Expectations before WID
I was not sure what to expect before I began Writing in the Disciplines. While teaching is by definition a public display, it is also a private one, in that we are not in the classroom with our colleagues. We can become entrenched in our own pedagogical methods and come to trust ourselves, though it is also imperative we remain open, that we seek out opportunities to improve. This is why I decided to apply for WID; while I am happy with my general approach as an educator, I know there is always room for improvement.
One aspect of WID that enticed me to apply was the prospect of collaborating with colleagues from different departments. While we are often granted the opportunity on a daily basis to discuss with those within our own department, it is seldom that we interact with those outside our milieu. In the Fall 2019 semester, professors in English, the Humanities, Psychology as well as myself in Cinema Communications were accepted. It was humbling and telling to hear about their experiences alongside my own.
Examining Past Practices
While not all of my courses are lecture-based, I have noticed in those that are that an increase in discussion, interaction, and collaboration enhances the student’s learning experience. Thus, the first question I will pursue:
• How can I vary the experience in the classroom beyond the lecture model to promote creativity and innovation?
The conclusion I reached was aided by our bi-weekly meetings and the discussions therein as well as our weekly readings. The readings showed me to look at this question through the prism of genre. It is in reassessing how and why students are instructed to think and write the way they do that showed me how to reframe this question. Readings by Bean, Bazerman, and Sullivan as assigned by Jeff Gandell and Ian Duncan Mackenzie provided the theoretical backdrop with which to approach this question.
Genre in the Classroom
The concept of genre was not immediately accessible to me. I found it abstract and hard to grasp. Over time I replaced it with another word, form, and this simplified my thinking on the subject. Students can write in a variety of genres i.e. forms and each may inform them in a variety of ways. One of the ways I came to think about genre was its relationship to audience. Who is the student writing for, who are they talking to, and why?
One concept discussed in our bi-weekly meetings was “Think-Pair-Share.” By adhering to this model, the teacher asks the student to begin by free writing, then share their answers with a nearby student, and, finally, to compile and combine their answer to then share orally with the class.
Free writing is an underutilized genre in the classroom. After a screening of a film, or an introduction to a new concept, I would post several questions and give the students 3-5 minutes to answer each one. The only rule—and this is something students struggle with—was to continue writing throughout, to not put their pen down, whether or whether or not they knew what to say. Upwards of 50% of students struggle with this.
This method was successful for a host of reasons. First, the student is given the time to reflect privately and to write, to articulate their ideas into prose. Then, the student has to explain how and why they reached the conclusions they did to their peers. (Note: I often encourage students to pair with those they are not familiar with in a social context. This helps them express themselves to those they would not ordinarily contact on their own.) They need to use logic and reason to share their ideas with their partner, to defend their position, as well as successful oral communication. Then, the two synthesize their ideas into one coherent argument. Finally, the students are asked to share their conclusions with the rest of the class orally, employing a different though equally essential set of skills.
In Engaging Ideas, our primary text for the semester, John C. Bean explains, “This personal exploratory writing is a seedbed for ideas out of which committed academic or professional writing can emerge.” (Bean) I often used concepts and ideas brought by the student in their free writing session into the wider class discussion, merging my own thinking and reflections with that of the students. It was inspiring to combine our lines of thinking in real time, and it was clear that the students were excited by this as well.
Re-thinking genre within the classroom revitalized the collective experience: “Once students feel part of the life in a genre, any genre that grabs their attention, the detailed and hard work of writing becomes compellingly real, for the work has a real payoff in engagement within activities the students find important.” (Bazerman)
Free writing opens students to new ways of thinking. It demystifies the writing process and provides the groundwork for their larger theoretical assignments.
Collaborative Theoretical Writing Assignments
During my time in WID, I listened intently to my colleagues’ teaching methods and how they differed from my own. This propelled me to look at my own approaches and to think about how they could be improved and built upon. As a practicing filmmaker I teach both practice and theory in the Cinema Communications Department. I noticed one difference between my approaches across these classes: while I promote collaboration in all my practical classes by encouraging students to work in pairs on a host of assignments, I did not have any joint assignments in my theory classes. However, in the academic sphere, co-authored papers are commonplace.
With this in mind, I have decided to add an assignment in my theory classes where students will collaborate with one another on an essay. The essay will be a 1000-word limit, and with a minimum of 2 sources, beyond those I have previously assigned. Each student will be required to find one source and to contribute equally to the writing process. I hope that this will not only stimulate their creativity, but also bring out new ways of thinking for them, one from a place of openness and collaboration.
This assignment connects to the subjects of genre as well as audience that we spoke of in WID. While the academic paper is by no means the sole genre to focus on, it is a crucial one all the same, and is well worth a student’s time and focus. Co-authored research papers are commonplace in the academic realm and so in adding this assignment to the syllabi of my theory courses, I am broadening the student’s perspective as to who they are talking to (audience) and how (genre).
One concept we discussed in our bi-weekly meetings is that not all work must be graded and so the in class “free writes” were not.
Below is an example of the “Think-Pair-Share” model:
- Write a question projected on the screen. Ex. How is spectatorship presented in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games?
- Give students 5 minutes to answer the question longhand, in writing.
- Allow students to partner and discuss their responses with a fellow student (preferablyone they will get to know through the class) for 5 minutes.
- In class discussion 20 minutes. Each group presents their answer to the class.
Below are the parameters from the co-authored essay assignment:
- Discuss the aesthetic approach in one of the movies screened in class. 1000-word limit
- Working in pairs, co-author the paper, each providing a minimum of 1 source each
- Students must co-write essay
The semester I spent in WID transformed the way I think about teaching. It made me re-think how to structure my classes and what to assign to my students. The readings provided new information and perspectives with which to approach the way I think about teaching and how I communicate with my students. Our bi-weekly meetings were equally enriching; they enabled me to see how my colleagues struggle in the classroom but also learning and growing. It was clear we all gleaned a great deal from one another.
Questions of genre, audience, and what to grade and why all helped shape new paths in pedagogy I hope will enrich my ability to teach and help shape the ways students think and see.