Metawriting posts from the new blog location

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Beginning with the writer

Within the past week we have witnessed something exciting in our Writing Studio program. We are seeing our basic writers begin to talk and act like writers. While their first writing assignments were not a dramatic improvement from their initial offerings, what has changed is the way that they prepare to write, the way that they talk about writing, and the way that they support each other as they work on their writing. Even though none of these students is yet prepared to give themselves the title of “writer,” those of us working in the Writing Studio know that by making these moves they have indeed become writers.

Mina Shaughnessy writes in “Errors and Expectations” that the determination of academic inferiority often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy which only increases the gap between that that student and success until it “begins to seem vast and permanent.” This gaping void is typically what basic writers see before them by the time they enter college. They have experienced repeated failure and received so much negative feedback regarding their writing ability it is no wonder that they fear and dread writing and writing classes. It is precisely this fear and dread that concerns me the most – far more than the writing errors they make.

My study of writing self-efficacy, or a writer’s belief in his or her ability to perform the writing task at hand, has shown that those writers with low writing self-efficacy have no expectation that any attempt will meet with success and so they are more likely to give up at the first sign of difficulty and less likely to work through those challenges. Just as Shaughnessy describes, these writers expect to fail and so they fail – again and again. Because they do not continue working they do not learn and grow as writers and the cycle of failure continues. The challenge for basic writing teachers is to break that cycle of repeated failure which only reinforces the writer’s lack of confidence.

Our pilot Writing Studio program is designed to break that cycle by leading our basic writers through the writing process, modeling the conversations that writers have about writing as they develop and revise, and providing practical support and positive reinforcement along the way. These ideas and practices are not new to basic writing classrooms. For decades, most basic writing teachers have known that they must be a combination of coach, cheerleader, and referee to provide a delicate balance of education, encouragement, and rule enforcement. However, the numbers are never in a basic writing teacher’s favor. Even if the basic writing class is small, typically the teacher is teaching multiple sections and simply does not have the time or energy to provide enough individual support. But more than that, due to their low writing self-efficacy and negative past experiences, these students often do not work well in writing groups (the efficient writing teacher’s answer to the numbers problem).

Our solution was to assign peer writers (upper level undergraduates) to each writing group. The peer writers serve as both leader and mentor for the basic writers. The peer writers lead discussions and ask questions to help develop and shape the writing as well as guide the revision process. Our hope was that providing an extra scaffold of support for our basic writers in the form of peer writers who are closer in age and expertise than the instructor would help the basic writers grow and develop as writers. After all, for many basic writers the writing teacher is seen as representing some unattainable goal of expertise. However, a fellow student is not so different from the basic writer and can be seen as offering a more accessible version of writing success.

If we can help these basic writers develop an understanding of the writing process and how successful writers think and work then we believe we have given them the tools to break the cycle of writing failure. Shaughnessy points out that “[w]riting is something writers are always learning to do” and that no writers are ever done learning. There is a limit to how much we can teach any set of writers in just 17 weeks, but if we can change the writer then there is no limit to how much they can learn and grow after they leave our classrooms. We can help them become writers, but that is where we need to begin – with the writer and not the writing.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Staying Put (off the tenure track), For Now

I just made a really big decision. A momentous decision that could potentially destroy my future (if you follow recent cyber discussions regarding the expiration date on new Ph.Ds) – I am not going on the job market this Fall.

I have decided to stay put – for now – at my current institution even though I do not have tenure or even the promise of it dangling from a stick. I have made this decision for a number of personal and professional reasons. I know (from the reactions of my friends) that not everyone will support my decision and to be honest I have had second and third thoughts myself. As a champion second-guesser (I gave up my amateur status in grade school), I am sure that I will continue to be plagued by doubts – especially over the next month or so when job postings continue to pop up. It is easy to be seduced by the dream of greener pastures, especially when you are an underpaid, underappreciated, and overworked adjunct (my colleague has blogged extensively about our work situation as well so you can judge the good, the bad, and the ugly of our institutional home for yourself). I admit, when you look at my current job title and pay and weigh those against my credentials (11 years teaching full-time at college level, Ph.D. in Technical Communication and Rhetoric from Texas Tech, publications, administrative and grant experience with National Writing Project) as well as the fact that I am teaching upper-level undergraduate and graduate classes that are not in my contract (I was hired and continue to be hired to teach composition), you have to admit it is crazy to stay.

And yet…this fall I started a new program that I am enjoying immensely. It is so much fun and so rewarding and has such tremendous potential that I don’t want to leave it yet. I want to see how its future unfolds. I need to give it more than a year to grow. I want to let it leaf out and blossom before I stop tending it. In addition, I have the opportunity to move out of my current position into something that offers better pay and a better title. But the catch is that this new position does not include tenure any more than my current one does. This is worrisome for many reasons. First, of course, is that my position is vulnerable. I am subject to the vagaries of budgets and administrative whims, but then this is nothing new for me. After all, I have been a full-time adjunct for 11 years. But another major worry, especially since the whole Ph.D. expiration firestorm, is that such a move will damage my potential to move onto the tenure track in the future. I have decided to take the risk for personal as well as professional reasons.

Professionally, as I noted above, I have the opportunity to create something with my Writing Studio program. In addition, the new opportunity will involve continuing this work as well as reinventing a job and working with some new (but really terrific) people. This is exciting stuff. This is the stuff of which dreams are made. Why should I trade in these exciting new opportunities to audition for a job (with the odds against me even landing it) with duties and opportunities decided by others? Plus, instead of spending hours crafting my job materials and digital presence not to mention researching institutions, programs, etc., I can instead focus on developing new programs and publishing about those programs and the work they accomplish. I refuse to believe that work will not reap benefits for me professionally but maybe I am just naïve.

Personally, my family has put our lives on hold for years and we have been living in that limbo land that academic families know so well. We constantly frame decisions (from vacations to home renovations) around the academic job market. Do we expect to move this year or next? Should we make that long-term investment in our house when we may not be here much longer? Can we plan that vacation for next summer when we might be in the middle of a move? Quite frankly, we all deserve a break from that stress and upheaval. And, perhaps most important of all, after supporting me while I earned my Ph.D. as well as through last year’s fruitless job search, my family deserves a happier and (relatively) stress-free me for a while. Heck, we all deserve it!

For the next year or so I intend to focus on sustainable parenting, sustainable spousehood, and sustainable personhood. Wish me luck and don’t judge me too harshly.

Friday, September 7, 2012

What does our writing studio program look like?

Last week I wrote about why the Morehead Writing Project is creating a writing studio and this week I want to explain how our studio looks during its pilot. Of course, we do not know what will come of this pilot so the final version could look very different. The Morehead Writing Project Studio is affiliated with the English Department at Morehead State University, but it is a separate program offered by the Morehead Writing Project which makes it different from most other writing studios. Our pilot program focuses on MSU students, but we hope the final version will grow to include K-12 students as well. While most studio programs grow out of a need to serve a student population, ours came from our mission to provide support to teachers of writing. We wanted to create a vehicle that demonstrated the best methods for teaching writing – methods in keeping with the beliefs of the National Writing Project. Ultimately, we end up in the same place as other studio programs – helping student writers; however, I believe this difference in orientation sets us apart.

The pilot studio groups are embedded within three developmental writing classes taught by two MWP teacher-consultants. The class instructors divided their classes (which cap at 17) into three small groups which meet once each week for an hour. These teachers have coordinated their syllabi and assignments as well as class preparation so the classes (which total 45+ students) are very similar in content and approach. Of course, we are able to do this for our pilot project, but may not be able to do so as the program grows. The studio work is considered part of the required work and attendance for the class so there is no separate or extra credit awarded as a result. Many other models offer Studio as an elective or required 1-credit class as an adjunct to freshman composition.

Our pilot studio groups are led by Peer Writers who are junior/senior English Education majors at MSU. The five Peer Writers involved with the pilot project have all worked with MWP before as well as had a number of education classes and/or tutoring experiences. Typically, studio groups are led by faculty members and graduate students although there are some programs which also use advanced undergraduates. We know there is a larger pool of English Ed majors we could use at MSU as well as a number of Middle Ed majors. We are cautiously considering how many Ed students we can work with at a time to maintain the same level of quality. At our pilot stage, all of our Peer Writers were carefully selected and we can easily stay in contact to provide the support and guidance they need to lead studio sessions. Of course, experienced Peer Writers won’t need that level of support but how many novice Peer Writers can we work with at a time?

The first assignment for the classes we are working with is a literacy narrative. The instructors have provided writing prompts to guide the initial development of this narrative and the Peer Writers are familiar with both the assignment and the prompt so they can support their studio groups as they continue the work they began in class by writing, sharing, and talking through their challenges. We are finding this assignment to be an useful vehicle for the conversations we want to take place in both the studio groups as well as our learning community.

We have created a learning community which includes the five Peer Writers and the two writing instructors as well as two representatives of the Morehead Writing Project. During weekly meetings, our learning community shares stories about working with students, brainstorms solutions to challenges, and coordinates plans for the next round of studio meetings. We are finding this learning community to be a tremendous resource for supporting our pilot project, but as the program grows it will be increasingly challenging to gather all the instructors and Peer Writers together every week. Our task as we grow will be to find ways to provide the necessary support for our Peer Writers.

Although our pilot is still in its early stages, we are already seeing a number of benefits. Of course, the developing writers benefit from working in a writing group led by a skilled mentor who can model both good writing habits and good writing group participation. In addition, the discussions focused on the students’ previous literacy experiences help students unpack some of the issues blocking their progress and better position them to learn and grow as writers. It is also not surprising that the Peer Writers are finding the studio a great learning experience as both teachers and writers. However, both the faculty members and pre-service teachers have found working within a supportive community both more helpful and invigorating than expected. We are all energized and engaged by this collaborative teaching experience. Our excitement for this project continues to grow as we wrap up our third week and we cannot wait to see what happens next.