Breaking the University

Abandoned warehouse, floor covered with books and papers strewn all around.

As a graduate student situating my forming career on the continued existence of first year composition courses, I have an instinctive desire to look for how our courses can be used to better prepare students for their future work (in other classes or in the workforce) and to consider how student placement and program evaluation can be assessed. In other words, I try to see how our teaching methods fit in with an institutional setting. As our experiences with MOOCs increasingly show, the institutional nature of higher education is antithetical to the independent thinking it claims to value.

As Sir Ken Robinson explains in a presentation he made to the RSA (which they have subsequently and brilliantly animated), our modern public education system is built on the principles of the assembly line from the Industrial Revolution. We determine what our students need to learn based on standardized tests that have been created for the artificial institutionalized environment of education. We tell them what they are supposed to memorize, we expect them to regurgitate it for an examination, and students complain that they are unable to remember what they are supposed to know, which is exactly the same thing that everyone else is supposed to know.

When has that ever happened to you with something you actually care about?

When we want to learn something, we do not start by finding ourselves a test we can use to measure whether we have learned correctly. Instead, we give ourselves a task to do. If we achieve the task, we have learned what we wanted. We know that we have not yet learned what we want to know if we cannot yet achieve the task. We do not grade ourselves, but we do issue periodic progress evaluations. We do know whether we are getting closer to learning what we want, and we were able to identify if we were successful. And here’s the kicker: the process is usually fun. If it isn’t, the process is intrinsically rewarding, and we know it. This is the essential intellectual and motivational economy that video games have nailed.

There were several times as a high school teacher complaining that the curriculum I had to teach couldn’t live up to the entertainment level and production quality of video games, television shows, and other media sources. I’m beginning to think that the competition I thought existed was actually being fought on different terms. Students may be more interested in products with higher production values, but I think the main distinction is one of desire. Students are being told to learn things because we say they need to learn them. When was the last time we asked students to learn something they wanted? Actually, let me rephrase that: when was the last time we allowed students to learn something they wanted? I don’t think we would have to encourage them at all; on the contrary, I believe we are holding them from doing it naturally. Why else would adults understand how to learn things that they are interested in, even though they don’t seem to get that kind of education in school?

Let me now return to the writing classroom. We constantly give our students assignments to write essays that they produce for the classroom, that are read by the teacher, that are issued to create, and that are promptly forgotten about. Students do not want to write them, teachers do not want to grade them, and we are forcing students to learn the system that exists only within the arbitrary world of the English/writing classroom. How can we change that?

A while back, I wrote a post about everting the classroom — turning the structure of the class inside out so that it is no longer teacher-centric or conformist in nature. What would this eversion process look like in a composition course, which is so traditionally a fundamentally bound with the idea of the teacher being the final authority on acceptable writing practices? How can we evert a course that exists as a gatekeeper to higher education? Declaring that the teacher is no longer the centerpiece of the classroom and no longer The Authority in determining standards of success would be antithetical — and heretical — to the explicit functions of first-year composition.

You may remember that I use the word “antithetical” earlier in this post, when I was describing the difference between learning and classroom education. Perhaps an approach to first to composition that is truly antithetical to its original intention is the only way to ensure our students will actually learn material that is meaningful to them.

My Proposal

I’m going to get crazy here. (Relatively speaking, of course. Crazy for a composition grad student.) I’m going to make suggestions for a way to run a second-semester research-based writing course in ways that go against the traditional approach. I’m going to suggest giving students authority of assessment, control of content, and freedom of product. This might be complete and utter chaos and disaster. That’s why I am presenting this here, before I take this proposal to my supervisor. In the comments, please tell me why this is a Very Bad Idea and help limit my mistake to be merely public embarrassment, rather than on-the-job disgrace.

Students work in semester-long peer groups. Their job during the semester is essentially to convince the groups that are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and group members will identify whether the task has been accomplished and will give suggestions for areas of improvement.

In situations where documents normally should be graded, students in each group will be asked to rank the assignments within the group and to provide justification for why they are ranked in that order. Then, they will identify what each author could do to improve their documents. Students will submit to the instructor and extensive memo that explains their rationale for the rankings and a task list for each student in the group to improve. For smaller assignments, students will the asked to convince one another that they have successfully completed whatever task was set in front of them. Students in the group could vote whether all other students in the group did their assigned task. The vote could even be private, submitted secretly to the instructor.

Because each student chooses a unique research topic with a unique intended audience, much of this group work would involve a small-scale presentation of their progress to their peers. Products from each group will be limited to memos, clearly designed for inter-classroom communication, without the pretense of having a wider audience. These memos would be designed to inform the instructor how things were going in the group.

Major assignments for the semester include an annotated bibliography, and analysis of the stakeholder groups and genres appropriate for the topic they choose and the effect they wish to have on the community. The standard of evaluation for the annotated bibliography would be to illustrate the connections among sources sufficiently that group members are able to understand why each source is necessary and beneficial, plus how the sources are related to other sources in the list. Evalua
tion of the stakeholder and genre analyses would again be determined by how well each student is able to convince the group of the appropriateness of their analysis. I imagine that students will submit work to one another by a deadline, read that work before arriving to class, and spend class time discussing and debating the merits of each student’s work.

I’m still stuck on how best to assess the final products. I suspect having an open forum of discussion after students present their work would allow for peer critique of student assignments. If done correctly, the group work through the semester would help students understand how to provide sensitive, compassionate, and effective/constructive peer feedback. By the end of the semester, student should be able to observe presentations of others and ask challenging, probing questions to help clarify appropriateness and areas for improvement in each project.

The biggest dilemma of the current implementation of this course is based around that final project. As students are creating documents for a variety of stakeholders, the TAs who taught the course often felt under-qualified to determine the appropriateness of material for different stakeholders. If student work during the semester is to justify the approach they’re taking to their stakeholders, couldn’t I expect students in each group to evaluate the appropriateness? Would that not raise the stakes of each student’s justifications and expect each group to operate on a higher level of Bloom?

The Assignment Sequence

Here is a basic breakdown of the assignment structure and sequence I foresee in a MOOC-inspired face-to-face research methods and genre studies course:

Weeks 1–2: Brainstorming.

Students will read from a selection of sources that will direct their attention to contentious issues in rhetoric, composition, research, communication, and writing studies. Students will compose reading responses as open journal entries that peers in each group will read and respond to, focusing on a change they would like to see enacted or a perspective they would like emphasized. Students in each group will provide feedback and discussing the merits and opportunities presented by each potential research topic.

Weeks 3–4: Planning.

Students will compose a research proposal with their group members as target audience. Their goal is to convince the group members to sign off on their proposals, authorizing further research on the subject. Students will look for rigor, achievability, and relevance in the proposals of their peers. Permission to continue with the project requires consent of all members of the student’s group.

At this point in the course, the “genre memo” will be introduced. This simple memo-format document submitted to the instructor will examine the characteristics, formatting, and purposes of the research proposal as a genre performance. These memos will recur throughout the semester, emphasizing the role of genre in each phase of the research process and in communications with stakeholders. [Until today, I had assumed this would be an individual assignment. Now I’m reconsidering it as a group task, especially this first one for the research proposal.]

Weeks 5–7: Synthesis.

Students will create an annotated bibliography preceded by a synthesizing text that frames the bibliography and identifies connections among the included documents. Again, students will have their peers as the audience for this paper, which they will use to convince their peers that they had done sufficient research to continue with the project. Again, all peers must sign off on the document to indicate sufficient rigor and breadth. Students will create a genre memo afterward that documents the purpose and appropriateness of annotated bibliographies as a genre performance for conducting research.

Weeks 8–11: Genesis.

Students will create a stakeholder analysis to identify the kinds of information and evidence used by their stakeholders to make decisions. Then, students will conduct primary research to gather data that would be respected by their chosen stakeholders. This may involve interviews, surveys, etc. Students will conduct a genre analysis of the means by which members of the stakeholder group find and consume data for decision-making. The stakeholder analysis, genre analysis, and data analysis will be compiled into a primary research report connecting the findings and demonstrating preparedness for the upcoming rhetorically situated genre sample and academic research report. Students will also create another genre memo, this time evaluating the appropriateness of a primary research report. Peers will sign off on the primary research report, indicating that the student has made sufficient progress and gathered appropriate data to support the project.

Weeks 12–13: Analysis.

Students will create a rhetorically situated genre sample, which combines the data gathered in the primary research report, the support gathered in the secondary research report, and the awareness of genre appropriateness from the genre analysis into a product designed specifically to convince the student’s chosen stakeholders to take whatever action the student deems appropriate (as was likely defined in weeks one and two of the semester). Peers will critique the rhetorically situated genre sample, specifically critiquing its appropriateness for the given stakeholders and its quality as an example of the chosen genre.

Students will also create a more traditional academic research report, complete with an associated genre memo, to explore the process of writing academic research papers using both primary and secondary sources. [This assignment was added to an outline of this curriculum last semester in response to concerns over academic rigor. Considering all the discussion we have in class about genre appropriateness for stakeholder groups, and considering the differences in research report styles across the disciplines, the idea of a generic “academic research report” seems a slap in the face at best and contrary to the principles of our discipline at worst. I feel this is a traditional assignment for the sake of having a traditional assignment, and it is one that students are unlikely to be able to evaluate effectively on their own.]

Week 14: Demonstration.

Students will document the research process and create a research audit document, which evaluates the effectiveness of the course and their participation in it in terms of course outcomes and objectives. These documents will be combined into a final portfolio that includes the major assignments discussed above. Students will present their final rhetorically situated genre samples to the entire class, and their academic research reports will be compiled into a classroom journal publication. Final portfolios will be assessed against the course outcomes, which have been developed at the program level by the department.

Again, this is a rough sketch of a first idea for creating a more open and student-centric research course. If the explicit goals or program are to introduce students to academic research, research as genuine inquiry, genre-appropriate text production, and writing as purposeful social action, can those goals be met in a classroom structure around students who are new to the concepts? Can students effectively judge how well one another meets those expectations? I have about one month to decide.