Category Archives: Higher Ed

Unsolicited Review: “The Good Writer”

“The Good Writer: Virtue Ethics and the Teaching of Writing” by John Duffy

College English 79:3 January 2017


Teaching writing is more than teaching rules (deontology) or teaching to outcomes and purposes (consequentialism). It’s about teaching students how to engage in discussions in authentic, ethical ways that foster conversation, even when those conversations are competitive and/or uncomfortable.

My Takeaways

The word “virtue” in the title drew me to this reading, and I’m not sure what I expected, but I appreciate how Duffy complicates the concept of virtue as something more than mere moral aptitude.

“A virtue, then, is the disposition to act in the right way, at the right time, and in the right manner” (234).

You probably read that quote and thought “but, isn’t that about morality?” Not exactly. Duffy pushes the reader to consider the relationship between the Aristotelian concept of virtue and the decisions that writers make.

“Should I use this inflammatory metaphor? Shall I include this questionable source found on the internet?” (230)

This notion of writing as a virtue, the image of a writer making choices based on critical thought that includes more than just getting at the purpose through any means, appeals to me, especially in this age of vitriolic political discourse and fake news.

In a similar way, Duffy makes me rethink what makes up a “good writer,” which is not, as you might assume, interchangeable with “good writing.” The former does create the latter, but (and this is me interpreting here) “good writing” is not really the focus of Duffy’s argument. He calls for a renewed sense of authenticity and honesty in the written word, a shift back toward civil discourse that encourages exchange rather than shutting it down.  In other words, Duffy is more concerned with the writer’s intentions than the text produced.

“Expression in speech and writing of honesty, accountability, generosity … kairotic calling for the right words at the right moment” … these virtues are “learned, at least in part, through the instruction, practice, and guidance offered in the writing classroom” (235)

That’s right. Duffy sees the writing classroom as the vehicle through which his vision of a “good writer” can be nurtured, and since I teach first-year writing, I see a lot of value in his argument. In fact, his vision aligns so well with what I already believe and practice as a teacher that it would take only a slight tweaking for me to incorporate it.

I’ll leave you with perhaps my favorite quote from Duffy:

“Writing involves proposing a relationship with others, our readers–the good in an ethics of rhetorical virtues is defined in the context of that relationship, and the good writer is one who writes in ways that promote the health, well-being, or flourishing of the relationship” (241).

I’d love to hear other views on Duffy’s piece.



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Filed under first-year writing, FYC, Higher Ed, teaching, unsolicited review, Writing

There and Back Again: CCCC 2016

Screenshot 2016-04-18 11.42.43

Attending a national conference is always exciting. I’m a bit of a professional development junkie so I tend to sit through too many sessions and take too many notes. I often return home exhausted and overloaded with new ideas, but this year my experience at the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) was different. I had a game plan, a narrower focus of topics that drew me, and even though I was tempted by all the interesting presentation titles in the 368-page program (no exaggeration), I stuck to my game plan. Here is a brief overview of the takeaways that I hope to elaborate on in a series of new posts over the next couple of months.

I am privileged to work in communities that value teaching, both locally and nationally. My colleagues inspire me with their dedication to providing quality instruction in innovative ways in spite of the lack of support composition programs tend to suffer from. As I moved in and out of conversations throughout the week, I heard so many stories of teachers and administrators who were developing new curricula and conducting research while balancing heavy teaching loads.

Students Matter. This is important to me. I have three kids of my own, one of which is a college student, so it seriously ruffles my feathers when I read things like The Coddling of the American Mind, arguments that suggest today’s students are distracted, lethargic, and/or overly-vulnerable. Rather than wallow in nostalgia trying to adapt anachronistic instruction methods, the field of Writing Studies is ripe with research that is often ahead of other disciplines with regard to reaching students where they are while maintaining a high level of rigor.

Networking is Powerful. I’ve been working for nearly a year and a half on researching and reflecting on best practices around online writing instruction (OWI). I piloted a hybrid first-year writing course last summer, and the experience left me with more doubts and questions than I started with. I frequented every workshop, special interest group, and presentation at CCCC that had anything to do with OWI. I discovered a dynamic group of experts who welcomed any and all newbies into their fold. I now have a stack of business cards, list of online forums, and connections on social media that I can reach out to as I design my hybrid course for this summer.

More on these points and other ideas coming soon!



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Writing Class Themes: Real-World Problem Solving

whenwillweusethisI don’t know about you, but I start planning for spring semester around the first of November. It’s a good time if you think about it — you know what’s not working this semester and you consider how to tweak it while it’s fresh on your mind. Since I’ll be teaching an extended inquiry project in spring, I’ve been tossing around themes that allow the class to conduct an overall inquiry while also pursuing their individual projects: Mythbusters and Money Matters were the two rising to the top … until …

On Thanksgiving day, I had the pleasure of being confined to a car for two hours with my 19-year-old son. We share a passionate curiosity and enjoy listening to podcasts together. This time we chose one of our favorites, You Are Not So Smart, the episode on “Drive, Motivation, and Crowd Control” — a great one! In this episode, host David McRaney interviews Daniel Pink, a researcher, writer, and host of the National Geographic series Crowd Control.

In the interview, Pink describes research revealing how companies can best motivate productivity. In a nutshell, he points out that for jobs requiring little to no cognitive effort, paying per piece is best, but for jobs or projects requiring cognition, the best motivators are 1) removing worries about money altogether by paying well, and 2) offering employees autonomy in completing the work, and 3) explaining the purpose and importance of the project/job to the employees.

Since this isn’t at all how the corporate world operates, McRaney asked Pink why this knowledge that could transform labor output, benefiting both owners and workers, hasn’t been implemented. Pink’s response struck a chord with me:

A lot of scientists, whether they are social scientists or whether they are physical scientists spend most of their time talking to each other … the psychologists don’t talk to the economists … both of them are studying behavior … but they rarely talk to each other. But even if you go into the Psychology Department, you’ll find that the social psychologists don’t talk to the developmental psychologists, and so it’s very siloed and very specialized and there’s this really great material that’s not getting out into, I think because of the structure of academe, it’s not getting out into the wider world.

To those of us in higher education, this is not a revelation. We discuss this quite often, but hearing a non-academic identify with such clarity a real-world implication of siloed disciplinary research made me wonder about what other problems we could solve with what we already know. My students synthesize their research as part of their extended inquiry projects, but if they’re synthesizing voices from the same discipline, can they really do anything other than regurgitate? How exciting would it be for students to replicate Pink’s interdisciplinary synthesis and solve a real-world problem or dilemma?

So, while I don’t yet have a name for my spring class theme, I want to replicate Pink’s approach of drawing connections that haven’t been made yet, research that incorporates voices from multiple fields of study with far-reaching implications. I have a few ideas for a class inquiry but welcome feedback. For one, I keep wondering why we hear about teen sleep-deprivation and its impact on academic performance yet my daughter’s high school bumped the morning bell up to 7:30 am just this past fall. Is the research not persuasive enough or are we favoring the schedules of parents to the detriment of our children? Or is it something else? It would be fun and enlightening to comb through the studies with my students and see what we come up with.

I’m super excited about this. Who knows, maybe the students coming through my course next spring can replicate this strategy as they move through their studies and ever so slightly shift the world of research into a more holistic approach. A teacher can dream, can’t she?

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When Do Students Become Adults?

Growing Up

Academe is abuzz with discussions on how or whether to minimize students’ use of technology during class. Some professors cite studies they say disprove the notion of multitasking; others worry about the students who might be distracted if their classmate logs into his Facebook page during a lecture. I find this discussion disingenuous on several fronts. The real worry here has deep roots.

There was a time when students revered their professor, in awe of her status, intellect, and breadth of experience, but culture has shifted both inside and outside the academy toward more emphasis on student engagement. For better or worse, students now expect their college classes to be interesting and interactive. The days of long lectures are over, and the truth is they never worked for many students anyway, marginalizing all those who couldn’t write notes quickly enough or who couldn’t put the puzzle pieces together outside class on their own. We can debate the value of self-motivation in study habits or whether learning styles exist or not, but what this comes down to is shaping our classrooms around what’s best for students and not what’s easiest or most comfortable for us as instructors.

Speaking of discomfort, let’s return to the technology debate. It’s uncomfortable — no it’s annoying and rude — when a student brazenly texts in front of you when you’re teaching. It’s uncomfortable when a student has his laptop open facing away from you and you can’t see what has him so enamored on the screen. And it’s beyond frustrating when a student who had her headphones on during instruction asks trivial, basic questions about an assignment. I understand these discomforts. I share these discomforts. I don’t, however, believe the answer is hyper-regulation of our students’ use of technology tools. At some point, we have to treat them like adults who make decisions based on their own awareness of how they learn best. Will some of them wake up too late to pass your course? Sure, but that will be a lifelong lesson learned now, where there is a chance for a re-do, rather than later in a boardroom where her family livelihood might be at stake.

Furthermore, are you sure students aren’t listening when they aren’t looking right at you? When my middle child was in fourth grade, his teacher noticed that he was constantly playing with something in his desk and not looking at her while she was teaching. Even though his performance was exemplary, this annoyed her, so she set about trying to push him to conform. At first, she would say, “Sean, pay attention,” but he would look up only briefly and then return to fidgeting with whatever had could touch in his desk. Then, in an effort to help him see that this practice was hurting him, she decided one day to pause when he seemed completely detached for a while and ask him what she had been explaining. He told her verbatim everything she had said. That’s when it dawned on her that visual stimuli distracted him, so he had developed his own method of navigating lectures. I know this story because she called me so that I would be aware and give his future teachers a heads-up. This is a lesson in trusting a student and giving up a bit of power over them.

Finally, look around in your next faculty meeting. Make it a point to be observant of who and how your colleagues are using technology during committee meetings. Monitor your own usage for a while. Would you want your department chair, during faculty meetings, to forbid you from checking for that text message letting you know your wife’s flight landed safely? Would it be demeaning for your dean, during a retreat, to call you out for pulling out your iPad to google curiously about something he’s discussing? Should we establish a university-wide policy of no technology when listening to guest speakers even though you’re passionate about following a hashtag feed discussing Alzheimers or GMOs or a beheading in Syria? We wouldn’t dream of it … because we are adults.

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Making Peer Review Work


Since we’ve been discussing peer response lately, I thought I’d share my journey through several years of experimenting to improve its effectiveness. Back in my TA days, I had students bring printed copies of their essays and exchange, read, and respond during class, a combination of marginal feedback and direct responses on handouts to emphasize learning outcomes or specific assignment goals. I cringe as I write this because, as I’m sure you all know, the drawbacks with that model are numerous and insurmountable–everything from printer problems to anxiety issues over time constraints, both of which leave students unable to focus and engage at the level necessary for meaningful response. Even worse, students too often either misplace the paper feedback or drop the class and take it with them, seriously handicapping their group members when compiling their final portfolios.

Knowing there had to be a better way, I moved into other models and experimented with various digital platforms, but it wasn’t until last year when I ventured outside my comfort zone and moved into instructor led, dialogue driven, small group workshops that I finally began to see how effective and powerful peer response can be. I don’t claim to have this mastered, but the feedback from students was instant and has remained consistent–they express over and over again how these workshops are the single most significant thing they’ve done in a writing class. That means something.

Rather than just lay out a format, I want to use this writing space to give my workshops some practical underpinning by analyzing why they work and fleshing out what I now view as the elements of successful peer response.

Adequate Time for Reading: This is perhaps the most significant shift for me. My students don’t read and respond during class time anymore. They do it for homework, in their own space and on their own time. All accomplished writers understand the importance of finding the proper space for writing, be it an office desk with a view of the countryside or a quiet closet away from distraction. Well, that applies to reading too. Just as students struggle with writing-on-the-spot in class, the pressures of time and noise can hinder proper depth in reading, especially with something as complex as responding to peers’ academic writing.

Adequate Space and Time for Reflective Commenting: For many of us, the movement from paper to digital was slow, with student submissions perhaps being the last holdout, but it’s hard to deny the flexibility of responding with digital software like Word or Google docs. For the record, I highly recommend Google docs over Word because of the more dynamic space where multiple responders can comment on one document, paring down redundancy and encouraging more varied revision suggestions. More importantly, it makes revising a more focused activity for writers. Rather than wading though a stack of papers or computer files, writers can compare feedback, considering each comment in context, disseminating which to adopt and which to accept with more awareness.

TIP: I’ve found that reserving my digital comments until all group members have responded to be the best model. Otherwise, students accuse me of stealing their thunder. Over time, because this model allows students to more deeply engage with each other’s work than I have time for, I’m finding myself feeling obligated to offer fewer and fewer written comments, limiting then to larger content issues.

Space for Dialogue: Our busy schedules prevent most of us from doing what we really feel is pedagogically sound practice–individual student conferences. I practiced them during my first two years of teaching but found them an unwise use of time as I was saying the same things over and over and, what’s worse, my one-on-one feedback naturally took precedence, negating peer response in a way that made it seem like a waste of time for both writers and responders. The small-group workshop lessens this, as much as it can be lessened, as all group members share equal footing in the discussion around revision opportunities. Like the digital realm, I reserve my verbal comments for last. To my delight, I’m often left without much to say because others in the group have addressed everything needed, another reason I’ve grown comfortable with fewer written comments myself.

But the most important reason for dialogue is clarity, the ability to ask questions, to clarify how or why a reader responded in a particular way. This is the good stuff that can’t be replicated in written comments. When students encounter opposing reactions on paper, they make revision decisions based on what feels safe or whom they trust more. When they encounter opposition and discuss it, they gain a new way of reading their own words. One of the most frequent back-and-forths in small-group sessions is “what I was trying to say was …” followed by “oh, well that wasn’t how I read it at all.” Learning to anticipate audience reaction is the fuel for writing development.

Flexibility: This is important. As with any discussion, you can’t predict where small-groups might take a conversation. Early in the semester, I use the workshop space to discuss Google doc comments they’ve already offered to each other, but as they become more comfortable with workshopping and more familiar with each other, they begin to blossom as responders and often surprise me with the depth of their concern for their peers’ writing and thought development. During an extended research project, I devote one whole session asking each writer to look forward and discuss potential directions for their project. These workshops result in rich discussions of audience, purpose, genre, and medium and codify these concepts for students in ways that lecture or even simple practice simply can’t do.

Accountability: This may be the most controversial of my approaches, but for several semesters I’ve had students assess each other for peer response. They anonymously rate each group member on a scale from 1 to 10, and any grade below 10 requires a brief explanation. I was worried about how this would go, but it works perfectly. If you think about it, who knows better than the writer which responses and responders were helpful and which were not? Students are honest in rating their group members. A key component is a pre-response discussion about what kinds of help each writer desires. While I discourage editing, I do allow students to comment on patterns of error, but most patterns on early drafts are more oversight than error, so some writers devalue those types of responses when they rate each other. I share an overview of what writers say worked and what didn’t, but for the most part, low scores are accrued more often due to lack of engagement (not responding on Google docs / not participating in discussion during workshop) than deficiency.

Multiple Voices (including the instructor): Because of limited time, the in-class paper exchange model limits feedback to two responders at best, but small-group workshops afford space for up to 5 responders, or a group of 6. This solves several issues:

  1. If you have two responders and one doesn’t engage with the writer’s work, a serious gap ensues. Multiple responders ensure every writer has sufficient insight for revision.
  2. The more responders you have, the better the discussion about reactions. This gives writers real opportunity for disseminating feedback. The more choices they must make, the more authority they gain over their writing movements.
  3. Discussions become student-led rather than instructor-directed. Letting everyone take turns in offering responses. This means my feedback overshadows peers’ with less frequency.
  4. The larger pool exposes students to more voices, perspectives, and writing choices.

I guess the biggest reason I advocate for the small-group workshop is that I enjoy them as much as my students. I love when they surprise me. It’s exciting when a responder offers feedback that transforms an idea into something it could never have become without proper engagement and dialogue. Teaching brings with it many opportunities for reward, and one of them is certainly watching that spark of writerly identity flare up in front of you.

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The Trouble With Inquiry defines inquiry as “a seeking or request for truth, information, or knowledge,” but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how that translates into our curriculum. Are we guiding our students into “seeking … knowledge” or just “request[ing] information”? What does genuine inquiry-based research look like?

When you think about it, a thesis-driven project fulfills the definition perfectly. It begins with an hypo[thesis] and continues through the research phase until enough knowledge or “truth” is compiled to compose an essay. If you fail to prove your thesis, your essay ends up in a different place than it began, but if you can dig up enough evidence, the path from beginning to end is a straight line. An inquiry-driven project begins with a question … okay that’s different … then the researcher tries to discover the answer rather than prove an already formulated statement … umkay, still different … it ends with the researcher … doing what? This is the question I keep asking. What do we want our students to DO with this newly-developed understanding of their topic? How does inquiry-based research affect the final product?
If we’re asking them to write an essay, there are three approaches: report, argue, or explore.

The first option is easily dismissed. We know we don’t want a report, right? It culminates into that r-word we’ve devalued in our program, regurgitation. In academia, you strive to create something new, offer a different perspective to the discourse community you’re researching. Not much is gained by simply summarizing what’s already been said, but, as the senior in my class last fall pointed out, skill in summarizing is highly valued in most disciplines and is essential in the workplace. Rarely had she been asked to do much else, and she was on the verge of graduating. Not to mention that reporting inherently involves synthesis, the meshing together of perspectives in a way that, when performed with intention, does have value for both the writer and the audience.

Surely an argument is better, especially when the stance stems from research. But doesn’t an argument push students back into the comfort zone of formula? Haven’t they written arguments over and over again in the form of 5-paragraph essays? Then again, if we’re honest, the thesis-driven essay still dominates our campus, so practicing it one more time might be helpful. After all, our curriculum goal focuses more on where students begin their projects than where they end up.

So what about the third option, exploring? Is this a viable academic exercise? When I think of exploration, I think wishy-washy, uncommitted, disempowered writing. Shouldn’t an exploration be the beginning rather than the ending of a college writing course? And what exactly does an exploratory essay look like? I guess you write through ideas you’ve uncovered through research and share them without taking a stance. Hmmm … sounds like journalism. Now that I think about it, that could be worthwhile too, depending on an individual student’s career goals or weaknesses. I mean, you all know me well enough by now to know I always have an opinion. While I was growing up, my mother used to say I would argue with a stopsign. So perhaps writing an exploration, honestly representing multiple perspectives and allowing a reader to make up his or her mind has value on the individual level as well.

Now I’m back to my original concern. What should my students do after their research? This semester I tried something different. I purposefully withheld guidelines for what was coming after the research and then had small-group workshops to flesh out basic things like purpose and audience. I explained that I wanted them to do a real-world writing piece and then asked the groups to consider what genre might best fulfill each purpose and what medium would most likely reach each audience.

I admit I’m nervous about this shift. I’m worried that I’m misguiding students in what should be a foundational writing exercise for college courses because I’m not sure composing a speech to Congress or creating a podcast on mind-body healing fulfills that. I will say that my students are excited about their projects, so that can’t be bad, but, again, am I reinforcing the notion that “good” writing is inevitably linked to the level of personal engagement a student has with a topic/project?

One thing’s for sure, I am fulfilling the course description, possibly for the first time. My previous approach lacked any real genre exploration other than the difference between a proposal (which I now feel is misnamed in light of our faculty meeting discussion), an annotated bibliography, and an essay. Another area my previous design lacked was any valid exploration of voice. I was teaching the concept of voice as mostly a stylistic choice rather than awareness with regard to purpose, audience, and genre.

The bottom line is that I’m still working out, as you all are, how to navigate this new curriculum, but I’m sure learning a lot by continuously performing my own inquiry into my teaching practices/values.

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