FYE, FYC, and why I was really busy in Fall '08

NOTE: I use the first person plural throughout this post. I am not schizophrenic. Instead, I am referring to myself and my teaching partner, T. Best. teaching. partner. ever.

At WSU, approximately half of the English 101 (Introductory Writing) sections in the Fall semester are designated as “Freshmen Focus” sections. In the Freshman Focus (FF) program, approximately 80% (or more…I am not sure of the exact number, but I recall hearing it was a very high number) of the incoming freshmen were placed into living-learning communities in which they shared at least two classes with other students in their dorm. The individual clusters themselves were typically like ours: four sections of English 101 (26 students each) matched up with two sections of World Civ (60+ students each). Specifically, my two sections of English 101 made up one section of World Civ, and T’s two sections of English 101 made up another section of World Civ (both World Civ sections also had students not in the FF program).

After we learned that our four sections of English 101 were to be part of a FF cluster, we set out to design a course that would integrate everything we possibly could and to produce for our students the sort of living-learning experience that we both had during our undergraduate years at small liberal arts colleges. As successful products of that sort of environment, we seized the opportunity to create a similar environment within the large research institution that is WSU. To that end, from the outset we wanted to coordinate and collaborate not only with each other but with our World Civ, Residence Life, and Library partners. Additionally, we planned to integrate the Common Reading and Common Reading Lecture Series and related programming into our course, and in the end did just that.

It was a serious amount of work. We started in the summer by designing our course from the ground up. Although we had both taught FYC before, we came at this opportunity with some serious goals in mind—besides the standard goals of the course as listed in the catalog. You see, we’re both pretty hardcore about some things. Namely, that there’s nothing inherent in our student population that makes them unable to tackle difficult material and do very well. That may seem like a no-brainer, but there is a sense among some of our colleagues that students are a lost cause. Whatever, we said. We made them read Sartre. And they did it, and they liked it. We also firmly believe that in a FYC course the students should, you know, write a lot and receive a lot of feedback along the way. Again, this may seem like a no-brainer, but it is not out of the realm of possibility that other instructors’ students receive feedback only a handful of times over the course of the semester, with the bulk of their grade (anywhere from 50-100% resting on the final portfolio). To us, that didn’t seem right. So, when we set out to create our course, we decided to make it the most challenging—yet supportive—environment for critical thinking, critical reading, and critical writing that we thought we could get away with before our students mutinied.

Coordinated and Collaborative Teaching
Our four sections of English 101 had a common syllabus and we collaborated on the creation of all assignments as well as the topics covered in each day’s lecture/classroom discussion. But beyond that, we often appeared together in each other’s classroom or in a merged classroom. For example, T’s sections met at 8am and 11am, and mine met at 11am and 2pm. On days when the lecture or discussion would be enhanced by the two of us working together, I would go to T’s class at 8am, we would combine our 11am sections and hold class in one large room, and T would go to my class at 2pm. Such collaboration was not an infrequent occurrence, and supported our goal of providing a consistent and stable learning environment for the students.

Although we intended to collaborate with the World Civ instructor, this didn’t really work out—this makes sense, as any external coordination is bound to be fraught with difficulties ranging from simple (scheduling) to complex (fundamentally different points of view). Of most importance, however, is the fact that the overwhelming majority of our students succeeded in meeting the goals of the class and the expectations of their instructors. We purposefully set the bar very high for our students; a high standard plus a strong support system resulted in some student work well beyond the minimal expectations of the typical 101 classroom at WSU. Specifically, our coordinated and collaborative teaching reinforced the commitment we made to our students that we would both be supportive of them as needed (or requested), and that they would develop connections with a cohort that extended beyond the 26 students in their English class or the 60+ students in their World Civ class.

Coordination with World Civ
Knowing the general topics covered in the World Civ course, as well as that course’s use of the Common Reading, we planned our readings and our schedule to support and enhance the students’ understanding of themes and ability to articulate new knowledge through written communication. Two other area of overlap came outside of the classroom, as we required student attendance at and reflective writing about two events: the talk by Mary Roach (author of the common reading, Stiff) and the lecture given by philosopher Daniel Dennett.

Coordination with Residence Life
We integrated the viewing of films, along with group discussion and individual writing about moral and ethical issues in these films, as part of our students’ coursework. We were able to use space in the students’ dorm complex eight or nine times during the semester—bringing academics into their social space, and also holding up our end of the commitment bargain, since spending approximately 30 hours in a dorm over the course of the semester is a little out of the ordinary to say the least.

The student response to these in-dorm activities was very positive. These movies—some blockbusters, some “artsy”—were chosen because they contained moral or ethical issues (often matching readings we had done in class) which then spurred student discussion and writing. We showed nine movies in all; the eight movies in the dorm averaged approximately 35-40 students while the final movie (shown in a classroom on campus) had almost all 100 students in attendance. Students were not required to attend all the movies; they chose four out of the nine to attend, and we held these films on different days and times to work around various other conflicts (lab, band, etc). Several students came to movie nights even after they had completed the required four, and some students brought friends from other classes—some of whom even participated in the discussion. Many students revised their movie write-ups and used them in their final portfolios, eventually making the same philosophical connections that we envisioned when we paired the movies with course readings in the first place.

Coordination with Library
Our coordination with the Library was minimal; we intended to involve the librarians more than we did, but due to scheduling conflicts we just handled our plans on our own. We—and this was T’s idea from the outset—created a library version of the Amazing Race. I will write a separate blog post about this, because the AR was very cool.

Use of Common Reading and the Common Reading Lecture Series
It was our intention from the outset to use the Common Reading as a supplementary text in our course, and in addition to attending the author-related events at the beginning of the semester our students worked with the entirety of the book in Weeks 11 and 13. Additionally, students were required to attend and write about four events that fell under the banner of the Common Reading Lecture Series or the Freshman Focus programming (such as the related exhibits in the libraries).

The group work involving the Common Reading incorporated the Common Reading as well as all the other main goals for the course—having students recognize (and criticize) the use of the “moves” in academic writing, and have students think critically about the moral and ethical dilemmas present in the text. Groups of students (2 to 4) took ownership of a chapter from Stiff, provided a summary of the chapter, presented and discussed academic moves, and presented and discussed moral and ethical issues; groups were responsible for conveying information through both oral and written communication. Additionally, subsequent to each group presentation, the other students were to think critically about the academic moves and moral and ethical issues presented, and extend the discussion from class into a written response. Some students even revised their responses to the group presentations and included this work in their portfolio.

Similarly, many students revised their write-ups of lectures from the Common Reading Lecture Series and included these items in their portfolios. We required students to both summarize the event and provide some elements of personal engagement with one or more topics discussed in a lecture or that they viewed at an exhibit. As expected, not all lectures/exhibits appealed to all students. However, we used that reaction as a teaching moment—how to respond to and criticize an event (or theme, or argument, etc) that you do not like or that you disagree with, but without resorting to logical fallacies or vague generalizations such as “this sucks” or “I did not like it therefore it is bad.” We attempted (with some success) in getting students to express just why something “sucked,” for instance, so even the events that were not incredibly popular were actually quite useful. Some students wrote research papers on topics that were developed from write-ups they created after those events.

Both the Common Reading and the associated programming worked very well for our class. Roach’s book presented ample opportunity for discussion regarding both content and craft—this is important for a “common” reading intended for use across the curriculum.

The FF Experience Overall
Overall, the FF experience was quite positive from our point of view, and presented us with the opportunity to try new things as part of our own developing pedagogy. In fact, engaging in collaboration such as we did provided our own support system for trying new things—much like we did with our students.

But there were challenges. We both had a few ongoing behavioral issues with a small subset of students (2-4 for each of us). Upon reflection, both during the semester and after, neither of us think these particular issues had anything to do with the program itself. That is to say, the behavioral issues were not the result of the sort of hyperbonding that is almost inherent in a program of this type. Another minor issue arose with regards to the number of activities we required our students to attend outside of the classroom—ten, to be exact: the author visit, the Dennett lecture, four Common Reading Lecture Series events, and four movies. To fulfill our promise of being present in the students’ academic lives, we were at all of these events with the exception of the Common Reading Lecture Series events. That is, we were at the author visit, the Dennett lecture, and all nine of the movie showings/post-movie discussions. While we were not at all required by the program to do any, let alone all, of these activities, we did—and were exhausted by the end of it all, yet happy about the students’ academic results.

But our plan for these activities was not one that could accommodate everyone. At the beginning of the semester we asked for each student’s evening schedule, so we could plan activities as best we could around Math and Science labs, marching band practice, varsity and intramural sports practices and events, and fraternity and sorority meetings. This information also allowed us to see how many students just would never be able to come to any events, and for those students we provided alternate ways for them to gain the same credit and meet the same learning goals as the events themselves—in most cases the alternative assignment was to read a related scholarly article and write about the themes, much like the students participating in the events were writing about and engaging with themes in lectures and movies. Finally, there were students who, for whatever reason, moved to different dorms or to a fraternity house, or dropped their paired class—these students were then not entirely part of the FF experience. Since there isn’t an easy way to reallocate these students to non-FF sections of English 101, the prospective FF instructor just has to remember that all assignments which take advantage of the FF infrastructure should also have a similar backup assignment for those students not materially participating in the program.

As you can see, we are both still huge fans of this sort of experience—not only for the students but for us as well. If T is here next year as a PhD student, we want to have some sort of workshop for prospective FF instructors and explain how the program can work if you are committed to making it work. A FF cluster with instructors unwilling to adjust their pedagogy to include the goals of the FF program is, we think, unfair to the students who signed up thinking they’d be getting something a little bit extra or special. Obviously—and completely serendipitously, as we weren’t even friends before our pairing and had some differences of opinion regarding pedagogy—our pairing is proof positive that FF can work for both instructors and students.

Now What Do We Do?
T is teaching the same content to her non-FF students this semester, but obviously had to adjust because the same types of activities are not part of on-campus programming. She’s also writing her MA thesis at the moment, so while she cares for her students just the same as she did last semester, her thesis has to be the priority and not 30-40 extra hours outside of what we actually get paid for as graduate students.

I’m not even teaching 101 this semester, and probably won’t teach 101 again until I am at another institution. However, I am working with data I collected in my course for my 4Cs presentation next month. Specifically, I am looking at the effects of on-demand feedback on student writing; my students wrote all their major papers (and some minor ones, if they wanted) in Google Docs and used that system to ask questions and request feedback throughout their writing process—not just after a draft was officially due. In my presentation, I am supposedly going to (1) provide an overview of the technology-enhanced pedagogy which shaped this course; (2) interpret the data, which includes metrics corresponding to the frequency of student feedback requests, quality of inquiries toward revision, and students’ ability to cogently reflect on their growth as writers; (3) offer a perspective on how student outcomes from this course reinforce and continue to develop this instructor’s technology-enhanced pedagogy; and (4) anticipate possibilities for the creation of a scalable framework for other instructors to implement these technology-enhanced strategies.

Sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it? We’ll see.

But What Did the Students Produce?
Our students produced some awesome work. The final portfolio was worth 50% in our course, and students have to include at least 22 pages of revised writing and write a cover letter/reflection letter about their own critical thinking, rhetorical awareness, processes of writing, knowledge of conventions, and finally the mechanical aspects of their revisions. The average length of the cover letter, in my sections, was something like 8-10 pages. Their major paper, a research paper, only had to be 6-8 pages and they grumbled about that (as students do). But when pulling together their work, selecting the best of it for consideration, and writing about their own personal and scholarly growth, it’s amazing how the words just start flowing…especially since another theme of our course was “use your own voice. please!”

I’m going to end this with a quote from a student’s cover letter, because it exemplifies how this student—not unlike his classmates—reached the goals and exceeded expectations: “I have learned a lot this year. Usually right now I would be bullshitting this cover letter, but in this class I feel like I have progressed, so all of this is genuine. […] I really tried to find my own voice in my writing this year. I think that I still have a ways to go to completely find my voice in my writing but it is definitely better than before. This was actually my favorite part about college writing, that I was able to sound like myself and try to make my writing interesting. I think that this is what sets good writers apart from not so good writers. My favorite part of this class was definitely the philosophy end. All of the writing that we had to read really got me to think about things, and I realized that I liked philosophy. Even though it was not a required class I still enrolled in Philosophy 101 next semester because of this English class. I had a great time in this class and I feel like I have really developed as a writer and definitely a thinker.”


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