the composition intercession

Many universities and colleges have "winter sessions:" 3-4 week courses between the fall and spring semesters. UB doesn't have this, but there is a push now to create one, and suprisingly it isn't a top-down push, though I think our administrators are in favor of it. Instead it seems to be about faculty addressing the logistical problems of getting students through the curriculum. Faced with this proposal, I started thinking about the idea of a composition course taught in such a session. A quick survey of the WPA list showed that such courses are offered, but they aren't common. That said, there are four community colleges in the SUNY system offering online composition courses this winter and we would be required to accept those courses as our own. Fortunately the number of sections is minimal so that won't impact us in practical terms, but perhaps the writing is on the wall, or at least in the winter. 

We already teach a 6-week summer online course as a compressed version of our conventional 15-week semester course, but as the post title suggests, to me a composition intersession course seems more like an intercession to me. In a three-week, M-F class, every day is like a week of the regular semester. 

  1. Monday (week 1): introduce topic and assignment
  2. Tuesday (week 2): rough drafts, workshops
  3. Wednesday (week 3): give students feedback, discuss revision strategies
  4. Thursday (week 4): assignment due; start next assignment
  5. Friday (week 5): rough drafts, workshops
  6. Weekend: return rough drafts
  7. Monday: assignment due; start assignment 3

You get the idea. The first two weeks are two assignments per week. Week three gets a fifth assignment and then perhaps some opportunity to revise one or two earlier assignments more substantively. As an instructor, you're reading 3-4 sets of student papers per week. That's probably 30 hours of work, plus 12 hours in the classroom (if it were FTF), plus prep and other matters. So it's probably a 50-hour week job at minimum, which makes sense since a full semester course is easily 150 hours of work. We could mitigate that by lowering class size to 15, for example, which would bring the responding to writing load down below 20 hours per week I think. Still it strikes me as a tough load. I know people teach roughly this load on a regular basis when they teach 4-4 or 5-5, but such folks probably need a break in-between semesters. And none of this even begins to mention whether or not such an apporach is effective for students.

All of this thinking brought me to the realization of how means have become the ends in composition instruction (and to a lesser extent the rest of the university). Instead of asking "These are my goals in composition: how can I achieve them in 3 weeks?" I asked, "How can I cram the activities of a 15-week class into a 3-week span?" Maybe the answer to the former question still is that it is not possible to do so, but that doesn't mean asking that question won't at least get different results. The question is further complicated by the fact that this hypothetical course would be online. As I've written in the past, the primary error in moving courses online is that faculty begin by asking "how can I do what I do FTF in an online space?" It's the online variation of the intersession-cramming question. Typically what happens with the online transformation approach is that one gets lecture video plus slides (i.e. the basic experience of the lecture hall). Then you have the textbook, some quizzes or similar online worksheets, and maybe a discussion forum for helping students with questions. All that's left is arranging for some secure testing facility. So lecture-hall style courses easily translate (in fact, so easily that they are the low-hanging fruit for MOOCs). However this easy tranlsation masks the ends/means question. We are still asking how do we replicate the activities in one place into another; the fact that it is relatively easy to do so just means that we fail to see this as a problem. This online lecture course could, in theory, operate at almost any speed, at the discretion of the student. If the typical semester course is 150 minutes in class and 3.5 hours out of class for six hours a week or 90 hours per semester, then that's doable in 3 weeks, maybe even 1.5 weeks if you're really diligent and you find the material easy. What doesn't translate is the Socratic, class discussion model that describes smaller classes, including composition…. that is unless one had a real-time component to the online course, but even then a chatroom-like function would still be a very different rhetorical space from that of a classroom.

All of this led me to realization that I wasn't thinking about a composition winter intersession, but rather winter's intercession of composition. How would this shift in time and (virtual) space intercede in the affairs of composition pedagogy? We have these commonplace rules in composition: that students need to write 20 or more pages, that instructors need to give feedback on drafts, and that students need to revise. Composition without these activities would be like Catholic mass without transubstantiation. Argubaly these pedagogical methods are more than articles of faith; there is some evidence to their effectiveness. However, even if we believed that composition pedagogy worked to achieve its goals, such evidence would not rule out the possibility of alternative methods. And in my view that's what an online, 3-week composition course would require: substantively different methods. Specifcially the tutorial method that underlies composition instruction doesn't scale very well, not only in terms of instructor workload but also in the way that students would write and revise. I think it is unrealistic to imagine students spending more than 15 hours a week writing and have the activity be productive, including informal writing. So you're probably not going to get the same amount of writing in as you would in a normal semester, but I'm not sure if that's necessary. What you are getting instead is an intensification of the writing experience, because in the normal semester you wouldn't get students averaging more than 5 hours of writing per week. 

So I guess the question you'd have to answer is how would you leverage the intensification of the writing experience to meet the goals of the course? The more I write about it, the more it seems like there could be an answer. Obviously one could learn something about writing by spending 3 weeks doing it intensely. The question is how would such an experience relate to our conventional understanding of this course.



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