Teaching Students to Read Like Writers

Attendees: Alisa Cercone, Leah Anderst, Stephen Tumino, Vartan Messier, Agnieszka Tuszynska, Danny Sexton, Elizabeth Toohey, Melissa Dennihy, Aliza Atik, George Fragopoulos, Tanya Zhelezcheva, Mark Schiebe, Matt Lau, Jean Murley, Joan Dupre, John Talbird, Laurel Harris, Matt Koch, Chris Leary, Jean Darcy, Lucy McNair

The meeting began with Chris’s presentation of his class anthology project, “Composition and Macrocomposition.” Chris explained how students spend the first eight weeks of class developing their own reading anthology, including 15-25 diverse texts, devoted to a topic meaningful to them. They are assessed by the arrangement of their table of contents (20%), their 4-6 page preface (20%), a personal memoir on the topic included in the anthology (20%), their collaboration in “editorial committees” focused on producing the individual anthologies (20%), and the “broad range of exploratory reading” reflected in their anthology (20%). Each student selects one reading from their anthology for the full class to read in the last six weeks of the course, and students write essays from these readings. Chris described the process of finding readings for the anthology as involving “audience-oriented reading” and “reading with an agenda” as well as an “exploratory reading” that could encompass everything from library databases to the internet to family bookshelves. The anthologies are constructed online using Blackboard blogs to enable students to better incorporate multimedia alongside print texts.

Stephen raised the question of how the “curation exercise” of compiling the anthology translated to critical reading and writing. Chris responded that one drawback to including so many texts is that students may not read all of the texts carefully, although they must defend their choice of at least a few texts and their section divisions in the preface of the anthology. Elizabeth asked about students selecting superficial topics. Chris responded that he begins with a personal timeline assignment from which they develop their topics, which usually works to deepen topics for most of the students. George asked about using the anthology in English 102, and Chris replied that he actually got the idea from Nancy Chick, who uses the creation of poetry anthologies to help students “read more proactively.” He has students select their own literature for their English 102 anthologies, and he is “pleasantly surprised” by the personal histories his students have with literature. This semester, for example, he has students working on anthologies devoted to classic American literature, classic Spanish literature, Hamlet, and African-American women’s literature.

Following Chris’s presentation, John shared his English 102 project in which students use literary readings as models to produce a collection of at least 15 pages of writing in at least three different genres with a foreword, afterward, and annotated bibliography. In the fall of 2010, John focused the collection theme on “ekphrastic writing.” Students were asked to focus on a particular art form, which could include, for example, music genres or performances like professional wrestling, and defend their choice in the foreword.  They were encouraged to experiment with genre, and collections included a mix of literary analysis, memoir, poetry, fiction, and drama, among other forms. The class also visited an art gallery off campus as well as the QCC art gallery to do “physical research” on their theme. In addition, students posted at least two entries weekly on the course blog as well as responding to their classmates’ entries. At least seven pages of polished writing and the foreword were assessed at the midterm for 50% of the course grade and the final project, with an afterward analyzing the collection and reflecting on the process, was due at the end of the term. John noted how surprised he was by student participation on the blog, noting that “students were doing much more writing than in any class I’ve ever taught.”

Matt Lau asked how John structured the class, and he responded that, every week, students spent the first session talking about the assigned reading and doing in-class writing and the second session working on peer review or revision exercises. Joan was curious as to why students were much more engaged on the blog in John’s English 102 class than in his other classes. He replied that students were motivated by “seeing themselves as generating literature,” and that this had formed a “real community” in which posts routinely received 10-20 comments. Tanya asked how John incorporated the annotated bibliography into the collection, and he said he had gotten the idea from Borges’s bibliography in A Universal History of Iniquity which shows students that creative writing is derived from multiple sources rather than solely being the invention of the author.

After the presentations, John raised the question of whether participants used texts as content, models, or both. Most people said that they used readings in both ways. Examples of using texts as models included Matt Lau’s English 101 assignment to write a Swiftian “Modest Proposal” and his English 102 assignment to write an alternate ending to a text like Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Danny’s 102 assignment to write a sequel to a short story along with a paragraph explaining how the sequel extends the original story’s theme.

John proceeded to ask whether or not creative writing in English 102 was useful or prepared students for their other courses. Aliza replied that creative writing also contains an argument, and Agnieszka noted that modeling a creative text inherently involves analysis and synthesis. Melissa pointed out that creative writing in the EN102 classroom is rarely an either/or proposition but, rather, creates an opportunity to discuss the possibilities, purposes, and limitations of academic writing. John followed up on this question by inquiring into how faculty assess creative projects. Melissa stated that she focused as much on the reflections that she assigns with the creative pieces as the pieces themselves. Alisa and George emphasized the importance of a clear rubric for evaluation. Elizabeth commented that she had “anxiety about creative projects” for reasons related to assessment as well as to problems of application across disciplines, although she is interested in whether or not creative projects help students “get” the reading more to help them move beyond a focus on their own lives. Matt Koch raised the point that the literacy narratives many faculty assign in English 101 are creative nonfiction, but are rarely regarded as such when we talk about creative projects. Mark noted that literacy narratives are also very hard to assess.

John concluded by asking what our service responsibility is as first-year composition instructors. What foundational and transferable skills are we supposed to be teaching? Matt Lau replied that we can only control what happens in our own classrooms, not what happens in other writing classes across the curriculum. The diverse expectations and idiosyncracies of faculty may not be aligned even within their field. John also noted that many genres, like the lab. report, fall outside of English faculty expertise, and, further, instructors who find pleasure and interest in their own assignments are more engaged and engaging. The meeting concluded with participants offering suggestions for structuring the department archive.

Handouts from Chris Leary’s presentation:

Anthology Grading System

ArtistsTOC

Compiled Student Quotes

Handouts from John Talbird’s presentation:

Collection Assignment

About the Author

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