ITW Faculty Dinner Minutes : Thursday, 1 October 2009

In Attendance: Mark Long, Tracy Botting, Ellen Moynihan, Jack Hitchner, Kate Tirabassi, Robert Rubin, Tatiana Schreiber, Tamara Stenn, Kirsti Sandy, Susan Whittemore, Phyllis Benay, Linda Aldrich, Steve Kessler, Lorianne Schaub, Brenda Dunn


1.Mark began the meeting by thanking Kirsti for her exemplary work as coordinator of Thinking and Writing. He thanked everyone for their patience during the first few weeks of the fall 2009 semester as we responded to the CLA and SAILS assessment initiatives. And he expressed his gratitude to those who generously welcomed students from the cancelled ITW class into their sections.

2. Spring 2010: the schedule is now and place. Mark reminded faculty that section 133 of the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act (PL110-315) requires that textbook information must be made available to students when they register for courses.  This legislation is intended to give students more access to lower cost textbooks. Although the legislation takes effect in July of 2010, Keene State College is planning on making textbook information available to students for the start of spring registration, which begins October 19th.  The bookstore has called for spring book orders by October 11th.  Thank you for submitting your spring book orders to Helen Babonis by the 11th.

3. Fall 2010: Mark will put out a call for fall courses in the next couple of weeks.

4. Keene is Writing! Please join us on October 20th in celebration of National Writing Day! (9-4 in the Mountain View Room, 3rd floor, Student Center.) Submit something (see below) or invite your classes. This is an amazing opportunity for our first-year students to actually see the presence of writing in our lives. The celebration includes all forms from books and journals to newsletters to blogs. There will activities like a six word memoir and writing workshops. Submit something! Bring your students!

Thinking and Writing Course Description

One of the goals Mark has set for the 2009 semester is to review and, if necessary, suggest revisions of the ITW course description.

  • ITW 101 THINKING AND WRITING: Introduces students to skills and ways of thinking essential to intellectual inquiry. Students will pose a creative and complex question; investigate it with critical analyses of reading, research, and data; and use appropriate research techniques and documentation to produce a substantial writing project.

Mark led the group through the relevant documents that were attached to the agenda: 1) the online catalog description for ITW, 2) a description of the course in the online Keene State College “View Book,” 3) the Task Force Newsletter essay, “What is Thinking and Writing?” 3)  and the online catalog description of the Integrative Studies Program (ISP) Requirements, including the “essential question” for the foundations course and the student learning outcomes. The revised ITW description is a part of a profile of the ISP, and so Mark also distributed the current online copy and a revised version that has been discussed by the ISPC. Mark thanked those in attendance in advance for their suggestions about the course description and promised to send along the draft as it is shaped.

Thinking and Writing Web Site

Mark is currently working to design and build a web site that clearly explains the place of ITW in the College’s Integrative Studies Program. A good question was raised about audience. Mark responded that the site would be for students, current and prospective, as well as other internal and external constituencies. The site would offer teaching faculty and others in the ISP materials that explain what we are doing in this foundational course. The site would also give me the opportunity to share what we are doing with tenure-track and adjunct faculty interested in teaching the course. Mark will have the site up no later than the spring semester. If you were unable to make the meeting, please send me your thoughts and descriptive language we might use to better explain what we do. I will also be looking for students, and student work, to profile on the site.

Discussion of Ideas and Strategies for Helping Students Begin their Inquiry in ITW

Our primary agenda item was discussing when and how we help students begin the intellectual work of the thinking and writing course. When do we begin this work? How do we stage or sequence activities such as brainstorming sessions, or using the materials in Think, Write, Learn? The group shared a range of strategies that reinforce the core philosophical principles of the course outlined by Kirsti in the Writing Task Force Newsletter dedicated to ITW: 1) that students’ writing ability is largely a function of their thinking ability; 2) that academic writing requires the student to make a commitment to a stance or position while demonstrating an awareness of multiple perspectives on the issue; and 3) that in order to learn how to write well, students need to write about a subject in depth, over time, with consistent feedback and opportunities to revise. (Kirsti Sandy, “What Is Thinking and Writing?” ON T@sk: The Newsletter of the Keene State College Writing Task Force. 2009. online.)

Our discussion of pedagogical strategies circulated around a set of pedagogical principles that included:

  • Staying Focused on Student Thinking: Students need to begin thinking about the course theme from day one. Rather than being told what to think, or to build their perspectives only from the readings and discussion to come, they must understand from the start of the course that they have something to say and that the course is designed to help them discover what it is that might be;
  • Opening up, not narrowing: We talked about the challenge of freeing ourselves from pedagogical assumptions and habits that may narrow student focus too early in the course. One of these practices is guiding students to choose a topic too soon, or narrowing/guiding the focus of the student thinking using topic lists, key term searches, and so on. While we acknowledged the value of creating such things as “topic corners,” we also explored the word topic as perhaps one of the problems. One participant, helpfully, distinguished between asking students to choose a topic as opposed to asking what a student is interested in. Another talked about asking students to look behind the topic; another described an early library workshop that was not driven by information literacy expediencies that can inadvertently constrain student thinking;
  • Freeing the Teacher and Student: To stay focused on student thinking—as opposed to pedagogies that think for students, or that too readily provide direction during this initial phase of the course—is a challenge. Students want direction, and faculty are often ready to give it to them. If the course is genuinely focused on thinking and writing, then students and faculty will often find it useful to “free themselves” from habits of learning and teaching that work against the core principles of the course. We talked about “freeing students” to focus on the general information or general knowledge during the exploratory stage of choosing an area for writing; we noted the benefits of allowing students to stumble around and find their way; and we affirmed the challenge of redirecting student thinking about research from the classic “data dump” (for which many of them have been praised in the past) to a self-motivated process of inquiry in the context of a course that sets high expectations and multiple measures for accountability;
  • Asking Genuine Questions: A genuine question might be defined as a question that is motivated by a student’s curiosity about something. We talked about tapping into potential interests, and the benefits of pedagogy that creates dissonance for students as they move from what they thought they were interested in to what is really motivating them. One participant noted that creating a classroom in which the genuine questions students are trying to formulate remain at the center is not really hard or difficult. Rather it is uncomfortable, as we are “dealing with the raw material of thought.” A number of participants talked about the messy process and the moments of panic where student learning is too often shaped or determined or directed. We need to put student thinking front and center at the beginning of the course so that we can allow students to spend time with their confusion and lack of direction. Our job then becomes setting up a process to help them move from where they are to someplace new.
  • Challenging Ourselves to Resist the Commonplace: We need to be accountable, too. Moving students from simple to complex perspectives, and helping them to see beyond the black/white or pro/con arguments that simply echo commonplaces, is a challenge. One participant described the “Five Minute Google Test.” That is, if we can find the claim of the essay using a search engine like Google then the student has more work to do. We talked about individual and group work during class, individual and small-group conferences outside of class, and the how the process can build trust among students as they develop their thinking and writing in the course. Others noted how narrowing and focusing exercises can be used productively within the always unpredictable process of genuine inquiry. Two examples came up: using readings to create a knowledge base for later work, focusing student thinking (and projects) in a narrower chronological or topical area.

The discussion carried on until 7:30. Please let me know if you have any further thoughts about the meeting, or the conversation, including anything I might have missed in our conversation that you feel is worth recording here. I’ll look forward to our next dinner meeting, too, on Friday Nov. 20, 2009 from 2:30-4. Thank you for sending along agenda items and topics for discussion.

All best wishes,


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