5/7 Composition Committee Meeting Notes

Minutes: Composition Committee Meeting, 5/7/14

Attendance: John Talbird, Laurel Harris, Kat Alves, George Fragopoulos, Ben Miller, Mike Dolan, James Kenney, Susan Jacobowitz, Alisa Cercone, Robin Ford, Aliza Atik, Elise Denbo, Danny Sexton. John Yi, Matt Koch, Tanya Zhelezcheva, Joost Burgers, Joan Dupre, Chris Leary, Elizabeth Toohey, Vartan Messier, Mark Schiebe, Jean Murley, Pete Gray, Jean Darcy, Matt Lau, Zivah Katz, David Humphries, Agnieszka Tuszynska

The meeting featured a presentation by Pete Gray on responding to student drafts and a discussion, led by Laurel Harris, on research writing.

Pete began by showing an initial writing prompt and the formal writing assignment for his literacy narrative that uses the “chunks” of more informal assignments to “give a vivid picture” of the student’s evolution as a reader and writer. These assignments elicited comments about the value of scaffolding and the difficulty of getting students to share personal narratives in class. Pete offered, in response to the second concern, that he found a one sentence read around (without comments) and “inkshedding,” in which students write down a provocative quote and pass it on around the room for an ongoing conversation, useful for “putting your language out there.”

Pete then asked those in attendance to read a student essay draft without pens in their hands. In the following conversation, he asked faculty to first make nonjudgmental observations about the writing, then state what the student has done well, and finally provide one provocative thing they would like the writer to consider in a revision. After this conversation, faculty drafted and shared comments they would make to the student. Pete proceeded to share his comment to the student, typed in a letter form. He makes substantive holistic comments in letter form on drafts, composing either no marginal comments or numbering parts of the margin to address at the end. He makes a more limited, more evaluative comment on the final draft.

A discussion about marginal comments and the role of peer review in the revision process ensued. Pete pointed out that we should be assigning more writing than we can assess and mentioned Peter Elbow’s concept of “semi-grading,” or drawing a squiggle under problem areas and a line under what the student has done well, as another option for response on student texts. He said that he does peer review in every class and offered useful metaphors that could be used in peer review (such as “What kind of meal is this piece of writing? Does it leave you satisfied?”).

Finally, Pete asked the group to consider the student’s revised draft, which had substantially changed. While some readers noted the loss of strong, vivid writing in the first draft, the strengths of the new draft, such as clearer organization, improved sentence structure, and the development of aspects of the first draft, were addressed. John pointed out that, regardless of the comparative quality of the drafts, the student had deeply engaged the revision process, directing and shaping his or her own writing.

From these drafts, Pete spurred a conversation on the value of rubrics for responding to student drafts, showing several different kinds of rubrics. Several in attendance spoke of the value of rubrics for defining their expectations both for the students and for themselves, for increasing the speed of grading, and for eliminating potential bias. Vartan raised the question of rubrics artificially separating aspects of an essay that is always more than the sum of its parts.

The meeting then shifted to a discussion of the expectations for and evaluation of research writing in first-year composition. Faculty had been asked to read Mark Davis and Robert Shadle’s essay “‘Building a Mystery’: Alternative Research Writing and the Academic Act of Seeking” and to consider the incorporation of research into their own classes. Laurel initiated the discussion by sharing a research assignment she developed in collaboration with the archivist Connie Williams in English 101 using the Queensborough Community College archives. She addressed how primary source research was vital to making the research paper meaningful for both her students and herself in 101 as it led them to produce an original contribution as opposed to synthesizing the ideas of others.

She asked how other faculty approached research in their courses, given questions about the value of what Davis and Shadle call the “modernist research paper” and issues of patchwork plagiarism and lack of motivation in some genres of research writing. Tanya offered a project she developed in which students read and quote each other’s work, constructing a scholarly conversation in writing within the classroom context. Aliza discussed how she brought her own process of researching for class into her English 102 classroom, showing students how she learned more about and came to better understand the material they were reading. Susan spoke of her success with having students select an object on the Yad Vashem web site and write from the perspective of that artifact, conducting any necessary background research to do so. This assignment sequence begins with students writing about an object to which they have a personal connection before considering the Holocaust artifacts. It was pointed out that a literary analysis assignment focused on the meaning of objects in Holocaust narratives could be added to this sequence as well.

The meeting concluded with a return to the rubrics Pete had shared. He addressed the importance of considering global issues in student papers, as syntactical snarls are often where a lot of useful cognitive work is occurring, and suggested faculty pick one local issue (run-on sentences, subject/verb agreement, etc.) with which the student has a pattern of error to focus on that semester.

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