Thursday, August 27, 2015


So, I think I finished the course description for my College Composition II course. I've finally gotten to a place where I am comfortable writing the syllabus I've always wanted to write. Let me know what you think.

Course Description 

From the Course Catalog: “An advanced writing course that builds upon the critical thinking, reading, and writing processes introduced in English 1A, 2, 5, or 10/11. This class emphasizes rhetorical awareness by exploring reading and writing within diverse academic contexts with a focus on the situational nature of the standards, values, habits, conventions, and products of composition…”

Oh, wow, are you asleep yet?

Look, I’m going to drop the academic tone for a second here. Don’t get me wrong, I like academic writing, and I sincerely hope you develop enthusiasm for the work we do in this class, but I don’t think all of my students are as into the “situational nature of the standards” as I am. And that's fine. You don't need to be enthusiastic about composition to get at the purpose of this course.

I’ll admit, this attempt at straight talk in a syllabus is a ploy. I’m breaking the rule of a familiar genre in an attempt to establish my voice, generate a rapport, and deal with the elephant in the room: A lot of my students would not be in my class were it not for a university requirement. In my discipline, this kind of obstacle is referred to as a constraint – a factor that makes it difficult to achieve my goal.

And what is my goal here? I’m going to answer that in this paragraph, but before I do, you should try and answer the question. Take your time. Got an answer? Okay. Here’s my purpose: I want this section of the syllabus to introduce the goals of this course and then demonstrate the methods we’ll use to achieve those goals. So, how’d you do? Do our answers match? If so, why do you think that is. If not, why? That was your first course activity. Achievement unlocked!

So, we’re going to examine how writing does the things it does. More specifically, we’re going to look at the things writing needs to do as you work on general education requirements and courses for your major.

Back to the catalog: “Students will research and analyze different disciplinary genres, purposes, and audiences with the goals of understanding how to appropriately shape their writing for different readers and demonstrating this understanding through various written products.”

Monday, August 24, 2015

Metacognition and the Hook

As of today, I have joined a new department at a new university, and as is often the case, the politics of the place are messy and daunting. And that was where my head was at after day one of orientation.

But as Hemingway once had one of his drunk characters say, "Never be daunted."

And in that spirit, I had a few beers, went on a dog walk, and sketched out part of the opening week in my advanced composition course.

I'm looking to get my students to break down some of the core concepts needed to talk about writing. I want them to use their experience and prior understandings to define terms like "discourse community," "genre," "rhetoric," "audience," and "metacognition."

But I won't pretend those are easy terms to define. Like any abstract concept, these terms will only take root if the denotative definition can be paired with concrete examples, right?

And that is what inspired me to start off a lecture with Blues Traveler's 1994 song, Hook.
Okay, I'll admit it; the song came up on a Spotify playlist, but it does work as a point of entry for a lesson on metacognition.

And it's fun to use a song from my freshman year of college to introduce my students to one of my course's core concepts.

Well, whatever prompted the song's use, it is shaping up to be a nice little intro to the idea of thinking about your own process.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Punchy as Things Wrap

On Wednesday I taught the last lecture at my current institution before I move on to Sac State. So, I might be a little punchy. But for the most part I've been holding myself in check.


Well, it's a three-lecture series for visiting international students doing research in the STEM disciplines. The students are all exceptional and have expressed interest in graduate studies.

Today the students should submit a draft statement of purpose (SOP) for grading (this is after Wednesday's peer-review workshop).

One student wrote today and explained that the SOP task required too much time and he likely wouldn't be able to complete it. Five minutes later he wrote and asked for an extension.

I replied:
As of today, you've had 10 days to do the work of researching the school and writing the PS. How much more time do you think you need? 

The student wrote back:

Ok I will turn in the homework. But I want to emphasize that I need to spend most of my time doing the lab work. Do you think your writing is so important? I'm not incapable of doing any courses or homework you have. I'm just uncomfortable with your attitude.

So, here's what I had to say about that:
[Student's first name],
 If my attitude caused you some discomfort, please know that was not my intention.
I was asked by the organizers of the ****** program to develop two assignments along with lectures/workshops to accompany those assignments:
1) An abstract
2) A statement of purpose 
The organizers of the program that you signed up for decided these tasks were important. 
They probably decided this because familiarity with those two writing tasks can be useful for undergrads seeking to pursue graduate studies in the STEM disciplines.  
Do I think these writing tasks are "so important"?
No. Not really. Your personal statement for admission to graduate school is not important to me. If you don't complete the task, it will not impact my life at all.  
Do you think writing a strong personal statement is important?
Do you think the grade associated with this assignment is important.  
If the answer to either of these questions is yes, please complete the task. If not, forget about it. You seem to have more important things to do. 
If you just need extra time, please take a few extra days. I did ask how much time you needed, but since you didn't answer, here's my schedule: I won't be done grading these until next week. I'm not going to penalize late submissions, but I will not accept submissions after 8/18. Like I said, if you decide not to write it, that's fine. I'll just score the task as a zero. Not a big deal. 
If you decide to write the personal statement, please consider this advice:
Think about your writing situation more carefully than you did when you wrote your last email. Let me explain; you had recently asked me for an extension of a deadline. I responded by asking how much time you needed. In your follow-up email, you questioned the importance of the task I assigned and then suggested my attitude made you uncomfortable. That's a pretty antagonistic stance to take after making a request. If I had a personal stake in your request, your tone might have led me to deny it. But that's not the attitude I have about this situation. It is, however, the attitude a member of an admissions committee might have when deciding whether or not they want you to join their department. So, for your personal statement, you should probably work on developing a tone that demonstrates a bit more respect for your reader.  
Let me know what you decide to do. Or don't. I also have other priorities that rank higher than this.  
I wish you the best, 
Just before posting this I received an apology from the student. He explained his research project isn't going as planned and he's under a lot of stress as a result. I think our instructor/student relationship is back on track... So, maybe my snarky response is what this situation called for?

I don't know, but please don't judge the student too harshly.