Thinking and Writing Dinner Meeting: Friday, 16 November, 2007

In attendance: Phyllis Benay (Interdisciplinary Studies), Mark Long, Jack Hitchner, Daryl LeDuc, Steve Kessler, Tracy Mendham, Tracy Botting, George Russell, Heather Gigliello, Vesta Hornbeck, Anne-Marie Mallon (English), Helen Frink (Modern Languages) Nick Germana and Graham Warder (History), Allyson Mount (Philosophy); Kristen Porter-Utley (Biology), PeggyRae Johnson (Theater and Dance)

Feeback on Thinking and Writing from the Tutors at the Center for Writing

Mark began the final meeting of the fall semster with selected comments from tutors at the Center for Writing who were asked whether, from their perspective, the Thinking and Writing course is more effective than English 101, and whether the new course is helping students become more effective writers. The tutors, some of whom had taken English 101, report a higher level of motivation and “ownership” among the ITW students. The consensus among the tutors is that student sin ITW 101 are more engaged with writing in the first year. Additional comments from the tutors will be of interest to everyone:

  • One tutor pointed out how amazing the essay topics were, pointing to the range of topics and the interest of those topics;
  • Most of the tutors noted more consistent performance. “More people get more out of it.”
  • “You can’t BS your way through,” one tutor said. “You can’t write an essay the night before,” another tutor admitted, “like I did in English 101”;
  • One student, describing how the course differs from almost all of his other college courses, observed that the semester-long research project gives each student “an opportunity to develop a thought”;
  • Another student said that the students are “not writing as much for the teacher, but writing for yourself in a class that requires a semester-long writing project;
  • Another tutor observed that the semester-long project required skill sets associated with college-level work: specifically, a higher degree of time management and organization.

The tutors then discussed what happens after ITW 101. “It’s too easy to fall back on old  habits,” said one tutor, pointing to the other kinds of writing assignments students end up doing in the second and third years of study.  One tutor, a senior, said that what he learned in Phyllis Benay’s ENG 202 course (a course that involved a semester-long researched essay) was not really applied until he reached his senior seminar essay. Mark then reported on the plans of the Writing Task Force to hold a workshop by students, faculty, and tutors on their changing experiences with first-year writing at Keene State College.

Our conversation then turned to the second item on our agenda: George’s question about what we do in the final weeks of the Thinking and Writing course. Mark thanked George. He then circulated a digest e-mail that traced the various ways we are using the final weeks of the course. (Please see attached document.)

This prompted futher discussion about the course and, more specifically, the choices we made in designing the course. Many of the comments turned to what we might do differently next time.

We agreed that the course provides a different  kind of challenge–for both students and faculty. If in fact we are really seeking to bring students into a community of writers and writing, then we need to continue thinking about our own experiences as writers in that community. We talked about the difficult (but very real) challenge of choosing and developing an idea, a process that takes time and that involves self-doubt; the false sense of security, especially when one feels as though one has it right; the inevitable stumbling blocks; the resitance to feedback; the breakthroughs, and so on. One of the great opportunities (and challenges) of this course is that we are right there with our students as they negotiate, often for the first time, what it might mean to move from simple to complex thinking.

The conversation turned from reflecting on what we are doing to what we might do differently next time we teach the course. Everyone is doing individual conferences, it seems. But how many? When in the semester? During or outside of class meeting time? For how long? Some schedule a minimum of two conferences during the semester that students schedule with the instructor; others use class time to meet with the same groups of five students on a rotating basis (group #1 on Tuesday, #2 on Thursday, #3 on Tuesday, #4 on Thursday, and #1 again on the following Tuesday); still others have students work in groups and present ideas and get feedback in class using question and answer sessions. In addition, individual and group conference work is also integrated into sections of the course using Blackboard discussion forums and other pre-conference writing exercises. There was also some discussion of the benefits of conferencing in groups so that students can learn the vagaries and contingencies of the writing process from one another.

We then discussed the different ways we have organized the final weeks of the semester. The beginnings of a consenus emerged around “front loading” the readings. Setting up the intellectual context for writing, many agreed, needs to happen earlier as the individual projects require substantial individualized reading once the writing begins to take shape.

We then turned to just how to shape the writing process. Where do we begin? (We returned to the problem of having students sumbit “proposals” too early, at the stage when the research has not unfolded so as to give students a platform to actually formulate even a simple claim. We also discussed starting with questions, although we wondered a bit about the ability to formulate proming questions when one has not had a chance to read widely in the area of interest.) Should a longer version be required earlier? Is it more effective to create a sequence of deadlines using graduated lengths (say 3, 6, 9, 12 pages) to help students move from the simple to the complex? This part of the conversation led us to the question of when students should be given the opportunity to change their topics. When is the “escape clause” no longer viable in a course organized around developing an idea? It became clear that what we mean by “development” matters. Is it that students are “switching” ideas or is that their ideas are evolving and developing? (In fact, in the summary of the second dinner meeting, Mark had suggested that the descriptive thesis–that leads to the all-too-familiar “data dump”–may in fact be a necessary step in the writing process–or in the words of Sommers and Saltz, not a flaw but a symptom of  “a novice working on an expert’s assignment.” If we were to agree with the necessity of this step, then we might not expect a complex claim too oearly in the course. It may be, in fact, that the experience of “writing into expertise” is one of the most powerful experiences we can offer our students in the first year course.)

The conversation took a final turn as we focused attention on the language we are using in the course. What are our refrains? What are the key terms that we repeat again and again as we help students learn to hear what we are saying? Mark and Kristen, for example, were singing all semester (in harmony, no less) simple and complex. Anne-Marie mentioned “complications.” PeggyRae pointed to the word “connections.” We then began to talk about what we mean by a claim– a key term in the course. Some discussed the term in relation to the term “thesis.” Others pointed to the associations with the term thesis and the differences with the term claim. Still others registered some questions with the term claim. Other words in circulation were “significance” and “relevance.” It became clear in this final moment of this discusison that 1) we value a common language that we can use together to best communicate to our students our expectations, that 2) the terms we use will most likely evolve as we continue to work together teaching the course and that 3) we need to continue this discussion among ourselves, as well as among the faculty now designing perspectives and interdsiciplinary courses.

Mark closed the meeting with a reminder about our key role in the assessment of the Integrative Studies program. We reviewed the protocols for submitting the final student essays to the Blackboard site for each section of the course. When Jenny Darrow makes this link active, Mark will remind everyone of the window for submission and once again provide instructions for submitting the essays.

Thank you to everyone for your hard work teaching the course this semester. I am deeply grateful for your thoughtful reflections on the course during our dinner meetings this semester as well. It has been a privilege to guide this discussion and I look forward to continuing our conversation in semesters to come.

My best wishes,

Mark

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