about “although.” Our workshop of this assignment also went quite well. With Joe’s workshop format, I found that people stayed on task remarkably well. The revision plan was an unexpected boon – to my great surprise, many of them successfully identified the things they needed to revise, which freed me up to praise what went well.

Of course, many of the essays weren’t so interesting, and in the usual ways – banal arguments, no engagement with form, etc. This became especially true in the first draft, in which they had to be a little more ambitious than they were in phase one. But some of the problems were new and interesting in themselves. One student wrote what was quite transparently an attempted homage to a high school crush, and his text was her hair. He claimed that the way she twirled her hair revealed a lot about her as a person. My immediate reaction was “what have I done!” Then I decided to engage with the essay at face value. In my comments, I asked him what he thought this girl might think about him “reading” her hair this way, and what the potential problematics of doing so might be.

How would you guys have responded? And how are your riskier writing assignments going? Any pleasant surprises? Horrors?


Style, and when to talk about it

We worked on style in my class today, and I thought I’d share the exercises we did, because on the off chance that any of you decide to experiment with them, I’d love to hear how it goes for you (particularly if you try them at a different point in the whole draft/revision/editing process). My students are turning in the final version of their first essay on Friday, but as soon as I finished this class, I realized it probably would’ve been more helpful to do something like this earlier in the writing process. Here’s what we did:

Basically, this was a series of 3 short writing exercises. First, I had them write up a how-to guide for a simple task of their choice (how to cook an egg, how to post something on facebook, etc). Then I had them write a paragraph beginning a letter to a loved one they miss — a parent, a sibling, a high school friend, boyfriend/girlfriend at home, etc.

Once they were done, we read the how-to’s aloud and talked about the style. What’s consistent across all the examples? What assumptions are made about the reader? How is the writing organized? etc. Then we did the same for the letters to loved ones, and noted how big the differences were in all these basic features (for example, addressing a general, unknown audience vs a specific person you’re intimate with; proceeding in a clear step-by-step fashion vs. a less directed and more loosely associated progression; talking only about concrete steps/actions vs foregrounding thoughts and feelings, etc).

Then I asked them to do a mash-up in either direction. Either write a how-to in the style of a letter to a loved one, or a letter to a loved one in the style of a how-to. The idea was that they should try to communicate the same thoughts as before, only switch the style. As you can imagine, this produces some funny stuff, but the point of this step is that it’s almost impossible to do. If you try to write a set of instructions in the form of a love letter, it’s pretty difficult to actually communicate how to do something. And as one student pointed out, if he were to actually write a letter to his mom in the “how-to” style, she would probably get upset at him because it’s so cold and lifeless. One student added that what he had produced when he turned his letter home into a how-to was really more like a poem than either a letter or a set of instructions. I thought this was right on, and a great way of getting at the larger takeaway that style is not simply window-dressing or a fancy costume that you put on your writing; it actually determines what you can and can’t say, in a very real sense.

These exercises led to a brief discussion of the kind of writing we’re doing for this class, which is when I realized this exercise probably would fit better at the beginning of the essay-writing process than the end. What it really seems to do is get students to feel how the style they’re using either facilitates (or impairs) their ability to say something. If we had done this earlier on, I wonder if they would then be in a better position to observe certain features of academic writing as style in these terms — practices or conventions that contain assumptions about who is reading and why, and that make it possible to say some things better than others. I think many of our students have been encouraged (either intentionally or unintentionally) to adopt a style that feels formal and academic, without being asked to consider why, or towards what end. I think an exercise like this might be a good way to open up that kind of a discussion.

If any of you are still in the early stages of drafting or revising, consider giving it a try and let me know how it goes!

“Why and How I Write” ‘Diagnostic’

Hi All,

Chatting after today’s meeting inspired me to write up some thoughts about an initial writing assignment by my English department colleague and friend Serena Le. Like many of you, I’ve typically done a first day fastwrite and/or discussion about students’ previous experiences with writing / literary study / English classes. Serena builds on such opening reflection by having students write a personal essay for their first assignment, in response to a (quite extensive) prompt on “Why & How I Write.”

In a recent department R&C meeting, Serena shared four students’ essays. One discussed how “For me, writing has become an activity that has gotten more difficult and tedious with time instead of getting easier with practice,” recounting a narrative of difficulty adapting to the shifting expectations of new courses, from elementary and middle school, to early high school, to AP courses, to Berkeley courses. The second wrote a highly analytic breakdown of “Why and How I Program” into a fifty percent global reason of wanting to get a good grade, twenty-five percent as a requirement on applications, and the last twenty-five percent as everyday communications; unsurprisingly, the essay also discussed the student’s sense of a need for structure when writing, partly in the context of a greater comfort programming rather than writing essays. The third essay situated the student’s sense of their own tendency to digress in the context of their trilingual and international background and a process of trying to balance the pursuit of new trains of thought with the use of outlining. The fourth essay recounted a childhood love of reading, the challenges and rewards of the student finding their own voice in an Ethnic Studies class, and a demonstration of the importance of telling one’s own story to counter biased, privileged narratives. Serena spoke to how the essays were super valuable to her, in giving her a more robust, more detailed appreciation for the range of her students’ backgrounds, relationships with writing, and concerns and goals for their writing. She also posted her own response (after the students had all posted theirs) and required each student to read a couple of their peers’ pieces; she said that many of them wound up reading ALL of the essays, and that it had already had a significant effect on the dynamic of the classroom community.

As I’ve been reflecting on the assignment, I’ve been thinking about how it goes beyond the basic function of “getting to know” each other. Writing an essay to the whole class, rather than just the instructor, also gives a clear sense of audience and purpose, while also soliciting for students to articulate each’s personal sense of concerns, audience, and purpose. That the students read each others’ varied experiences normalizes difference, so that each person doesn’t feel their own differences as deviance from a(n abstract, presumed) norm. And the ample mentions of practical writing tricks and strategies initiates the course with a horizontal relation of students learning from each other, supplying the course with their own saturation of tools, so that differences of knowledge and approach are also practically valuable.

I also really like the way that, in making space for students’ narratives of difficulty with writing, the assignment normalizes that difficulty and its attendant affects. At the same time, some of the essays speak to the value that can come out of difficulty—even the narrative of limited and frustrated development was a narrative of some degree of growth. In this way, the essays clear document how both writing itself and learning to write are extended processes. Finally, the solicitation of the personal dimension situates the work of the course within larger contexts and personal concerns.

I think perhaps these extensions, beyond an individual conception of what writing ‘is’ or ‘is like,’ to a personal relationship with and situated praxis of writing, amount to an argument for devoting the initial “diagnostic” assignment to something like this rather than something like a close reading. The papers also appeared to demonstrate quite adept and creative displays of voice, organization, presentation, and insight, with what seemed to me confidence even when claiming limited competence. The assignment thus would seem to offer a relatively secure ground from which to build a ladder over affective barriers, in contrast to starting by asking students to skate out onto the thin ice of a close reading task, and seems to give a more accurate sense of their practical knowledge and fluent abilities, having students identify as intermediate apprentices rather than inflicting novicehood upon them. Finally, it also opens the course by explicitly soliciting connections between the labor of writing, students’ personal lives, and “big questions.” (I should also mention that Serena has students write a follow-up, parallel articulation at the end of the semester.)

So, the example struck me as an impressive one, and apropos, so I thought I’d share it.

First day takeaways

First day of class yesterday, and all in all I think things went pretty well! The mood was upbeat and by the end of the hour students were beginning to interact with one another as actual peers. As in, people with names who think thoughts that are worth discussing. Success!

The big takeaway for me was a better sense of the impact of apparently minor details in the instructions I give. Even a single word added or omitted can make quite the difference. Here’s what happened:

I decided to begin class with some writing. So, I wrote “Writing is…” on the board. Then I asked everyone to take a piece of paper, begin by writing “Writing is,” and continue that thought in whichever direction they wanted, for 7-8 minutes. I suggested making an analogy, or describing an emotion that reflected their sense of what it feels like to write. I stressed that they might very well take things in a more positive or negative direction, depending on their own experiences — no judgment. Once everyone was done, we went around the room and read our paragraphs out loud, and then discussed what we noticed.

I had expected to hear some funny comparisons, and some feelings about the difficulties or challenges of writing (and perhaps here and there an expression of satisfaction or discovery). And this happened, to some extent. One student described writing as “an interminable road trip” (exhausting, tedious, but some hidden gems here and there along the way), one compared it to “a dark night, but a bright morning,” and another compared it to an obstacle course he hoped to master. But the majority of students came out with statements more akin to definitions: writing is an expression, a communication, a kind of speech you can’t do in-person, a process of self-reflection, an attempt at understanding, an artform.

This probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise. In retrospect, I think I was so concerned with giving students a wide enough playing field that I hadn’t really considered how I might end up inadvertently narrowing their sense of what I was going for. Of course they’d try to put together something like a definition of writing — I asked them to write down what “writing is,” and they’re good students trying to do what the teacher says! If I were to do this again, I would make a small change, and instead of telling them to begin with “Writing is…” I’d say begin with “Writing is like…” I bet that would make a big difference.

I’m happy to say, however, that the repeated emphasis on definitions and processes (revising, editing, and the like) ended up becoming an opportunity for us to talk about the fact that we all seemed to be thinking of writing as something that eventually takes the form of print media. Writing, in this academic setting, was essentially academic. Given the shared sense of writing as a form of expression, was there any particular reason why we weren’t thinking of the many other forms of communication that we do on a daily basis as writing — texts, emails, comments, etc? When I raised this question, one student reported that lately she found herself using a particular emoji (😂) in messages to her friends, because it just seemed to express her feelings best. This resonated with a lot of students, led to a discussion of the way different forms of writing are suited to different audiences and capable of expressing different things. All of which is to say that what I initially felt was a flaw in my instructions actually ended up producing a pretty worthwhile conversation about the very thing we’ll be spending the semester exploring together. 😂.