September Post – Pedagogical Initiations

So far things have been going fairly well. Students are talking about the potentially uncomfortable topics of the readings dealing with sexuality in mature ways and asking intriguing questions. I’m pleasantly surprised by their willingness to engage in discussions about reading and writing at 8am (with some gentle nudging). Like in Luke’s post, student questions and responses are helping me to refine the language I use in giving assignments or explaining a concept.

Here’s what I’m wondering about –

I’ve been doing a good deal of group/pair work in class – both analyzing passages and responding to each other’s writing. Students seem to be inwardly groaning when we do this and their desire for a straight lecture and for me to “explain” what everything means is, at times, almost palpable. I guess I’m probably worried myself about them thinking that I’m sloughing too much of the responsibility for interpretation onto them. I know there’s no magic formula for the ratio of group work to class discussion to lecture, but I am trying to find a balance that makes me feel comfortable and serves the goals of the class.

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. 😂.

Course Sites

Here are recent drafts of some of the R&C courses currently being developed by the members of this seminar:

UCB 2016
2016 Seminar in the Art of Teaching Writing



Seminar, Fri, 6/10

Keeping This Conversation Going 

Reflections on This Seminar

Our hope is to hold another version of this seminar in June 2017, so we would very much appreciate your help as we refine and move forward with this project. Could you please do some reflective writing for about 15 minutes in which you respond to any or all of the following questions:

  • What should we make sure to continue to do?
  • What might we do more of?
  • What could we perhaps do differently?

You don’t need to put your name on your document if you don’t want to. Please email or hand your reflection to John Paulas. He will organize them for Ramona and me to review.


Please take an hour to do some more work on your course materials. I will be wandering about the room and happy to advise about scheduling, WordPress, and other logistics. At the end of the hour, I’ll ask you to email me the link to your site, so I can project it onscreen. I’ll then ask each of you to speak informally about for two minutes (but absolutely no more!) about the theme of your course and a writing project that you plan to assign students in it.Then we’ll have our arcade.


Have your laptop open with your course website displayed. Turn your screen to the middle of the room. Walk around, see what people are doing, and talk to them about it.

Last Thoughts From Me

I thought this week was at once exhausting and invigorating. I’m excited by the courses you are designing, and I think Berkeley is lucky to have you! Please don’t hesitate to contact me in the coming weeks and months. I’m eager to keep in touch.

Thanks for your work!



Some Links From Asao Inoue

I can offer more, but this is a good start, I think. The first article above is likely the one they would want to start with to see a detailed way I use the contract in my classrooms. The book’s chapter 4 offers an in-depth look at how the contract turns a course toward conditions that are fertile for antiracist work in the classroom. It shows my own classroom. The middle article is an empirical study of contracts in Fresno State’s writing program (in case, they need research to offer to chairs or others for using contracts).