Author: Scott Campbell

Should First-Year Writing Be Academic Writing Only?

Every August, when I introduce the UConn’s First-Year Writing course to new instructors, I present the course—“the pedagogy”—as a fairly coherent set of approaches and practices coming out of a particular tradition, which we do our best to engage with, revise, and renew each year. I encourage new instructors, who may be best positioned to notice weaknesses or limitations, to suggest potential innovations or mark points of difference from what they expected or have experienced in other programs. I take seriously the adage that teaching is a kind of research. And, although I will occasionally joke that “this is a teaching hospital” and therefore a place where mistakes can happen, I see good teaching as inseparable from experiment.

This year, in our seminar for these new instructors, we are reading selections from First-Year Composition: From Theory to Practice (Parlor Press, 2014). Each chapter features a composition theorist working through a few key issues in teaching FYC (or FYW) and then offering a sample syllabus. Most of these chapters describe courses that are quite different from the UConn courses, and my hope is that encounters with these alternatives will stimulate further experiment and help us resist replicating the UConn ideology merely out of habit or familiarity. We’ll see how that goes.

Doug Hesse’s chapter and sample syllabus is especially interesting to me in its challenge to our almost relentless focus on academic writing. Continue reading

Zombie Clones and Other Time-Saving Tips

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.

*N.B. This logic does not apply to faculty, both part- and full-time, who teach these courses.


Photo source here.

Amazing, Brave, Consistent, Dull, and Fragmentary: On Grading

The conclusion of fall semester is near, and it willMichael Coghlan image, Creative Commons soon be time to submit final grades. What final grades are supposed to mean (and what they communicate) remains contested. We hear about grade inflation and wonder how we could be the one to ding a student’s GPA. They all have 4.0s, right? And yet, it seems unfair to tell a student who made essential, substantial contributions to the course that most of her classmates got similar grades. Are grades rewards, motivators, signals of our great power over undergraduates, traces of a regime of certainty long since fallen? One thing we do know is that they are our responsibility.

The questions about and problems with grading have been a rather continuous point of discussion in the FYW Program. After all our talk of “radical equality” and student contribution, are we still, after all, using variations of sticks, carrots, pedestals, smiley faces, and ribbons to mark “success”? Now is not the time to rethink one’s entire grading scheme or overhaul one’s principles of fairness. And existential crises about “marking” students can wait until 2015. But even the most experienced instructors reflect on the work of the semester with some uncertainty about what choices to make in assigning grades.

Some Factors to Consider

Values. The FYW Program communicates values for the courses, but often in mercurial or oblique ways (throughlines, anyone?). Some consistent language nevertheless bubbles up. The Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing, which was cited in several syllabi this semester, emphasizes curiosity, openness, engagement, creativity, persistence, responsibility, flexibility, and metacognition. Language from past assessments within FYW give us these priorities: inquiry, defined project, textual engagement, and rhetorical knowledge (among other things). Even the throughlines suggest that contribution and emergent complexity are highly valued. In assessing students’ work in your course, consider reading through these lenses. What terms best convey the priorities of your course? Do you make reference to these when you establish final grades?

What you’ve communicated. You have been talking and writing to students all semester. One thing to review at semester’s end is your own discourse about success in this course. What have you emphasized and encouraged? If your language is wholly different than the above values, you might need to consider revising your communications with students in future semesters. But you should stick to what you’ve explicitly asked of students.

What seems fair and consistent. Even the most meticulous recorder of student work and progress will sometimes see inconsistencies between students in assessing grades. That is, one may see that the numbers add up to a simple B for one student, but, when looking at other B grades, notice a gap between performances. If you’ve provided detailed information about points and percentages, you’d best stick to these guidelines. Nonetheless, most calculations leave room for some interpretation. Assign the grade that you feel best reflects the student’s performance in the course, giving some attention to how other students achieved a similar grade. Don’t let a faulty grading system trump your gut, if your gut is informed by fourteen weeks of reading and innumerable points of contact with your students.* Likewise, each section of FYW is a partner to other sections offered throughout the UConn-iverse. If your grades are especially high (a majority of students receiving As) or low (most at C-level or below), you should look into why that is. You cannot be expected to know what happens in other sections, and you may indeed have an anomalous group of students. But the FYW directors and assistant directors can provide feedback and context for program-wide grade trends.

Non-passing students should not pass the course. A tautology, perhaps, but one that bears repeating. There are many reasons why a student may not pass your course, and you have presumably communicated with the student about this possibility at an earlier date (midterm grades, an end comment suggesting that the student is at risk of failing, or a November email to a disappearing student). I usually tell students that everyone has a bad semester at some point (because it’s largely true), and I remind them that retaking the course will remove the F from their GPA. Nevertheless, some instructors find it very difficult to follow through in assigning a failing grade. It’s an understandable reservation. But don’t assemble some dubious points and extra credits to help a student cross the threshold if he is not turning in passing essays. Please, bring borderline cases to the FYW Office.

As with all things FYW, please come by our offices or send an email if you would like some dialogue or feedback regarding grades. We can provide program-sanctioned backbone, and we can provide a second opinion when you’re feeling unsure about a grade.


*Scott’s perhaps tiresome postscript on the false consolation of positivism goes here: grading schemes that rely on numerical weights and measures are no less “subjective” than those devised and articulated with prose alone.


Image found here.

Using Student Texts

In our Teaching Develop Seminar on Tuesday, one side note of the conversation fascinated me. As instructors talked about how they respond to student writing, it became apparent that many (possibly most) feel reluctant to use current student work (“live writing,” Lisa called it) as content to be addressed in class time. These instructors may feel that putting student work “on the spot” makes the writers uncomfortable or serves only as a demonstration of teacherly control. I understand these concerns. I don’t think we should ever use class time to single out a student for work that is poorly done or even below average. And we should not make use of student work without first explaining what our intentions are and treating that writing, and all writing in the course, with respect.

But class time spent on student writing needn’t be tentative, negative, or unduly personal. Indeed, I find that enthusiastic and supportive engagement with student projects in the process of revision is among the most productive (and most interesting) of class activities. In using student texts, we discuss real, concrete projects, countering the abstraction that so often haunts writing courses. Instead of broadly describing, for example, what an introduction should do (and does anyone have an unassailable answer anyway?), we ask how Jessica’s or Eric’s first page functions and how it might be revised. Instead of having a generalized discussion about a course text, we ask how Mina or Joel are making use of that text. A canny instructor can feature material from every student by course’s end, and, in doing so, she adds a new collaborative layer to the course. Whenever possible, we should turn individual comments about student work back toward the public forum of our classes. We save ourselves work and give students practice translating insights about another’s work into things they can use. Some instructors prefer to leave student names off of sampled work, but I want students to pursue projects that, even with names removed, are recognizable as particular students’ work.

In Rewriting, Joe Harris says the following: “a writing course is defined less through the texts you assign students to read than through the work you do with the texts that students write. I expect there to be student texts on the table at almost every meeting of a writing class that I teach” (127).  And, in a chapter in a recent volume, Teaching With Student Texts, Harris follows up on this insight with a distinction he makes between two types of writing classes, workshop and seminar. A workshop, as Harris describes it, functions quite like our small writing group conferences (née SGTs). The goal in most of these sessions is to help an individual work through and improve a current draft. A writing seminar, in Harris’ terms, is a teacher-led conversation about a student text that is focused on helping all students see something in this draft that might contribute to their own work as writers.

The difference might be put this way. The question that drives a workshop is “How can we help this writer revise?” The question that drives a seminar is “What can we learn as writers from this text?” (147).

Harris goes on to describe various models for pursuing this seminar dimension, including the multi-text seminar, which draws on several small excerpts from student work, and the single-text seminar, which spends more time on a single, complete student text. Harris concludes by arguing that the best writing courses include elements of both seminar and workshop. Our FYW courses, built around the Small Group Tutorials that were for so long a defining feature, have a strong tradition of the workshop model. These comments from Tuesday’s TDS suggest that we may need to consider, too, how to develop our seminar models.


Harris’ chapter can be found here:  “Workshop and Seminar”

What Makes a Good Course Text?

I’m in the process of choosing texts for my course, and I’m reminded of all that goes into those choices. Our course is a course in academic writing, which means that students are coming to terms with what it means to use writing in academic contexts. I don’t think this means that they are learning specific forms of academic discourse because these forms are so various and our experience with these variations, as instructors, is so limited. Rather, I see the course as engaging with academic work as a complex practice or habit of mind. Academic work isn’t a written genre. Rather, many written genres exist to best accomplish, enact, and extend academic work. We must choose readings (and craft assignments) that catalyze our students’ attempts to do that work.

It makes sense to show students academic writing, which, of course, is the truest demonstration of the subject. But, again, the point here is not to absorb discernible rules for writing. And, alas, much academic writing is famously indifferent to the needs of novice readers. Some first-year writing courses in academic writing include pieces written by journalists, who may draw on academic research but who do not write like academics. Malcolm Gladwell is probably the reigning example of this ‘translation’ approach, but Stephen Berlin Johnson, Kathryn Shulz, Rebecca Solnit, and Joshua Foer are other familiar examples of writers outside of academia who nevertheless pursue the kind of extended inquiries that look, especially to the lay reader, like academic arguments. It could be argued that what is lost—disciplinary specificity and the authority of peer-reviewed publication—is recouped by the greater attention to audience. These writers can also afford to be more essayistic, to leave questions unresolved and make wider connections to contexts outside of their expertise. Continue reading

This Is My Theme for English 1010

The question of content in first-year writing courses comes up a lot. Do these courses really have “no content”? One answer is that the content of the course is the writing that the students produce. Mostly, I like this answer, as it nicely pivots the attention of the question away from what gets read over to what gets written., first-year writing courses are usually “about” something. In our program, where FYW is more explicitly a course in academic writing, we generally articulate a line of thinking—a combination of readings, central questions, and circulating vocabulary—that might be loosely considered a theme. Over a semester, we build a network of sequenced and related writing projects that extend and are supported by their relationship to other, similar projects. At times this can look like the formation of a mini-discipline, a course-specific, emergent context that indeed shares many characteristics of a more fully-fledged academic discipline (without the required membership of a specific discipline). These are not “writing in the disciplines” courses but, rather, courses that enact patterns of inquiry and engagement familiar to any discipline.

The theme, then, is crucial for mapping a territory for writing that is not merely an open space nor too defined and therefore restrictive. Oddly, many FYW courses still seem indifferent to what students write about. When a prominent rhet/comp journal prints an article that describes students writing about underage drinking or “a narrative about a high school football game,” I get uneasy. This reminds me of the countless papers I have read from transferring students requesting waivers of our course because they have “taken it before.” Too often, these papers are on topics with no other context than the long, uncritical list of sources at the back of a research paper on wage inequality, the persistence of racism, or the trouble with steroids in professional sports. These are all topics worthy of consideration, of course. But absent a critical context established by the course—at a minimum some organizing concepts and a specific enough site of inquiry to allow for new work to emerge—these are just rehearsals of various truisms or faithful adoptions of another scholar’s work. Continue reading

What Are You Talking About?

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The Student’s Elements of Geology … With … illustrations. [1878]
Tony Scott and Lil Brannon have an article called “Democracy, Struggle, and the Praxis of Assessment” in the December CCC. I’ve read Scott before. We use part of his Dangerous Writing in our seminar for new instructors, and I appreciate his attention to the working lives of students and, increasingly, instructors. How can we discuss teaching without at least factoring in the competing and often quite divergent pressures that teachers and students feel beyond the readings, writings, and classroom negotiations of a particular course? In this piece, Scott and Brannon explore the impact of professional rank on the assessment of writing. What interests me here is their application of Bob Broad’s Dynamic Criteria Mapping, a kind of assessment tool for gathering ideas about what gets taught at an institution and why. For Broad, this is a question of asking teachers to describe “what we really value” (also the name of his book), but Brannon and Scott ask who this “we” really is (294). Even if a group of instructors can share terms and pedagogical priorities, who decides which become the terms of that program or department? When I came to UConn, for example, the term “inquiry” was presented as perhaps the most important value of the first-year writing courses. I hadn’t been using it, although I could see how it relates to the “links” and “connections” emphasized in my previous program. Now, I pass it on to teachers as a UConn tradition, and our conversations often begin with discussions over what inquiry looks like. Our assessments have for years glossed “inquiry” with the following text: “writing is used as a mode of discovery or exploration; paper exhibits intellectual work, not merely a report on knowledge.” This is useful, centering language, but it’s also, of course, constraining and defining. Can a teacher simply disregard the discussion that other teachers are having? Does a program’s orienting, staging terms for the teaching it provides require consensus, conformity, resignation? Continue reading


I think the bones of our course are fairly easy to describe. I might say to a new teacher something like this:

1. Create an environment where writing seems an appropriate action (with readings, engagements, questions, problems), and
2. Respond vigorously to what gets written (and said) as both a reader and an interested colleague (fellow thinker).

This is too simplifying, of course. “Creating an environment” brings with it all kinds of ecological baggage. It also sounds too mystical, as if students will magically come to life if the right pedagogical feng shui is adopted. “Respond vigorously” is too teacher-centric, too heroic and authoritative. But my intention in figuring it this way is to steer the conversation about teaching writing away from the suggestion that teachers provide instruction, especially instruction aimed at a generic student in a generic writing situation (e.g., always begin paragraphs with a topic sentence). My heart sinks when I see writing courses described as sites for delivery of a specific form of information about how to write. Writing marks an energized boundary between parties, and its movement to and fro, from succinct summary to unwieldy, idiosyncratic suggestion (and many places in between) is not something we can so easily track or contain. Academic writing in particular should be typified by its dialectical, osmotic communications, not by its adherence to an exact form. When we focus too exclusively on getting things right rather than having something to say, we drain our courses of their possibility and we falsely posit a world that is not in question and not constantly changing.

In a conversation I had with a new teacher this past semester, we stumbled across a term that might help explain what I mean. We had been talking about the dubious medical analogies that sometimes appear in writing instruction—diagnosis and treatment of symptoms. It wasn’t that long ago that a local college around here advertised its writing support with an image of a stethoscope. Some of us are doctors, of course, but we’re generally averse to that kind of authority. ‘Prescriptive’ is a well-known term of disparagement in teaching circles. We don’t want our assignments to be prescriptive, to present prescriptions to aid the patient—”follow these directions: take two passages, compare them productively, and call me in the morning.”

I propose (tentatively, sheepishly, and somewhat tongue-in-cheekly) that we call what we do post-scribing, as the bulk of our work must come in response to a project in formation, especially in our written comments to students. The ‘action’ in teaching writing is in hearing what our students have to say, in raising questions to make visible a way of reading and making use of their work, and in making suggestions about what might come next.

Ovular Logic

In the opening scene of Orson Welles’ 1962 adaptation of The Trial, a suddenly awakened and apparently under arrest Mr. K. (Anthony Perkins) responds to the oblique requests of police inspectors. One inspector begins to document the evidence in the room by writing in a notebook. This writing, we learn in several ways, is a flawed record, subject to the errors of the observer and observed and also embedded within a greater logic of accusation which imbues each “fact” with the suggestion of an already-settled narrative. Anticipating that the inspectors may be looking for pornography, for example, K. mistakenly refers to his record player as his “pornograph.” The inspector taking notes writes this down, and this “finding” comes up later. Is K. concealing something? Is he lying?

Continue reading

Welcome Back

6-16 kotter6New year, new start to the Freshman English blog. Never mind the older dates on the posts below. They’re probably new to you anyway. But, yes, our first go round stalled a bit in our second semester, when we were beset by technical problems and, alas, a narrowing-then-closed window for writing. The technical problems are solved, as we have moved to UConn’s cutting edge web solution. You’ll note the new site address (“feblog” should be easier to remember), the new site look (we have only one “choice” with this new server), but the same can-do attitude. A golden rule of teaching is never promise anything (something we learn by promising to return papers by a certain date). So no promises here. But we will try our best to have something new here each week.