As I prepared for my fall classes, I grappled with questions that students often ask on the first day of the basic writing course: “Is this course remedial? Is it a review of high school?” In the past, I had always responded with an emphatic “no.” But this year, my hope was to offer sound rhetorical reasons for how and why this basic writing course would be different from high school.
I remembered the last basic writing course that I taught in graduate school, in an abbreviated summer session. That summer, back in the 1990s, we were still many years away from federally mandated testing for No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core. We also did not have widespread access to the internet. All of the students in that course were six weeks out of high school. Many of them were away from home for the first time in their lives, and all of a sudden, the students found themselves in an environment that tested the limits of their knowledge, but had not been part of their high school curriculum, such as national politics and birth control. These subjects, first addressed in their lives outside of basic writing, became the critical materials for their reading and writing that summer.
In other words, the course introduced students to academic writing and to rhetoric, to considering their purposes and audiences for writing and for reading. To survive as students in an environment with rigorous educational requirements, and a plethora of social distractions, the students would need to become scholars inside and outside the classroom. The main challenge of this work was the time-honored prerequisite of learning to “think outside the box.”
As I planned for Fall 2016, I wanted to develop a means of tapping into the lessons of that long ago classroom. But it was not nostalgia for a pre-social media world that moved me most, or even nostalgia for milder summer sunshine, or teaching and learning under the apple trees near the agriculture building where we often worked together that summer. Instead, I hoped to offer a course in which students would have opportunities to stretch their own learning as writers and readers, and to process their thinking and writing to shift their learning forward.
Such a process can best be described through another commonly used expression. I hoped that students as writers would learn to go outside their “comfort zones.” Leaving the “comfort zone,” moving beyond the familiar, often offers any of us the best opportunity to flourish and grow as writers. But how to explain this concept to students who had come of age in an era shaped through social media? How to translate my twentieth-century students’ risk-taking efforts in twenty-first century terms?
Reader, I began with emojis, and at first I drew them by hand on the board in our classroom. Here is the first photo:
In the above explanation, I incorporated Facebook emojis because I wanted to illustrate the differences between the deeper thinking of academic writing, and the often more impromptu responses of social media. But in emulating Facebook, I had forgotten to include the “ha-ha” emoji, the symbol for laughter. Additionally, Facebook has no symbol for “questioning.” The emoji I tried to draw in its place, with question marks for eyes and a squiggly mouth, looked more like confusion than inquisitiveness.The information for our textbook, 50 Essays, also was incomplete.
In the revision, pictured below, I used Google’s gumdrop-shaped emojis, and found two images of the kind of questioning I had in mind: deep, contemplative, and not frequently uncomfortable. I also demonstrated how to use internal citations from our textbook, and included a Work Cited section.
At this moment in the term, we are learning to develop less formulaic approaches to thinking about writing and reading. We read videos as well as non-fiction essays, and experiment with moving from in-class writing to think-pair-shares to class discussions to journals, to still more in-class writing, back to journals, and to developing journals from drafts. The process is slow and not always deliberate, and there are always questions that address the worries of this new and much slower process for creating an essay. I look forward to reporting the results of our work together in a future post.