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There and Back Again: CCCC 2016

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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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E-Portfolios: Balancing Assessment and Virtual Identities

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Using portfolios as an assessment tool in first-year writing courses has become the norm. Students in our program compile a portfolio at the end of the semester, and it comprises at last 50% of their final course grade. Hefty, for sure, but the metacognitive act of reflecting on their writing journey and their emerging writerly identities not only solidifies what they’ve learned, it also affords more genuine assessment.

The shift over the past few years from paper to digital portfolios brought with it limitless possibilities for design, a component necessary for modern digital composition, and while some teachers were slower than others, most now consider design an essential element when assessing multimodal writing. But our adoption of e-portfolios superseded the proper platforms created to house them, resulting in experimentation with tools like Weebly and Wix, free website builders that offered students ample choice in design, free access, and easy sharing.

I, too, have used these platforms, even required them for some semesters, but I’ve struggled with this practice of forcing students to publish their first-year writing experience on the web, where nothing can truly be deleted. I believe that a conversation about student virtual identities is long overdue, at least in our program, as it is time to reconsider placing design options over our students’ virtual identities.

Is requiring students to build public websites where they discuss their shortcomings and share their reflective writing, which can be raw and personal, in compliance with best practices? I say no. The past few semesters we’ve had program assessments that required us to read through multiple e-portfolios, and I cringed every time I came across a published student portfolio that described angst over low high school or AP testing performance or acknowledged weakness in mechanics and grammar. Too many also contained highly-confidential discussions of family dynamics or socioeconomic status within literacy narratives.

It seems others are now recognizing this growing concern, since the latest position statement of CCCCs on electronic portfolios addresses this very thing.

Principle # 3: Virtual Identities

Students represent themselves through personalized information that conveys a web-savvy and deliberately constructed ethos for various uses of the e-portfolio. Students manage those identities by having control over artifacts and who sees them. 

Taking the CCCCs position step a bit further, consider this assertion from Rebecca Moore Howard and Sandra Jamieson’s “Researched Writing”

Initially, online portfolios were collected on public websites, allowing students to showcase their work but also raising intellectual property issues. The majority are now collected as part of a closed course management program such as Blackboard or Moodle or on a local or commercial password-protected Cloud server such as Dropbox. [Emphasis Added]

I hope this is accurate and that most college freshmen aren’t being forced to publish their beginning scholarly writing journey, but the conversation hasn’t even begun in our program.

 

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The Trouble With Inquiry

imageDictionary.com 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 Dictionary.com 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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Filed under first-year writing, FYC, Higher Ed, Inquiry, Uncategorized, Writing