Since 2006, I have taught several sections of college freshman writers at two large research institutions: the University of Oklahoma (OU) and the Pennsylvania State University (Penn State). These courses include: ENGL 1113, 1213, ENGL 015, and ENGL 030.
Summer 2013: English 015 (LEAP)
Spring 2013: English 005 (Penn State Learning Center)
Summer 2012: English 015
Spring 2012: English 005 (Penn State Learning Center)
Fall 2011: English 005 (Penn State Learning Center)
Summer 2011: English 015
Spring 2011: English 015 and English 030H
Fall 2010: English 015
Summer 2010: English 015 (LEAP)
Spring 2010: English 015
Fall 2009: English 015
Summer 2009: English 1213
Fall 2008: English 1113
Fall 2007: English 1113
Spring 2007: English 1213
Fall 2006: English 1113
Both schools are on a semester system, but had different writing program requirements. OU students must take two semesters of composition courses: ENGL 1113 and ENGL 1213. However, exceptional writers may CLEP out of ENGL 1113. An advanced placement examination is also available for transfer students unable to successfully transfer credits from prior English/Communication courses. Upperclassmen science and engineering students are also required to take ENGL 3153: Technical Writing. In contrast, Penn State freshman are required to take one semester of composition: ENGL 015: Principles of Rhetoric and Composition, ENGL 030H: Principles of Rhetoric and Composition (Honors), or LA 101: Rhetoric and Civic Life. As upperclassmen, they take another mandatory writing course, ENGL 202, appropriate for their field. For instance, ENGL 202C is a Technical Writing course, ENGL 202B is for Writing in the Humanities, and other 202s are for Business Writing and Social Sciences.
Evidence of Teaching Effectiveness
The majority of these student populations were affluent Caucasians between ages 18-20. Each term, however, my classes included a few non-traditional students including veterans, returning students, and single parents, as well as some underrepresented students such as first-generation, rural, multilingual, and African-American. At OU, Native-American and Hispanic students constituted the majority of my underrepresented students whereas Appalachian, multi-racial, and international students seemed more common at Penn State.
Regardless of students’ educational and socio-economic background, few students competently performed academic communication conventions. Throughout the years, some of the following patterns persist:
- Use of passive voice to give the impression of objectivity
- Inability to supply specific examples that demonstrate broad evaluations
- Cluttering sentences with multiple clauses to give the impression of complex reasoning
- Discomfort with making evaluations, especially confusion between ‘judging’ and ‘analyzing’
- Limited range of expressions to discuss values and ethics
- Narrow conceptualization of causality and magnitude, especially in terms of human interaction
- Overly committed to compliance (e.g. writing ‘correctly’ and doing it ‘right’)
These patterns suggest that students are resistant to risk-taking with their writing (and thereby their thinking). Since these patterns contribute to conflict in the writing classroom, we draw on rhetorical theory and discourse analysis (e.g. New Literacy Theory) to explicitly identify language practices and their relationship to identity.
Classroom as Community
When students realize that the university is a hub of interdependent, diverse fields of study, administrations, and support services, they begin to recognize that the writing classroom does not have to be a space where they have to ‘get it right.’ As the instructor, I define our discourse community as a hack space, one of the few comfortable and challenging places they will be able to experiment with expressing, exchanging, and revising their perceptions of reality. Indeed, a College Composition Course ought to value the production of new knowledge. We use this objective to root our pursuit of becoming excellent writers. Through our communication of personal experiences about coming to know our abilities, wishes, hopes, and fears, we develop trust for one another, freeing ourselves to comprehend how humans organize their experiences in language. Throughout this process, we modify these codes to create novel meanings capable of articulating our distinctiveness and connectedness, simultaneously. We get a style, we have attitude, and the memory of great stories.
I’ve had experience using both Desire2Learn and Blackboard’s Angel as course management systems (CMS). While many teachers prefer these platforms, I need a less hierarchical structure. Thus, I enjoy using wikis as an all-purpose writing space. The wiki is a living history of our course participation. Not only does it function as a course management system, but it’s an archived information trading hub where students practice writing and access important course information. Unlike most CMS’s, power can be more evenly distributed in the space. Students can author, edit, and even delete pages, as well as add comments. Of course, as site administrator I can revert their changes at my discretion. In such a rare occasion, the teaching moment is invaluable.
Although I prefer to use an open-source wiki, such as MediaWiki (which powers Wikipedia), I use PBWorks because it has a lower learning curve than MediaWiki, and doesn’t bombard my students with ads. Please feel free to explore my 2010-2012 Freshman Writing Courses at http://compschedule.pbworks.com with the following log-in:
This wiki is ‘quasi-private.’ Writers decide whether or not they want the wiki to be “live” during their course semester. Former students are aware that the wiki’s privacy depends on active participants’ consensus. When the wiki isn’t active, an account is necessary for access.