Thursday, February 10, 2011


Despite the late start (again!), yesterday was a full day, pedagogically speaking.

Things got underway in earnest with presentations by my 179 students, on the campus offices and organizations they were to investigate and report upon. Though I've not yet looked at them closely, the brochures they came up with to "advertise" these offices' services look quite good. They're creative and colorful, and some of them almost look professionally done. The presentations showed signs of nervousness and trepidation, which is natural with students at this point in their careers. As I always remind them, getting up and speaking in front of other is hard, no matter how often or how many times you do it. I admired both their willingness to get up and speak and the respect they showed one another as audience members.

I am not, on the other hand, admiring their highly imperfect attendance. Though there's a core of students (15 or so of the 21 now registered for the course) who come unfailingly, the remaining students come only to one out of every three or four class meetings. I've never seen such nonchalance in my courses before.

It's easy to come up with reasons for this. Even I have to admit that the course's subject may not be one which is inherently engaging for students not already interested in math, so many students may find it hard to get excited about the course for its own sake. Since mine is the only 179 course running this semester, several students are in it simply because they have to be, and no one wants to do something on compulsion alone. Finally, 179 courses in general (not just mine) are sometimes seen as "throwaway" courses that students expect to do well in with minimal effort. This is in part because many instructors fail to motivate the class by making its purposes clear.

I hope that in this I'm succeeding. I'm trying to strike a balance between writing instruction (to meet the course's WI goal), overview of the campus and its surrounding community, and actual course "content." It's a precarious balance, and sometimes I feel as though I'm making it up as I go along, and this worries me. However, several activities have seemed to work well ("Everything you always wanted to know about UNCA..." was well-received, and the students seemed to have fun making their meddos). I hope it proves meaningful in the end.

Speaking of public speaking...I ended my workday at Mars Hill College, a small school about 20 minutes north of here. The director of their nascent writing program had invited me to come and lead a workshop for the faculty who are spearheading efforts to get their writing-intensive course program off the ground. There was good disciplinary variety in the participant pool, with social work, journalism, history, literature and composition, religion, and philosophy well-represented. Given that Mars Hill can't possible have more than a hundred or so faculty members, I'm guessing that I met with something like 15% of the school's faculty yesterday. However, I must admit that I was a little chagrined, as were several of the attendants, that the sciences didn't send any of their folks over. (There's talk of me coming back to work with them specifically.)

There was energy in the room: given that Mars Hill's QEP is focused on writing and information literacy, there's strong institutional buy-in for their new WAC program, which features phased-in writing-intensive courses and student writing-fellows. The campus is outwardly stoked about the QEP: banners hang from lampposts exhorting "Write! QEP 2010-2013." It's clearly not just a "top-down" mandate, though; the people I met with yesterday were very much on board with the idea of writing across the curriculum. Their energy was authentic and intrinsic, not simply something generated by an administrative fiat.

Owing to this energy, the workshop was a fruitful one, with active (sometimes even fervent, but always friendly) discussion and idea-sharing. We talked about identifying roles for writing, coming up with learning goals writing could help to meet, structuring writing, using low-stakes writing activities, and responding to writing (while guiding students to do the same, through peer review). We packed a lot into two hours! Judging from the exit slips I received from the participants at the end (thanks for this idea, Libby! I'm going to do this from now on), most people were most interested in learning more about low-stakes writing and its uses in the classroom. The most interesting were the technology-driven (and very game-like) "constrained" forms like tweets and texts, as well as my newly-minted "Intrigue, Confusion, and Confidence."

I picked up some ideas, too. One of the conference participants offered a low-stakes writing activity he's used to help his shyer students get their say in in-class discussions. Rather than requiring them to speak up in front of a couple dozen of their peers, he asks students who are hesitant about contributing talking points to email their ideas ahead of time so that he can collect these ideas and share them with the class on the overhead. Those students' discussion points are on display, anonymously, when the class comes in, and in this way even the less outgoing students are able to make their voices heard. I asked if this method of starting the class conversation has helped the shy students come out of their shells (as, for instance, they might be called on to defend the points they've made via email), and he indicated that this is the case.

At the end of the workshop I had a chance to dish about the reception on the part of faculty of UNCA's own WI program. I said that I think it's generally good, and that though there was resistance when ILS was first phased in several years ago, most of the younger faculty have bought into it authentically and this has led to a campus culture in which writing-intensive courses are broadly accepted. I honestly think that this is the case: there are grumblers and groaners, but for the most part the mission of the intensives is unquestioned, and teaching WI courses is a valued activity.


No comments: