This blog post provides observations from an expository writing and research class I recently taught using a WAW approach. In the class, I asked my students to read series of composition articles organized by topic, to help students acclimate to a shared research environment. These topics included the use of grading contracts in composition research, peer review in composition classrooms and in professional writing situations, and articles providing historical context for the field of composition.
The general theme of these articles was an application to classroom writing activities and writing pedagogy. WAW approaches to teaching composition allow students a wide opportunity to gain familiarity with elements of composition theory and to gain further experience and practice using WAW threshold concepts in classroom discourse. But students learning in WAW classrooms achieve even more when they take responsibility, not only to learn content, but in teaching their fellow students.
When teaching composition I attempt to help students claim power by co-teaching the WAW curriculum with them. In doing this I attempt to invoke principles of critical pedagogy, following the principles Shor suggests in When Students Have Power. Shor explores the benefits and pitfalls of designing courses with students taking a more direct role in decision-making that affects the class (e.g. meeting times, class assignments). I attempt to do this by dividing the class into workgroups—usually five groups of four students—and then assign specific days and articles for each group to cover.
Although they are still subject to instructor power in the classroom, students co-operating in teaching WAW articles have liberty to select whichever methods they would like to help present on their assigned readings for the week. I provide students examples of what previous classes have done for activities (e.g. handouts outlining the reading, lists of generative discussion questions). I then ask students to lead discussion using their own activities. Having used this approach during the past several years of teaching WAW, I have three observations:
1. Students who are responsible for teaching articles make significant reflection on those articles during low-stakes, informal writing assigned for those articles.
2. Students who are responsible for teaching articles also specifically refer back to earlier threshold concepts they taught while engaged in later classroom discussions covering new threshold concepts. Cooperating in work groups provides students the opportunity to develop what James Gee calls affinity groups, which foster an environment to discuss threshold concepts.
3. Students have an easier time identifying with composition theory as a result of teaching the content with their peers. Although this could be considered a graduate student effect, undergraduate students also show signs of showing greater identification with a WAW curriculum when they are not only positioned as composition researchers but as co-instructors. Pedagogically, I’m concerned not just that students identify with metacognitive concepts but that they are able to transfer this knowledge to other rhetorical situations for their own purposes.
Student Feedback and Response
I invited students to voluntarily provide feedback throughout the course and at the end of the semester by means of an informal survey. In this space I will focus on one aspect of feedback students provided: the difficulty in students making links between the WAW articles and formal course writing assignments. As is the case in many classes, students in this sectioned noted how they felt they had to read too many articles. While I had taken care to limit the total readings to what seemed manageable to me, I do intend to revise the reading list to reduce the total number of readings required with their feedback in view.
Nonetheless, perhaps the most important thing I learned in making this attempt to teach this course as a WAW course is to more closely integrate concepts from the reading into the required formal writing assignments. As a WAW approach, inviting students to use the writing concepts they have been reading about in their writing means giving them an opportunity to do just that in writing. That is because education, especially in a WAW classroom, is somewhat reducible to what transfers to other rhetorical situations and contexts. In this class, I submit, the general skills required to access research scholarship (rhetorical assessment of authorship and situation, summary, synthesis, reflection, analysis) are all skills tied into gaining access to other sites’ discourses.
With regard to the student-centric group work, students acknowledged in their feedback that they seemed to get along quite well with their peers. Additionally, each article that they read provided an excess of content for students to wallow in. I had required students to write informal writing assignments for each of the readings, but this time I missed a vital opportunity to have students connect their wallowing to formal writing assignments. That would have potentially allowed students to make more connections among the articles, the other formal writing they were doing, and the specific research goals I was asking them to achieve.
A perennial issue, peer review and feedback, made its presence known in discussions with students throughout the semester. Students commented to me that group presentations allowed the class to discuss WAW threshold concepts from the readings together, to better understand them. I find it likely that asking students both to write individually and to present as groups, to discuss threshold concepts, both made the process somewhat tedious but also effective. At the end of the class, the entire class looked for patterns in the survey responses they had voluntarily filled out. Several students at that time observed that though they had not always enjoyed the workload, they had gained knowledge about writing throughout the semester’s reading and writing assignments.