digital rhetoric Teaching Uncategorized

Righting Writing Courses

Tomorrow I’m participating in a SUNY Writing Council webinar (at 2pm Eastern) on the challenges of teaching writing online, so here I’m working through some ideas of what I might say in my little 10-minute spiel. (If you are interested and want to know how to join, email me at Alex dot Reid at gmail dot com).

So here’s my basic thought. In the classes we’re teaching, the learning outcomes and the declarative knowledge remain basically the same. E.g., if you are teaching a course on Aristotle, you’re still teaching a course on Aristotle. Your students are still reading Aristotle. What you know about Aristotle hasn’t changed and probably your aims in terms of what you want your students to learn about Aristotle are largely the same. Ok, maybe with all this you’ve gotten a little less ambitious. Then again, we often revise our ambitions over the course of a semester.

That said, the means of teaching and learning (the actor-networks, assemblages, activity systems or whatever you want to call it) are totally different. The procedural knowledge, the know-how, required to teach and learn is significantly different. A Panopto recorded video lecture is not the same as an in-class lecture. A synchronous class discussion on Zoom is not the same as an in-class discussion. A peer workshop run asynchronously through Blackboard (or some other CMS/LMS) is not the same as the typical workshop you run. And so on.

Many faculty report the move online as a dramatic increase in work. Part of that is the technology learning curve. The other part is figuring out how to teach online. In my experience there’s a lot of frustration as a teacher trying to determine if your students are learning or are engaged. As I’ve told my own students many times, the only way I know if they are even showing up is if they participate. Compare that with the ~70% students who would typically show up to class, look like they are paying attention, and nod their heads at you, but basically do nothing. In an online environment, those students are invisible.

So there’s a ripple effect here. First, for students to be visible they have to be active. In the most basic of terms, this means they have to write something (or maybe take a quiz if you want to go in that direction). Then, as faculty, we have to decide how we are going to respond. Are we reading and responding to each student individually? Are we asking students then to follow up? To respond to their peers or perhaps to us? And then what do we do?

In the FTF classroom the Socratic Method style approach of iterative questions and answers, of conversation, is familiar. We can have 20 or more iterations in a class meeting, where we and all the students hear each iteration and can follow the conversation. That can’t really happen asynchronously. In theory it could happen in a Zoom meeting, but I think you’ll find that isn’t so easy. I could go into the details but basically the technological-material-rhetorical situation is different from the classroom. Plus, it’s alien: who really knows how to behave in a Zoom meeting?

What I am trying to describe here are experiences I expect that faculty are having. We experience frustration, worry, anger. We know something is wrong but we are not sure what, or maybe we just conclude online teaching doesn’t work. And maybe it isn’t working very well for us. But if that’s the case, it is primarily because we, both faculty and students, lack the procedural knowledge. Let’s keep in mind that our students have had 12 or more formative years learning how to behave and learn in a classroom. And we faculty have had more than that (ahem). Our error is in imagining that our experiences can easily translate from one place to another. Can they translate? Sure. Maybe. Much like the way learning to write in one genre might translate to being able to write in another.

At least the declarative knowledge of the course, the “content,” is the same.

So what do we do? Some version of what we always do, as teachers or as practitioners of any kind: we reflect on our experience, we adapt, and then we do it again. The key though is in having tools that make our reflections productive. Our typical classroom reflections have many assumptions built-in. Those assumptions are productive in that case as they eliminate many unnecessary considerations. Now though, we need to recognize those assumptions and understand they do not apply to our new environment. In short, it’s like learning to teach for the very first time, except at least now you have more confidence in your knowledge of the subject matter!

The writing classroom, which is my primary consideration here, is typically a student-centered classroom. It relies upon a pedagogy dependent on student activity. As such, we have to ask, in an online environment, how do we facilitate student engagement? What constitutes evidence of student engagement? How do we evaluate that engagement so that we can say in some abstract way “my students are as engaged now as they were before we went online”? In short, how do I know what I am doing is effective?

Unfortunately, the immediate response to this uncertainty can often be to press all the buttons and pull on all the levers. This frenetic activity results in a lot of labor for faculty but may still not result in any better answer to the question of effectiveness. And not knowing if students are engaging or understanding the material creates frustration and makes it nearly impossible to plan for future action. If the logistics work out, I suppose one could meet with each student individual and/or respond to each student’s post or email. But I’d recommend you do no more of that than you would normally do.

The basic alternatives are no great secret. We ask our students to write responses to readings or complete some step in a formal writing assignment. We ask students to read and respond to two of their peers and then we ask students to respond to the peers who responded to them. Then you can scan through that material. Depending on the numbers of students involved, you don’t have to read it all closely. You certainly don’t need to respond to each student. After all, if you were doing group work in class, you wouldn’t hear and respond to every student utterance, right?

Then you can write a single summative comment.

In doing so, you can’t get the advantages of the give and take, iterative development of ideas you expect in class discussion. In exchange, you get every student writing and participating. You’ll just have to be more explicit about what you want students to learn instead of leading them there or whatever.

The results don’t have to be less effective in achieving your goals. It’s likely you won’t enjoy it as much, and you will find it frustrating as the value you attach to teaching and the expertise you have in teaching rely upon a material context that’s not available to you. Your students will likely feel something similar. Like you, your students will probably need a more active, critical, and explicit process of reflecting on teaching and learning experiences. If you can do that, then with luck you can at least get a sense that you’re accomplishing your goals, even if you never come to enjoy it.

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