If I could offer you a zombie clone of yourself to either, A, teach your class, or, B, comment on, grade, and communicate by writing with students, which would you choose? I ask this because it can seem, at mid-semester, that you are in fact two people—the one conducting a traditional, familiar class (see: most non-FYW courses ) AND the one toiling in penumbral obscurity, working through drafts, one comment-laden pdf at a time. And, in an important way, UConn’s FYW courses are truly two courses bound together as one. Years ago, students took two 3-credit courses and TAs taught two sections of these courses each semester. The still sound logic behind the change was that a proper FYW writing course is a bit like two courses in that so much occurs offstage, in drafts and commentary. Students today take one 4-credit course and TAs teach just this one course (the two bundled parts), and there is simply no question that the increased attention per student makes for a more profound FYW experience, both for student and instructor. In one move, FYW reduced its curricular footprint (from 6 credits per student to 4) but also matched each student with essentially twice the attention (albeit for just that one semester).*
Within this thought experiment, I would guess that most would choose to put the zombie clone to work as a grader. In fact—and let me be delicate about this—sometimes the comments I see on papers suggest that indeed the zombie clones are already hard at work. That is, I’m not always convinced that instructors of FYW courses find the time to truly engage with student projects with the same care they give to designing and executing class sessions. Some of this has to do with increasing class size and the immense challenge of running a 100-minute seminar twice weekly, especially for instructors with less experience. Another factor is the familiar teaching advice (backed by research, no less) that suggests that instructors should limit comments to two or three at most per paper. In this way, well meaning and appropriate advice about efficiencies in grading can have the unintended effect of closing down or narrowing the channel of discourse opened by the out-of-class communications between instructor and student, these written conversations about drafts and projects.
I am more likely to send the zombie clone to the classroom. (Add snarky comment from my students here.) I say this not because I don’t love teaching and planning class sessions. But my experience in teaching an online section of FYW, although a flawed experiment in many ways, has taught me to further explore the power of networked, ongoing commentary in the form of response, posts, communiqués, out-of-class worksheets, Google Docs, and even, gasp, Google+ posts. (Okay, I might be kidding about that last one.) In a writing course, writing (or at least “composition” more broadly considered) should be the primary activity. So often a course becomes bifurcated—class sessions are group-oriented, conversation-driven spaces and grading/commenting is an isolated, text-driven space. Lately I’ve been emphasizing the need to bring more writing into individual class sessions, especially writing that can be worked through and built upon (and talked about) within a class session. Maybe this post is about the other side of that coin, finding a more “conversational” mode in our communications outside of class sessions. We like in-class conversations because they are dynamic and shared. I think we can approach writing and student texts with a similar spirit of exchange and possibility when we establish channels for writing and terms for this conversation. This means using tools like HuskyCT to aid a circulation of text that is not in only one direction. For example, I ask students to post drafts as a new discussion thread, and all peer review feedback as well as my written comments are posted for that student (and any interested student) as comments on that thread. The peer review happens over a few days within guidelines I post in a separate document, and all of this resulting material becomes fodder for the in-class work do as we move toward final drafts. There isn’t really a sharp boundary between in-class and out-of-class, or between discussion and writing. I find the process more fluid and responsive than the traditional spend-a-weekend-alone-with-papers model. And, since he’s not really needed to teach the course, my zombie clone can fight crime or sign petitions or do whatever it is he wants to do.
Photo source here.