I haven’t had much to say here lately because I’ve been doing a lot since my return (in June) from Afghanistan. In terms of teaching, I’ve sought and received permission to pilot what I think is a unique and forward-looking (for West Point) variant of our first-year composition course, and that variant has been underway since 16 August. A colleague and I saw two qualities that we considered characteristic challenges associated with the traditional ways writing plebes write at West Point, and — with permission from our leadership — have designed a first-year composition course that attempts to respond to those challenges.
The first challenge: I believe that it’s too easy to allow the classroom work associated with composition courses to focus on activities other than writing. I’ve been in many composition classes here and at other institutions where the students discuss readings and approaches and the teachers facilitate work and manage discussion and sometimes stand at the front of the classroom and show students things. Compositionists know and agree and emphasize that the work of the writing class is writing, and yet — in many classes — students simply don’t produce much text, largely because of the way we apportion the work of the course. Too often, we’ll ask them to perhaps start working on their essay assignments in a class or two, and then to complete that writing for homework and bring it in the following lesson in the form of a draft essay, and too often they’ll come in with only a page or a paragraph or two that they dashed off in 15 minutes. There’s a whole complex of related problems associated with that mode of instruction: instructors think they are responsible in some way for “delivering” or “covering” what they envision as course content, and so they attempt to describe or demonstrate to students what an effective introductory paragraph looks like, or review the passages in the book that discuss effective transitional expressions, or talk with their students about what the author to whom the students have been asked to respond in their essays might have really meant, in order to help the students engage with that author more insightfully. I don’t believe such activities do much to help students become better writers.
The second challenge: the classroom work associated with many writing courses uses tools and modes of work dedicated to producing texts that look like they should be printed in a single, unified format on 8.5 x 11 sheets of paper, even if those sheets of paper are never physically turned in. In other words, and as many scholars in the field of computers and writing have lately been pointing out, we dedicate ourselves to preserving a unitary genre and document model that is no longer the world’s dominant mode of textual production. In mummifying and fetishizing this model, we turn our students’ attention away from the many other ways that texts get produced: we privilege the thing itself, the dead thing, instead of attending to the textual practices and ways of writing (the verb, not the noun) that will help students improve as writers. We need to help our students gain the critical approaches and skills in using the tools, techniques, genres, and modes that will help them adapt to diverse and changing writing situations and produce texts appropriate to those situations, whatever those situations may be.
In response to those two challenges, my colleague and I have designed a first-year composition course that (1) inverts the usual classroom workload and (2) asks students to use an array of digital tools, media, and technologies to respond to that inverted workload.
We’ve inverted the classroom workload by moving the work of writing into the classroom, and moving the discussion and delivery of course-related material outside the classroom. In other words, our students write while they’re in class, and discuss and seek guidance from one another and from us when they’re outside of class. During every class session of the semester, we give students at least 20 minutes (and often longer) to write, using the site 750words.com to do so. Students who wish to pass the course with a C must write 750 words every lesson for 40 lessons: when they’re done with our course, this single requirement will result in C students having written 30,000 words. We encourage students to adapt, revise, and copy and paste those 750 daily words into their formal graded essay assignments and into their weblog writing. Furthermore, because that daily writing displaces some class time that might be ordinarily devoted to class discussion or delivery of course materials, we off-load the discussion as homework to be undertaken on the class weblog, to which students are also required to contribute. In that way, the discussion is shifted to an outside-of-class writing activity that the instructors moderate and manage and contribute to, while what would ordinarily be homework is shifted into the classroom. While we might have students show up to class not knowing what’s going on because they haven’t read the blog, we will never have students show up without something written, because their work will always be there on 750words.com. And we believe that simply doing the writing — that minimum of 30,000 words by semester’s end — will help them get better.
Additionally, we’re using sites like 750words.com (which encourages private writing) and our class weblog (which demands public writing) and zoho.com (which we use as our online collaboration tool for their more formal essay-assignment writing, but also serves as a cloud-based writing application) to get them to shift up and change the ways they write depending on the contexts and audiences and purposes for which they’re writing: in other words, the ways we ask them to use the digital tools associated with the course are also ways of training them to be agile, adaptable rhetors. Technology is context, and context is an inescapable component of the rhetorical situation, and to pretend that the 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper is the only delivery medium for student writing is to radically shortchange a student’s adaptability to a diverse range of rhetorical situations. If we help students write (and write a lot) in different ways and in different contexts for different media and different situations, we cannot do other than help them improve as writers.
That, at least, is my hope.