Note: This it the sixth in a series of blog posts chronicling the piloting of the new ENG 1020 Curriculum. You can find all entries in the series here.
As one of a handful of instructors that’s teaching a pilot version of 1020 this semester, it’s been both fun and challenging to rethink my approach to freshman comp. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll recall that the origins for these pilot sections lay in the work of the Assessment Committee’s recent assessment of both 3010 and 1020. One of the primary outcomes of that work is a renewed emphasis on classroom activities that foster student reflection and the development of strategies that facilitate the transfer of writing-based skills to other writing tasks. The motivating idea is that while there is no one form of academic writing, or one static writing process that will work for every writing situation, ENG 1020 can help students to develop a toolbox of writing and reading-based skills that can prepare them for the wide range of writing tasks they’ll face in their other classes, their lives in the public sphere, and other discourse communities in which they participate.
With this focus on transfer in mind, one of the areas in which I’ve tried to revise in my own thinking and teaching is my approach to the writing process. As many instructors trained in the process era, I assume that many issues with student writing can be traced to problems with writers’ management of the writing process. These issues are usually obvious: the writer doesn’t have enough subject matter knowledge to write about the topic; the writer doesn’t have an outline or plan for the paper; drafting began at 3 a.m. the night before the due date; the paper has not been proofread; the list goes on. Even knowing this, however, I’ve long struggled to find an effective way of assessing the writing process.
There was a time when I tried to foreground the writing process by segmenting assignments into a battery of smaller deliverables, including freewrites, proposals, outlines, and multiple drafts, each of which would receive feedback and a grade. This approach created a number of problems. One, it generated an immense amount of work to grade. Two, this approach tended to produce a lot of what I call easy points, which if not carefully managed tended to inflate student grades. Third, and most important, this segmenting imposed my own over-determined version of the writing process on to students in a way that warped my original intent which was to empower students to manage their own process. These problems yield a classic pedagogical dilemma: how do I provide students with guidance and generative feedback on their writing process without micromanaging a process that is inherently messy, personal, and to a large extent, undertaken beyond the instructor’s view?
One solution to this problem that’s consistent with our program’s focus on reflection and transfer are reflective activities the ask students to describe and reflect on their writing process as they use it to complete various writing projects. The 1020 Teaching Circle has a collection of such assignments and we’ve been using much of our time together this semester to discuss our experiences with these activities in our classrooms. In my own class, I’ve been using a version of Sandra Giles’ letter to the reader assignment, in which students describe the objectives of their paper, the process they used to write it, their concerns about the paper, and their plans for revising the text. In Giles’ version of the assignment, writers turn in a draft of the letter with the first full draft of each major assignment. They then receive feedback from both their peer readers and the instructor. Finally, they revise and submit both the final draft of the letter and the project with the letter describing the revision process and their self-assessment of the project.
Based on my experience, I’ve found that many students can identify at least a few phases of the writing process at the beginning of every term. But few students can actually describe their own writing process in detail beyond the general terms of brainstorming and editing, and even fewer can describe how they modify that process in the face of different kinds of writing tasks. Reflective activities like the letter to the reader assignment can be valuable instruments for assessing students’ management of the writing process. As student-generated texts, these activities also provide great material for in-class discussion about the writing process that reveal the variety of approaches and skill sets students bring to the projects they encounter in our classes.
Thomas Trimble is a Senior Lecturer in the English Department. He is also a recent Ph.D. graduate of the department, whose dissertation “Rhetorical Outcomes: A Genre Analysis of Student Service-Learning Writing” used genre theory to theorize writing assessment issues in service-learning courses. Thomas is currently teaching ENG 1020, and has taught ENG 1010 and ENG 3010 previously.