Eric Van der Wee

500px-Superhero.svgHow would you characterize the experience of working alongside teachers from other departments in the Writing Fellows project?      

In many ways, the WID experience was eye-opening.  On one level, it made me appreciate just how big the college really is, in terms of the number of teachers here; it’s something I knew as a fact, but it’s different to experience it, to find oneself in a situation with so many different teaching perspectives.  This was one of the best parts of WID; having teachers from disciplines other than my own speaking to their pedagogy, their methodology, their evaluation techniques…it’s already rare to have a space to speak about these topics within one’s discipline, so it was especially interesting to be able to do so with professionals from other disciplines.

This opportunity was therefore eye-opening in another way: I realized I took for granted certain pedagogical beliefs I held, and did not properly understand how other disciplines work (of course, in retrospect, how could I?  I am not a teacher in that discipline).  I appreciated how many of the concerns are the same, but that the method under which they were addressed were different.  The most interesting part, however, was learning of the different educational and pedagogical concerns the different departments have.  I enjoyed hearing about what kinds of assignments they gave, and why, and their methods for evaluating.  Exposure to these different ideas made me realize I may have been in a bit of a “rut” when it comes to designing things for my own courses.  Being exposes to different genres of writing and different methods of evaluation through my contact with these colleagues was one of the best parts of the WID experience.

 

As a result of this experience, has anything changed in the way you design your learning activities, your assignments, and/or your instructional approaches?

Taking the WID workshop has definitely changed the way I will design things for my classes in the future, as well as reconsider some of my instructional approaches. 

Previous to WID, I more or less believed that writing was something that was done post-thinking; one read a text, gave it due consideration, came up with questions regarding it, then wrote down a response.  It was simply the means to communicate one’s thoughts.  What WID has done for me is open up the idea of writing as generative in addition to being reflective, “a unique cognitive process.”  Like many, I had previously understood writing as outputting the results of the reflective process, but never as part of that process.  As such, being introduced to the idea of “writing to learn” was both new and welcome; I wondered how that might change some of my in-class activities. 

Most of the activities I do in class require verbal responses from students: I will throw a question out there, wait a bit for some reflection to take place (though sometimes off-the-cuff answers are also good!) then elicit responses from the students, who share them verbally with the class.  Would this change if, instead of silent meditation upon the question, I asked them to write out the reflective process?

I decided to change how I proceed with two simple exercises, one from my worldviews class, and one from my ethics class.  Both were previously done without any writing at all, simple question-and-answer style.  While I only got to do things differently this one time, the results were definitely different than what I am used to.  It seems clear to me that the act of writing out one’s reflection seems to change the nature of the reflection, if I am to go based on answers in previous semesters.  To further explore this idea, I may use one section as “control group” and one as the “test group” to see if these changes hold to.

A side effect to this change in perspective on writing became obvious after only a few such exercises: The students started to ask, with more frequency, “Are we getting graded on this?”  I understood the reasoning behind the question; in much of their academic career, writing was something one did for grades, rarely as part of the learning process.  I didn’t necessarily want to grade them on such an activity, but I was also afraid that if the answer were a straight “no” they wouldn’t take the activity as seriously.  While I don’t necessarily have all the answers, I do feel incorporating work like this in some sort of scaffolding (see below) may prove useful.

WID also addressed the topic of genre-based writing, something I have always been interested in, but a bit recalcitrant to add to my assignments…which never made any sense to me.  After all, my ethics class used comic book mythology, and none of my assignments ever allowed for that mode of writing!  I realized I was communicating that some things may be ok to read, but must not be used to communicate in a serious academic institution.  I am not sure this is a message I want to be sending out.  Additionally, as a teacher in general education, I get students from a wide variety of backgrounds and different programs; by never allowing different genre-based writings as legitimate choices in any of my assignments, was I “silencing” certain voices?  Bean seems to think that this concern for the “lost voice” is a legitimate one (p.53) and is worth addressing as a teacher; he is diligent in describing the value of teaching both the closed-form academic style as well as alternative genres (pp.55-59)

This made me realize that I could try to be a little more daring in the formats of my assignments.  Bean takes care to note that certain formats are expected and will likely always be; students should be capable of writing a classic five paragraph essay, for example.  I took this to mean that I didn’t need to re-structure the entirety of the final program-related paper in the humanities BXH just yet!  I did feel encouraged to try some different genre writing for some of my other assignments, or at least have different options for them if the students felt comfortable.  An example can be found here

I am not entirely sure about the results.  My standard assignment is a simple reading response paper.  I like it because it forces the student to use their own words to describe the ideas found within the text, which is a great way to demonstrate understanding.  It also “tricks” them into writing their own notes.  Would the students taking advantage of an alternate genre reduce or eliminate these benefits?  If so, would new ones arise to replace them?  I will need to have more experience with this to be sure.

One of the hot topics that came up in our meetings was how we respond to the work that students have produced for us.  While I will mention issues of grading and evaluation below, one of the issues within evaluation was grammar.  This made for exciting conversation, believe it or not.  There were a variety of perspectives around the table regarding grammar: Should it be evaluated at all?  If so, does it give an unfair advantage to native speakers?  By just how much should grammar be taken into account when it comes to grading?  Could a student fail an assignment because of grammatical mistakes?

I admit, I always thought proper grammar was a given, and that any deviation from that merited a penalty of some kind.  Certainly, spending time on social media has bombarded me with its/it’s and there/they’re/their and so on.  Why can’t these mistakes just be avoided?

Through the WID seminar and navigating Bean’s ideas, I have come to be somewhat less militant when it comes to penalizing poor grammar; in fact, I hardly do it at all.  I have a small portion of the final paper that takes spelling and proper grammar into account in the final program-related paper for the ethics course.  By doing this, I feel I am conscious of some of the socio-political aspects of grammar that Bean brought to my attention (p.70) while also making sure the students use the tools at their disposal to succeed at the college level and eventually the workplace.

Yet another idea that I have thought more deeply about through my participation in WID is the idea of scaffolding.  I am already used to scaffolding, and used it quite overtly when I taught high school.  I found myself drifting away from this overtness when I began teaching at the college level, perhaps thinking that the students needed less “hand-holding” now. 

As a way to “freshen up” my perspective on scaffolding, I really appreciated Bean’s suggestion about building one’s course backward by designing the last assignment first.  I feel I already do this in some cases with the program-related paper in the ethics course, but I plan on being a bit more overt with some of my scaffolding, designing assignments that encourage a mind-set necessary to do well on the paper.  An example of such a process dealing with argumentation can be found here.

As a last item, the WID seminar addressed the idea of multi-modal texts, which are texts that do not rely solely on alphabetic composition, in the classroom.  This was one area where I was less sure I would learn something new since it’s hard to be a high school teacher without being proficient in the use of multi-modal texts.  As well, the idea that a teacher would not be at least somewhat proficient in their variety of uses was foreign to me; it seemed necessary to me that avoiding them meant a risk of our material simply not engaging the students where they are.  Additionally, multi-modal texts may bring out responses from students that written ones won’t.

 What was new to me, however, was hearing how the other teachers in our group would use them.  Teachers in cinema, English language arts, and geography all showed different and new (to me!) ways they engaged with multi-modal texts.  Again, this inspired me to be a bit more creative with my own, and so I changed one or two that I had previously used; an example can be found here.   See also the scaffolding to a final assignment, as well as the final assignment here..

 

Do you expect that these changes will have an impact on student learning in your courses?

Since doing WID, I really only had one semester to implement changes in my courses. I very much would like to take some time with my course outlines and think through some changes I can build into the structure of my courses.  In a way, WID has shone a light on some areas of my practice that could really use some work, taking away the comfortable illusion that I was already doing as well as possible in my teaching.

Like most of my colleagues in WID attested to, my biggest challenge is grading. I find it difficult to give many assignments since the work piles up, both for me and for the students, who stop giving them their utmost attention as they deal with their core classes and other responsibilities.  Bean is quick to point out that not every assignment need be graded, but I wonder if students will work as hard on an assignment if there is no numerical advantage for them in doing so.  This is a result of a system where everyone is worried about their R-Score and I can’t blame the students, necessarily.  Having said that, I am hopeful that some of the more creative assignments are more fun to do, and that participation in them will be as high as I hope.

Where I really expect WID to have an impact on student learning is to “widen the gates” as to what success looks like in a college humanities class.  WID has asked me to consider different genres, different and creative responses to assignments, and to re-evaluate my rubrics and evaluation processes.  I imagine, through such changes as these, a few more students than before will have a deeper appreciation for the courses, the material found within, and it will be reflected in their participation and grades.

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Image credit: Thibault Fr., Wikimedia Commons

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