ENG-W 400: Issues in the Teaching of Writing

In the fall of 2013, I was presented with the exciting opportunity to teach the first course I’ve ever taught in what is (essentially) my sub-area of specialty: the history, theory, and practice of writing instruction in the United States. My dissertation was, among other things, a history of writing instruction and its intersections with what I call “crisis discourse” in rhetoric and composition studies and in the larger arena of higher education; as I sat down to plan this course in the late summer of 2013, I was emboldened by the knowledge that it would directly tap into my past and present research itineraries.

At the same time, developing and then teaching a course so firmly entrenched in one’s own research can be a daunting task, if for no other reason than the perception that you should “hit a home run in your first at-bat” since this is, after all, your area of specialization. Undaunted, however, I planned a course that would give advanced undergraduates and beginning graduate students a fairly comprehensive overview of the kinds of issues, questions, assumptions, theories, histories, and often diverse practices that make up “rhet-comp” in the early twenty-first century. Knowing that most of my students in this course—both undergraduate and graduate—would have little to no prior experience with the vast field of writing studies, I had to be careful about how I organized the course readings, lectures, and projects.

I split the course into two overarching units: the first attempted to give students a firm grounding in what we might call the more “traditional” disciplinary targets and concepts of writing studies: the history of current-traditional rhetoric and its complicated legacy in the academy; (the rise, fall, and quasi-resurrection of) process pedagogies and expressivism; the powerful, ongoing influence of classical rhetorics in the teaching of writing; issues surrounding the special needs of basic writers and L2 learners; and critical pedagogies and political approaches to teaching writing, language, and culture.

With this “zoomed out,” eagle-eye view of the discipline firmly in place, the second half of the semester was then devoted to exploring select issues and questions in a much more in-depth manner: we explored, for instance, feminism and writing studies; race, rhetoric, and ideology; the enormous impact of the “digital turn” on rhetoric and composition studies and on the academy writ large; and we even ended the semester with a unit on academic labor and the very timely issues related to contingent faculty and collective action. (In fact, one student remarked in a written comment on my evaluations that s/he wished we had spent more time on the labor issues—next time I teach this course I will be sure to make this revision; I have also published on academic labor issues—see my Workplace article in the research section for more details.) I am also quite proud to note that, in addition to this being one of the most enjoyable courses I’ve yet had the pleasure to teach, it was also one of the most successful; I received a perfect “1” on item #21 —“Compared to other instructors I’ve had, this instructor is outstanding”—from both undergraduates and MALS (graduate) students.

Finally, I wanted to make it clear to students that this would not be a “teaching practicum”-type course; that is, I wanted them to understand that we would learning about the history and the ideas that animate rhetoric and composition studies, rather than focusing most of our attention on the “how to” of writing instruction. As I explain in the course description on the syllabus (full text available below):

This course is not a teaching practicum; that is, we will not spend a great deal of time discussing “tried and true” practical approaches to the teaching of writing or developing discrete pedagogical materials such as writing assignments or in-class activities. These are important considerations and skills, but they do not fall within the scope of this course. Instead, we will spend our time exploring the extent to which divergent ideas, opinions, theories, and concepts about teaching writing (and about pedagogy in general) coalesce and translate into actual classroom practice and actual classrooms. In other words, rather than show you how to develop a “process pedagogy” exercise or a “critical pedagogy” writing assignment, we will explore the underlying foundations—the “knowledge base,” if you will—upon which these approaches to teaching writing are constructed, validated, and maintained. Upon successful completion of this course, you will have not only gained a close familiarity with a variety of discourses and debates within writing studies, but also will emerge with a developing sense of your identity as a future writing teacher.

Course Evaluation Summaries (Quantitative)

Note that this course was taught in Fall 2013 prior to the change to the course evaluation Likert scale; therefore, a 1 = “Strongly Agree” (i.e., 1.00 is the highest possible score in each category). 

ENG-W 400: Issues in the Teaching of Writing Fall 2013 (28369)
1.)   The course was well organized. 1.00
2.)   The course objectives were clear to the students. 1.25
3.)   There was general agreement between announced course objectives and what was actually taught. 1.00
4.)   The instructor explained the subject clearly. 1.25
5.)   The instructor summarized the major points in lecture or discussion. 1.25
6.)   The instructor made effective use of class time. 1.25
7.)     The instructor was well prepared for class meetings. 1.00
8.)     The amount of reading was appropriate for the course. 1.50
9.)     In relation to other courses of equal credits and level, the workload in this course was appropriate. 1.25
10.)  The amount of material covered in the course was reasonable. 1.25
11.)  The course required more time and effort than others at this level. 2.25
12.)  The grading system for the course was clearly explained. 1.00
13.)  Grades were assigned fairly and impartially.        1.00
14.)  The instructor collected enough evidence for valid grading. 1.75
15.)  The exams accurately assessed what I have learned in this class. 1.33
16.)  The instructor showed a genuine interest in students 1.00
17.)  The instructor was readily available for consultation with students. 1.00
18.)  The instructor stimulated my thinking. 1.00
19.)  The instructor stimulated class discussion. 1.00
20.)  The instructor promoted an atmosphere conducive to learning. 1.00
21.)  Compared to other instructors I have had, this instructor is outstanding. 1.00
22.)  Compared to other courses I’ve taken, I learned more in this course. 1.75

Course Evaluation Summaries (Qualitative)

Below, I list all qualitative student comments from each section of this course that I have taught—the semester is indicated at the start of each section. If I have only taught the course once, then the comments are from a single section of the course.

Fall 2013 

“Dr. Cook does an excellent job of providing feedback and encouragement throughout the semester to help us reach our full potential.”

“Dr. Cook was an insightful instructor, introducing a lot of new ideas and stimulating students’ thinking.”

“As always, Dr. Cook provides materials that challenge, then provides a thorough explanation.”

“The workload was acceptable except for one small problem. The forum discussions—grads were to add to discussions but few posted (of the four undergraduates) before the last minute.”

“Dr. Cook was always willing to help. He answered several emails and cared about my involvement in class, and my work on papers.”

“[Dr. Cook was] always available to meet.”

“Thank you for teaching me, Dr. Cook.”

Click here for Course Syllabus (Undergraduate)

Click here for Course Syllabus (Graduate)

Click here for sample course materials.

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