Introduction: Why WID?

There were a number of reasons I wanted to partake in the Writing in the Disciplines program. After having been on the job for three years at Dawson, I noticed a lot of discrepencies between how I saw the ideal class play out in my head, and how my actual classes were going.

My points of reference for a successful Cegep class, one that fosters critical thinking and introduces students to new forms and new concepts, were a couple of classes I took as a student at Dawson back in the 90’s. They were titled The Documentary Film, and The Animated Film. The biggest reason why these classes stuck in my head was the teacher, David Grey. He was energetic, interesting, hilarious, and passionate about the subjects he taught. I always looked forward to his classes. He introduced me to genres of film that I was largely unfamiliar with, and the choices of material that he showed were eye-opening and brilliant. Class discussions were always lively and dynamic. Class assignments and papers were fun to complete, and intellectually challenging.

This is how I imagined my tenure at Dawson playing out. I would teach literature that I was passionate about and that I thought would be engaging to Cegep-aged students, and my personality would take care of the rest. I would foster inspiration in eager young minds. Getting hired was an exciting proposition.

The reality of teaching, though, has highlighted certain things that often don’t work nearly as well in the classroom as they do in my imagination:

  1. Students are often tuned out, disinterested, and bored.
  2. My passion for the literature we’re reading does not translate to students.
  3. The level of student writing is, on the whole, much lower than I thought it would be. So, I have to spend a lot of my time just correcting grammatical mistakes, instead of considering ideas.
  4. Students often look for the easiest path to complete essays. Which is to regurgitate things I’ve said in lectures and class discussions or essays they’ve read on the Internet.
  5. Grading essays is often tortutous.

Reading these items 1-5, it’s easy to recognize them as a recipe for a less than magically engaging class. So, I began to search for a better way to conduct my classes. Or at least a different way. I needed to take a step back and take a global look at how I was running my classroom.

A couple of things precipitated my involvement with WID. The first was a Nonfiction Writing class I taught last year. In it, I told students that for their major papers (which have to be related to their program of study) they had to write about something that interested them, and that the style of the essay should not be an academic one, but rather something closer to a magazine article (something meant for general consumption, not just to be read by a teacher and then discarded). The results, for the most part, were very encouraging. By having them write about things that interested them, they were naturally more engaged with their subjects. By lifting the constraint of strictly academic writing from their papers, each student’s individual writing style came through much more clearly. The writing was much better than any writing I had seen in previous classes. It’s important to note that these were all third or fourth semester students, but I think the high level of work I got had as much to do with how I framed the assignment as with their familiarity with the rigours of college writing.

The semester after I taught this class, I attended a WID conference at Dawson’s pedagogical day. The four or five teachers who presented seemed interested in stretching out the genres that students were writing in as a way to get them more engaged with their work. This strengthened my suspicion that the genre and form that I was insisting on for student essays—the type of writing I was asking for, and how I was designing my assignments—was playing a significant role in the low quality work I was getting in a lot of my classes. I found this very liberating. The conference opened my eyes to different ways of structuring assignments, and I decided to apply for WID for the following semester.

This blog portfolio, accessible via the menu at the top of the page, is an accumulation of some of the ideas I’ve come up with.  One thing I stress over and over again to my students is that writing is a process, and good writing takes many attempts and many drafts. The assignments and ideas I’ve posted here are things I came up for a class called Montreal Jewish Writing, which I taught the semester that I was participating in WID. I look at them, though, as works in progress. I’ll keep tweaking and improving them, probably forever. I feel excited by the prospect of continuing to perform surgery (from cosmetic to life-saving) on all aspects of classroom design.