Category Archives: teaching

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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Bob Broad’s Workshop on e-Portfolios








I’m thinking about a visit our program had yesterday from Bob Broad, a prominent writing assessment researcher, who led our faculty through a version of his Dynamic Criteria Mapping (DCM) technique. I find myself thinking a lot about the values that emerged, especially that we seemed to have much agreement in what we deemed as successes and shortcomings in the three sample portfolios we read. I did come away with several comments reverberating and this blog is my reflection on them.

Comment 1: Who would want to read this. (Seems like a question, but it truly was a comment)
I didn’t make this comment, but I couldn’t agree more. The portfolios we read had inauthentic, generic, public audiences in mind. While we didn’t see the assignment sheets that led to their production, the portfolios were clearly for an instructor, and if I were to put my rhetorical analysis hat on, I could easily pinpoint that the audience is limited to a specific first-year writing instructor. Not to be redundant, but who else would want to read this?

The question I generate from this is what’s wrong with having an instructor audience for a freshman-level writing portfolio? When you talk to students about audience, don’t they need to analyze what an audience of one, a future instructor, will need or prefer in order to assess their learning? After all, the reality is that the portfolios our students turn in are the single assessment tool for at least 50% of their final course grade. This is not the end of a student’s journey to becoming a stronger writer; it’s merely the first tiny step. Are we guilty of inflating what can be accomplished in one or two semesters?

Comment 2: I like black backgrounds with white font.
Again, I agreed with this comment, as I find black and white to be a highly professional color-scheme. There were many naysayers, and while we didn’t discuss this preference, I’ve noticed so many portfolios with pastel or brightly-colored backgrounds that many deemed high quality. I’m curious as to whether this is a creative question. I ask two follow-up questions: are writing porfolios supposed to be creative? and is multimodal design inherently creative?

To both questions, I would argue the answer is no. I say this because we’ve had these discussions in my classroom numerous times. It always breaks down like this: a group of math or engineering students largely immersed in logic and order argue that multimodal design should be clean and simple; a group of dance, art, and other humanities students versed in the art of flair argue that vibrancy and flow of both color and layout is necessary; and there are a group of students who fall somewhere in the middle. I can’t argue with any of that — unless I want to project my professorial vision of correctness onto those who don’t agree.

Comment 3: I have an aversion to clicking on too many links and opening attachments.
This time I’m the culprit. I made this statement, and I not only stick by it, I want someone who does value these things to help me understand why. I use hyperlinks in my blogs quite often, and I’ve built numerous Wix and Weebly sites myself, so I come from a place of practice in this matter. Hyperlinks are for further reading, an audience “extra” if you will; they aren’t for vital evidence being discussed in a reflective portfolio. And as to multiple links which strive to serve as “pages” of content, let me say that as a rabid consumer of online news, journals, blogs, and shopping sites, there is nothing more annoying to a reader/shopper than having to click one tab to read about something that refers to an article or item under another tab. That’s not audience-friendly.

This takes me back to comment one above regarding audience — why would anyone, much less an instructor facing the assessment of upwards of 88 portfolios, want to download and open numerous attachments? This is the lesson students should be learning when creating their first-year writing (what I would label as “practice”) portfolios.

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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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Gaming Revision“I tried to leave some things so that I would have something to revise.”

This is what I heard as I walked through a group of students congregating in the hall outside a classroom. They were waiting for the room to empty so their class could begin.  It’s not the first time I’ve heard this, but it is the first time it resonated. Let me explain.

At a faculty retreat a couple of weeks ago, I got into a discussion with two colleagues about whether or not students should be required to write multiple drafts in our first-year writing program. They both firmly believed that some students didn’t need to create multiple drafts to produce quality writing.

“No one sits down and produces a final draft without revision,” I boldly paraphrased Ann Lamott.

“Sure they do. What about Tweets?” One of them responded.

“I proof all my Facebook posts and Tweets,” I said, which is true even though I still perform errors fairly regularly, much to my dismay.

“Well, you’re the only one,” she said.

We decided at this point to agree to disagree and move to a different topic, but three days later I heard the comment above from the student in the hall, and then two days after that a different colleague expressed frustration that her students go through two revisions before she sees their drafts yet they still turn in writing that isn’t where she’d expect it to be.

This is where I sit today — confused and rethinking how I’m approaching revision in my own writing class. We all see the drafts that seem to have been written the night before, even from students we know are diligent and detail-oriented. Why? It’s because revision has become one of many games students have become masterful at playing.

Think of it this way: when revision is part of assessment, students feel compelled to revise … a lot. But what about those students who can do effective self-assessment? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not asking that we turn the clocks back on first-year writing praxis and approach writing as product rather than process, but I do think we should entertain the idea that some students just might produce something very close to a final draft the first time, and we should relieve those students from the unnecessary stress of fabricating revisions just to satisfy our own misguided need to see distinct difference between drafts. I don’t claim to have the answers as I’m still working through this, but one thing I recommend is to simply read your students’ first drafts as if they’re final drafts and encourage peer responders to do the same. Just ask questions and offer reactions rather than actively seeking areas that need revision. Most of us are already doing some semblance of this, but if we shift one more notch and tweak just a bit more how we’re approaching feedback, we could see our students begin to offer us higher quality drafts, and that means we can genuinely push them ahead in their writing development.

Another interesting sidenote for anyone who cares: I’m in the beginning stages of conducting research into response methods. I’m curious to see how the movements through peer and teacher response impact student learning. Thank goodness I didn’t decide to repeat what has been done too much already in our field — measuring the quality of revisions.

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Filed under first-year writing, FYC, grammar, Inquiry, teaching, Writing