“the student studies / voluntarily”

… refusing to be less

than individual. He
“gives his opinion and then rests upon it”;
he renders service when there is
no reward

 — Marianne Moore, “The Student”

One aspect of my academic role that I haven’t mentioned in much detail on this blog yet is my work as an instructor in UConn’s First Year Writing Program. I am about to take a summer off from teaching altogether and will not be returning to teach freshmen until the spring so this seems like a crucial point at which to reflect on my experiences, particularly in the light of two innovations (if I am allowed to call them such!) I implemented this semester.

UConn offers two different forms of writing instruction for freshmen, broadly distinguished by the texts we teach writing “through”: predominantly literature versus predominantly non-fiction texts. (I am very aware these are not direct antonyms.) Having taught a literature-based class in the fall and, due to a pesky phenomenon known as the MA exam, not having much time to plan for a non-fiction class over the winter break, I approached this semester with a deliberately hybrid syllabus. I adapted an assignment sequence that traced “Vanity Fair” as a concept from Bunyan through Hawthorne, Alcott and Thackeray to the magazine of that name into a series of more individualized units in which a critical text I’d used in a minor way in previous classes became the “theory” part of a theory and case study dyad. For example, we began with Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By to discuss figurative ways of thinking in the light of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Hawthorne’s “The Celestial Railroad” became part of a unit on progress while adaptation was the focus of a unit considering how readers and viewers have responded to different versions of the adventures of Becky Sharp. The thematic background of this popular literary trope allowed a cumulative understanding that came to the fore in a final paper on “vanity” itself while the different topics of the earlier papers ensured students had a breadth of options.

So how do I think it went? I first brought literature into the FYW classroom because of my impatience with students’ acceptance of a single voice in critical texts. The sensitivity required in order to understand the difference between Foucault or Butler arguing what is and what should be the case might be enabled by asking students to look at fictional texts for which one cannot merely claim that “X says”. I still reserve judgment on this point but I do maintain a strong commitment to presenting students with a range of voices and genres. One crucial lesson from this semester—one that has been slowly coming to light for a long time—is the need for FYW courses to introduce students to a multivalent conversation. Counter-cultural texts that challenge students’ assumptions are popular in many FYW anthologies but can often fail to avoid creating an oppositional stance among students who may be less brainwashed than we all suppose. For example, my students commented in feedback on our unit on progress that both texts took a clearly “anti” stance. I asked them to read a chapter from James W. Loewen’s book, Lies My Teacher Told Me. I appreciate the irony of this now. I have been browsing in the well-stocked bookshelves in the FYW office and found a few rarities, such as some of the sections in A World of Ideas, which offer a range of historically situated cultural texts that might allow me to more fully realize the aims of teaching writing through texts that are foundational to our culture, that originate the concepts and terms and strategies our students will need to negotiate.

I always have to remind myself that I teach writing, not merely reading. This is the peculiar position of a graduate student in a literature program benefiting from the university’s allocation of writing tuition provision to my department: thank you for the assistantship. So I also want to reflect on a specific tactic I used this semester to practice what I preach: writing is ultimately a form of communication that, when divorced from its originating context, still remains meaningful. Once, very glibly, I refused to speak on my argument in a graduate seminar after I had circulated a written abstract: I had already written what I wanted to say and I needed to know if a reader could grasp it without my verbose explanations. Hence my frustration when students ask me to explain verbally—improvise in the moment—an assignment prompt that I spent hours poring over with colleagues in order to articulate its goals through writing. My syllabus this semester read thus:

The entirety of your grade will be decided by the quality of your revised drafts. While other key elements of your work—most especially, participation and revision—will not be graded independently, they are likely to have a significant effect on your grade as their rewards are manifested through your writing.

Everything I ask my students to do—discussions, peer review and so on—has the primary pedagogical goal of enabling them to write well. So I put my money where my mouth was. Students participated as much or as little as my previous experience had predicted, apparently not being motivated or otherwise by the possibility of “participation points”. (My idealistic dream of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake was purring with pleasure.) But yes, I felt a pang for those students whose efforts were not necessarily reflected in their attainment. I knew I was fulfilling my responsibility as an educator, however. The analogy is unlikely to bear scrutiny but consider the 10 meter sprint. There are no points for trying; Usain Bolt just happens to run the fastest. Effort and attainment do have a correspondence but it is never straightforward. An intelligent use of your time and energy can often be more productive than mere hours of slogging, for example. Effort can never be a stable sustained movement; one always has other demands on one’s time and deciding when and where to apply pressure is a key skill. When I read feedback from students to a specific question I posed about this approach to grading in the end-of-semester evaluations, there was a mixed response. Some would have preferred other incentives and acknowledgements; some thought it was fair and indeed enabling by making room for risk throughout the process up to the revised drafts.

Two comments particularly struck me:

I went to the writing center many times and it didn’t help my grade, when it should because I am putting in more effort than others.

I didn’t like it too much because it doesn’t account for the kids who struggle with writing cause you can’t get credit anywhere else.

Yes. Precisely. While I continue to ponder the suggestions some of my students made about rewarding growth or improvement, I stand by my decision because it is and always should be writing that counts in a writing class.