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Advice: Teaching Composition

Fri, 03 Jul 2015 00:44:38 GMT

_Courtesy of the amazing Todd Kaneko_ Comp is a big part of my teaching load—about 75% of it, on average, the rest being creative and business writing. I know way too many people who are getting their writing lives killed off because they are teaching too much comp as adjuncts, so I believe in streamlining and efficiency (and automation) so my writing can continue. Also, my FYC syllabus is online, although I will be updating it over the next week or so to get ready for my own classes. It;s pretty standard, I think. Check it at http://faculty.gvsu.edu/kanekot/wrt150/index.htm Also, my friend Charles Lowe has put together an awesome open source textbook that is available for free online. I use it a lot for readings. Check it at www.writingspaces.org Here are some tips from me for surviving your first (or fifth or fifteenth) semester of comp. This does not apply to CW workshops, as those are an entirely different sort of beast. Also, I teach at a four-year university. I have not taught comp at community college or in other non-university setting, so I cannot speak to tha t experience. (1) Be professional in the classroom. Treat them like adults and they will have to act like adults. Don't show fear—those kids can smell fear and many will respond negatively. Treat them with respect and be professional. Keep that classroom a safe place for ideas and conversation. Attack your subject with passion, even if you have to fake it. If you act like a grad student, they will treat you like a grad student. (They don't respect grad students.) (2) The illusion of investment—as an adjunct or a TA, you are not paid nearly enough to let the class take over your writing life—remember that credit hours, while supposedly equal in terms of workload across the disciplines, is not so for faculty, and comp is unusually grading heavy work for the most part. When it comes to comp, I can't want to fully invest in everyone who comes into my classroom, and most of them aren't invested in the course anyways, to start with. I don't even particularly like teaching comp—it's better than construction work, but I'd rather be writing or teaching creative or business writing. So I have learned to do an excellent job of faking it. When I am in the room with my students, I am in the room 100%. I use their names (even if I just pick one at random from the roll sheet) when I lecture, as if I am speaking directly to them individually. I use about specific students' work as readings for class to show how we read and understand their work. I try to talk to them before and after class so they know that I know who they are. When we are not in class, I use Blackboard (or email or whatever other classroom management software a school might use) to communicate with them as a group regularly (about once or twice a week)—most of these messages are automated and posted by the system so I don't actually have to think about communicating with them much at all. This helps me appear completely invested and interested in my class at all times—between the classroom and the internet, I am omnipresent, almost scarily so. But I have my own poems to write, my own art to make, so when they are not around, they are the last thing I want to think about. Outside of the classroom or conference, I am not thinking about them at all with the exception of grading time. This might sound like I am shirking my job as a teacher, but I maintain that the illusion of investment, the illusion of constant presence, is as effective as real personal investment in most cases. Remember that many of their other profs (as first-year students) won't even know their names, so real 100% investment is not a prerequisite to learning. Yes, there are always a few students that I cannot help but investing in, but that's okay—I'll spend my time with them because they are probably stellar students who I like to work with. Honestly, in FYC, most of those students are not invested, anyways, and won't be no matter what you do. The illusion that I am thinking about them at all hours makes a big difference in that they feel like they are getting more attention than I am really giving them, which sometimes spurs them on to do better work than they might do otherwise. (3) The grading: This is going to take up most of your time, so you will have to figure out how to negotiate the volume of essays you will have to read and comment on during the term. I say ten minutes for a draft is a good goal. Less if you can, fifteen minutes if you absolutely must. If you have three or four sections of comp, getting through the papers quickly will be key to surviving. You'll likely find that, for the most part, you will be giving the same advice over and over and over. Me: I don't comment on first drafts, that's what peer review is for; moreover, they can't expect other professors to automatically give them extensive feedback on first drafts, so I'm avoiding creating a false classroom model. I do, however, go through and glance at each paper to make sure that everyone is on the right track, and from experience, I know what common errors are made on the assignments I give, so I give them a list of things for them to examine in their own papers. Then they revise after peer-review for me. On the second draft, I write each one of them an individual letter that I staple to their second drafts. But remember: I am maintaining the illusion of investment—I have a word file for each assignment I give that contains pre-written paragraphs about thesis development, structure, paragraphs, common assignment blunders, and things like that. The letters I write to them are largely cut and pasted from this document with about one short paragraph (I'm talking two or three sentences) about the intent and content of the paper. This helps me manage my time so instead of writing the same "your thesis sucks" comment by hand 80 times, it takes me about two minutes to assemble a letter giving them some extensive guidance on what they need to work on. This also helps me to maintain a concrete rubric for evaluating their work so that I can keep straight where everyone is. I know some people create charts and give students ratings between 1 and 10 or whatever, but the cut and pasted letter helps me maintain the illusion of investment. They get a letter from me that is personalized to the problems and successes in their drafts without my having to spend too much time thinking about what I'm going to write or how to say things. Then they revise for the final grade based off my letter and any conferencing we do. This is how I manage the up to 80+ FYC papers (plus 160+ portfolios I read at the end of the term with our portfolio grading system) that I can get at any one time. I get them done in one week, no matter what, because as soon as I am done, I can go back to writing poems. It's a bit of work to set up the document with comments for excellent, good, fair, poor, and failing comments for all the areas you want to cover, but it it's worth it when you are done. (4) Plan your course as a course and not a class. That is, plan your course in a way that you can take students through it over and over and over again with minimal additional class prep and minimal change to the writing assignments. The first year, you will be doing tons of class prep—no way around that, really. If you plan it right, however, you will have considerably less class prep after that. Remember that every hour you spend doing class prep is an hour you could be writing. Later, if you find yourself getting bored with your lesson plans, I maintain that you are spending too much time thinking about comp when you should be writing—get over it and write a poem. If the assignment is effective in reaching the course goals, creating a brand new one will be detrimental to your writing life and possibly to the students' classroom experience—a new assignment does not guarantee success. Of course, tweak things to make things easier or more efficient, and if it helps, create your assignments modularly, so different readings can be dropped in easily with the same goals for the paper, and without creating any new prep for you. The way I run FYC, I get two weeks at a time with no grading and very little class prep (I get to write) and then one week of sheer hell as I grade my face off with no time to write anything. (5) Try to create classroom activities that require minimal feedback from you. This is more time management. An in-class writing activity might be cool, but it's also something that you have to respond to—students get cranky when they do work without getting commentary or feedback. It comes across as busy-work. Create activities that allow for time to self-evaluate or peer-evaluate if you must. Honestly, I know a ton of writing prompts for in-class work, but the last thing I want to do is read any of it unless someone is making me. I have poems to write. (6) Beware student emails—they will suck you in. If you answer every email the moment you get it, you will be constantly answering emails. I answer student emails once (sometimes twice) a day, no more. I always get back to them within 24 hours (I promise them this at the beginning of the term), sometimes 36 or a bit longer on weekends. I'm stopping there. I could go on and on, but these are some of the main things I would tell those of you who are about to teach comp for the first time. Overall, I say that you have to remember that it's a job and you should treat it like a job in terms of striving to be the best teacher you can be, but also in terms of not over-investing to the point that your writing life suffers.