What follows is a synthesis of conference welcomes written by SUNY Council on Writing President Michael Murphy in the years since the current administration has held office. In this time, the role of the writing educator in nurturing critical thinking, objectivity, and self-reflection has never been more vital to sustaining democracy and defining the identity of a citizen-thinker.
The work of teachers of writing and rhetoric, especially at public universities, is perhaps more important right now than it’s ever been. Public discourse in the U.S. at this moment—and probably globally—is in a state of crisis. According to the Washington Post, by the 1000th day of his administration in office, the current U.S. president had made well over 13,000 false or misleading public statements. As we approach another national election, the biggest social media site in the world—and thus the largest publisher of news and opinion—Facebook, still refuses to take down political ads containing patently false information. Last November, the leader of the Senate Judiciary Committee—reputedly the most deliberative body in the world—acknowledged repeatedly that he would refuse to read evidence presented to him in Senate impeachment trials (which of course means he’d fail all our first-year writing courses!).
When political discourse first ramped up in advance of the 2016 presidential election, I couldn’t stop thinking about those old bumper stickers, the ones that read: Think Education’s Expensive? Try Ignorance. I think we’ve been learning since then, and almost daily, all about the cost of ignorance.
This is something we should all see as urgent, especially if we teach what we talk about as “rhetoric” to college students, most of whom are just beginning to recognize themselves as participants in civic life. We’re in the anti-ignorance business, and the good health of public discourse, which seems to me in crisis right now, really needs us. I went to graduate school at a moment when an interest in the connections between Critical Theory and Writing Studies had led us all to think that Quintilian’s famous suggestion that rhetoric was about “good people speaking well” seemed antiquated and kind of quaint. But the need for good people speaking honestly and reasoning in good faith doesn’t seem quaint anymore. A quick look at the comments section of any newspaper will reveal a level of misinformation, irrationality, myopia, and bad faith arguments that none of us would tolerate in any of our first-year writing classes. Too many citizen-readers gather their information from single sources that they don’t know how to evaluate, often news feeds, retweets, or mass email forwards that obscure the reports’ true origins, content to hear news that (factual or not) reaffirms what they already believe. And far too many citizen-writers fail to consider either evidence for the claims they make or the real effects of those claims, which range from the spread of falsehood to incitements to violence.
There are lots of reasons why what we do as writing teachers matters, to be sure – writing well opens socio-economic doors, gives one a seat at any number of tables, and provides an invaluable mode of personal reflection and gratification. But the most important reason seems to me pretty simple at this vexed historical moment: Writers learn to think. They learn to analyze arguments, respond to the assertions of others, and evaluate and assimilate sources, an increasingly complicated problem these days. Good writers, further, learn the habits of disinterested inquiry, rigor, the careful assessment of evidence, and a humble respect for truth and honest insight. As Quintilian would attest, good writers become good citizens. And historically, teachers of writing and rhetoric help them with this.
Never in my lifetime has the world needed a really good first-year writing course more than it does right now.
So I’d like to suggest to my colleagues across the state who teach first-year writing something that’s really pretty simple: that we keep in mind our responsibility as rhetoricians to help enable the kind of healthy, intellectually honest public discourse that democracy depends on. In part, I think this means resisting what’s become an increasingly common assumption over the last two or three decades—that higher education is a personal investment rather than a public good. I know that—while I of course want my students to find economic success—I myself in the end am a good deal less concerned that I prepare students to be good job applicants or workers than to be engaged and critical citizens. I’d love it if my students resisted easy answers, could survey and evaluate relevant information, were good at really trying on the positions of others in discussions, held a measured respect for the consensus of experts (like scientists, for example), and could argue cogently in good faith. That’s something I think is worth all of us working really hard for.
Let me go one step further, too: If writing courses matter in promoting public citizenship, as I’ve suggested, so do faculty organizations like the SUNY Council on Writing. On one hand, we disseminate ideas about the teaching of Writing and Rhetoric—which is especially important in our field, since so many first-year writing teachers work without institutional support to travel to national conferences.
But second, we also advocate for the interests of Writing teachers in the system. In the past, we’ve produced resolutions on assessment, academic labor practices, and educational technologies (like Massive Open On-line Courses). The Council on Writing has been around for 40 years now. Its mission at first was largely about faculty education, professional development, and the dissemination of ideas about teaching college writing; lots of people in ENG departments around the system wanted to know more about Composition Theory, something they didn’t really get at that point in graduate school, and we’ve hosted an annual conference since about 1980. But we also see advocating for the interests of writing and writing teachers as an important part of our mission and have in recent years produced resolutions on such topics as assessment, distance learning, and equitable labor practices in the field.
I come to you this fall, then, with a truly renewed sense of the importance of the work we do, which has never seemed to me more vital than it does right now. So get involved. All are welcome—we appreciate and depend on your participation.
Parts of this interview with Professor Cynthia Haynes, Director of Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design of Clemson University, also appeared within the Stony Brook University’s College of Arts and Sciences Newsletter, here.
“There are people that I have met virtually and known ONLY virtually for over 25 years. Yet, I do not feel as if our relationship is any less real than if we had met physically.”
Cynthia Haynes is Director of Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design Ph.D. program and Professor of English at Clemson University. Rita Nezami is Senior Lecturer in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at SUNY-Stony Brook; Jeffrey Green is adjunct assistant professor in the English and Humanities Department at SUNY-Farmingdale. This conversation focuses on the ways that teaching writing in shared virtual spaces expands the possibility for connecting with students, as well as for rhetorical analysis.
Rita Nezami: Last spring, like so many of us, I had to rethink my relationship with the virtual realm as a space for teaching and thinking. One thing I noticed was the possibility to create a different space of intimacy with students, which seemed ironic, as this was happening because of virtuality and not in spite of it. How can we explain or further understand this duality?
Cynthia Haynes: I have taught in virtual spaces for over 25 years, some text-based platforms, some web-based, and some game-based. In each case, it has been possible to be “with” students in the same way one is “with” them in physical space. That is, we are “with” each other using some tool.
In physical space, there are the tools of language, vision, and sound. But the proximal space in virtuality also uses these tools. I would argue that we are more intimate with people in virtual space because of the change in embodiment. We are embodied via language. We must use more descriptive language in a text-based environment. We must multi-task in equally linguistic ways in a virtual environment. When we talk to people in virtual spaces, we get to know them more quickly and more deeply. It’s called “swift trust,” an idea from the mid-‘90s.
You don’t tend to judge people the same way in virtual spaces; you tend to give them the benefit of the doubt. In text-based environments, like the MOOs of the ‘90s or the chat space in Zoom, there are no racial cues, gender cues . . . just a name (which is sometimes an avatar name, chosen as an alternate identity). You hear no accents, and this change in trust affords a learning space where there is neither a back row nor drowsy students, but there are multiple inner and outer channels of communication. You can, for instance, type something to a student in a private channel, and they can do that with each other, as well. You can invite students to group up in unique ways within the same virtual space. In a physical space, the voices would overlay into a cacophony. These are just some examples of the blurring of the boundaries that virtual space enables.
RN: The virtual classroom itself has become an object of rhetorical analysis—does that change how you teach visual rhetorics?
Cynthia Haynes: This is an interesting question. One thing that must be said right away is that I have become much more attuned to the question of accessibility in virtual spaces and especially in terms of “visual” rhetorics. I have a doctoral student who is visually impaired, and I recently chaired a search committee for a new faculty position in Disability Rhetorics. So, it is necessary to “trouble” that visual term in ways that account for our colleagues and students for whom the “visual turn” in rhetorics is problematic.
That being said, I am inviting the visual into a rhetorical intervention into what visuality means. We have an inner visuality, in other words, that is easily as visual as what we re-present to ourselves via our eyes. In my Visual Rhetorics seminar this fall, we will study and re-orient the visual via a number of alternative modalities, such as “art brut” (raw art) that is produced by “outsider” artists (self-taught, mentally ill, imprisoned, etc.). What we “see” will be determined by “where” and “how” we see the visual being played out by people whose inner visions turned outer in non-traditional ways and with non-traditional materials, means, and motives.
For example, in 1895, a German seamstress named Agnes Richter was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Heidelberg, and she used her straitjacket to embroider a “diary” of thoughts and snippets of text (“no cherries,” “I wish to read,” “I plunge headlong into disaster”).
Agnes Richter’s straitjacket (1895)
I believe we are all reinventing the visual in similar ways and using similarly innovative inner and outer means of expression. I am eager to see what my students make of “art brut” as a break with the old aesthetic.
Jeffrey Green: What, for you, is the most profound aspect of the experience of teaching writing in a virtual space that we “occupy” in ways that are ontologically Other when compared with the physical space?
Cynthia Haynes: There are people that I have met virtually and known ONLY virtually for over 25 years. Yet, I do not feel as if our relationship is any less real than if we had met physically. I interact with them via what they choose to present to me in language and time. This relates to the “swift trust” notion I already mentioned. So, I think the most profound aspect of the virtual experience is that “being-with” someone virtually or physically is simply a variation on the modes of ontology. Being IS. It has no boundaries, no other versions of itself than “is-ness.” I’m being very Heideggerian here because that is how I encounter the language of ontology. We are, of course, granted different affordances of Being-with when we are physically present with another person, but we language with each other, right? Whether gesturally, vocally, or writerly. So, teaching writing is profoundly about Being-with languaging beings as we language together.
JG: Do you worry that the virtual medium technics through which we now teach the intellectual and ethical demands of writing and sound reasoning is also a medium that enables misinformation, disinformation, and the pathological discursive practices of various paranoias? Does it concern you that recordings of our classes might become virtual commodities sitting on the digital shelf with purveyors of intellectual rubbish?
Cynthia Haynes: It does not concern me only insofar as I understand rhetoric to be both a poison and a cure (a pharmakon, in Greek). It always has been. That is why Plato was so critical of writing. It had the capacity, in his view, to degrade the truth of the oral presentation of the message and the presence of the orator who spoke the words into being. It could also be used to ill purposes by unethical people. We know this is how language works. And teaching others how to language necessarily means we cannot control whether they will use it for good or bad, for truth or disinformation. What we can do is teach the art of discernment, the importance of ethos, and the consequences of commodification.
This piece previously appeared in the spring 2020 volume of Expose: The Journal of Expository Writing at Purchase College.
By Emily Sausen
At the end of each semester, I share a New York Times op-ed titled “Don’t Turn Away From the Art of Life” with my College Writing students. In his plea for all of us to maintain a connection to the arts, Brown University Professor Arnold Weinstein references President Obama’s remark following the death of Trayvon Martin, noting that Martin “‘could have been my son.’” Weinstein observes that Obama was doing something that literature, and the arts more generally, do routinely—create a recognition of the similarities between us as people, or, as Weinstein says, “they show us the human record.”
The self-identification that happens in the humanities cracks students open and leaves them raw in important ways. It is merely one step from “that could have been my son” to “that could be me”— that character reminds me of myself, or my friend, or my cousin. This self-recognition stirs deep thinking, and with deep thinking comes worthwhile writing. Improving expository writing skills may be the primary objective of College Writing, but the way that we get there in my class is by reading and discussing the themes in contemporary short fiction. By the end of the semester, I hope that my students will not only have learned to construct a killer thesis statement, but that they will have built a greater sense of empathy and understanding for the human condition that we all share. Analyzing short fiction helps us to accomplish both goals, because it enables students to make the types of personal connections that foster authentic insights and to cultivate thinking on issues that matter to them.
Each summer I read as many new short stories as I can get my hands on, in search of contemporary authors of different genders, ethnicities, nationalities and socioeconomic backgrounds. My students have read stories by Jhumpa Lahiri, Dinaw Mengestu, Carmen Maria Machado, Junot Diaz, Jamel Brinkley, Alexia Arthurs, Kirstin Valdez Quade, Elizabeth Strout, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Alexander Weinstein, among others. I want each of my students to be able to relate to at least one of the readings during the course of the semester, and finding a variety of voices is the best way to ensure that I attain that goal. I also want the stories that I’ve chosen to be a first encounter for my students, for it is in that freshness that our most interesting observations emerge. Finally, I want the topics and themes raised by my readings to feel relevant and important to a group of freshmen. Our use of technology and social media, conceptions of race, family dynamics, platonic and romantic relationships, climate change, and pandemics are just some of the many topics in the stories we read together. Such topics touch students’ lives, and inspire them to write.
I find that short stories are also, on a practical level, convenient to use in College Writing classes because they give you a bite-sized glimpse into the lives of their characters. Skillful writers can develop rich and identifiable characters in a small number of pages by imbuing each sentence with great detail, purpose, and meaning. Compared to novels, short stories do not require students to read and analyze many pages before beginning to practice the essential skills we teach in College Writing: gathering and organizing textual evidence, developing arguments, drafting, revising, and reviewing our own and our classmates’ work. The themes jump out at you, and the payoff can be big, once students begin exploring their ideas on the page.
My students read the short stories that I assign as homework, marking them up in as many ways as possible in order to increase retention and engagement, and they come to class prepared to share their thoughts. We spend large portions of class time engaged in discussions about the thorniest issues. We talk as an entire class. We talk in smaller groups. We recognize the difficulties that the characters face, challenges having to do with racial discrimination, economic inequality, entrenched gender roles, immigrant families feeling stuck between two worlds, the problems inherent in social media and the feelings of jealousy, isolation and loneliness we all face in today’s world. We acknowledge the pain and the struggle inherent in the characters’ lives, and in life itself. We celebrate their joys, understanding the happiness that comes from new friendships, from accomplishing goals, and from overcoming obstacles, and we recognize in these joys the wonders of living.
When the writing assignments come, the students are provided with choices as to which of several topics, raised in the readings, they would like to address. I encourage them to choose the topic to which they feel the deepest connection, so that the time that they spend on the assignment will be more enjoyable. They go back into the stories to find material that relates to their chosen topic, and they isolate that material in order to start to see the possible categories of textual evidence relating to that topic. Through categorizing the evidence, students begin to see patterns in the text that can be turned into arguments. We discuss how we are using an “inside out” approach to getting to a thesis statement. Once we’ve found the smaller arguments, we think of larger arguments that could contain them. This is how we arrive at a thesis statement that is grounded in the texts. Because the students start with topics that they care about, they end up building arguments that matter to them. Expository writing is less of a chore when it concerns a topic that you care about. Sometimes, my students admit, they even enjoy it.
I’m not sure which moment is more exciting: the moment when I can see that a student has connected to a character or an incident in a story, or the moment when I find the story that I think will make this connection happen. Both moments are quite meaningful to me as their teacher. And it doesn’t really matter in the end. Both are part of the cycle of learning. We read to connect. We write to express the connection, and to better express ourselves. We find more stories, and the cycle continues.
When I share Weinstein’s Op-Ed with my students, I tell them it’s my final pitch for the Humanities, my last chance to persuade them to continue to enjoy the arts, in whatever form that suits them. I’m aware that I am preaching to the choir; these are mostly students for whom the arts will remain central to their studies, or an important part of their lives otherwise. But I encourage all of my students, even those who don’t intend to pursue careers in the arts, to keep the Humanities in their lives, whether that means appreciating a painting in a museum, frequenting the theater, attending concerts, or simply reading good fiction.
We’ve had considerable practice in that last one by the time I circulate Weinstein’s plea.
Emily Sausen teaches College Writing and the Advanced Critical Writing Workshop at Purchase College. Posted by amybethwright, Posted inUncategorizedTags:composition, fiction, reflection, teaching, writing
By Joelle Mann
Last week we came together for a webinar of reflective and responsive practice organized by SUNY Council on Writing Board Members Amy Beth Wright (Purchase College), Katelynn DeLuca (SUNY Farmingdale), Tom Friedrich (SUNY Plattsburgh), along with Mitch Morris, Director of College Writing at Purchase College. Maintaining a commitment to creative, relational expression, participants openly discussed their experiences in the writing classroom this past month.
The webinar was organized around bursts of writing, brainstorming, and breakouts. Participants sought to turn Friday fatigue into an embodied expression of contemplation and deliberation. Starkly working against the technological determinism that seeks to quiet our rooms and ZOOMs, this webinar reminded us of our responsibility to deliberately incorporate small acts of reflection in our digital classrooms.
Working our way through our own words, the session began with Amy Beth Wright asking, “What is one adjective to describe how you are feeling about this semester thus far?” followed by a brainstorm in the chat window and aloud. The contemplative practice at work here allowed participants to brainstorm adjectives that highlight the highs and lows of our first month of the fall semester. Listening to participants share their perspectives helped to shift our conversation as a community. Tom Friedrich imparted, “There is something welcoming in knowing that people are feeling better, getting their teaching together, while also feeling challenged by this situation. I live between those poles.” Tom’s observation seemed to describe our brainstorm, and words such as “unsettled,” “isolated,” and “wary,” became linked to “hopeful,” “anticipatory,” and “productive,” our language creating a collective space for sharing. It is this same space that helped us to achieve a sense of solidarity while we continued to think about the learning spaces we are currently creating for our students.
Digital Spaces and Relational Bodies
It is no secret that space is an organizing principle in our classes. And this semester, we have had to think about new ways of organizing our digital learning spaces. Because we seek to create a community of writers, inciting students to collaboratively reflect and revise one another’s writing, we have had to think about unique ways to create community in the digital world. As Mitch Morris noted, we must make more concerted efforts to help students come together in our digital space. Deborah Cooper, too, reminded us that we need to think about the digital as a way to connect rather than as a way for things to go terribly wrong.
While we teach our students about writing as an embodied practice, it is also important for us to remember, especially during this moment, the ways in which writing creates relational knowledge. Embodied writing attunes us to our relations with others; it nourishes an enlivened sense of presence in and of the world through emotional connection.
Sara Ahmed tells us that we experience knowledge through our bodily affects and emotions: “Knowledge cannot be separated from the bodily world of feeling and sensation,” she claims. “Knowledge is bound up with what makes us sweat, shudder, tremble, all those feelings that are crucially felt on the bodily surface, the skin surface where we touch and are touched by the world” (171). Right now, while we are surrounded by technological screens, it has never been more important to think about the ways we transfer and experience emotional and embodied knowledge through writing. As a group, we discussed ways to humanize our teaching to create spaces for students to feel connected to each other’s bodies and to their own writing practice.
Strategies That Work
Together, we came up with some of the key strategies that seem to be working in our digital and hybrid classrooms. Listed below are some of the strategies that members brainstormed during their breakouts:
- Collaborative Writing: Many agreed that focused moments of collaborative writing in the digital classroom have given students time to reflect and brainstorm together. Plus, this act of writing requires spoken and written expression while students work together to write. Instructors are currently using Google Docs and Google slides to create opportunities for students to write collaboratively.
- Collaborative Notetaking: The use of Perusall and Google Docs are the two most popular ways to enact collaborative, digital notetaking. Many instructors found that scaffolding these notetaking activities (giving students specific annotating roles) helped students have a focus while working together.
- Community Building and Ice Breakers: Peter Dearing and others highlighted the importance of incorporating humor in opening or closing activities. Tom Friedrich uses a ZOOM poll to ask, “Is a taco a sandwich?” or “What are you watching on television right now?” These helpful questions lighten the mood and create a space for conversational exchange. For closure, Amy Beth Wright and her students dance together to create a light and carefree mood.
- ZOOM Polls and Breakout Rooms: The use of breakout rooms and ZOOM polls, in general, have been a way to create micro-communities within our larger classrooms. And instructors have found these to be important ways to create formal and informal group work, allowing diverse voices in the classroom to be heard in different ways.
- Small Group Discussions: There was a good deal of discussion about the effective use of time inside and outside of class. Katelynn DeLuca talked about creating “found moments” with students by ending class a few minutes early to allow for extra help or personal discussions. Many others discussed scheduling office hours for student meetings rather than just waiting for students to come. Also, there were suggestions about slowing down transitions between activities, reinforcing pedagogical connections throughout the lesson.
- Discussion Techniques: There were many suggestions about ways to create effective discussions. Some use quick writes, some use the ZOOM chat to brainstorm, and others, like Nicole Sieben, uses a ten-minute writing session at the beginning of classes to help students later converse. VoiceThread was also a tool that has been helpful for some, and Liz Kotseas uses it often to connect with her international students. Wordle also seems to be a way to brainstorm and engage!
- Practicing Care and Reflection: Brian Fallon shared how he has been using shared Google Docs and breakout rooms to check in with students. Often splitting the class into two smaller rooms, he asks them to reflect upon how class is going so far, what readings are working, what questions they have etc. Mitch Morris and others recognize how reflection can be a prominent way to focus the class, to create opportunities for small group sharing, and to facilitate moments of unification and reciprocity.
- Opening Methods of Participation: Some participants discussed creating more opportunities for participation and forms of citizenship. For example, tweeting something about the class, guiding discussions, or creating student-led questioning sessions.
Embodied Writing and Meditation
Our session ended with an act of literal and figurative embodied renewal. Led by Amy Beth Wright’s poetic and poignant voice, we engaged in a five-minute meditation to end the webinar. Looking ahead to the future, we reflected on the bodies that must humanize our technologies: our students’ bodies and our own.
Tom Friedrich quoted an apropos line from philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception to concretize our final act of reflection:
Whether it is a question of another’s body or my own, I have no means of knowing the human body other than that of living it, which means taking up on my own account the drama which is being played out in it, and losing myself in it. I am my body. (198)
During 2020, we have watched a virus wreak havoc on our bodies and our body politic. Coming together as a community, the webinar helped us to recognize the cathartic advantages of our own reflections while we help our students reflect. Listening to Amy Beth’s breathing exercises during the final moments of our meditation, we recognize calm as a constant and life-giving praxis. Moving forward, we begin this week knowing that while we are online, our writing practices and pedagogies will seek to connect the bodies we see across our screens.
Thank you to everyone who organized and participated in the webinar. We will see you at the next webinar in October.
Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Second Edition, Routledge, 2014.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by C. Smith, Routledge, 2006
With the school year now well underway, we invite you to a community conversation to restore and reflect, with strategies and insights from the first month of teaching shared organically within our reflective conversations. Please join us at 4:00 p.m. on Friday September 25 for 90 minutes to connect with peers, share, listen, and learn from one another. Please bring a notepad and pen for some responsive writing. We look forward to seeing you!
This webinar will be facilitated by SUNY Council on Writing Board Members Katelynn DeLuca (SUNY Farmingdale), Tom Friedrich (SUNY Plattsburgh), and Amy Beth Wright (Purchase College), along with Mitch Morris, Director of College Writing at Purchase College.
Please register here:
You are invited to a Zoom meeting.
When: Sep 25, 2020 04:00 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)
Register in advance for this meeting:
After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.Posted byamybethwrightPosted inUncategorizedLeave a commenton Our Next Webinar Convenes on September 25, 2020
Following the March shutdown, SUNY Jefferson devised new strategies for offering holistic and transformative support to students.
By Amy Beth Wright
Our August 13 webinar convened administrators and educators from Jefferson Community College (SUNY Jefferson)—the composition of the panel was representative of the panel’s message: With focused and intentional collaboration between faculty and administration, the higher education campus can offer transformative support to students, in some instances, the type that makes the difference between a student staying in school or not.
Brandon Maxam, Chair of the School of Arts and Humanities at Jefferson, facilitated a discussion between Jerilyn Fairman, Associate Vice President for the Liberal Arts Division, Gabby Thompson, Director of Access and Opportunity programs, and Assistant Professor of English Christine Pristash. He began by posing a question:
“What is the role of an institution’s mission in fostering support services?”
Fairman emphasized that for student support services to be effective, they need to be connected to a school’s mission. Focus on support is implicit in the formative mission of community colleges, due to their openness to all potential enrollees. Many Jefferson students are first-generation college students, and within systems of marginalization in being not only first-generation but low income, or working with a disability, or part of a racial minority and impacted by systemic inequity.
Thompson described the immediate uncertainty that followed the abrupt closure of campus in March, and observed that, at such times, “Colleges and universities show who they are and what they can be for students.” The quality of the support student’s receive, she suggested, should match the investment students make when choosing a path of higher education. Pristash described how faculty and staff strategized over a course of emails and discussions focused on identifying urgent and critical needs (Starfish Connect2Success was also helpful, in terms of tracking community notes and creating flags).
Fairman surveyed full-time faculty for their preferences in terms of holding online or on-campus office hours, and students were surveyed as well, comprehensive communication with the Jefferson community the basis for determining next steps—particularly during an unanticipated, abruptly isolating, and confusing time, allocating the time to collect and review student and faculty responses to surveys before issuing directives proved a revolutionary and inclusive act. Student surveys revealed that for more than half the campus, attending live synchronous classes regularly would be impossible.
Thompson commented, “I got from the survey the importance of being as flexible as possible. Students are not just students, they are mothers, fathers, caretakers, and employees. Some student’s work hours increased during quarantine—there’s push and pull between real life and academic life.” She encouraged panel attendees to flip the experience to think about their lives and commitments outside of being a faculty member, and what has had to be “flexed” during this time.
Upon considering the survey results, every student enrolled was assigned to a staff member, including administration, who made weekly phone calls to five to ten students each—students were not asked about academics unless they brought them into the conversation. Instead, they were asked:
- How are you doing?
- Are you healthy?
- Are you safe?
- Are you warm enough?
- Do you have money?
- Do you have food?
The results of the phone calls were “eye-opening,” Thompson recalled, and led to immediate support in the form of laptops loaded with essential programs, and an expanded food pantry and larger distribution plan, in partnership with the Food Bank of Central New York; no questions were asked of any student or employee who wanted to be included in the distribution network.
“If they ask, they get it,” explained Thompson.
A training manual offered guidance for the well-care team making calls to students, some of whom, as commuters with dining plans, had lost their access to a consistent food source.
Thompson shared some ideas for professors who ask their students to complete a written (or online) questionnaire at the start of the term, suggesting questions to include that both respect student’s privacy while revealing a bit more information:
- What will keep you from being the best student ever?
- Do you have a specific place where you live that you can dedicate to school? (Thompson noted as an example that students may indicate they share the home with family members or with other college students in a full apartment, which imparts helpful information about their current situation.)
- Do you have someone in your household who is supportive of you going to school?
Thompson added that, for many, beginning college in a virtual way differs from what their mental picture of the first year of college has been for a long time—large lecture halls, a new social scene, campus life. Some may also be looking forward to more stability in terms of mental health, wellness, and food security. First year students in a non-COVID era experience campus at orientation in an embodied way, she noted, forming memories and experiences that connect them with the campus. Remote learning raises the question of how to otherwise create a sense of connection and belonging in the absence of a physical connection to campus and in a way in which, as Thompson phrased it, “Students know we care about their success.” Action, like making phone calls and distributing essentials, as well as a principle of flexibility, increases the chance for student to build a meaningful connection to their campus.
Maxam posed a second question, “How do we support students with diverse and dynamic needs in this new environment?”
Pristash immediately responded with two words that have been recurrent during this preparatory time within SUNY Council on Writing webinars and discussions: flexibility and patience.
Pristash offered several practical avenues to support those values. One immediate step is to make good use of Ally to ensure that absolutely all posted resources are accessible. Another is to weave a variety of modalities together when sharing materials, presenting subject matter in writing, video, visual, and audio forms to ensure that, by virtue of repetition and a plurality of methods, students have the maximum opportunity to access and engage course content. She observed that students also favor certain modes of learning based on accessibility. She also suggested that when sharing longer pieces of writing, breaking up text makes materials dynamic and more accessible.
Now, Jefferson is focused on a school supply drive and distribution, and continues to focus on pinpointing student’s immediate needs as the semester begins.
Suggestions from the Q and A
Thompson also suggested encouraging students to consider that clubs and activities are often still active, doing other things during this time, to fill the social gap in the college experience. Maxam described that now that there is more familiarity and routine with teaching online than there was in the spring, full-time faculty are working with adjuncts, who are part of campus town halls and care days, in supportive capacities, noting that, “It is easier for faculty to do their jobs when there is a sense of community in collectively all working together.”
Thompson remarked, “We feel great walking back onto campus, and we want students to feel that way as well.” For students facing mental health challenges, the school partners with other agencies as needed.
Attendee and SUNY Council on Writing board member Shyam Sharma observed that while the recent emphasis on humanity and compassion within higher education is practically reconstructing the classroom, this panel asks, powerfully, how we might reconstruct the university.
Thompson responded to Sharma’s observation by reiterating that by starting in the classroom, one person may keep a student from dropping out of school— Pristash added that this is even more likely in English and writing classes, which inherently create community. She suggested faculty share their personality with students, including memes, graphics, and smiley faces in communications, to be expressive and open, and to further find pathways to connect.
Sharma chimed in that with online or remote learning, assigning less work in favor of time and virtual space to meet, regardless of whether that happens during class time, is important. In discussion about grace periods or extensions, he shared that he includes, “If you need an extra day or two do not hesitate to let me know,” within his syllabi.
Maxam shared a model of meeting for part of the class time for a lesson and breaking from Zoom for students to work on a related assignment, and bringing students back online to ask questions after 45 minutes.
The discussion ended with a reminder of the importance of structure and consistency, while favoring interaction and humanity, even, as Pristash shared, sticking around at the end of the course, on Zoom, to chat. “Flexibility doesn’t have to mean haphazard or chaotic,” she observed.
It can be deliberate, woven into the fabric of not only the classroom, but the entire campus.
You can view the entire conversation on our new YouTube channel:
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCQA_3vCvO395-RKhkS0Mq-A Posted by amybethwright, Posted inadministration, multimodal, pedagogy, student support, teaching, Uncategorized
By Amy Beth Wright
Compassion, and awareness of the cumulative trauma of both structural racism and the dislocation brought on by the global pandemic, were through-lines in the discussion during SUNY Council on Writing’s first webinar in advance of the fall 2020 semester, “Reflecting Back, Preparing within Uncertainty: Fostering Student Agency in Writing Courses.”
Joelle Mann (University at Binghamton), Laura Davies (SUNY Cortland), Shyam Sharma (SUNY Stony Brook), and Michael O’Connor (Onondaga CC) began the session by sharing a few of the key concepts that are integral to the design of their Fall 2020 writing curricula. Attendees chimed in via the chat as well as in breakout sessions to share strategies and tools; below is a summary of the discussion as well as a roundup of useful links and resources that were circulated. Thanks to all panelists and attendees for an enriching exchange!
Our next webinar, “Living with Uncertainty: Supporting Student Learning in a Dynamic World,” is scheduled for 10:00 a.m. on August 13. In this session, SUNY Council on Writing board member Brandon Maxam and colleagues from Jefferson Community College will discuss support plans and services for nontraditional students in the fall. Reminders and a Zoom link will be posted in our Facebook group, as well as on Twitter.
Each panelist first took a moment to respond to a prompt from Sharma, “How are you approaching your course design and semester planning, and with what key challenges in mind? What are your principles and strategies for addressing those challenges?”
Slow Pedagogy and an Ethics of Care
Joelle Mann will be teaching first year writing within the BingFlex model at SUNY Binghamton, which combines online and face-to-face instruction. She described embracing “slow pedagogy,” or an ethics of care—decelerating to spend time examining, discussing, and reflecting from a variety of entry points, with the effect of building sustainable relationships, and centering ethics and equity. Online instruction will cover major concepts that will be both introduced and further examined during in-class sessions. Class time will also prioritize ways to collaborate, such as brainstorming via the mind map, one approach that offers a physical, tangible way to use the space together.
To read more on slow pedagogy:
And, to learn more about Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking, visit her website.
Labor-Based Grading Contracts
Laura Davies noted that labor-based grading contracts address the structural racism that has been implicit within many models of writing assessment, historically. In meeting a selection of baseline criteria (which are discussed during class time) like minimum word count and other core elements, students can guarantee a minimum grade ( a B, for example), upon completion of an assignment, while continuing to work on core learning outcomes within an expansive writing process. Davies also described assigning low-stakes reading and writing assignments to be “graded” as complete or not, which in sum would equal 30% of a student’s grade—if they do not complete a few assignments their grade is not in jeopardy, while an equitable system of accountability roots within the course.
To read more on labor-based grading contracts:
Inoue’s Labor-Based Grading Contract Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom
Inoue’s Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing Writing for a Socially Just Future
Non-Cognitive Challenges and Self Concept
Michael O’Connor delved into the non-cognitive challenges to learning, such as access to equipment, software, and Wi-Fi, childcare, housing and food insecurity, and work schedules, noting that these affective, non-academic issues shape student’s concepts of who they are as learners, readers, writers, and students, and impact time management and study skills. With continued recognition of the trauma of institutional racism, including greater emphasis on ASE scores, O’Connor advocates for a mindset of flexible generosity. With an understanding that not all students can be synchronous at all times, O’Connor recommends saving and posting class lectures, and replacing transactional language (such as, “If you do not complete X, then Y will be the consequence”) with non-judgmental phrasing, such as “I noticed you weren’t there today, is everything okay?”
O’Connor described centering our shared humanity and vulnerability within the classroom, and identifying failure as a moment of growth and an inroad to a reflective conversation, ultimately valuing student experiences as essential to their success. He also advocated for creating spaces where students can respond positively to one another’s work.
“Both students as well as us are experiencing this as trauma,” he noted, encouraging educators to think about accountability as working both ways, and to build in moments of reflection to think consciously about self-care.
Structure, Accountability, and Support
Shyam Sharma discussed his felt need for “flipping everything” during the pandemic, highlighting “how often I find myself facing the challenges myself that I used to pose for my students – the ball is back in my court half of the time, or half the ball is.” We must help students “go as far as they can from where they are right now,” rather than demanding that each of them reach the same destination. The classroom must be a space that is appealing, that is intrinsically motivating.
Sharma shared his teaching strategies about three themes associated with “flipping”: agency, accommodation, and accountability. Quality, he said, can only be achieved by fostering agency (rather than demands for rigor), rigor through motivation (rather than demand and “being a tough guy” professor or scary language on the syllabus), and structure through trust (rather than enforcing deadlines and policies), seeing support as needed.
Accommodation is now the default, rather than exception, and we can’t be asking for proof for sickness causing absence, for instance. Guidelines may help students stay on track (including more flexible and access-conscious guidelines), care may motivate them to reach out to us as needed, and fostering commitment help them do the best they can.
Accountability will similarly depend on support, rather than demand. Providing students netiquettes and educating them about how to be effective learners in technology-mediated courses may support and motivate them. Technocratic solutions must be replaced with humane pedagogy. Read his recent essay, “Unteaching Tyranny,” which begins, “It is possible and necessary to use technology to empower and inspire, not be tyrannical,” here.
Strategies Shared by Attendees
Grading, Assessment, and Reflective Practices
- Katherine Johnston of SUNY Stonybrook described asking students to write a reflection letter assessing their participation within the peer review process, and to assign themselves a grade; she noted the profound honesty in their reflections. The process fits into the framework of slow pedagogy and is also helpful in terms of metacognition, Mann noted.
- MaryAnn Duffy, also of SBU, shared, “I like the idea of a reflection letter about peer review in combination with a tutorial video modeling it.” Duffy also mentioned including more peer review to offset time grading.
- Assign student’s writing partners or writing groups that might stay intact over the course of the semester, supporting consistent accountability and asynchronous participation, and also perhaps integrating letter writing.
Peer Review and Workshopping
- For both annotation and peer review, assign three to four students to a GoogleDoc, and ask each to use a different font or color for their comments. If FERPA guidelines are an issue in terms of Google, Microsoft Teams and Sharepoint are also useful for sharing files and tracking changes for peer review, as well as for collaborative assignments.
- Tracy Carrick mentioned two social annotation apps, Hypothes.is and Perusall, to slow down discussion about readings. They are effective both synchronously and asynchronously.
- Using the Canvas Peer Review tool, students can respond in multiple ways — with marginal comments, open rubric responses, and audio/video. Carrick also recommends using Discussion Board in Canvas, setting up small groups, and having students uploaded their papers as attachments in the Discussion Boards.
- Elizabeth Mazzolini uses Eli Review for peer review and reflection in FYW. “Students are accountable to each other, and the instructor can manage the process, with rigor in terms of keeping students giving quality feedback to each other. I recommend it.”
- Patricia Dunn shared, “Yes. I agree that it’s very important to teach peer response. To model the process. To experiment with sentence starters. To let them practice. To generate (with them) some guidelines so that things stay balanced and tactful.”
- Hold synchronous early morning office hours, for students who are abroad.
- In group work over Zoom with English Language Learners, one guiding principle for synchronous distance learning/teaching: involve more conversation and voice thread rather than discussion board.
- Food for thought from Maureen Kravec, SUNY Empire State College, “I have taught online as well as face-to-face. This fall, I will also be doing videoconferences. I find the most difficult thing about teaching online is that the students tend to think of the faculty member and course in terms of the preconceptions they have of college professors and writing. I find it much easier to break through those thoughts (if they are negative) in person.”
Rita Nezami captured the theme for the webinar, “Students need to feel we care for them, especially at a time like this. Compassion and generosity are key to success.”
To view the entire conversation: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1bc9_f20KuqnEBlqCFItWoKJoNZaEdbOj/view?usp=sharing
The SUNY Council on Writing regrets that due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 fall conference will be postponed. This year’s conference would have been held at SUNY Oswego in late October in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Council’s inception. We look forward to meeting again in person in 2021, when we can safely wish the Council a belated happy birthday, and will share details as they emerge!
In the meantime, we’ve arranged a few electronic gatherings this fall. The first of these gatherings will take place on Thursday, August 6th at 1pm, when Shyam Sharma (SUNY Stony Brook), Michael O’Connor (Onondaga CC), Laura Davies (SUNY Cortland), Kristina Lucenko (SUNY Stony Brook), and Joelle Mann (University at Binghamton) will host a webinar on “Reflexive and Reflective Pedagogy and Practice.” With an aim towards discussing inclusive and creative instruction, the panel will present some theoretical and pedagogical frameworks while also sharing practical methods and strategies. Some of the topics to be discussed include:
- online student agency
- contract grading
- reflexive discussions
- student presentations
- course policies and procedures
- process-based learning
It is our aim to share and troubleshoot past experiences while also listening to audience members in our community.
You can participate in these and any future webinars. Please feel most welcome to invite colleagues from within your department, as well as other SUNY colleagues. For the Zoom link to the webinar, please email email@example.com.
We hope these webinars will provide a forum for productive exchange and collegial support across the SUNY system. After an uncertain and difficult spring, we wish to offer a space to share ideas and thoughts while we also reflect upon the best practices and pedagogies of online teaching. It is crucial that we are more fully aware of the challenges that COVID-19 and these uncertain times have on our classroom structure. And while many of us are trying to plan for a variety of classroom configurations–online, hybrid, and face-to-face—we also recognize that our main goal is to create new experiences of active student learning and agency.
Lastly, all are welcome to submit a blog post to SUNY Writes! Please email Web Editor firstname.lastname@example.org with your proposed post, or a short summary of a post in progress.Posted byamybethwrightPosted inmultimodal, pedagogy, research, teacher support, teaching, writing instructionLeave a commenton Fall Conference Update and Upcoming Summer Webinars
This post was originally published on by pedagogyandamericanliterarystudies.
Sonic Pasts and Literary Affordances
When I teach Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010), I am visited by the resounding goons of our literary past. Aside from being a satire that explores the shift from digital to analog music in the late-twentieth century, Egan’s polyphonic novel considers the sonic agencies of literature and the ways in which the novel as a form not only assembles the sound of voices, as Mikhail Bakhtin famously noted, but also the voices of sound which have long been celebrated in literary works by writers like Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, and Toni Morrison, to name a few. Egan investigates if the literary brings about new forms of sonic literacy and renews T.S. Eliot’s “auditory imagination,” while looking back to a literary past of sound/voice crossovers. The novel foregrounds the ways in which a history of literary sound has formed a reciprocal relationship to a history of new recording and music technologies.
Shyam Sharma, Stony Brook University*
Some time ago, while I was teaching a first-year writing course that only had international students, after a good class discussion about the importance of writing courses like that as a place to learn some of the fundamentals of American higher education, one student followed me to my office to say how inspired he was by the discussion. But then he added, with tears in his eyes, that he was dropping out of that summer course. After finding out how much the course would cost him during the summer term, he had talked to his parents in South Korea and decided to not take it.
Since the advent of what is called the “global turn” in Writing Studies, our scholarship, programs, and pedagogies have been increasingly focusing on internationalization as a critical educational goal of higher education that we are well positioned to help advance. This interest has manifested particularly in the discourse about multilingualism, translingualism, transnational writing research, and cross-cultural communicative competence. I strongly believe that, as writing teachers, we are an egalitarian, progressive, and sensitive community of scholars who appreciate what our students from around the world bring to our classrooms—how they continue to teach and inspire us—how all students benefit from the increasingly globalized classrooms.
I think that we are advancing the new goal of internationalization as a natural extension of a humanistic and liberal arts education, especially by fostering the sense of global citizenship among all our students, domestic and international. Here is a list of benefits that I think writing offers to our students due to the emerging interest in internationalization:
- Educational: we’re helping students become more informed about the larger world
- Professional: we’re helping them to be better prepare for the diversified and globalized workforce and opportunities they will find in it
- Social/cultural: we’re enabling students to relate to diverse cultures and communities around them—in/through physical and virtual contexts/means
- Political: we’re helping them to be better global citizens in a world with unabated intercultural tensions, wars, and violence
- Epistemological: we’re also helping them generate better ideas and perspectives whether the issues are local or global
On the other hand, however, as only the rare student who might follow us to the office and tell us, internationalization is more strikingly an ideal that has been coopted by a neoliberal business model that is reshaping higher education across the world. Australia used to be the world’s largest market of international education, but partly due to the defunding of public higher education, American universities have been forced to compete for a larger pie out of that global market. So, it is not so much that the number of international students doubled and tripled in the past two decades because our institutions wanted to “internationalize higher education” (as in creating more globalized classrooms and provide equal educational opportunity for everyone in the world) but instead that they enrolled more students to make up for budget deficits. Some states and institutions seem more reasonable than others in using pure supply-demand criterion for determining cost for foreign students.
The objective behind presenting these contrasting views about internationalization is not to imply that Korean and Chinese and Brazilian people’s children are entitled to taxpayer-funded public education in the United States (see this article about how tension is building); I don’t think that a global, open-border model of education would be sustainable, realistic, or even fair. I am instead saying that within the regime of the children of Korean and Chinese and Brazilian parents who come to buy education at the market price (whether it is in private institutions or within public ones), educators cannot be effective without acknowledging the reality, without knowing what students go through in order to come to their class, how students struggle, why students drop out. Because we are part of the system, I believe that we must at least start asking the difficult, ethical questions about the situation.
In other words, I don’t worry too much about my university heading in the wrong direction. What makes me really thoughtful is whether, when I face the “globalized” community of students when I enter my classes, I have actually tried my best to design my courses and assignments in order to facilitate exchange of ideas, foster intercultural respect, develop curiosity and interest in the world at large among all of our students. To give you an example, how am I helping Victoria from Long Island and Vikash from India to get to know each other during the semester? Am I prompting them to share their experiences and perspectives brought from and about different cultures and societies? Am I doing my part to extend the meaning of liberal arts education to fit the twenty-first century for both my domestic and international students—even if I cannot do anything about the problem of economic justice.
In fact, I worry most about my international students who’ve been here for a year or two writing papers arguing, for example, that “we” (meaning America and the Western world)—and I quote from a student from a recent class—need to “give our latest technologies to people in poor countries so that they can bypass the same process of going from steam engine to coal power to electricity and then solar power and instead start with solar power to leapfrog their economy.” When I heard that, I said, “That’s such a wonderful argument, Vikash, but I think you are assuming what is known as the ‘white man’s burden’ where ‘we’ ‘give’ ‘them’ something without even asking how that giving is going to work, if it will destroy one socioeconomic structure and not install another in a way that works or lasts.” On the ground, when things begin to technologically leapfrog, “local farmers” often rapidly lose ground to those who have more money, big businesses takes over, and (to use a Hindi idiom), “When bamboos are gone, there won’t be any flutes to play.” Without regard for context, complexity, and nuance, students end up with deeply problematic arguments in the name of global citizenship — and that is why it is so important to not only engage students in global issues and perspectives but also to use critical intervention for making that engagement meaningful.
Even if (or when) market forces take our institutions to objectionable places like the one I just described—even if the nearly million international students are viewed by the society in terms of the 26 billion dollars that they “inject into the economy,” I don’t think that those forces make us completely unable to do anything about it. If we are sensitive to the tension between internationalization as diversification of knowledge and perspective for all students and as internationalization as simply an opportunity for more money and influence in the world, I believe that we can begin to meaningfully integrate communicative competencies for a global world. I think that we can begin to build greater skills and curricular and pedagogical strategies, as well as professional conversations, against the unethical conditions.
Let me conclude by sharing a few insights from what I have started doing in some of the courses I teach, as well as briefly summarizing pertinent scholarship in our field that I draw upon. I believe that the first step is to use critical pedagogical approaches to curriculum design and pedagogy. Let me quote from the book The New Work Order: Behind the Language of the New Capitalism:
If we are to build a global community in which the interests and well-being of all become the concern of all—which, after all, is what it means to be a community—we must ensure that learning is framed in ways that promote a practical commitment to identifying human harm and degradation where it occurs, and to acting in ways that address and overcome it.
The authors present the book as
… a call to undertake education as a moral engagement which is practical as well as intellectual or formal. It requires the disposition to seek, articulate, and act upon positive visions which are always acknowledged as provisional and open to revision in the light of evidence and critique. (Gee, Hull & Lankshear 152)
So, acknowledgement of the condition within which we teach is the first step—action can then follow.
Second, while we can design and implement courses, assignments, and resources that facilitate intercultural exchange of ideas and broadening of students’ knowledge bases by promoting collaboration, what we can do in the classroom is only one part of the project. As Jay Jordan recommends in his book Redesigning Composition for Multilingual Realities, we also need more active partnership among teachers and research scholars, program administrators and policy-makers within and with others beyond our field. If the broader framework and design remain the same, what we contribute from inside classrooms may ultimately have little impact. In fact, I have learned the hard way that if, for instance, because colleagues in my department who read the writing portfolio don’t know about the new type of argument essay that I helped my students write by using the idea of “multivalent, multi-perspective persuasion that doesn’t take one position on a complex issue,” quite a few students failed the portfolio; so, I had to communicate the idea of that type of argument to my colleagues before going back to use the assignment. So, we may need to help change the system when it doesn’t afford our teaching.
Third, in the debate about whether our public institutions should invest in globalization of education in the interest of all students, if we want to say, yes, we need to invest our resources and attention, then some of us must also start picking a side and put pressure on our institutions to put their money where their mouth is. I believe that a significant amount of advocacy is necessary both in favor of treating international students with justice and fairness (at least in return of their investment) and in favor of promoting global citizenship among both international and domestic students.
Writing in an edited collection titled Globalizing Education, Michael Apple says that “A new discourse is needed for public education for contemporary times” (293) and by that he means a time where we not only use public education for nation-building but also to promote a “cosmopolitan moral democracy” (292). Ultimately, the term “neoliberal” not only has to do with a financial system but with attitude, and attitudes are changed as much by committing to a different vision of education as they can be affected by reallocating budgets.
Thus, I think that we should stop looking at internationalization of education as some kind of self-driving car, each of which some invisible force is driving, insofar as we are responsible to (or simply able to) help translate that vision into teaching/learning practices. I think that when we get into some of the cars that we do drive, we must set the curricular destinations that we want, to the extent that we can, and take the best pedagogical routes that we can take to get there. For if we never create opportunities for both domestic and international students to learn and appreciate the different value systems that they are part of in their life outside school and across national/cultural borders, I think we also lose some of the grounds on which we may argue against the increasingly vulgar neoliberal order in the world out there.
*adapted from paper presented at SUNY Council on Writing conference 2016
Shyam Sharma is Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director at SBU