Reading Response: What is a Writing Class?

Do you remember your freshman year in college? What about your writing class? Were you annoyed that you had to even take a writing class? I mean, you already knew the 5-paragraph essay, so you were set, right? Or were you tired of talking about writing when you had come to practice medicine or start your first foray into coding or really you just wanted to work in the lab?

I know I came in as a resistant student, and so of course I will end up working with resistant students.

But that’s okay, because transitioning from our pedagogical experience in high school to the new (and sometimes unspoken) expectations of college can be difficult. So when we work in a general requirement like composition, we have the opportunity to help students articulate those requirements and start navigating higher education.

To start, it could help to make sure there’s a mutual understanding between students and professor about what the discipline of the class even is. James Heiman proposes that “there is a wide gap between students’ understanding of what the study of “English” is…” in the context of our understanding of the relationship of science and literacy.

Here’s an exercise for the first day to start that discussion.

On the first day, before passing out the syllabus, give students 5-7 minutes with the following freewriting prompt:

What is an English class? What do you expect to do in this class for the term?

Next, invite students to share anything they would like from their freewriting and write on the board.

Then pass out the syllabus and read over it with the students. Ask them about what surprises them in the syllabus and if they see anything that matches what they have on the board. Ask if there’s anything from their writing they wish had been included in the syllabus. 

The opening writing prompt might be something to revisit at the end of the course, perhaps as a component of the portfolio reflection.

Since my Storium (you can read more about that here and here) class uses gaming as a learning tool, it could at first look very different form the composition classes freshmen remember from high school. So that means I need to start with a formative assessment that gets them thinking about their expectations and then give them the vocabulary to articulate how composing a story together can transfer across other writing contexts. At the same time, the discussion section gives them a chance to push back with their own expectations and start working toward forming an understanding of English that isn’t contingent on a “right” answer from their instructor.

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