October Meeting Recap

Here’s what I can reconstruct from my notes about our helpful and cathartic conversation last week.

Aileen’s post and Joe’s response to a question from our previous meeting sparked a wide-ranging discussion of what kinds of writing we want to teach. Some of us were not so sure memes and tweets were useful genres of writing to show our students, but I’d say we mostly agreed that these formats could be fruitful for low-stakes creative projects (a la Jenn’s Prince/Benjamin memes). We dug into the related question of how we differentiate between creative and analytical writing, and whether this boundary even makes sense. Members of the group shared examples of creative projects that opened up new vantage points for their students to approach writing. We also thought about viewing our analytical writing as itself creative, perhaps using Shokoofeh’s verb “crafting” to focus on the process. Along these lines, we started collecting suggestions for writing that is not strictly academic to use in the classroom as a model for students, such as journalistic essays by Teju Cole.

Moving on to Jonathan’s post, we focused on disciplinary conventions and audience. We considered why students (and others) might not question the use of specialized vocabulary in the hard sciences while expecting the humanities (and to some extent the social sciences) to present material that is universally accessible. We also addressed the problem of students feeling the need to write only for the instructor and how we might avoid this. One suggestion I’d like to try is to ask students to identify their own audience for a larger writing project, rather than us telling them who to write for. This led us to more concrete examples of how we’ve been using student writing in class. We talked about our own reservations about using current students’ work as an example and how to take pressure off the students whose writing we discuss (e.g. by asking for volunteers, meeting with the students directly after class for a debrief of how to take the feedback, or collecting similar examples from across a number of papers). Many of us have been doing peer review workshops recently, so we surveyed the group about whether more open-ended discussions in small groups were more helpful than discussions structured around a worksheet – with mixed results, which left some of us ready to experiment with shifting the balance over the course of the semester from formal to open.

We ended with my (Lisa’s) post on laziness. The pressure to innovate can be both exciting and overwhelming, we agreed, but we also saw value in mixing our tried-and-true activities with new ideas we want to try out. We talked about the various demands on our time and energy as GSIs and PhD students – and how our labor is valued by our students as well as the larger institution. Thinking about managing our own time led us to share some great tips for in-class activities we’ve found really effective for students that also require minimal preparation on our end. We considered how powerful it can be for students to take ownership of their own learning, as in the example Sarah mentioned in the comment on my post about splitting the class in half and having them teach each other their respective texts. Other examples included Julia’s endnotes game, which she reports was successful; Jeremy’s line-by-line group close reading; Marianne’s mapping of student questions on the board; and Jenn’s final in-character symposium where students embody the authors they’ve read. We expressed (many times, actually) a desire for a shared database of activities and texts we’ve found particularly effective – which Aileen has now kindly set up for us.

The meeting was – at least in my estimation – a perfect blend of theoretical concerns, concrete recommendations, and a chance to vent. Thank you all for the great conversation! I feel invigorated, and perhaps even a bit less lazy.



For Tomorrow, Fri, 10/06

Hi, everyone,

From Julia’s post summarizing your last conversation, it seems clear that you don’t need much help from me in having a lively discussion of the work you’re all doing as teachers (in R&C or not). But Julia did raise one issue, on behalf of the group, that I wanted to respond to-—which had to do with concerns about whether the sorts of writing you’re teaching will “transfer” to other courses that your students will go on to take later.

My perhaps heretical reply is: Don’t worry about it. The actual answer is that the work they do with you will prove useful for some students in some other courses, and not at all for other students in other courses. And most of that will be unpredictable. So rather than trying to measure the value of what you teach in terms of what you think or hope it will prepare students to do elsewhere—to write in some other course, for some other teacher, at some other time—why not think about what makes this writing interesting and worthwhile right here and now? My sense is that if you can get students invested in the work they’re doing with you, and proud of at least a piece or two that they produce, then you won’t have to worry much about transfer. Because they’ll be more interested and excited about writing.

So that’s my pep talk for the evening! I hope you have a great conversation tomorrow!


October Reflections

Next week, the pedagogy class I’m co-teaching will be turning their attention from how to TA discussion sections for the English literature historical survey to how to GSI Reading and Composition.

On the one hand, I think folks new to teaching R&C would appreciate a sense of clarity about the topic—that is, what is R&C? how do we teach it in the English department? On the other hand, I’d love to have them engage in the kinds of open-ended, sometimes heated conversations we had this summer about what it means to teach R&C—that is, what genres should we have our students write in? what should be our goals for our students?

What kind of balance do I need to strike between being prescriptive and being open, so that I feel that I’m setting them and their students up for success?

I’ve been thinking about this more because on Monday, the English department had its second annual Pedagogy Poster Session, and I talked to a grad student who created a poster about writing activities that aren’t rooted in academic genres—for example, memes and tweets. She said that she brought this idea up when she was taking pedagogy (last year?) and that it was met with skepticism, much to her frustration. I encouraged her to apply to the 2018 Townsend Art of Teaching Writing (fingers crossed that it will happen again!).


October Reflections:

I want to talk about teaching close reading, the fundamental skill involved in analyzing a literary text, to students who are not sure about what matters or what is possible. First, some background: I am not teaching R&C this semester. (My dissertation chair and I decided that I should take some time off from teaching if I ever want to stop being a graduate student.) I nonetheless remain connected to questions of writing pedagogy and the teaching of literature through the Art of Writing Tutoring Program. I lead a team of four undergraduates who are majors in the departments English and Comparative Literature; each member of the team offers one-on-one writing help to students enrolled in Comp Lit’s R&C sections. (Ryan and Jonathan are running similar programs in Rhetoric/Film & Media and English.)

This week I met with each of the tutors individually to discuss challenges they were experiencing in their tutoring sessions. Many of these conversations had to do with reframing tutees’ approaches to close reading –– specifically, how to get students to “slow down” their thoughts while analyzing passages of literary texts and to use writing to artificially reconstruct their process for making language make sense. These conversations gave me an opportunity to revisit the way I teach close reading with tutors, and in doing so I was reminded of the limits to the way we, as Graduate Student Instructors in Comp Lit, are trained to communicate the skill of close reading. In general, close reading is difficult to talk about in the abstract because so much depends on the kind of text being read. That’s why instructors tend to rely on heuristic techniques like the following from David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephens’s Writing Analytically, which give students some basic questions to ask themselves when they don’t know what to write.

  • Notice and Focus + Ranking (pg. 25)

Step 1: List details. These should include formal elements of the text such as tone, mood, pace, genre, syntax, grammar, texture, rhythm, narrative structure, punctuation, ambiguity. Also consider diction (word choice), temporality, the relationship between the narrator and the characters, imagery, and literary/rhetorical devices like simile and metaphor.

Step 2: Choose the most important details. (This is already analytical.)

Step 3: Say why you think these details are most important.

  • “The Method” – Patterns of Repetition and Contrast (pg. 27)

Step 1: List the words or details that are repeated exactly, and include how many times they’re repeated. See the details above in “Notice and Focus + Ranking”

Step 2: List words or details that are similar (called strands).

Step 3: List the binary oppositions or organizing contrasts that you notice.

Step 4: Choose, one repetition, strand, or binary as the most important.

Step 5: Account for any anomalies (exceptions).

  • Asking “So what?” (pg. 33)

Step 1: Describe the significant details you find, paraphrase key language, look for patterns of repetition or contrast.

Step 2: Make what is implicit explicit (pg. 62).

Step 3: Ask “So what?” to push towards interpretive conclusions.

  • Paraphrase X 3 (pg. 36)

Step 1: Select a short passage.

Step 2: Find synonyms for all of the key terms.

Step 3: Rephrase the passage three times.

Step 4: Contemplate the versions and prioritize them. Which seem most relevant?

Step 5: What do you now recognize about the passage? What does it appear to mean? What else might it mean?


As a somewhat mechanical way of producing analysis, these kinds of heuristics start to break down whenever they ask students to make some kind of judgment of what is “most important” or “surprising” or “anomalous.” They assume that a student’s way of prioritizing details in a specific passage of text will be commensurable with the values of the text as a whole. Prior to this, they assume that the students comes to the task of writing with a facility for naming priorities. In a way this is funny because the heuristics pretend to make the task of writing easier by frontloading the most difficult things that come out of the writing process: questions of value and what matters. I think this irony becomes especially pointed if we consider that many of our R&C students are in their first years of college and are already receiving mixed messages about the value of their educations.

But let’s assume that heuristic approaches like these can useful and even necessary. How would you go about supplementing a list like this with specific attention to these questions of significance, importance, interestingness, or surprise? Would you look at this list with students and ask them a series of follow-up questions? What would they be? If you set them to work on a particular example, how do you address the problem of constructing a context in which things like “importance” can be debated? Our group has had discussion about how to bring students’ own experiences into classroom discussions. How would you address students’ questions that are specifically directed at whether they can bring the circumstances of their lives to bear on what is important at this level of textual detail? Any other thoughts about how you use or would use this kind of list?

I am also preparing to lead a workshop with tutors specifically on how they give feedback to tutees. This has led me to think about the kinds of conversations that I have with R&C students in office hours. We have talked about how to structure written feedback to students in ways that are helpful to students while not proving too great a burden for instructors. I have a separate set of questions about feedback in office hours:

What form do your conversations in office hours tend to take? I think it helps to frame this in terms of specific activities. Do you lecture in office hours? Do you ask a lot of questions about the student’s writing or about the student’s understanding of the text? What other kinds of questions do you ask? Do you refer to lists like the one above? Do else do you do that doesn’t fit within these categories? How do you balance the contrary impulses of, on the one hand, not wanting to dictate the questions and aims of the student’s paper and, on the other hand, wanting to be a good reader with specific interests who also happens to be in charge of assessing the student’s writing?

I’m grateful for any thoughts you have about teaching close reading and discussing student work in office hours.

— Howard

October Reflections: Lazy Lisa

So far this fall, I’ve been fighting a losing battle with laziness. I haven’t touched my dissertation in over a month and I’m not particularly eager to get back to it. Granted, I’ve got other things on my mind (which I’m not going to get into on this public blog, but we’ve all had the experience of personal things taking priority over the professional). Laziness is creeping into my teaching as well. I find myself falling into old habits, mainly because it’s easier to rely on resources I’ve used in the past than it is to come up with radically new ideas for activities and documents. That’s not to say that I’ve completely abandoned all of the helpful things we discussed together this summer: my co-teacher and I have brought writing into the classroom in a big way, with a lot of fast-writes and reflections. These have been pretty easy to integrate into our existing framework; they don’t take me far out of my comfort zone. And so the laziness persists.

Another area in which I’m leaning on old, familiar techniques is in talking about writing. I find myself advising students to put sources “into conversation” and stressing the importance of addressing the “so what?” implications of a thesis (both taken from Writing Analytically, an old stand-by). At the same time, I have a new focus on revision and new ways to talk about it. We’re taking drafts through more stages, and communicating more clearly to our students what we see as the purpose of each stage. I think we’ve succeeded in conveying to them that writing is an iterative process; they seem a lot more willing to find ways to rework ideas – often involving mixing old writing with new – without seeing it as a devastating setback. Today we did our first substantial peer draft workshop, and I found myself mixing old with new as well: we randomly generated groups of 3-4 students and suggested Joe’s basic mark-up key, but we also included a more structured handout to guide their reading and commenting.

So overall, I would say that I’m finding ways to bring some of our Art of Writing ideas into my classroom – in moderation. I want to push more, experiment more, force myself beyond what is easy and lazy. But I also need to take care of myself right now. Anyone else struggling with this? I’m also just finding it hard to remember all of the great ideas I was so excited about this summer, at least in the moment of actually sitting down to lesson plan. I’d love to hear how others are bringing in what we learned this summer while still maintaining a classroom environment that feels safe and familiar.


October Reflections: “Sir, that is too Learned and Poetical for our Audience”

I would like to talk about audience. As you may or may not know, I am not teaching R1A or R1B this year. I am also not teaching a humanities course. I am one of many TAs in Engineering 295: Communications for Engineering Leaders. On a day to day basis, I watch master of engineering students give PowerPoint presentations on research and industry projects that they are working on. (Some notable examples include “A Million Little Hands,” which is designing prosthetic hands for children; “Anticipating Mosquito Vector Threats”; and “Ultra E-Bike Design,” a project that is designing a new e-bike.) But I also oversee the development of their master’s theses and, along with improving the readability of the technical explanations of their projects, help them to determine what kind of social, ethical, and marketing concerns they need to address in their final report. They are working up to this final document by writing a science op-ed piece this coming week.

Teaching the class has been a fascinating experience on two fronts: one, I get to learn about a lot of really cool and innovative projects; two, I’m faced with the prospect of teaching writing without some of the usual humanities props. We have no common text. The students don’t even have common content—everyone is working on a different project and no two people have the same course load. In this way, the teaching of skills has to be reduced to abstractions. But there are some ways in which this lack of content is liberating. A writing sample about how to improve traffic on the Bay Bridge can be used to teach general paragraph organizational skills, even though it is, officially speaking, a civil engineering project that is outside the purview of ME, IEOR, NE, EECS, etc.

Nevertheless, the number one question—or “push back,” you might say—I get from students is about audience, and it usually goes something like this. A student will say something (either in a presentation or in writing) that doesn’t make sense to me. It’s too technical, too complicated, whatever. I will tell him/her that it doesn’t make sense to me as a non-expert audience member and that s/he should find a better way to explain it. S/he will come back by assuring me that it would make sense to an industry expert and therefore it doesn’t seem necessary or even appropriate to change it. In essence, s/he will make an argument that a certain audience will understand this—and that to simplify or “dumb down” the concept would actually be a liability for him/her in a professional context. (I.e., it will make him/her look simplistic.)

I’m bringing this scenario up since while I think (and that’s a speculative think) there can be a happy medium for explanations that appeal to both expert and non-expert audiences, I am totally sympathetic to these students’ objections and concerns. In many ways, I am implicitly asking these students to write for a very specific audience (i.e. me), and I wonder if that is missing some larger concerns—or at least some larger teachable moments around matters of audience. This isn’t an issue confined to my engineering students: I have had some of my best literature writing students stubbornly defend the mini-plot summaries at the beginning of their papers on the grounds that it is necessary for a reader to have some idea of what the text is about before reading the writer’s analysis. (One student actually produced a movie review that had plot summary at the begining from a writer that I told the class I liked in order to defend himself; it was actually a pretty good move on the student’s part.)

I guess the most basic question is: who is our students’ audience? For whom are we asking them to write? That’s a question I’ve heard professors ask before (i.e. in, like, talks within the last five years), so I don’t mean to cast it off as original. (When the professor posed the question to a group of undergraduate students, the students quite plainly responded, “you,” which is not what that professor wanted to hear.) Perhaps the better question is: are there assignments we can do that get students to think about audience in a more rigorous way? Should matters of audience be more of a conversation between students and instructors?

I am also thinking about matters of audience in relation to the Art of Writing’s new tutoring program which has upper-level undergraduates offering writing help to R1A and R1B students. The tutors are having to face a huge variety of writings, each of which is, arguably, trying to please a particular person. In the end, the tutors can really only assess the writing by their standards. But it seems as if one person’s helpful summary can be another man’s fluff; or that one man’s expertise can be another man’s confusion. Are there conversation to be had that can reconcile this disparity?


P.S. Given all my engineering jargon above, I want to assure you all that I have not abandoned the lessons learned from summer 2017. I did go full “Art of Writing Seminar” for a high school writing class that I taught this summer, WordPress site and all. I’ll leave that here in case anyone is interested.

Feedback, Voice, Vulnerability, and Free Speech

First, I want to thank everyone for such an engaging and energizing two hours! I had been looking forward to this reunion of sorts and found it to be something of a relief to have  a conversation about these issues that I’m sure we’ve been individually wrestling with for the past few weeks.

Joe, since you couldn’t be with us, we thought we should let you know a bit about our discussion.

We started with Jenn’s post and a conversation about feedback, grading, student anxieties, and our own workloads. Questions that arose were: how extensive should feedback be? How do we balance the different types of students we are teaching – those that value a lot of feedback versus those that are intimidated by it? Should we even give diagnostic essays or is it just asking them “prove what you don’t know and I haven’t taught you yet.” We shared strategies on individual vs. collective feedback, self-assessment, and how to address and mitigate students’ grade anxieties. Shokoofeh shared her framework for contract labor-based grading and we talked about some of the institutional structural conditions that prevent us from experimenting with grading and assessment frameworks.

A conversation about assessment shifted into a conversation about voice and to Ryan and my posts. How do we move our students to being inside their own writing? Should that even be a goal of ours? Are we negatively affecting our students if we teach them a way of writing that may not be transferable across the university? Or, is the very lesson of context awareness – the awareness of writing in different genres and disciplines – enough of a “transferable skill”?

And what happens when our students aren’t comfortable sharing their voices in the classroom? Sarah’s post prompted a long conversation about teaching difficult topics or subjects with which the students express profound discomfort. We discussed misunderstanding as a “feature of the system” of learning – a potential source of liberation rather than castigation. We talked about how to have students write about their own confusion, instead of writing to correct it. We talked about how to build trust and community in the classroom between the students and our own negotiations between performing vulnerability as teachers and protecting ourselves in the classroom.

And speaking of challenging teaching environments . . . Alan’s post was timely, not only because he is, as he wrote, having to teach subjects that are of the moment, but because yesterday, all of us came to work on a heavily militarized campus that once again became a stage on which national political narratives were enacted. In a week and a half, “free speech week” – a festival for the alt-right – will descend on campus and we have to navigate how to teach in this particular moment, on this particular campus. There is a faculty call to boycott – a statement that we will not normalize a militarized university and will not require that our students come to a campus on which they may not feel or be safe.  But how do we navigate the logistics of this and how should we teach within this political framework?




A Suggestion for Your Meeting Today

Hi, everyone,

I’ve enjoyed reading your reflections and comments! I thought I might suggest a way of starting your conversation this morning (although I’m also sure you’ll do just fine without me). Why don’t you give yourselves 10 minutes or so at the beginning of the hour to read through the posts once more and to write one last, quick comment? Those of you who wrote the opening reflections might respond to your commenters; those of you who wrote comments might draft a response to a piece you haven’t yet been able to reply to.

I’ll try to check back in later today, and may add a few more comments to your exchange. Let me also remind you of my virtual office hours next Tuesday from 10–noon (your time); I’ll send out a link that morning. And there is an ongoing open invitation to email me with any other questions or thoughts you may have.

I’m sure you’ll have a productive conversation this morning. have fun!


Re-centering Students and Teaching the Unknown

Two reflections on the first few weeks teaching Immigration and Asylum:

1) For my first assignment, I stole the free-writing exercise from our seminar, and I asked my students to free-write their own immigration histories, leaving it totally open to how far back they wanted to go, whether they wanted to focus on the legal details of their immigration or larger issues of integration, inclusion, and belonging that immigration and citizenship touch on.  I then asked them to take the product of their free-writing home, revise it using the Revise-Edit-Proofread concepts that we talked about, and turn in both the free-written draft and the revised work, with a short note about what they added or changed, and why.

By far the most common change (and one rarely noticed by the students in their reflections) was that the focus in their essays shifted from their own experiences to the experiences of their families.  By asking them to go back and re-read their narratives (and learn more about the immigration histories of their family members), they broadened the scope of their narrative — but in doing so, they often decentered themselves in their own histories.  To correct for this in future work, I encouraged the students to add a “Re-evaluate” step to Revise-Edit-Proofread, and check whether what they are writing still fits with the original goal of the assignment.

2) In a way-less-important-for-the-class-and-way-more-important-for-the-country development, Attorney General Jeff Sessions — a man who, it cannot be stressed enough, is not actually in charge of immigration policy or enforcement — announced the Trump Administration’s plan to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.  Recent reports indicate that there may be a legislative compromise in the works to continue the program, which would certainly help the 800,000 current DACA recipients but would almost certainly arrive too late to save my syllabus, which focused extensively on DACA and its impact on undocumented students.

As a result of these developments and the uncertainty surrounding these issues going forward, I have had to adjust lectures (the constitutionality of DACA appears to be a moot point now) and update class discussions (undocumented students are suddenly much more at risk post-DACA) on the fly.  I have also made class requirements much looser.  I have permitted students to write reflection papers on campus protests and talks by immigration activists.  I have changed reading assignments to cover the University of California bringing a lawsuit to attempt to stop the rescission of DACA.  And I have reoriented student writing assignments so that students can think critically about what the future of immigration law can and should look like, rather than be limited by the pro-DACA/anti-DACA framework that typified the prior discourse in this area.

I have also given up on trying to appear omniscient, calm, or in control.  I have let “I don’t know” into my vocabulary.  I am honest when I tell them about the challenges ahead, and the fact that the remainder of the course is, like the standoff over the DACA program itself, yet to be resolved.

– AK

September Reflections

Let’s talk about anger.

As recently as Monday, a fellow graduate student asked me: how do you deal with all the anger? The question wasn’t phrased “do you experience anger?” but: “how do you deal with it?”

The assumption: anger is part of being a student.

A question: must this premise be true?

My experience: absolutely.

When asked at an English Department fall retreat, what issues do you see students facing?, a seasoned teacher replied: “Anger. Our students do not know what to do with it.”

Lisa posed this question to the department in the context of an annual curriculum meeting; in previous years, the department had discussed whether we should teach Shakespeare to freshmen (yes!), metacognition as a reading strategy to close the achievement gap (possibly), STAR testing (boo!), etc.; however, I didn’t know any of these previous conversations because it was my rookie year as a high school teacher and so I assumed anger a relevant pedagogical topic.

We didn’t discuss anger that evening, though. Instead my colleagues responded politely, a nicely gathered nod of heads, a silent acknowledgement of a topic no one else wanted to discuss.

In academia, our training trends toward intellectual development, and so discussions of anger seem valued even less than at the high school level. And yet I hear anger in department meetings, I encounter it in student writing, I witness it among fellow (disgruntled) graduate students, I feel it shouted at me as I walk onto campus from Telegraph Ave, its absence from administrative letters (see Dirks’ “On Civility”) is curious but not unexpected, I read it on the Moffitt Library bathroom walls; I do not need to look long to see it on campus, in the classroom, among the GSI office, etc. it is as much a part of the curriculum as a reading list or writing projects.


Why discuss anger? Perhaps because it is built into education. Approaching this topic, Neil Postman directs his inquiry toward the “end” of education, where end signals a provocative double-move, as both an apocalyptic and telic gesture; further, his premise suggests that higher education will cease to educate when teachers fail to contemplate its end and thus succumb to many “false gods” of which Economic Utility is the grandest one of them all. (Postman has a thing for mythology.) Bernard Stiegler refers to a similar interrelationship between industry and education as “techno-science”, a term that signals a reversal of traditional modes of learning toward: instead of education leading to the production of new concepts and knowledge (i.e., technologies and industries of thought), it simply reproduces the mandates of industry (i.e., collapses learning outcomes to industry standards).  But before Postman or Stiegler, there is Paulo Friere advancing his critique of education in the late 1960s as “an instrument of oppression”, which situates education as a site for intense dehumanization.

As committed teachers of writing, we often speak of voice as if it were property of the student, and yet we abstract it from the multiplicity of their bodies and project it back onto them as an arbitrary standard of judgment vis-à-vis rubrics.[1] To the student, voice suggest individuality, but tropically, voice often reinforces an institutional identity that is inherently conservative (as in: self-conserving).

Perhaps anger signals the presence of any one of these dynamics; I don’t know, so let’s talk about it in relation to our experiences as students, as teachers, as junior faculty.


[1] Btw, I have a “Voice” category on my current essay rubrics.