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Barclay Barrios

What’s a Syllabus?

Posted by Barclay Barrios Expert Apr 3, 2015

This blog was originally posted on January 21st, 2015.


Amazing how quickly the break goes, right?  Here at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) we’ve been back since January 5 (we start so early!) so I’ve been thinking about syllabi and wondering just what a syllabus is (or might be) (or could be) (or should be).


I’ve known some who consider the syllabus a contract and in fact implement some form of contract grading (à la Peter Elbow) and certainly here at FAU the syllabus is, in part, a bureaucratic instrument, filled with mandated statements to ensure compliance with various state and university policies.  But I think for me, a syllabus is something else, and I have been trying to figure out what that something else is.


Centrally, I view a syllabus is an intellectual project.  It’s my chance to imagine, project, and describe this “class” I have in my head (the one that’s perfect and thus never happens).  I mull over each element, consider how one flows to the next, tweak this and that.  In some ways, I frontload my intellectual labor given how much time I spend designing the syllabus.


Syllabi are also design projects for me, which is to say I use them as visual essays / arguments / statements about the class.  I spend a shocking amount of time just choosing the right font.  I also consider the layout, the typography, and images.  I want the design to say something about the class and its goals.

So I guess I would say that for me a syllabus is like a mini-essay.  I am laying out a line of thinking about the issues of the class, carefully organized through each week, and I am inviting students as my readers to follow that argument.


What exactly is a syllabus for you?

This blog was originally posted on January 20th, 2015.


For the past several years, I have assigned readings by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in my basic writing courses. When I have been required to use specific textbooks, I try to choose texts that offer Dr. King’s work in the readings. When I can choose my own texts or have been able to use supplemental texts, I have linked to multimedia texts at the King Papers Project at Stanford University, the King Center Digital Archive, and American Rhetoric: Top 100 Speeches.


This semester, I will once more assign Dr. King’s work (see Assignment Appendix at the end of this post), but with a decided difference.  Students will now have a case study from popular culture: Ava DuVernay's Selma, a film that portrays the events surrounding the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march in Alabama in 1965. This film, which is now playing in theaters across the United States, was shot on location and is beautifully photographed. The score takes its music from Civil Rights Movement Freedom songs, as well as from contemporary artists such as John Legend and Common.




Selma does not pretend to be a documentary, but more an artistic depiction of history. For documentary footage from historic events at Selma, students can reference the Eyes on the Prize video series, much of which is available on YouTube.  The similarities and differences between these two versions are quite striking, and they offer ample opportunities for comparison essays. Students can pay attention to visual and auditory details, and also can observe how two different texts portray the same story. Dr. King’s speech at the Alabama state capital in Montgomery also is available as a text in on Stanford’s King Papers Project, referenced above.


Because the film is an artistic depiction, aspects of Dr. King’s personal life can be explored in scenes not available in the historical footage. For writing teachers and the writers we teach, perhaps the most significant of these aspects is Dr. King’s life as a writer. The new Selma film shows Dr. King in Sweden, rehearsing his Nobel Laureate speech, just before he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Other scenes show Dr. King writing with pen and paper, working late into the night, carefully weighing and choosing the appropriateness of his words.


These scenes offer inspiration and hope to writers working to develop and improve    their writing practices, processes, and products. Writing is hard work, and Selma shows us that hard work, from invention, to revision, to publication, as we see and hear the actor David Oyelowo as Dr. King speak to electrified audiences.




Because I do not know how many of my students will have seen Selma by the first day of school, I will base our opening assignments on comparisons between the film trailer for Selma (above), excerpts from the documentary footage of Eyes on the Prize 1965, and the audio recording of Dr. King’s speech at the Montgomery, Alabama State Capital. Here are possible assignments drawn from the sources linked throughout this blog post.


Directed free-writing question:


What major events or images stand out in the excerpts from Eyes on the Prize 1965 and the film trailer for Selma?  What are the similarities and differences between these two videos?  Is each of these videos relevant for a 2015 audience? Why or why not?


Essay assignment question:


What are the functions of sound and music in film? Compare the sound and music in the excerpts from Eyes on the Prize, 1965, the trailer forSelma, and the audio version of Dr. King’s speech at the Montgomery, Alabama State Capital. Are these functions relevant for audiences in 2015? Why or why not? Include significant details from both videos and the audio. Describe any words or phrases, sounds, and/or music. Imagine that your audience has not yet seen either video or listened to the audio.


Accommodation for deaf students, students with hearing loss, and students with auditory processing differences: Focus on the visual elements instead, including the visual images of the videos, and the visual elements in this excerpt from historic video footage of Dr. King’s speech in Montgomery at the conclusion of the march.


Multimedia assignment:

Include a multimedia argument to illustrate the text your essay text. For the multimedia argument, first choose a quote or passage from Dr. King’s speech at the Montgomery, Alabama State Capital. Then invent a meme, compose a song or sound compilation, or make a film, slide show or photo gallery. The multimedia component must coordinate with the thesis of your essay and must be your own work.

This blog was originally posted on December 18th, 2014.


As a white woman with a vivid childhood memory of the uprisings that followed Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, how could I make sense of the Ferguson grand jury verdict— in and out of class?


At the time of the announcement, our classes had dispersed for the Thanksgiving holiday. I had already assigned the term’s final writing project and was deeply ensconced in catching up with grading students’ essays. When we reconvened for the last week of classes after the holiday, all attention would be focused on completing the coursework. Yet the work of the course, as an introduction to academic writing, would remain deeply intertwined with all of our lives.


In the midst of grading essays, I found myself riveted to events in the aftermath of the grand jury verdict, flipping back and forth between our course management system and social media to stay current with developments. I hoped to find a quote that might give voice to my own complicated thoughts, and found one at last on the James Baldwin Facebook page:

“For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”

– James Baldwin (from Nothing Personal)


With Baldwin’s words, I found inspiration for returning to the classroom after the holiday. I considered how we might offer each other writing spaces for process and resilience, places to experience in writing the sense that “the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing.” In the last week of classes, we would need to reestablish our weekly routine, however briefly, after the holiday disruption.


Nonetheless, so much depends on context. Our differences can lead us to view the same events through drastically dissimilar lenses, as I recounted in a 2013 blog post on Trayvon Martin. The students in my courses come from a cross-section of academic, regional, racial, ethnic, and political backgrounds. They may well have discussed Ferguson over holiday dinner tables or perhaps participated in demonstrations. I remembered the need to become mindful of the role that civil unrest plays in the lives of our students, no matter their background or their community of origin.


Even as civil unrest may appear outside the norm, we need to interrogate the meaning of normal for our students and for our communities.  For some students, normal may signify the appearance of civic order, and absence of discord on race and class. For others, order and tacit agreement may represent business as usual—as are the stultifying conditions that silence the truths of lived experience, and that close down opportunities for realizing hopes and dreams.


Regardless of how and why teachers attend to the events of Ferguson, we can approach our students’ responses with nonjudgmental awareness. Indeed, in modeling nonjudgmental awareness ourselves, we can invite students to support each other in the same fashion. In doing so, we can work toward the ideal of a supportive community in which all students may grow and flourish as writers. As Baldwin would have it, we hold the responsibility to bear witness to the glimmer of possibility that comes in changing light.

This blog was originally posted on November 24th, 2015.


Guest blogger Abby Nance has an MFA in Creative Writing from Texas State University and is an instructor at Gardner-Webb University. This is her seventh year teaching in the first year writing program. Her research explores the relationship between trauma and writing in the college classroom.


Last year at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, I spoke about the role of trauma in the writing lives of first-year college students. Whenever I talk about trauma, toxic stress, or mental health with other writing instructors, I feel deeply aware of my own students and the stories of abuse, neglect, violence, and anxiety that they hint at or explore outright in their own writing. If statistics can provide a baseline or a map, then many of our students are entering our classrooms with histories of trauma. Consider the following research:


  • The staggering statistics surrounding sexual assault and rape. Nearly one in 5 women reported experiencing rape at some point in their lives (CDC, 2010). Nineteen percent of female undergraduate students reported experiencing attempted or completed sexual assault (Journal of American College Health 2009). Read more about both studies here.
  • The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (or ACE Study).The ACE Study is an ongoing epidemiological study of more than 17,000 participants by the CDC and Kaiser Permenante, which established an association between traumatic experiences in childhood and physical and emotional health risks in later life. In doing so, it also measured the number of people who experience trauma during childhood. 2/3 of participants reported at least one adverse childhood experience.
  • The percentage of young adults with mental illness. 25% of 18-24 year olds have a diagnosable mental illness (National Alliance on Mental Illness)

If trauma among young adults is as ubiquitous as these statistics and studies seem to indicate, what can instructors do to ameliorate conditions for writers enrolled in our courses? How can we create and sustain safe professional spaces with our students? How do we model empathy and coping in our classrooms? And how do we teach emotionally difficult texts in such a way that students opt in, rather than out?I don’t have answers, but I have a few suggestions:


  • Ask your students.  In the first week of class I ask my students to write a letter (in response to a letter I write them about me). I ask them to address a few questions, including “What behaviors, language or subject matter offends you? What are some of your pet peeves? What content shuts you down?” In the letter I write to the students, I tell a little bit about my own story. It varies what I tell them, but I always write about something that is tender and unresolved. I make an effort to be present with them and to answer the questions that I’ve posed.
  • Introduce students to James Pennebaker’s work. One of the ways we marginalize students who are triggered by literature and art is that we fail to allow them to work through that response for fear that they (or we) are too uncomfortable. I think in the moment, it’s okay to shut down a conversation that is causing extreme discomfort, but I think it is important to ask our students to unpack what happened later— not necessarily in the context of class or for an audience, but because it helps. On the rare occasion that I’ve had a student who seemed overwhelmed or panicked, I’ve privately shared with them some James Pennebaker’s work on writing to heal, which links expressive writing to improved emotional and physical health. This link takes you to a great resource that includes an assignment and some tips for writing to heal.

  • Use your words. If a student has had a panic attack, and if that student later visits your office hours or hovers after class, figure out a way to talk about panic, anxiety, or trauma in a way that is both comfortable to you and personal. If you have experiences that you can share, or if you have a friend or family member who experiences anxiety—describe them. If not, adapt this awesome post about glitter balls from the Momentous Institute’s blog.
  • And your senses. I have a glitter jar on my desk—it’s a great conversation starter for discussions about anxiety. I also keep a few other sensory toys (a stress ball, a smooth rock, and a koosh ball) that students often pick up and play with when they need to keep their hands occupied. Essentially, I created an adult-version of a “calm down basket” when I noticed how many of my students were playing with a smooth glass paperweight during my office hours. To learn more about calm-down baskets, check out this post. Or, if you have a Pinterest account, there are several boards devoted to calm down baskets.
  • Ask your colleagues. Now I want to hear from you. How do you handle trauma in the classroom? What resources have you found to be helpful? What do you say? And what do you do?

This blog was originally posted on November 11th, 2014.


On the first day of this semester, the first day of my new paperless face-to-face classroom, the course management system crashed. When the system revived, the projector quit. In short,  in the first seventy-five minutes of opening day I experienced my greatest fears about going paperless. More than once I longed to throw my laptop out the window, and to return to a time before Facebook and smart phones, when we sat outside under trees with ripening apples, doing independent free writing and discussing our writing processes together, unaware of the genie about to emerge from the bottle.


Yet, at the first sign of nostalgia, I blinked. The memory of that seemingly better world held deep imperfections of its own.  At the same time, I find unexpected connections between those paper-centered BW classrooms of a generation ago, and the paperless classrooms of today.  Students then and now struggle with juggling a multitude of academic, personal, and economic responsibilities that often come in direct conflict with the requirements of our courses.


Rather treat these issues as flashpoints, or to ignore the existence of such issues altogether, we can work with students to foster resilience and persistence for the future. Additionally, we can create moments that remind us to humanize our classrooms by re-purposing the space that binds us to the classroom.


Here is one example of re-purposing space: On a bright autumn day,  I invited students to leave the classroom, or to use the classroom as a place for independent study. What would students learn from creating their own activities for promoting writing? I offered students approximately 45 minutes of a 75-minute class period to work on this activity, with the goal of finding specific examples to support an education narrative.  At the end of the 45 minutes, students return to the classroom to report their findings to the class, and to take attendance. Four specific responses followed:


1)    Writing with the lights off: Several students chose to stay in the room. With fewer students in the classroom, the remaining students worked quietly and independently on their education narratives. We kept the lights off so that students could write and read without the glare of the overhead fluorescent lights. Students found sufficient natural light from the Arizona sun, filtered through the high shaded windows.


2)    Mindfulness walk: A small group of students took advantage of the midmorning mild desert temperatures to take a mindfulness walk. As these three students walked across campus, they brainstormed ideas, and offered each other suggestions for developing their narratives.


3)    Interviews: Other students had wanted to conduct random interviews on campus to supplement the main persuasive point of their narrative. The interviews helped students gather ideas, and also gave them opportunities to converse with strangers on campus. One student tweeted that her interviewee had given her information that she found contradictory.  Because of the contradiction, the student did not think she could use the interview as an example. Instead, I suggested including the rich material of  the interview as a point of refutation.  Not all examples needed to work in harmony with the thesis.


4)    Photos: Many students decided to take photographs that might work as visual arguments for their education narratives. The outdoor spaces feature large crowds of people moving quickly between buildings on multiple modes of transportation (walking, skateboards, bicycles, golf carts). Additionally, the campus offers a landscape thick with trees, including palms, evergreens, and orange trees, that attempt to shade the inhabitants from desert heat.  As a next step, students would need to discern if their photographs would serve as appropriate visual arguments.


Much like that class discussion held long ago under the apple trees, our class activity included student-centered elements of re-purposing space and independent study. Yet this work also approaches writing from a paperless perspective. Instead of being tied to technology as we were once tied to paper, we included a variety of multimedia and kinesthetic resources that students had at their disposal. Instead of viewing the paperless classroom as a threat that interrupts writing,  we can learn to reclaim technology and humanization as a point of intersection, rather than as oppositions at odds with each other.  That point of intersection offers us the hope of living without nostalgia, and becoming fully present for the writing of our future.

This blog was originally posted on October 14th, 2014.


In a recent conversation on the Council on Basic Writing’s listserv (CBW), a correspondent asked about minimum qualifications for teaching Basic Writing. A listserv discussion ensued about appropriate degrees and necessary training. As minimum qualifications remain a long-standing question for the theory and practice of BW, we examined this conversation as part of our Teaching Basic Writing Practicum.


On the listserv, key theorists and practitioners from our field offer their insights. Peter Adams (whose co-authored article on ALP is included inTeaching Developmental Writing [TDW] 4e) and Gerald Nelms address the promise of studying student development as an essential part of BW teacher training. Michael Hill, new co-chair of CBW, inquires about the need for national policies on teacher training. Hill asks if policy work and best practices statements remain of concern to CBW members.


For my own perspective on this conversation, I turn again to Adrienne Rich’s “Teaching Language in Open Admissions,” and her recently published course notes and syllabi for teaching Basic Writing in the SEEK program at City University of New York. In “Teaching Language,” Rich offers what she sees as the most significant qualification for a teacher of BW courses: “a fundamental belief in the students is more important than anything else….This fundamental belief is not a sentimental matter: it is a very demanding matter of realistically conceiving the student where he or she is, and at the same time never losing sight of where he or she can be” (TDW 4e 25). In other words, the student is not a problem to be solved, but a human being learning to write as a socio-cultural subject, within and beyond the constructs of a BW course.

As Nelms suggests, students in BW do not arrive in our classrooms as “blank slates” (also see Shannon Carter’s work in TDW 4e).  However, for me, the issue of this issue moves in a somewhat different direction from Nelms’ concern that “prior knowledge can both help and hinder learning.” Instead, I want to turn the question back on our selves, as new and experienced teachers of BW:


What about our own multiple literacies? What stated or unstated assumptions and values—as expressed in syllabi, writing assignments, and course activities— may become barriers to our own students’ learning?  What can we do to recognize such barriers, and to begin to ameliorate them?

In the practicum class, we attempt to address these questions through activities such as


  • Reading what others have written about the roles of their own socio-cultural backgrounds as learners and as teachers of BW
  • Writing about and discussing our own socio-cultural backgrounds as learners and as teachers of BW
  • Addressing the diverse intersections of students’ socio-cultural backgrounds
  • Teaching model mini-lessons
  • Tutoring at an off-campus site that does not have a writing center.


As in other BW theory and practice courses across the US, we attempt to create a community of teacher/scholars who actively interrogate our own theories as we develop new practices. As individual teachers, even as all of us are apparently white, our socio-cultural backgrounds represent a diversity of life experiences, fields of study, and approaches to teaching and learning. Often we find that we need to agree to disagree. Perhaps just as often, I grapple with expanding my own comfort zone, so that I remain aware of the need to learn from students, as well as merely to teach.


Because of the intersecting needs to interrogate and innovate, I welcome a national discussion of qualifications for teaching BW. Yet even as we undertake such a discussion, we need to recognize the diverse roots of our field. Adrienne Rich, who had only a BA when she taught BW at City College, remains one of field’s foundational teacher/scholars. Her work offers a keen understanding of the role of critical awareness for teachers of BW and also helps us to address a key issue for aspiring teacher/scholars in BW: Not only what we need to know— but perhaps more significantly, whywe need to know it.

This blog was originally posted on September 22nd, 2014.


Recently, the students in my teaching basic writing practicum class asked me to teach a lesson that I had presented to students. I chose a lesson in rhetorical grammar, inspired by the work of Martha Kolln, and clarified by Laura Micciche in “Making a Case for Rhetorical Grammar,” an article included in chapter 6 of Teaching Developmental Writing 4e. Micciche writes: “This shaping of meaning through writing is intimately connected with a writer’s grammatical choices” (225). In other words, we can understand grammar more critically if we examine a writer’s sentence-level choices, rather than reducing grammar to a basic skill that writers address only at the stages of proofreading and editing. Rhetorical analysis of grammatical choices can foster a deeper comprehension of the writer’s meaning, and can allow the reader to perceive crucial connections between language choices and making meaning.


The sample lesson for my practicum students came from a Stretch class early in the new semester. We were discussing the recent civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown. My purpose in presenting this lesson was twofold: first, to illustrate the significance of teaching difficult subjects that resonate with students as members of a multi-racial and multilingual society; and second, to demonstrate the necessity of approaching grammar beyond basic skills. Grammar in this sense offers more than a series of rigid and unbreakable rules. Instead, rhetorical grammar offers teachers and students in basic writing a process of gleaning the persuasive possibilities of language and its usage.


I began the practicum lesson with my class notes from the Stretch course:


To find details in the language and the words of the text, look carefully at how and why the writer uses parts of speech. This analysis is called rhetorical grammar. The details that you look for in the TEXT also hold importance for YOUR OWN WRITING. Reading and writing are interconnected. When you read, you are also learning important ideas for writing.


This example shows how rhetorical grammar works in a quote by John Dos Passos. Charles P. Pierce begins his recent article, “The Body in the Street,” with this quote by Dos Passos. The article focuses on the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  We can examine the rhetorical use of blank space in the article, and the evocative photograph chosen to accompany the article. However, let us begin here with an analysis concentrated on the most basic parts of speech.

Analyzing the Dos Passos quote for parts of speech demonstrates the significance of nouns and verbs to convey meaning, and how strong verbs convey that significance more directly than forms of the verb “to be.” After highlighting the parts of speech, the students in Stretch noticed the lack of adjective in this paragraph. Additionally, they discussed the contrast between the adjective “pleasant”—and the impact of the majority of the nouns and verbs that convey not only a sense of unpleasantness, but also a description of catastrophe. Describing this sharp contrast helps us cut to the chase.


“How does persuasion work here?” I asked the students in Stretch. “What does Dos Passos want us to do?” “To pay attention,” the students offered, “and to take action.”


In re-teaching this lesson to the students in the practicum, I hoped to advocate for a process of professional development that suggests learning and flexibility at all stages of our careers. Through rhetorical grammar, we can present a system of investigating language and its uses and move beyond grammar as a rigid structure of basic skills. Instead, we can offer our students a means to approaching language that, as the new WPA Outcomes suggest, strengthens the habit of “…composing and reading for inquiry, learning, critical thinking, and communicating in various rhetorical contexts.” We also gain a language for addressing difficult subjects that speak to our students’ concerns as members of a multi-racial and multilingual society. In the wake of the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, attending to such concerns can move us from hopelessness and helplessness toward persuasive possibility and rhetorical action.


This blog was originally posted on August 6th, 2014.


Guest blogger Megan Lambert is a Rhetoric & Composition M.A. candidate at UCF. This is her second year teaching first-year composition courses with UCF’s Department of Writing & Rhetoric as a Graduate Teaching Associate, and she also works as a graduate assistant and tutor in UCF’s University Writing Center. She is currently working on her thesis project, which explores how tutors use writing resources to address composition concerns and facilitate learning opportunities in writing consultations.


For teachers of writing, the writing center serves as a valuable academic resource for their students, offering assistance with assignments at any stage of the writing process. This assistance usually takes the form of one-on-one tutoring sessions—often between a peer tutor and a student—where the student’s concerns are the major focus of the tutoring session. However, this does not mean that the goal of the writing center is to “fix” students’ papers. Writing center work is based on Stephen North’s now-famous axiom that the purpose of tutor sessions “is to produce better writers, not better writing.” As such, the goal of writing centers is similar to that of first-year composition programs that implement a writing-about-writing curriculum: both aim to equip students with an understanding of writing concepts and practices so that they can better address rhetorical situations they encounter in the future.


I’ve been fortunate to see the frequent realization of this goal as a tutor and graduate assistant for a university writing center that implements a writing-about-writing approach in tutoring sessions. At the UCF University Writing Center, tutors are graduate and undergraduate students who are familiar with the threshold concepts and readings that inform the writing-about-writing curriculum used in the first-year composition courses. With this, tutors are able to assist writers beyond their usual requests of attention to “grammar and flow.” One way that tutors use a writing-about-writing approach in a tutoring session is to take time to explain the concept of rhetorical situation and its components, then help writers to understand and assess the rhetorical situation of their writing assignment. This is easiest when the writers are students in the first-year composition courses who come to the writing center with assignments from the writing-about-writing curriculum. These writers can see how the rhetorical situation is directly related to their assignment because it is actually part of their assignment, and the tutors can help them better understand these writing concepts that they’re learning.


However, tutors can often encounter challenging consultations when this approach does not meet the expectations of writers who came to get their papers edited, or students who have discipline-specific questions, thinking that the tutors are experts in the writing styles and genres of all fields. As a result, tutors must learn how to navigate the issue of negotiating the focus of the session within the time constraints. Our tutoring sessions are 45 minutes long, which is enough time for tutors to explain a relevant writing concept and help the writer begin to apply their new understanding to their writing, but it’s not enough time to also check the entire paper for errors. I have experienced several tutoring sessions where the writers have gotten frustrated with my agenda, thinking that it does not align with theirs; they believe that I am wasting their time instead of giving them the writing assistance they came for. As a result, I’ve learned that it’s crucial for tutors to be transparent with the reasoning behind their writing-about-writing approach.


For example, when writers ask for help with “grammar and flow,” it is because these are components that make up their understanding of “good writing.” To address this concern using a writing-about-writing approach without frustrating the writer, tutors can begin by explaining that understanding the rhetorical situation is a beneficial way of figuring out what makes the writing good beyond word choice and transitions. In addition, when writers expect tutors to be experts in their discipline’s writing, tutors can explain how the concept of genre is useful in this situation: with the writers’ knowledge of the discipline, the tutor and writer can work together to understand the genre’s purpose and conventions, and then learn how to write effectively within that genre. If writers recognize the session is being spent in a way that will help them with their writing now, and also in the future, the tutoring session has the potential to be far more productive. In my experience, it’s the writers who recognize how we are helping them who benefit the most from the writing center.


In spite of the more challenging tutor sessions, and even in response to them, the writing-about-writing approach is useful for the writing center for the same reasons that it is useful for first-year composition: it allows writing tutors to combine their knowledge of writing concepts and practices with the writers’ disciplinary knowledge in a collaboration effort to develop problem solving strategies to address the writers’ specific concerns. Especially with recurring appointments, this approach can translate into learning opportunities for writers and eventual transfer for responding to future rhetorical situations.

Douglas Downs

Being Transformers

Posted by Douglas Downs Expert Apr 3, 2015


This blog was originally posted on April 23rd, 2014.


Guest blogger Nichole Stack has been an instructor with UCF’s Department of Writing and Rhetoric since 2010. Having worked with diverse student populations around the nation and abroad for about 16 years, she has witnessed quite a range of growth in the field of teaching and learning. She’s currently pursuing a doctoral degree and writing her dissertation on how General Education courses can and should facilitate transformative learning in students, particularly in first-year composition using a writing-about-writing curriculum. She is grateful to be a member of UCF’s DWR faculty and thrilled to take part in the important changes that continue to happen here each year.


There is much more to teaching first-year composition in a writing-about-writing program than meets the eye. Early on as a FYC instructor at UCF just learning about writing-about-writing curriculum, I heard students passing by ask, “Why do they just teach all ENC 1101 and ENC 1102 every semester? Are they less qualified professors or something?” My first reaction was to jump on the nearby bench and heatedly defend my comrades (and myself), but instead I realized that this notion of “Gen Ed course= Easy Street” is pretty commonly held. I thought about how difficult it is to dethrone, too. My next thought was, wow, writing-about-writing could be just the avenue to help achieve this; maybe we cantransform this thinking.


Four years later, this transformation has been fast underway and is gaining momentum, especially with the recent Board of Trustees’ approval of our B.A. in Writing and Rhetoric. Significant changes are happening on many levels, and one of the most exciting places to see them is in the classroom. I think of writing-about-writing teachers as major “transformers”not so much in the sense that we ourselves are changing (although I believe this is a prerequisite and inevitable result of my main point here), but in that we effect meaningful changes in our students’ frames of reference. We get them to engage in critical examination of assumptions they and others have about writing, posing difficult questions about what we believe, why we believe it, who has told us to believe it, what it means across contexts, and how it shapes our activity. This kind of questioning can mark the beginning of real transformation; transformative learning theory in education identifies this as “a disorienting dilemma,” considered a critical component to change on a cognitive, psychological, and behavioral level.


The theory defines transformation as:

the emancipatory process of becoming critically aware of how and why the structure of psycho-cultural assumptions has come to constrain the way we see ourselves and our relationships, reconstituting this structure to permit a more inclusive and discriminating integration of experience and acting upon these new understandings.


In undergoing such an “emancipatory process,” there are key phases through which one passes. We may recognize these in our own teaching and learning:

  • A disorienting dilemma
  • Self-examination and critical assessment of epistemic and sociocultural assumptions
  • Recognition that one’s discontent and the process of transformation are shared and that others have negotiated a similar change
  • Exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions
  • Planning of a course of action and acquisition of knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plans
  • Provisional trying of new roles and renegotiating relationships/ negotiating new relationships
  • Building of competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships
  • Reintegration into one’s life on the basis of conditions determined by one’s perspective.


These kinds of major shifts in habits of mind and behavior have a core place in the writing-about-writing curriculum (for instance student favorites like authority and discourse communities come to mind), and they are supported by research in ideas like transfer and threshold concepts. And like these concepts, transformation often happens in unpredictable moments for the learner. As mindful as we may be about the time-intensive and oft-elusive process of change, we want to see results, measure outcomes as having been met, and then move on to the next group of students to transform some more. However, the kind of growth we’re talking about doesn’t really work that way. So on one hand, we’d like for it to look like this:









(Possible partial interpretation: “Sally is rocking all the outcomes!”)


But really, it looks more like this:

(Possible partial interpretation: “Oh Jimmy, he gets genre analysis, but he just can’t synthesize those sources and class readings.”)


If we were all economists or farmers, perhaps we would better understand this conception of growth and be more patient, trusting that the solid seeds of threshold concepts we’re diligently sowing in our first-year writing courses will germinate when the conditions are ideal for each learner. When a seed is planted in nature, substantial growth happens underground where no observable changes can be seen. There are also significant unseen and uncontrollable forces that determine the success of the seed’s growth. The same might be applied to our students, where transformation in a learner may not be visible to us for a while (or ever) but is nonetheless occurring. And if the learner continues on into another transformer’s course, the chance is even higher, and on and on, until one day, ideally, they become a transformer, too.


The transformational process is not easy, predictable, or painless (to continue the above analogy here: a seed actually dies before it sprouts). The process requires tremendous time and investment from both teacher and learner, and it’s not feasible to go through in a predetermined amount of time. As illustrated in the phases of transformative learning theory and supported by research in our own field, it involves fundamental and uncomfortable shifts in one’s frames of reference, which is far from “Easy Street.” Thankfully, our relocation is becoming more widely recognized. We’ve only moved forward because of the painstaking efforts and radical strides educators before us have made, and with them now, we continue to carry on the transforming. That is, as long as we are taking sound measures to put the theories into practice and facilitate transformation in our classrooms. But that topic deserves a post all on its own…Until then, happy sowing and growing.

This blog was originally posted on March 3rd, 2014.


Writing-about-writing is invested in having students encounter research on writing that may upset their (and their culture’s) everyday conceptions of writing. And that makes a conference like last week’s Writing Research Across Borders meeting in Paris last week an awfully interesting place to be. You’re surrounded by mounds of data on cutting-edge questions like how ideas flow in the creation of writing, how writers in the humanities actually cite sources, and what students seem to really take away from a variety of different writing pedagogies.


You also strike up conversations with colleagues from around the world, like one I had with a professor from Australia. She observed that many Australian writing instructors are only just awakening to the possibilities rhetorical theory offers for writing instruction. Rhetoric seems to have been, for the past 50 years, a pretty distinctly American sport when it comes to writing instruction.


Yet for all we do in America with rhetoric, in many ways it’s like the 20thcentury never existed … or that much after 300 B.C. has. Because what the average American college writing instructor seems to know about rhetoric is Aristotle: logos, ethos, and pathos. Advanced knowledge of rhetoric includes the five canons (invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery) and, at a real stretch, kairos. This is the instruction that dominates American writing textbooks.


What I’m interested in these days is how Aristotle and other rhetorical theorists of the time were limited by their world, and how when we read the hallowed words of the classical Greek philosophers we do not consider the whole of their rhetorical situation.


What might Aristotle have said differently about rhetoric if he had lived in a world where humans could move faster than 25 miles per hour (on the back of a horse)? Which was also pretty much the top speed for information transmission, apart from line-of-sight mirror flashes and smoke (on a clear day).


What might Aristotle have said about rhetoric had he lived in a world where writing was not a specialized activity of working-class scribes? What about a world in which a printing press would make possible the writing of a text for more than lecture notes to one’s students?


And this of course is not to mention the possibly of speaking to an audience of more than a few thousand people at once, or more importantlyin one physical location small enough to be reached by a single unamplified human voice. How about a world where texts were revised after writing instead of being entirely mentally composed before any words were written down? (And where The Illiad could be an oral story told entirely from memory!) Aristotle could not imagine these worlds.


And nor can his rhetoric, really. What we have in classical rhetoric is principles for how to give a good speech in a handful of very formal rhetorical situations. Yet these are the principles that stand in for most of the rhetorical instruction U.S. students receive. It’s a far sight better than an absence of attention to rhetoric. But I hope as other writing instructors across the world increase their use of rhetorical theory, they look at more than our country has tended to for the past 50 years. In my next post, if more pressing matters don’t present themselves, I’ll write more about what that could be.

Douglas Downs

Talking the Talk

Posted by Douglas Downs Expert Apr 3, 2015

This blog was originally posted on December 18th, 2013.


I need to preface this post with the explanation that until this year, I’ve not taught in or with a program where many instructors are using a writing-about-writing approach at the same time. Since I started experimenting (literally) with WAW attempts in 2002, in any program I’ve taught in it’s pretty much been little ol’ me, with the occasional exception. So a lot of other people around the country have a lot more experience than I do with lots of instructors teaching lots of students in the style of WAW. This semester is the first time I’ve planned a WAW version of Comp I for multiple instructors—in this case, TAs (and most of them first-semester teachers). So what others might have been seeing for years, I’m getting my first look at.


And it’s like this: when I get to sit in on other people’s classes, I hear student interchanges, class discussions and workshops, and it blows me away. Our new instructors have students doing this thing that I often struggle to get my own students doing: talking fluently with the language of our field. Exigence. Collaboration. Readers. Revision. Invention.Intertextuality. Discourses. And when I say “fluently,” I mean that not only did I get to see a couple hundred students over the course of the semester glibly inserting this vocabulary into their classroom talk; I mean that they were using such language to support meaningful, applied discussion about pieces of writing they were working on and arguments they were conducting about the workings of discourse, rhetoric, and writing.


I’ve heard this in my own classrooms many a time—it’s one of the palpable changes in comp-course discourse that convinced me to stay on the WAW track. But I hear it maybe five or at the most ten students at a time—a half a class. Being able to listen in on ten different instructors’ students walloped me with the effect repeatedly. And, I thought, these students are doing it more than my students. How’s that happening?


I think it might be that my new instructors have not yet been disabused of their idealism and sunk to my level of cynicism about what students can be asked to do. Usually, because WAW asks so much of students who are very new to college, I imagine myself as one of the more demanding instructors I know. But these TAs: they’re insisting that students take excellent reading notes, and finding ways to grade them on it without seeming oppressive (or sucking up too much of their own time). They devote class time to getting students to make connections across readings explicitly, and insisting that students use the language of the readings as they do. These instructors insist that students not generalize about the readings or leave impressionistic but ungrounded statements hanging—claims about the text have to be backed up by language from the text.


Sure, I do all these things with my students, too, but I think I’m a little lazier about it. And I think the difference between how many of mystudents thus intelligently adopt the language of the field to talk writing, and how many of theirs do, might come down to this difference in rigor. Seeing with fresh eyes what WAW pedagogy makes possible for writing students’ learning, and how excellent teaching can lead students to that learning, has left me very grateful for the chance to teach WAW with other teachers. It makes a big difference.

Elizabeth Wardle

Crossing Thresholds

Posted by Elizabeth Wardle Expert Apr 3, 2015

This blog was originally posted on November 20th, 2013.


In my last post, I wrote about the difficulties of helping students see the practical, transferable value of things we teach them. In particular, I was a little frustrated that the analysis and assessment techniques I shared with students in the Writing with Communities and Non-Profits course didn’t really hit home with them until guests from non-profits started coming to class and sharing what amounted to the same techniques.


In today’s post, I’d like to follow up on that and talk a little about the same class and the issue of threshold concepts. As we’ve already mentioned in this blog, the next edition of WAW will be centered around threshold concepts. At the same time, I am co-editing a book with Linda Adler-Kassner on threshold concepts (Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts in Writing Studies, Utah State University Press, forthcoming 2014), and am currently writing a chapter for that book with my colleague Blake Scott on how threshold concepts can help shape writing majors. So, suffice it to say, the lens of threshold concepts is on my mind. To recap, threshold concepts are, according to Meyer and Land, communally-agreed upon knowledge from a field that learners must understand in order to progress in their learning in that field. Learning a threshold concept “occasion[s] a significant shift in the perception of a subject.” Threshold concepts “expose the previously hidden interrelatedness of something.”


One of two big assignments in Writing with Communities and Non-Profits was a grant project. This entailed pairing students with community non-profit partners, and then asking the students to find ten possible funding sources (using the Foundation Directory) and then to write a grant proposal to one of those sources. This project required the students to spend a lot of time with their non-profits, learning about their programs and achievements, and to write many, many drafts of what was a new genre for all of them.


The day the students turned their grant proposals into me, we talked in class about what they had learned while completing this project. Their reflective comments surprised me. They learned that


  • they can’t predict how readers will understand what they have written because each reader brings something different to the reading experience. (I’d instructed them to have multiple people read their grant proposal drafts, and they’d learned that each reader fixated upon something different, and interpreted claims and points differently, sometimes in opposite ways from other readers.)
  • no matter how many times they revise, their proposal can still be improved upon. (In other courses, they pointed out, they’d been told to do revision but had no real commitment to doing it and thus acquired no particularly urgent learning about how important revision is to meaning and effectiveness.).
  • using what they know from another setting (for many of them, this meant using techniques learned in creative writing courses) was possible but difficult, and required conscious and careful repurposing (being creative and passionate in the Needs section of a grant proposal requires a different approach than being creative and passionate in a novel, but creative writing techniques can be drawn upon.)


As I sat listening to the students explain their learning, I realized they were telling me that they had crossed some important threshold concepts about writing:


  • Readers and writers together construct meaning in texts.
  • Writing requires revision and is not perfectible.
  • Using writing knowledge in disparate contexts requires careful reflection and repurposing.
  • These were not the threshold concepts I had set out to teach them in this particular course. These weren’t even conscious outcomes of the course. I went in wanting the students to think about how writing mediates activity in the workplace, for example. While I included lots of scaffolded drafting and revision time in the course, I did not stop to think about what I was trying to teach them by including that. The threshold concepts the students named are threshold concepts I share, and they were implied in the design of my course. But I did not stop to think about them as the main threshold concepts of that particular course when I designed it.


One of the issues I’ve been struggling with how different threshold concepts are from outcomes. Outcomes can be set at the beginning of a course and then measured; threshold concepts are much slipperier. They underlie what we know and say; they underlie our desired outcomes and our course activities and assignments. But they are not easily taught in a direct manner or at a particular time. When students cross particular thresholds depends on many things, including their own histories and experiences and identities and motivations and dispositions. The students in my class have all revised before, and shared their work with others before, and drawn on prior knowledge before. But for some reason, their work with a non-profit client on this particular text at this particular time enabled them to understand threshold concepts they had not understood before. Of course, that isn’t true for all of them. I can see some of them still going through the motions, and that’s intriguing, too. They all had similar experiences, but their learning happened in different ways.


So how and why do students cross learning thresholds when they do? How can we better name the thresholds we hope they will cross, but also be open to whatever thresholds they cross while they are with us, even if they weren’t the ones we’d planned for? Learning is messy. But when it really happens, it’s incredibly rewarding. And it reminds us why we chose to be teachers in the first place.