The “New” ENG-W 131: Fall 2020

To put it plainly, no one can know for certain what will happen in Fall 2020. Higher education in the US is a vast and ever-changing landscape in the best of times. But that doesn’t stop some people from trying. Bryan Alexander, theorist, futurist, and author of the recent book Academia Next: The Futures of Higher Education (2020), identifies three likely scenarios, and none of them look anything like the colleges and classrooms we inhabited in the winter of 2019-20, which now feels like eons ago.

One thing is certain. As sure as the sun rises in the east and bland pastry trays remain the preferred pick of caterers everywhere, faculty from institutions of all shapes and sizes will soon gather. They’ll be in Zoom rooms and webinars and maybe even the odd in-person shindig–properly masked and socially distanced, of course–and they will cajole each other with a familiar question:

So…what did you do this summer?

This is not an innocent question. No matter the intent of the person who asks it, which could range from an innocent attempt at small talk to a genuine query about plans and travel and quarantine and so forth, the question itself is, by default, an academic landmine.

There are several ways to answer and each one has its costs and affordances.

  1. You regale everyone with how productive you were with your research. This is a respectable way to go, but it immediately gives you away as a fuddy-duddy who prizes careerism and scholarship over more meaningful life experiences. People side-eye you and inch away slowly.
  2. You regale everyone with your family vacations, exotic locales visited, interesting educational programming explored, etc. Like #1, this is an umbrella category that encompasses a range of possible emphases and diversions. (“We took the kids to Colonial Williamsburg and lived for six weeks as people did in the 17th century! Only $7,000!”) Though harder to pull off in a global pandemic, this one is deft in that it neatly swerves around the question of work. It loses points, however, because it swerves around the question of work. -2 points
  3. You regale everyone with how productive you were with your service to the institution and how you weren’t actually paid for any of it. This is a favorite of certain academics.
  4. You regale everyone, in a peremptory blog post, with the revisions you did on your institution’s first-year writing course (or some other GenEd offering).
  5. You freeze. Having squandered your precious summer, you pull a “hey what’s that?” and run for the nearest exit, grabbing an armful of super-bland pastries on your way to the parking lot.

This year, I have decided to go with #4.

“Hasty Pastries” (c) 2020 / Tyler J. Cook

Based on nearly two years’ worth of interviews, surveys, focus groups, and meetings with faculty across campus–and especially with the help of the dedicated and talented faculty who teach in the writing program–this summer I revamped ENG-W 131, IU Kokomo’s required first-year writing course, in light of COVID-19, HyFlex, distancing, and the social and political groundswell that has characterized Summer 2020.

ENG-W 131 is, like many first-year writing courses at other institutions, a course that used to be spread out over two semesters. Before we revised our GenEd to make it more in-line with other IU regional campuses, the majority of students in nearly all majors were required to take both ENG-W 131, an introduction to academic writing and reading, and ENG-W 132, a kind of “one-size-fits-all” research writing course. Now, most students still take ENG-W 131, though these numbers are declining due to ACP and other dual-credit programs, but ENG-W 132 is no longer required as part of the GenEd.

For these and other reasons, one of the primary objectives of this revision is to try to craft an effective experience in ENG-W 131 that can do all things for all students, something that was a real challenge when we had 32 weeks. Now we have 16–the last three of which are fully online.

Briefly, before getting in too much detail too soon, this revision seeks to accomplish seven interrelated and overlapping goals that emerged in conversations with faculty. We agree that ENG-W 131 should

  1. assign writing projects that immerse students in rich, authentic rhetorical situations and provide ample room for creativity, reflection, and revision;
  2. provide a sharper focus on the how, what, and why of academic writing;
  3. foreground digital information literacy skills and introduce students to the basics of academic, library-based research (IUCAT, article databases, etc.);
  4. provide students with artifacts and experiences that highlight relevant, challenging questions of political, social, and cultural importance;
  5. emphasize issues related to respecting difference and coaching students in how to have productive conversations about difficult or contentious topics;
  6. tie revision to a semester-long process that culminates in students compiling and presenting a digital portfolio of their work from the class; and finally,
  7. accomplish all of the above without assigning any papers.
Photo by Pixabay on

That’s right. This is a writing class where students don’t write papers. Or essays. Or writing projects. Call them what you will, the world has seen enough critical analyses of “The Yellow Wallpaper” to last a lifetime.

Instead, students in this course develop and produce media projects. Oh sure, there’s a ton of writing involved, as well as rhetorical decisions about audience and purpose, research into challenging questions, active reading, brainstorming and freewriting sessions, proposal writing, peer review workshops, and other popular accoutrements of any good first-year writing course. But in this revision of ENG-W 131 students aren’t writing go-nowhere papers and they’re not doing research in some hermetically-sealed bubble. Each of the three media projects (or “MPs”) invite students to engage not only with richly-configured audiences and purposes, but also to grapple with issues in the real world, with its strife, its pandemics, its glaring inequality, infrastructural racism, and monuments to bigotry.

Given the summer we’ve had so far, I think (I hope?) that this kind of reflection and orientation to first-year writing will be a welcome change.

The first MP is a simple podcast in which students will relate a personal experience in order to call attention to an issue of some political, social, or cultural significance. Students will write a script, of course, and to do that they will need to do some exploratory writing and thinking–and reflecting. They will also want to do some light research in order to connect their personal narrative to a larger social or political concern, which will have them performing basic research tasks and moves like synthesis and introducing sources. Toggling back and forth between a written artifact (the podcast script) to an oral product (the audio recording) will facilitate a closer examination of the moves we make in academic writing when introducing sources and establishing the credibility of the authorities we cite. The act of recording and listening to one’s own voice will, I think, in its own right prompt students to choose their words and examples carefully, as they develop voice and style with the help of their instructor.

The MP1 podcast assignment, which you can access here in full, is called “Looking In” because it asks students to tell a story about their own lives that hooks into a larger issue of political, social, and cultural importance (e.g., social media and technology, poverty, alcoholism, healthcare issues, political engagement, etc.). We’re going to get started on this media project on Day 1 of class: August 24. And every shred of writing students do from that day forward–note-taking, brainstorming, imagining, researching, reading, etc.–will be geared towards the development of the MPs. There are no “one-offs” or extraneous pieces built into the course; my hope is that these will appear organically as students begin to connect their own experiences to those of others.

To the extent that all humans lack intellectual and social empathy, perhaps especially in a pandemic, my grander hope is that this will begin to open up some channels of understanding and curiosity in students about others and other ideas. (How in the world do you assess that…?)

After looking in, the second MP then asks students to begin “Looking Out.” By getting students to first look inwards (to their own experiences), they will then be more receptive to looking out (i.e., developing greater empathy for others by examining and analyzing their positions in the world). The rhetorical frame for MP2 is an undergraduate research conference devoted, in the wake of Summer 2020, to the “Challenging Questions” facing young people and college students today. Students will first identify a challenging question that they want to map out in a research presentation for an audience of (mostly) their peers, and they can use the issue they’ve already been working with from MP1 if they so choose. I was inspired to write this particular MP after reading Brian Jackson’s truly groundbreaking new book Teaching Mindful Writers (2020). In fact, I would say that his notion of mindful writing (and teaching) has prompted much of what you see in this revision.

Experienced writing teachers will no doubt sense a bit of trickery here; one that in my experience can pay off. By asking students to commit to something in MP1, some “larger” idea or conceptual field outside of themselves but still connected in some way to their own experiences, the intellectual brawn required to get to MP2 seems more do-able, even for those students who may be easily daunted. For some students, making this adjustment won’t be a problem; their natural curiosity will kick in and it’s off to the races. For others, at least at first, it seems easier to remain noncommittal, and these are the students who need a nudge. (These are also students who will want to choose topics that clearly shy away from political issues or even issues of any real importance [“What’s the deal with corduroy?“] But hopefully, with the careful guidance of a skilled writing instructor–and the nudging of provocative readings like Tressie McMillan Cottom’s “The Logic of Stupid Poor People” and Jose Antonio Vargas’ “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant”–students will begin to see how writing about issues opens up new frames for understanding and greater opportunities for mindful reflection of others’ perspectives. (Both of the aforementioned essays, which I highly recommend, can be found along with many more provocative and timely readings in the brand new edition of Everyone’s an Author, which is the required reader for most sections of ENG-W 131 at IU Kokomo.)

Finally, we all have an obligation, on a certain level, to write about and engage with things that make us uncomfortable or don’t reinforce our ideas. Many believe this kind of give and take is central to healthy democracies; others think our infospaces provide fewer opportunities for this kind of interaction (cf. The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser, Alone Together by Sherry Turkle) and a few have serious beefs with the facts, a wide-ranging phenomenon that has, at least since 2016, coalesced around discussions of misinformation and the “post-truth” era (cf. Lee McIntyre, Post-Truth).

My plan in the run-up to MP2 is to use the Mind over Chatter modules to expose student writers to (1) the sheer diversity and complexity of sources that exist in the digital era; (2) the subtle and often very easy-to-miss distinctions between how different writers and publications frame events, concepts, people, and ideas; and (3) how one’s own rhetorical purpose (i.e., context) dictates which sources one should use more so than any “checklist” approach or abstractified notions of what constitutes a “good” or “bad” source. As in the first media project, I also plan to re-emphasize to students that the idea here is, ultimately, to tell a story, to build a compelling and convincing narrative, and then to present that narrative to an audience. Students will do just that in the “Challenging Questions” Virtual Undergraduate Research Conference I plan to host with my students and any other sections of ENG-W 131 that want to join up. Meanwhile, you can read all about the nuts and bolts of MP2 here.

MP2 is the research-heaviest of all the MPs in the new ENG-W 131 and, notably, it doesn’t ask students to actually make an argument or stake out a claim (this is intentional). Rather, it asks students to map out an area that interests them. In this regard, the project is similar to an informational speech that students might give in SPCH-S 121: Public Speaking. The goal, in other words, is not to develop a claim on an issue, but to “map it out.” Here’s how it’s explained in the student-facing assignment sheet:

For the “Challenging Questions” category, however, research means finding relevant, high-quality, “key” sources to help you explore a larger cultural, social, or political issue. You might think of it as compiling a “greatest hits” list of sources that provide an array of perspectives, insights, and opinions on a particular challenging question. Your instructor will be an invaluable resource as you refine and develop your working research question.

Let me explain this last point in a bit more detail because I think it goes to the heart of what I am trying to do in this revision and what we have been working towards with the Mind over Chatter (MoC) modules more generally. Faculty often note how some students have certain preconceived notions from HS of what research means: find a topic, ask a question (sort of, maybe?), and then find 3-5 sources that speak to, around, or at that topic/question. Like throwing darts at a dart board, sometimes with even the best intentions these assignments ring hollow and accept as valid any sources that sort of hit around the mark. Check the boxes, write the paper, hand it in for a grade. (I do not hold myself exempt from this characterization; it happens to all of us.)

The sequence of assignments I’ve developed for this revision attempts to move away from this rather static conception of the research process. I want to teach students how to marshal a range of sources, from all over the information ecosystem, including those that Sarah Ann Singer recently dubbed “wildcard sources” in her wonderful College English article from November 2019, so that they can provide a target audience with a credible overview of a difficult question that passes muster with an audience of their peers. Central to this is understanding that research isn’t about checking boxes; it’s about telling a story to an audience with convincing and more or less authoritative, credible, and god help you entertaining information. The question of what “counts” as authoritative or appropriate information for a particular audience (i.e., for the time being, in that moment, for those purposes, given this or that constellation of forces and assumptions) is a radically open question every time we sit down (or these days, stand up) to write. (This is a different topic for a different post.)

Likewise, when we assign a paper, we are asking students to “invent the university,” in David Bartholomae’s famous phrase, by asking them to access a whole range of information, styles, poses, and scholarly attitudes they simply haven’t yet been exposed to, much less mastered. MP2 tries to avoid these tendencies. We’ll see how it goes.

The third media project strikes a thoroughly practical chord. Asking students to reflect on the two MPs they’ve already created, and in keeping with the three weeks of mandatory online-only instruction after the Thanksgiving break, we’ll use the bulk of our synchronous time together to properly workshop each students’ MP1 or MP2, much as you would do in a creative writing seminar, though with 24 students we’ll have to get creative with the breakout rooms and such. Students will also write revision letters to their peers and learn the basics of developing an online presence by creating a digital portfolio. The purpose of MP3 is twofold: (1) to help students create a public-facing record or “portfolio” of their work in ENG-W 131 and (2) provide students with a space in which to conduct authentic revision for a live, web-accessible document.

Over the next few days, I will post regular updates to this site until all of the major documents related to the new ENG-W 131 have been posted, as well as a few of the more novel supporting assignments, like the rhetorical mapping exercise I am working on and an adapted assignment that uses Singer’s “wildcard sources” idea to get students excited about research. I am also going to show how I have used Mike Caulfield’s incredibly-thoughtful web materials in my own classes to great effect. Each post will include the full, student-facing assignment sheet I plan to use in my section of ENG-W 131 this fall, as well as an accompanying podcast episode that explains the pedagogical rationale and how the assignment fits into the larger pedagogical vision of the course. Thanks for reading. [PGC]

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