Andrew Hollinger (nominated by Randall Monty) is pursuing his PhD in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University, and expects to finish in May 2020. He is the coordinator for first year writing at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. In addition to teaching in the writing program, he also teaches technical communication, and composition theory and pedagogy. His research interests include articulation theory, especially around teachers, students, and Education; writing studies; experience architecture and public rhetoric; and pedagogy.
FYW is Liminal
We forget, I think, what it’s like to not know how to write, think, study. Or, rather: what it’s like to not know something and also not know how to deal with it. Professional scholars and writers thrive in unknowing and inquiry; perhaps it’s the thrill of discovery and articulation that drives us. At the very least, we’ve acclimated.
Enter first year writing. While trying to become (very poetic and all), students enter our classes where they are confronted with many of the misconceptions they’ve been writing and working and learning under for the last twelve years of their schooling, things like there is one way/method/protocol that anyone can follow to produce “good” writing (that pesky universal discourse that even we have trouble dissuading our peers across campus of), or that getting better at grammar or vocabulary will translate to better writing, or that someone either has it or they don’t (I’m a math person, anyway), and so on. Overcoming the misconceptions is, itself, a daunting task. Add to that our content—writing is an activity and a subject (What does that mean?); “good” writing is contextual and situational (How do I know the situation?); not all composition is alphabetic text on a page (What?!)—and it’s a wonder our students don’t glimpse the syllabus on the first day and walk out.
The assumption, it sometimes seems, is that students and faculty outside of the writing program and rhet/comp think first year writing is an obligatory course, a hurdle to jump. Show up, writing the essays, get your grade, and move on. The truth is more complex and less poetic.
First year writing is part of the first year experience—whether or not the course formally resides within a university-wide FYE infrastructure. Traditional students are transitioning from high school. Nontraditional students are trying to transition into a school mindset. Many students (even the “good” ones, whatever that means) don’t know what it means to be in college. What does it mean to be a scholar? What does it mean to engage with the genres and media and conventions of a discipline? What does it mean to think and struggle through ideas? Without guidance, many students end up making it through their time in college simply surviving, without really experiencing the full possibilities available to them.
First year writing, then, serves several functions and purposes: the teaching of (multimodal) composition and the larger social project of helping students enter the university (in all senses of “enter”). That is, first year writing is uniquely situated to perform the important work of teaching our course content while also equipping students for success in their other courses, in the jobs, and perhaps even interpersonally (though that’s a blog post for another time) if we, as instructors, can develop assignments that deliberately respond to both the academic and social areas our class is already in.
Assignments Can Be Bridges
Enter (again) first year writing and my assignment, Research Three Ways: Becoming an Academic. This project (three separate assignments) is intended for the second course in a two-course first year writing sequence, but could easily be adapted for the first course or a single course. The initial assignment is fairly common, a research paper. My own classes focus on writing as its own subject as well as threshold concepts, so students often write about topics that concern writing, reading, literacy, and learning. However, this assignment should work well with any focus, theme, or writing approach.
The interesting thing about this assignment is what happens during the writing of the research paper. Students are asked to track, color code, and annotate their revisions. (Why not just use “track changes” on Word or Google Drive or Draftback? You could. I like this approach because it slows the process down and requires students to make physical moves that parallel their cognitive maneuvers and rhetorical decisions.) This part of the assignment communicates early to students that
- We will be drafting and revising; it’s not even possible to write this paper the night before it’s due.
- Writing happens on purpose. Even when we are incidentally clever, the choice to leave it in constitutes a rhetorical choice and a purposeful composer.
- Additionally, done this way, the assignment asks students to frame and contextual their revisions.
Working through a research paper like this is like walking through a building with all the scaffolding still up. It’s easier to see how things were constructed, why this beam has to go here or why this wall has windows but this one doesn’t. Not only does the element of the assignment put everything on display (which is a great teaching tool), but it allows us to talk through the kinds of things we do automatically when we write for our own jobs. It goes back to the first year experience: this is what it is like to think through a problem and struggle through its solution. In this moment, we’re teaching students how to write and also how to be successful college students.
The remaining elements of the project, the conference presentation and the public document continue the twin processes of writing instruction and scholarly invitation and cultivation. After completing the research paper, students reframe their work as a presentation and then remix it as a document for a public (and, usually, lay audience). Pedagogically, students are engaging with multimodal composition and revision practices. They are self-editing and recasting their work to fit new and novel scenarios while still maintaining connections to the original research goals and products. For the larger college picture, we are inviting students to be scholars while also demonstrating how to work and think through their other courses.
First year writing is an important course, one with its own content, theory, pedagogy, threshold concepts, and implications. It is also a course that is inherently liminal, interstitial. Our students are moving and becoming. Even our content is constantly evolving. This assignment is one small way that we can help our students lean into the unfamiliar in productive and meaningful ways.