One FYC student, let us call him “Tim”, struggles to write his paper, which is due tomorrow by 11:59pm. It takes him several hours to find the right organization to his ideas. When he does get things to fit together right, he then continues to struggle to fill in and substantiate his paragraphs. After many hours of frustration, much pulling of hair, and ample gnashing of teeth, Tim’s masterpiece—even he uses this word loosely—is complete. A few clicks of the mouse, and his work has been submitted to Webcourses. Now that his work is turned in, the only thing left to do to that paper is the teacher’s job: put a grade on it. He’ll be glad never to look at that paper again; he’s finished. But why is that? Now that Tim has put his ideas into writing, he can more easily share them with others. Tim has created an object that is ripe for re-consumption, but rather than putting that object to good use, it is added to a growing virtual pile for which Tim’s teacher has a correspondingly growing hatred. They write, we grade, we return, they discard. Such is the great Circle of Life for composition papers.
Calls for New Assignments
Discussions of openness and access come from a number of angles in writing studies. Georgia Tech and Duke University are each experimenting with MOOCs, which offer open-access content an a form of instruction. Hybrid course delivery makes institutions reconsider access to classroom space and resources. Open-access journals and publishing houses like the Computers and Composition Digital Press question the nature of information distribution and what David Parry calls “knowledge cartels.” Furthermore, calls for multimodal compositions from Cheryl Ball, Cindy Selfe, Gail Hawisher, and Joseph Petraglia encourage educators to view student work as more flexible than the traditional essay assignment, adapting writing to anything from websites and wikis to the now-infamous essay-upon-ballet shoes from Petraglia. These authors challenge our assumptions about the writing classroom, and rightfully so: they ask us to make writing flexible and purposeful.
Those challenges often include considering how to structure and present courses, as well as what kinds of work to expect of students. Expectations for student work can be problematic in FYC courses, the particular subject I am discussing today. FYC is often envisioned as a skills-based course, designed to prepare students for their future writing tasks. The goals of FYC are to improve the student, not to improve the society surrounding the student. All effort and attention gets placed on the individual in the class, and benefits to others are often dismissed. Indeed, FYC students rarely get the opportunity to make their work public, and they rarely have any reason to: students do their work for the class, not for their community. Upper-level courses might encourage more engagement with the outside world, but FYC remains an introverted class. Students write a paper because they are asked to prove a skill. They might share that paper with a peer group for revision, and they might retain it for a portfolio, but then what use is the text? To be sure, we tell our students that they are forbidden to re-use their work in other classes lest they be academically disingenuous. Efforts to discourage plagiarism often mean the push toward open-access journals and accessible information stops when a grade is involved. I question that stance and challenge us to open our FYC classrooms to the world at large.
In this presentation, I propose a more, shall we say, “eco-friendly” approach to writing courses, one that views student work as objects created specifically for re-consumption. I will argue that a focus on producing open-access texts changes the purpose and value of an FYC course.
With traditional assignments that ask students to prove what they know or document their discovery process, students create texts that are designed for one-time, in-class consumption, generally by only the teacher and only for the purposes of a grade. We ask our students to include references to outside work, yet their work cannot be reference material for others. We preach academic writing as a form of conversation , yet no one gets the opportunity to talk back. By having students publish their texts in an open-access online forum, FYC instructors could allow students to enact the complete cycle of academic writing, including a form of publication. Additionally, they could learn to value the importance of having their work seen and potentially re-used by others. Perhaps I should provide an historical example.
The metaphor of classroom-as-factory has become familiar, tired, unpopular. And rightly so—we know that students are more complex and varied than widgets, that our jobs are more complex and varied than cranking those widgets, and that knowledge is more flexible than a simple raw material designed to be poured into our students’ minds. This image, used in Chris Anson’s CCCC keynote earlier this month, was created in 1900 by Jean-Marc Côté. The illustration serves as a particularly fitting example when arguing for the re-consumption of created objects. This image is one of a series of fifty postcards created for a company that went out of business before they were distributed. The single set of cards known to exist came into the possession of Isaac Asimov, who analyzed them and put them into historical context for modern readers. Had it not been for the re-consumption and subsequent re-distribution of these postcards, the one set created by Côté could easily have been lost forever.
Returning to the present state of education, we face a group of students who are rather convinced that, in a purely economic transaction, they give money to a school so that the school can issue a piece of paper or a set of credentials. But of course each of us in this room knows that our institution’s degrees, and even our own course credits, are more than what Brown and Duguid pejoratively called an “intellectual bill of lading.” But if we re-frame that classroom-as-factory metaphor, we might find it beneficial. At the risk of being labeled a Taylorist, I propose imagining our courses as factories, but with student work—not the students themselves—as the commodity. Student work is, after all, the product we present each semester for program assessment. It is the product submitted to Stylus and Knights Write Showcase for credit, recognition, and perhaps even cash. If we view our courses as knowledge-work-production factory, we might encourage our students to consider the value of their work in terms of its potential for re-consumption. How do you know if your writing is good? Determine whether it will be useful to others. Admittedly, my metaphor begins to break down at the point of contemplating exports. A purely capitalist model of the knowledge-creating classroom-factory faces economic hemorrhaging of the worst kind. I have yet to discover a perspective that provides any relevant concept of “payment”. I welcome suggestions during the Q&A session.
Opening the black-box model to expose classroom activities to the world at large increases the stakes and potential impact of student work, making student tasks more than simply assignments for a cl
ass. Focusing on an end result that stretches beyond the walls of a classroom forces students to consider the value and meaning of their work in a wider context. By transitioning our existing assignments to involve “real” (i.e. non-teacher) audiences, we can encourage student engagement and allow for the re-use of the knowledge students construct in our classes. Morgan Read-Davidson, of Chapman University, asked students to write open letters as part of their English 208 “Composing Self” course. One of his students wrote his letter to the commissioner of the National Hockey League, in protest of a players’ lockout. The letter, posted to the student’s blog created for class, was re-blogged by Yahoo! Sports. The student’s writing was validated, and his ideas were re-consumed by thousands of others, creating attention for the post and self-respect for the author.
This kind of public re-consumption is of course more possible than ever in an age where corporate marketing gurus provide guidance on how to make content “go viral”—a curiously repurposed biological metaphor. But it seems a rather egregious error of omission if we do not encourage our students to make their work go viral, as well. That process begins by making student work more public and getting it out to appropriate audiences, which FYC instructors rarely are. By keeping student work tied to the classroom, we limit its potential audience and restrict its use and value to scenarios like the one I opened with, in which Tim views his writing as the end goal, rather than a tool to enact further action. By asking students to write to larger and more authentic audiences, we force them out of their thirteen-year-old comfort zone of writing to one person for a grade. And although our curriculum often asks students to consider outside audiences, how often do we get our students to practice what they preach? How often do we tell them to go ahead and write to people outside the university? If your mind just produced frightening visions of immature writers sending awkward messages to people in places of authority, I share your concern. But how else will our students practice authentic writing unless they are asked to do it for school, a place where we ostensibly embrace failure as an opportunity from which to learn?
To return to my opening metaphor and risk over-extending it into inappropriate territory, I propose that teachers should view their assignments—or, more specifically, student responses to them—as fertilizer. Students have ideas planted in class discussion. Our assignments nourish those ideas and give them the motivation to grow and expand. Students create their work from our guidelines, and when everything is ready for the harvest, we collect the fruits of their labor, package them, and distribute them to future consumers. Engaging in this commodity-distribution process would highlight the interactive nature of writing and draw stark and unmistakable attention to the potential variety of appropriate audiences. In other words, it would ask students to think like productive writers, rather than like standardized students. By fertilizing their thinking and helping to distribute the products, we can help get the objects of our students’ work re-consumed, put to use as our students intend.
Okay, I’ll drop the over-used metaphor and look at this a different way: when we have students do work for our classes alone, are we not selling them short? Do we not cheat them out of an opportunity for really meaningful contributions? Are we not training our students to meet requirements, rather than to actually do something purposeful? You should see the looks on the faces of my 1102 students when I tell them about our final genre products. When I say they need to find a genre that would actually convince their chosen stakeholders, they look at me wide-eyed. Someone is invariably intimidated: “You mean we need to actually send this to them? For real?” As I routinely assure them that it’s all make-believe, and I watch their relief as the realize that yet another in-class assignment is destined for in-class consumption and nothing further, farther, or grander than their teacher’s desk, a part of me dies inside. I think it’s the part that’s sensitive to purposeful pedagogy. That part of me looks for ways to make sure my students see the value in their work. I don’t want to watch my students’ visages take comfort in a reduction of expectations. I don’t want to see them relieved that they don’t need to go enact change in the world. I want to make sure each of their assignments is designed with re-consumption in mind. I want my classroom to go green.
[Title-slide background image courtesy of Apple.]]]>