#124, 318 Minard Hall
North Dakota State University
August 27,th 2014
Dear Advanced Writing Workshop (English 458) Students,
For over twenty years, I have been handing out a syllabus at the start of each course. The syllabus, we teachers are told, is the “course contract.” Great way to start a course, eh? With a quasi-legal document written to whomever shows up. Makes me look like a humorless lawyer and completely stifles my writer’s voice. Sure, I could (and have) played around with conventions without changing the form, but this year I have finally decided to just write you a letter. I don’t know who all of you are, but I have met many of you, and I know that you are all passionate about writing and teaching English, or you wouldn’t have made it to Advanced Writing Workshop. That means we have a lot in common, and we should have a great semester!
I’m still going to cover all the required material, like the fact that this course is worth 3 credits, meets MWF at 2:00 pm for 50 minutes in Minard 306, and its course number is #_____. I want to talk to you about a lot of these elements, not just plop them on you. For example, the course has an official description that is okay, but only marginally helpful.
NDSU Course Description
Writing, revising, and editing projects based on rhetorical principles. Frequent
response from peers and instructor. Analysis of selected readings and students’ own
writing. Prereq: ENGL 358.
You will write and revise and edit two literacy narratives, a web-based argumentative essay, an audio essay, and a remix that can take many forms. These writings will require you to think about audience, purpose, genre, style, voice and a multitude of other rhetorical choices. This class will probably emphasize the workshop approach more than most of your writing classes. I’ll ask you to generate a lot of possible ideas for assignments through in-class writing and journaling, in part because I really believe in this process, in part to model an approach future teachers should employ in their classrooms. You will get frequent responses from peers and instructors, and the goal of these assignments will be to help you produce the best writing you have ever produced.
What the official description doesn’t say is that this class is also going to be a digital writing workshop. Some of your journaling might be blog entries (we will talk about pros and cons); after we have spent a lot of time work-shopping and developing your literacy narratives, we will workshop a digital-audio version of your essay. We will do some reading about the place of digital genres like blogs, audio essays, and remixes in the Common Core Standards, and then you will produce a digital remix of a book or books of your choice. We will apply the same workshop principles to these digital assignments as we did to the traditional literacy narrative. Finally, you will collect selected elements from the class into a digital portfolio.
At an educational talk early in my career, a speaker asked “How many of you put your course outcomes on the first page of your syllabus?” Many of us raised our hands, thinking we were going to get praise (this was in the late 90s, when the concept of “course outcome” was still pretty new to higher education). “Get them out of there!” the tall, authoritative grandfatherly figured yelled. Fifteen years later, I’m finally going to heed his advice. You can find them in the attachment.
The only outcome we should be striving for, Papa Bear said, is to have our students really want to share their work. “When a students say to us, to their classmates, to their friends and family, ‘look at this’—look at what I have written, or made, or done, then we know our assignment or class has been a success.” Now of course this approach won’t fly with accreditation reviews and it certainly didn’t fly during the era of No Child Left Behind, but for this course, more than any other course, I will know the course has met its goals when students want to showing off their work. You probably won’t want to share every piece beyond this class, but every piece should help you get to that one piece that you can proudly say is your best piece of writing—so far.
The readings in this course are really important, but I have struggled to choose the right ones. The Writing about Writing text I used in 2011 and 2013 was updated and went the wrong direction for this course—more academic writing and assignments, less emphasis on narrative and the craft of writing. The decision to drop the book came down to the fact that I had to have Anne LaMott’s “Shitty First Drafts” and the editors didn’t include it, so I have assembled a lot of PDFs of the essays that I think will work well. Doing that has also freed me up to use a TedTalk as an assigned essay for the first time, Chimamanda Adiche’s “The Dangers of a Single Story,” and I can make watching John Green’s “An open letter to students returning to school,” required viewing. I’ve given up the security and ease-of-use that comes with an anthology for the challenge of trying to find excellent material all the time. Please let me know what you think of each piece and feel free to suggest fantastic supplemental readings.
I have assigned one conventional text, a book written by a teacher of teachers. The Craft of Digital Writing is by an English Education professor, Dr. Troy Hicks, and provides you and your future students with some guidance on writing digitally. In this class, I am going to ask you to produce an audio essay and remix. The book doesn’t provide you with step-by-step instructions for those two assignments, but it does provide a nice overview of using technological rich genres and assignments that align with Common Core State Standards, so its content is relevant to you. Hicks has an earlier, closely related book called The Digital Writing Workshop and a wiki we can consult and use: http://digitalwritingworkshop.wikispaces.com/
There is a pretty good chance I’ll find and add another reading or two, a website or video, not currently worked into course. A writing workshop is a happening (see Geoff Sirc’s classic, Composition as a Happening) which means there will be improvisation, unpredictability, and excitement.
I’ve put all the policies and procedures into the appendix along with the outcomes. They are important for the smooth and consistent running of the course, but I’d like to keep this letter to a manageable length and I would like to focus on my expectations, which tend to govern the course on a day-to-day basis more than the policies.
For example, the English department has an attendance policy that I included in the appendix, but because this is a 400 level class, and because most of you are future teachers, attendance is simply expected. Please communicate with me ASAP if you are ill and/or need to miss class. Two absences are understandable: a sick day or two, a personal day or two. More than 2 absences will result in the loss of 50 points per absence. Eg., on your third absence, you will lose 50 points (essentially half a letter grade). On your fourth absence, another 50 points etc.. Three tardies = 1 absence. If you have an extenuating circumstance that you know will result in significant absences, please communicate with me, and we will decide together how to coordinate your class responsibilities with your personal situation. You may simply need to take the class another time.
I’m going to try out a new expectation this year, which means I will need your help following through on it. Breaking old habits is hard to do. I would like to make sure that everyone speaks once before anyone speaks twice. That might seem daunting to those of you who are listeners and watchers; I was certainly that kind of student throughout my education. But I also recognized that becoming more comfortable speaking in small groups would be essential to my career, so I forced myself to work on it, and I keep working on it today.
This expectation has other expectations embedded: you will come to class prepared, having done the assigned reading or writing (or both). We are all responsible for the success of the class, and we are all working together. Show respect for your classmates, their ideas, and their work. This class will require you to share your ideas with classmates, either in class, through electronic discussion, or through peer review. Learning to respect—even understand—diverse perspectives is one of the hallmarks of a university-educated person.
Be observant, thoughtful, and curious. I’ve been using this expectation for about 10 years, and recently the Council of Writing Program Administrators issued a short document that lists these and “habits of mind” that are essential for success in college writing courses (http://wpacouncil.org/framework). I will do very little lecturing in this course; I will be trying to help you developed more sophisticated ways of looking at texts and images, help you push your thinking and writing further than you have in many other courses, and help you develop a sense of intellectual curiosity (if for some reason you don’t have that already!). If you have all these habits already, use them to make the most of the course!
Finally, I expect to have fun, and I expect you too as well. I learn best when I am having fun, and I assume others do too! You will spend a lot of time working with classmates, and our peers are almost always the best thing about college. The assignments in this class will give you a chance to be creative and experimental, but should also help you with professional skills and goals. If you aren’t having fun, don’t wait until the end of the course to tell me in a course evaluation that the course was boring; come talk to me and work with me so we can find the approach that will work for you.
Please be sure to read the appendix material closely as well, even though it will be like reading your software agreement forms (notice how many of those are conversational and interesting now). Feel free to ask questions and offer comments and suggestions before class, after class, during class, on email, via Twitter (@kab13), or through Facebook. But don’t text me, and don’t ask me why not.