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Today's guest blogger is Audrey Wick, a full-time professor of English at Blinn College in Texas. There, she is a writing teacher who writes. Readers can connect with Audrey to learn more about her projects at or on Twitter and Instagram @WickWrites.


The start of the semester is an exhilarating—if not exhausting—time for college instructors. We juggle course prep, schedule changes, new policy implementation, technology updates, committee work, and much more before students ever appear in our classrooms on day one.

One unique challenge is adapting to a new course textbook when required. For new faculty as well as seasoned faculty, change can be stressful. Still, instructors are masters of adaptation. When it comes to Humanities instructors in particular, we’re at the forefront in many ways. After all, we routinely deal with style manual revisions, digital library updates, and technology changes. Like chameleons, we are adept at changing when our surroundings do.

New textbook implementation tests a Humanities instructor’s critical and speculative skills. It’s not always easy to overhaul instruction and curriculum once a new textbook is adopted, but it’s an empowering and important process to be in control of what we will teach students. Textbooks support teaching, so easing into a major change and keeping in mind the following tips can help ensure a smoother, more effective process of course building that is, ultimately, as exciting for the students as it is for us.  

1) Spend some quality time with the book. Explore it inquisitively, from the table of contents to the index. Consider the chapters. Weigh the importance given to certain sections. Consult ancillary material. Know what’s truly in the book before proceeding to plan a semester around it.

2) Lessen the amount of preparation by not starting from scratch. Whether it’s a former syllabus, an example provided by the publisher, or a template through a higher ed institution, using an existing model will minimize the challenging task of building something entirely from the ground up.

3) Think big picture; add details later. Consider course and program outcomes. Then, identify goals and choose readings/assignments based on what aligns to them. This will help streamline the process of week to week navigation for students.

4) Incorporate personal preference. It’s true: instructors are individuals, each with unique talents, expertise, and interests. So regardless of the text, focus on a few choice topics that are particularly exciting. Peppering those throughout the syllabus will help ensure that individual passion for the subject is sustained—because when instructors are passionate, their students are likely to be too!

5) Avoid trappings of stress. True, deadlines and minimum requirements must be met, though there may be ways to leave a little wiggle room in day-to-day or week-to-week handling of exact assignments, homework, and deadlines. In a first semester teaching with a new text, don’t be too hard on yourself to get everything perfectly aligned from day one. 

Change takes time, and just like it takes time for students to adapt to their learning materials, the same is true of instructors. Still, new opportunities are exciting. This year, my department has adopted a new handbook for use with our freshman writers, A Writer's Reference, 9th edition, by Diana Hacker and Nancy Sommers. While I don’t yet have all the answers for how to make the most of the text with my student population, the book is helping me find fresh ways to teach the concepts I love.

If you’re reading this, I’ll bet you get a kick out of new school supplies. Those of us who teach tend to enjoy the tools of the trade. Sharing our enthusiasm for those tools – even throw-back ones like writing journals – is another way to share our enthusiasm for learning. This semester, I invested in cheerful, inexpensive blank books to add fun to pedagogical self-reflection for my first-year students.


I have written before on the value of students writing cover letters for their essay submissions. That accessible, high-impact self-reflective practice gives students a chance to examine their writing processes and assess their ongoing challenges and strengths. Students continually tell me these self-reflections offer long-term insights as they continue to grow as thinkers, researchers, and writers. So, I’m incorporating this strategy more broadly this semester. 


I invested in slim, colorful blank books for students to use as journals (see the photo), and invited them to choose a color they like and to doodle a cover design if they wish. (They have taken ownership with aplomb!) I’ve incorporated in-class writing reflections throughout the semester, carving out consistent 5-10-minute journal times for students to reflect on their learning, or simply to ask questions they might not ask aloud in class. This consistent practice also fosters confidence in students’ own fluency, by requiring that they “just keep writing” during our journaling time. (We consider this the academic parallel to Dory’s reminder in Finding Nemo: “Just keep swimming!”) As most writers know, getting over the fear of the blank page is more than half the battle of drafting. 


Here are a few journal prompts I’ve designed that are open-ended, but also give students a chance to practice skills they’ll use in more formal writing:


  • Reflecting on critical reading for college courses: Write for 10 minutes in your journal, reflecting on how you take notes on your reading to prepare for class discussions. What seems to work best for you, and why? What new approaches have you tried since starting college? What might you do differently, for better results? What questions/worries do you have? Make at least one specific connection -- and quote the text! -- to the class reading from Mindset, "A New Look at Learning."


  • On starting to gather sources for an essay: Write for 10 minutes in your journal on the sources you have gathered so far for your next essay. What key ideas and authors are most helpful to you at this stage, and why? What gaps do you see in your research? What do you need help with?


My co-author, Stuart Greene, and I have filled From Inquiry to Academic Writing with process-focused small assignments that help students reflect on every stage of the reading, research, drafting, and revision processes. Those exercises are ready for your students to use, or might inspire you to design your own.


However you invite your students to reflect, your response as a more expert writer is important. This need not be time-consuming. Simply affirming that writing is hard work, celebrating breakthroughs, and answering questions students are often too shy to ask in class can go a long way toward helping students feel part of this new academic community. As we all work to retain our students, this extra mode of communication helps us understand them better and teach more effectively, and gets students into the habit of self-reflection that is crucial for lifelong learning and growth.


Can you accomplish this without fun school supplies? Well, sure. But if my students’ throwback thrill upon choosing and decorating their writing journals is any indication, a little bling can add a dose of joy as your semester begins.


Please share in the comments the exercises you use to inspire student self-reflection. (Throwback school supplies are optional!)



Photo Credit: April Lidinsky