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.