The fall term that was

Alex Reid’s post (along with just the end of things) prompted me to post this end of the term summary of things:

Overall, I was pleased with the way my graduate class, Rhetoric of Science and Technology, turned out this term.  It was the first time I taught it online, and we posted a staggering 1,738 comments on 91 posts during the course of the semester.  If you average that out to about 200 words a post (many were less, many were more), I’d say that the class wrote about a novel and a half (in draft form, of course) worth of text.  Besides quantity, the quality of interaction was quite excellent– lots of give and take, lots of smart comments that indicate to me a lot of reading and a lot of thinking.  And as a bonus, we even had a couple of the people whose work we read weigh in on the class, not the sort of thing that can happen with the course is behind a firewall.  Anyway, the next time someone suggests you can’t teach an advanced seminar class online, I’m going to point them to this site.

But I will say there are two things I’ll definitely be changing the next time I teach this class.  First, the wiki writing experience didn’t work.  The idea was to use a wiki for students to work collaboratively on reading notes for the texts we were reading since a lot of what we read during the class is dense and complicated stuff.  That didn’t work well for two reasons.  First, with all of the activity going on at the class web site/blog, the wiki was too often repetitive and/or forgotten.  We tried talking about the last thing I assigned (a couple chapters from Collin Brooke’s book) on the wiki exclusively, but that didn’t work that well either.

Second, I think I’m going to change up the writing assignments for next year.  Instead of having one “seminar paper” at the end, I’m going to have a shorter project in the middle of the term where students will write based on the first group of readings (probably “the old stuff” and related essays); another shorter project for the second part of the term based on those readings (many of which I will probably get students to research and find); and a more comprehensive and “worth more” final.  We’ll see; this was only the second time I taught this course, so I’m still trying to figure it out.

My section of English 328:  Writing, Style, and Technology was a little more, well, odd this term.  In contrast to English 505, 328 is a class I’ve taught literally 50 or more times, and I kind of feel like I’ve “got it down” pat.  Perhaps that’s part of the problem, which is why I’m looking forward to changing some of it up in the winter term, a lot of those based on the stuff Derek has been messing around with this term.  It’s been fun for both me and our colleague Cheryl Cassidy (Cheryl is the other person here who has taught the bulk of these 328 classes over the years) to watch Derek begin to find his way in that class.  Anyway, this term was weird in several ways I probably shouldn’t go into in any detail; let’s just say that a majority of the students who signed up the class originally didn’t finish it, which is a first for me.

And then there was my section of English 121, Researching the Public Experience (aka first year comp/rhet).  This was the first time in years and years (maybe ever?) since I’ve been at EMU where I taught a “real” section of this class– that is, one that was offered during a normal term and one that was actually made up of mostly first year students and one where we got to participate in the “Celebration of Student Writing.” (I teach this often enough in the spring or summer terms, but those classes are 7.5 weeks long and usually mostly juniors and seniors who transferred in, who took it and failed it before, and/or who just forgot to take it until the end of their degree programs.  This is different population of students to say the least.)  I’d say it both went pretty well and it was kind of depressing, too.

It went reasonably well mechanically/logistically.  I used a wiki powered by MediaWiki, and that had advantages and disadvantages.  All of my students posted all of their work to different pages within the wiki and they used the wiki to comment on each others’ various drafts and exercises.  Students liked being able to see what others in the class were doing in one centralized place like this, and I liked it for those reasons along with various “classroom management” issues.  I didn’t collect any paper from them this year, I knew exactly when they did (or didn’t) do things because it was all time-stamped on the wiki, and viewing the “history” of one of the major portfolio assignments gave a very clear picture of the revisions and changes that they made.  But the problem of the wiki was it was still a little more technical/complicated for students to negotiate than I would have preferred.  Maybe I’ll use it again the next time I teach this; maybe I’ll try using something like PBWorks or whatever else has come along in a couple years.

But it was also kind of depressing because of what I guess I’d call an “achievement gap.”  This has been on my mind/in the news around EMU as of late because the board of regents and other forces around campus are growing more concerned about the institution’s retention rate, which is something like 39%— that is, around that percentage of students actually graduates from EMU within six years.  Compare that to U of Michigan, where the number is more like 90%.  I saw this statistic played out in my section of freshman comp.  Of the 25 students on my role, 9 of them either withdrew from the class or failed it– and pretty much the only way to completely fail the class is to just not show up and/or do the work.  Of the 16 who did finish, three were juniors or seniors who were taking 121 too late and who were already well on their way to graduation.  Of the 13 “real” first or second year students left, I would guess that five or six of them won’t be at EMU in a year or two from now– some for good reasons (I know at least one student in this class who was planning on transferring because of a change of heart about a major), but most because of “life distractions” (e.g., working too much) or because of their abilities.

So, if my section of 121 was a little micro-version of the institution, that 39% figure seems about right.  Actually, it might even be kind of high.

Anyway, I don’t worry that much about the sorts of issues that Alex was worrying about in his post, about the problems of teaching writing as a series of discreet moves rather a more authentic writing/writerly experience.  Institutionalized education is by definition artificial and a form of imitation of “the real,” which also has an element of “realness” in and of itself.  Alex uses the youth soccer coaching analogy, and I think that works well here too:  writing classes are more like practice, where the players run through a series of drills and do some scrimmaging to prepare for the “real game” that comes later.  I’m okay with that.

But what I do worry about is that ever-eternal problem at “opportunity granting” institutions like EMU:  what is the line between giving a kid who did not do great in high school a second chance with college versus just taking money from someone who is so poorly prepared for college that they just don’t have a chance of succeeding?  That’s the kinda depressing part.

Anyway, the term is a wrap, and for the first time in many a holiday season, I’m not taking any work with me on my various travels– some things to read (mostly for fun), a notebook and a pen (no laptop), and an iPhone.   See ya next year.

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