The purpose of this Discussion Forum is to give you an opportunity to synthesize and reflect on the content you have encountered on this site, to identify new questions these materials raised, and to revisit existing questions that may not have been fully answered for you.

Please write a response to the following question, and enter it in the Comment field below. Please indicate the name of the course in which you are teaching as part of your response. Also consider writing a reply to at least one colleague’s post (you might add another perspective, add another question, or contribute additional thoughts).

Teaching writing involves many variables. What questions, concerns, and/or thoughts do you have about balancing these variables in your classroom this fall?

22 thoughts on “Discussion

  • August 7, 2017 at 1:40 pm

    I will be teaching Honors 241 in the Fall and have previously been a GSI for two other writing-heavy classes in sociology and in philosophy. After reading the materials, I had one question and caught one example in the resources that matched up with a great activity I did last semester for building low stakes writing prompts into section.

    One thing that I have struggled with, as I’m sure many others have, is teaming up with other GSIs in a class to ensure that the grades, expectations, and levels of engagement/discussion are similar across sections. I ran into a problem last semester where I worked on paper writing more often than my co-GSI despite similar lesson plans, which led to tensions among students within the class. While open communication and developing rubrics can help to eliminate some of this tension, how might GSIs better work with each other to ensure that grading standards, and the quality of work being produced, are more similar across sections?

    One activity I found useful in teaching was to provide random writing prompts throughout the semester to check on how my students were advancing with their writing skills. The prompts were low stakes, but also ensured that students kept up with the reading in philosophy (which was often heavy). I could then track how well my students were understanding counterarguments and assumptions. After providing 15 minutes for writing, I broke students up into small groups and had them share and provide feedback or come up with stronger counterarguments during the low stakes assignments. This meant that when their paper topics were ready to be discussed in class, students had already built a culture around providing feedback and working with each other in class. One problem with this set-up is that my discussion sections were 2 hours long, providing more than enough time to take a dive into course material after a writing session. For one-hour sections, this is often more difficult to provide in class discussions, as well as a longer writing piece, but the activity can be shortened in smaller classes.

    • August 28, 2017 at 9:24 pm

      This is a great activity for students, especially as I consider how to improve on my sections from Honors 240 (which I taught last year, and taught again this year). My default was full section discussions, which was hard on quieter students. So thanks for a good structure for writing, Andrea!

      To your question about how GSI’s norm across sections is using some of the same tools. For example, we read an article about data visualization, and one GSI mentioned a database of visualizations already made. Each GSI used it, but discussion and what points were covered in-depth were led by discussion participants. Agreeing on what would be covered (the example you used was writing skills, so maybe when writing prompts would be used) or how often (in a twice a week section, maybe agreeing that writing would be hit once a week but not which day) can help coordinate sections.

      As a team Honors 240 also met to grade the first assignment (one example of it, anyway) to bring our grading into alignment, because we also struggled to be sure grading was similar across sections. It helps that Mika’s Gradecraft also allows him to pull all of the grades given by GSI, so we can see if one of us is an outlier.

  • August 21, 2017 at 9:08 pm

    I will be a GSI for CLCIV 101 in the Fall. I am primarily concerned about balancing course content with the development of writing skills, as well as balancing these themes within the present political environment and national discourse.

    Classical Greek culture is foreign and difficult to understand in many ways, and requires a great deal of time in class to process. I am concerned about the time demands of simultaneously treating complex course material and writing at the same time, and wanted to know if any of the exercises mentioned in different stages of the writing process can be adapted to also serve as a review of lecture and textbook materials.

    As another issue with balancing competing constraints, the classical past is misinterpreted and incorrectly cited as a justification for a white European ethno-state. These arguments often take on academic guises, and will likely appear in at least one student’s writing assignments. How do we separate the fair evaluation of writing from the condemnation of ideologies that are hostile to the notions of respect essential to an inclusive classroom? White supremacist groups on campus use classical Greek imagery in their propaganda and cite classical authors as evidence; I want to make sure that I am prepared to respond appropriately when a student takes such a view point in their writing for this class.

  • August 23, 2017 at 2:42 pm

    I agree with Andrew that Greek history is intensely contemporary. Current events will likely dictate that issues like race and populism come up in papers or in the classroom, and I’d like to know more about how to handle them if they do. Doesn’t the axis that determines whether analytical writing is good or bad at some level entail a judgment of right or wrong? Writing is a powerful weapon, and I’d hate to think that we sharpen it up for the wrong reasons. How far does the freedom of self-expression in argument go? When will no amount of analysis justify a particular viewpoint? If an argument is toxic, how do we allow ourselves to improve its grammar?

    On another note, Lunsford’s suggestions for making written responses “non-authoritarian” are useful. There are ways to respond productively to student mistakes without ruining the joy of writing for them (and in the ideal world, learning and writing should be enjoyable work). Grading student papers for many hours can be tiring, and it’s easy to forget that there’s a human on the receiving end. Someone’s self-perception as a learner is on the line, and the grader has quite a bit of power in determining that person’s – especially a young person’s – total view of what education is for.

    A GSI might be grouchy after twelve hours of cappuccino-fueled grading, but there’s no reason to channel rushed responses with negatives and imperatives, such as “Poor sentence structure” and “Replace with better word.” These remind me of the nasty notes a bad roommate leaves on the fridge. If students get the impression that there’s a careless authoritarian behind the grading, that impression sticks with them and will cloud their view of the subject forever. Negative feedback or flat criticism can deaden a person’s excitement, or give them the impression that college learning is just a grammatical treadmill – or worse, that their creativity (regardless of its quality) does not matter. That’s, of course, exactly the opposite of what we’re here for.

    It’s easy to underestimate the impact little comments actually have on students. They can really sting. So Lunsford’s right that comments are better off laced with some kindly rhetoric (but not too much), such as “I don’t understand what this sentence means; why not rephrase it more clearly?” Then the student feels like he or she is on your side, working together, standing shoulder to shoulder looking out at Greek history rather than being looked down upon. On the other hand, this sort of overt politeness may be naive. There is value in harsh grading, someone might argue. But I’d rather believe the total experience of college shouldn’t give people the impression that they came here to be dominated. It’s a tricky balance to strike. I wonder what others think.

  • August 23, 2017 at 9:50 pm

    I agree with Alex about the difficulty of reaching a good balance in commenting on students’ essays. It will be the first teaching experience for me and I am quite unfamiliar with the US system and the expectations of my students. The academic culture of my country seems very different: teachers in Italy are always extremely direct in dealing with students and they openly point out mistakes or make criticisms with an authoritative voice. On the one hand, I think it is always useful for students to clearly know what the teacher thinks about their work. On the other hand, I acknowledge that this attitude may hinder the development of critical thinking, since the teacher is perceived as the only authority.

    A second issue about which I would like to hear your opinions is the relationship between form and content in assessing a paper. The material on the website seems to suggest that teachers should not focus too much on issues of grammar or syntax. However, I do not completely agree with this position, since I think that students should first become aware of the importance of formal correctness.

  • August 24, 2017 at 9:47 pm

    Hi All, my name is Rachel Elizabeth and I am GSIing for LING 230 – Honors Core in Linguistics. My concerns have to do with how much time will be spent grading since we are dealing with written work. We want to give good feedback while also being efficient and not spending too much time. The modules included strategies about how to grade based on Higher Order and Lower Order work, the concept of not grading all at once, and more. With the GSI-ship requiring 20 hours of work a week, I worry about fitting in everything that needs to be done in that amount of time.

    Andrea’s concern about teaming up with other GSIs is something that I’ve heard across my department as well. To counter this, the GSIs teaching 230 plan to meet together as a group for 15-30 minutes a week to discuss what to teach in section that week to make it as uniform as possible, and also to discuss grading as a group. A weekly check in, no matter how short, seems to be a great way to keep cohesion among the GSIs and across sections. I also just want to say I am intrigued by Andrea’s concept of including random writing prompts that are low stakes throughout the semester – I think this would be a great option to implement to track students progress.

    Andrew’s concerns about balancing course content with the development of writing skills are also pertinent to me as well. Each course is different, and I am hoping that my discussions with the professor of the course will illuminate ways to make these connections. I have been told in the past that the book we use for the course is very one-sided, so I think that could be an avenue toward developing writing skills, prompting questions such as, the author says x: Do you agree? Why or why not? Or, what is your stance on X issue? Does it vary from the author and if so in what ways? And more. This is in line with the modules which discussed centering one’s writing.

  • August 25, 2017 at 7:54 pm

    Having worked through the modules in preparation to teach Great Books 191, my main concerns are centered around providing the appropriate amount of feedback. Students will be asked to write a lot, and I don’t want to give too little in response. I anticipate a lot of my effort going into limiting my comments to what will most likely result in the most important improvements in their writing. That is a lot for us to judge, per assignment, per student, all while keeping the larger aims of the course in mind.

    In this regard, I appreciate the questions that instructors can ask themselves while grading. Yet I also worry that students might see only a few comments on an assignment and come to the conclusion that if something isn’t marked, it doesn’t need improving. Even if we only highlight illustrative examples of shortcomings that we elaborate on in the larger comments section, leaving students to review their own work in search of unmarked instances of these shortcomings, significant issues are likely to remain untreated because they fall out of the range of those two or three global issues we have chosen to focus on. From student to student, the attention that we give particular areas of improvement is therefore likely to vary widely. Maybe once we have gathered enough information to notice trends in our students, we can make better decisions about the sorts of problems to point out when modeling good reviewing strategies in section.

  • August 27, 2017 at 1:02 am

    I am also teaching CC 101 this fall and share concerns and questions with my co-GSIs above. First of all, while I haven’t taught first year writing, I have had trouble with a few of my former students in upper level classes having serious and consistent “lower order” writing concerns–so much so that I’ve had trouble at times getting a good sense of what “higher order” concerns might exist in their writing. I really liked the idea put forward of marking up a representative paragraph, which seems like it would both give the student a reason and means to learn the corrections and also avoid overwhelming red-lining, but am, like Matteo, a little hesitant about leaving grammatical and sentence structure on the back burner in general. I might be misunderstanding this stance, since the article attached on a professor encouraging students to thoughtfully play against traditional rules seems to begin with the assumption that students are conscious of doing so (understand what the rules are before breaking them), which seems quite different. But Sweetland’s reference to “higher” and “lower” order concerns certainly seems like a hierarchical description, and since both are necessary to good writing this surprised me while working through the modules.

    I am also interested in further discussing strategies for dealing with strongly opposing viewpoints in the classroom, particularly how to strike a balance between fostering an inclusive classroom environment and respecting the classroom as a place where all ideas should be challenged and entertained. In some ways, I’m excited by the potential of course material of CC101 intersecting with current events as an entry into thinking about historical reception and the how different eras and types of thought are all able to harness the past in support of their arguments. But at the same time, I’m afraid that controversy could take over the classroom.

    Finally, I personally feel resistant to online assignments (especially twitter!) but I think I might just be old-fashioned, and would love to hear more about how online and social media assignments work for people who are more at home in those media than I am. For me as a student, I prefer getting a marked up paper copy of my work to electronic comments, and I think I would find a netcast very frustrating, but I would love to hear other people’s perspectives on these issues. On a more general level, how do we as GSIs navigate between our own and each of our students’ individual preferences in terms of these concerns? Is this even important?

  • August 27, 2017 at 9:24 am

    This autumn I’ll be a GSI for CC101 (Introduction to Ancient Greek History), a course I have GSI’ed for in the past. In the context of both my past experience teaching this course, as well as these modules, I am curious about facilitating and evaluating inquiry. Andrea G highlighted the low-stakes writing assignments suggested in the modules, which appear to be a good starting point. My concern is how to give feedback that will maintain enthusiasm or produce a balanced evaluation of a students work if it is written well, and has interesting content, but misses the assignment prompt. I feel like one of the most important things that we can do as instructors is facilitate and support a student’s interest in research, but when this falls outside the writing prompt, or is only tangential it ought to be marked accordingly. Unfortunately, this may result in a student ultimately submitting a lower quality piece of writing as they become detached from the subject. Is there a grey area to operate in? Or should we be rigid about assignment prompts? Finding where to draw the line was difficult for me last time teaching CC101, but I hope that encouraging these low-stakes assignments (and responding to them!) earlier in the process will keep students engaged and on topic.

    Also, Christian A mentioned some concern that students will assume that a lack of comments is equivalent to a tacit endorsement of the writing as is. This is also something that seems especially tricky to me. Is it sufficient to comment on one or two of the patterns of low-level errors but include a more general statement making it clear that this does not mean that the rest is necessarily perfect? I understand that we don’t have the time, nor is it productive, to comment on every mistake. Perhaps this is where peer review, in an editing mode at a later stage, can help?

  • August 27, 2017 at 6:21 pm

    This autumn I will be GSIing for CC101, a course I have taught before. My concerns about evaluating student writing have less to do with grading itself (I’ve graded literally hundreds of papers in the past) and more to do with the politicization of the material that has occurred since the last time I taught the course. Since white supremacists and fascists have been broadcasting their opinions more loudly and more forcefully of late, the classical tradition is more relevant than it has been in a long time. When I previously taught the ancient world, the material very rarely was controversial, and Greece was almost a sanitized test case, where we could discuss various ideas about literature and culture at a far remove from current affairs. This is no longer the case. I worry what will happen if I have a student who wants to claim that the ancient Greeks were white, or holds their culture up as “our” glorious cultural heritage. How should I go about correcting someone whose ideas of the ancient past are so transparently bound up in their ideas of the present? I’ve had very little experience having to address sensitive topics, and worry that I might either not respond strongly enough (which would allow them to think I condone that kind of thinking, or worse, would allow other students to think I condone that kind of thinking) or that I would respond too strongly and leave the student in question feeling like they had been attacked for their views, which would poison the teacher-student relationship.

  • August 27, 2017 at 9:16 pm

    The issues Alex raises through Lunsford, about not being an authoritarian grader, are very considerate, but seem somewhat impractical. I might add that we should not forget to emphasize the degree to which an instructor’s persona determines his students’ response to criticism. Logic and experience suggest that an affable instructor might be economical, unto terseness, in his comments, when his students already feel certain that they have their instructor’s confidence and affection. A stern or distant’s instructor’s terse remarks, conversely, will more readily seem harsh. Hence a gentle manner in class will color the terse, toneless comments on the papers. Ideally, it seems to me that we should want mainly terse comments: they are clear and it saves much time in grading. General remarks, in a softer tone, can come at paper’s end.

    Although I have some experience grading undergraduate essays, I still am not sure how best to target my remarks for maximum effect. Often there is so much wrong in a paper that it is hard to know where to begin, and one fears overwhelming the student with advice. Shall we develop a list of abbreviations for certain general comments to share with our students, such as “Problem occurs elsewhere in paper”? And how many areas of improvement can we expect a student to be able to work on from one paper to the next?

    As to balancing course content and writing instruction, a number of the classroom draughting activities suggested in the modules might allow us simultaneously to teach habits of good writing and to exercise the course’s content: low-stakes writing assignments and discussion groups devising theses, while modeling good writing habits, will also necessarily involve the course’s content. Perhaps we will not need to spend so much time explicitly telling them in class how to write well, if we spend most of the class handling the course material in a manner that would conduce to good writing. To be as clear as possible, though, we might occasionally have a brief lecture on good writing habits, the qualities of good argumentation, etc.

  • August 28, 2017 at 3:21 am

    I am teaching three (3!) sections of CLCIV 101 this Fall. Although I have previously served as a GSI for courses with written assignments, this will be my first FYWR class. For that reason, I found several aspects of the online modules to be helpful, although I was somewhat surprised to read how Sweetland would like us to prioritize “higher” order issues over “lower.” As Alison mentioned in her post, I have also experienced students (upper classmen, native English speakers) who still struggle with basic grammar, punctuation, and even capitalization. I understand the importance of teaching our students higher order writing skills, but I still feel like it is my responsibility to correct their minor errors as well. I would not want a student to make a minor error in a draft that goes uncorrected, only to see that error remain in the final version of the paper. With a student that consistently struggles with lower order writing concerns, how can we balance that correction with the higher order issues?

    Additionally, I appreciated Drew’s comment about teaching in the present political environment and national discourse. I am passionate about teaching students how to write, because I see this as teaching students how to think critically. Critical thinking skills are imperative for citizens to navigate the myriad of media sources currently available. Personally, I would like to discuss this candidly with my students. This class isn’t just about learning how to write, but learning how to think about complex ideas, craft an argument, and analyze an argument. I believe that ancient texts, in particular, are ideal venues for teaching students to discern bias and myth from facts and truth; how can we connect this discussion to modern news sources? How can we effectively and constructively use the modern political atmosphere in a way that inspires students, but also avoids unnecessary confrontation?

  • August 28, 2017 at 7:30 pm

    I am the second GSI for Honors 241. I share the concerns of my co-GSI, Andrea, about making sure that students in all sections are held to consistent standards by different instructors. I can see the importance of allowing GSIs to employ unique, personal styles while also maintaining consistency in terms of the frequency and difficulty level of assignments, degree of engagement with each student’s writing, and the level of rigor we expect. It seems quite possible to me to discuss and agree on these sorts of expectations and plans ahead of time, while allowing each of us to arrive there using our own distinct approaches. Meeting throughout the semester to compare both student work and our own feedback could also help ensure consistency.

    One concern I have about integrating “low-stakes” writing into the curriculum is making sure that students don’t perceive and dismiss it as mere busy work. How can we create low stakes writing assignments that don’t invite students to put in low levels of effort? If the idea of a low-stakes writing assignment is to assure students that the assignment will not significantly impact their grades, we have to be confident that students are intrinsically motivated to engage meaningfully with the process. How can we best cultivate student buy-in without relying solely on the external pressure of grades, while simultaneously recognizing that we are operating in an education setting that is saturated with grade-consciousness?

    Looking at a FYWR class in the context of a student’s overarching university experience, it seems to me that one of the most important skills we can give our students is an enduring interest in writing. I’d like my students to walk away from the class not only with concrete new writing skills, but with an enhanced interest in continuing to take writing-intensive classes. With that as a backdrop, I expect one of my challenges to be providing feedback without taking away students’ individual voices. How can we successfully convey to students that we are interested in empowering rather than correcting them, while simultaneously providing realistic suggestions for improving their writing?

  • August 28, 2017 at 7:34 pm

    I’m Jeff Bristol and I’ll be a GSI for The Games We Play. I’ve got a decent amount of teaching and GSI experience, including working in writing centers and cores at a couple of universities, but I always struggle with the right level of feedback to give. As the prompt suggests and people here have mentioned, there are so many variables to writing instruction: there’s the tone of comment (too commanding, too friendly), whether one should focus on argument or grammar, how to interest/make students connect with the material, etc.

    I find my biggest struggles are usually figuring out what each student needs help with the most, especially when it comes to style. Style is a devilishly hard thing to teach and when a person tries to instruct it too much, the effort can come off like pedantry (always use an Oxford comma, for example, or never end a sentence in a preposition, etc.). These kinds of comments are not very helpful and so I tend to shy away from them, assuming students will, with enough practice, iron out their own issues and, with that in mind, I tend to focus on argument structure instead. In some ways, I think this is a good idea since style is so personal and is often a matter of a young writing ironing out their own kinks while argument structure is must easier to teach, but some students could do with a lot of style help.

    I think a lot of the tips and techniques listed in these modules are helpful and good ideas, but many of them also seem so time-consuming and potentially to lead to the dreaded pedantry that most teacher do and all teachers should want to avoid. First-year college students require such a strange mixture of hand-holding and not because they are straddling worlds like an uncertain colossus: one foot in the careful coaching of high school and another in the world of the independent collegiate scholar. How to draw the student to the latter while giving him or her the necessary coaching of the former is tricky and is similar to the catch of teaching too much style (which seems to me to be a bit of hand-holding) and too little structure (which is far more what advanced writing courses are concerned with). In the end, first-year students are difficult because they need a balance that can be hard to strike and very unique to each student. Some of the exercises, especially the small group work and peer-review suggested here seem to have the potential to lead to a good balancing of these competing ends since the peer group gives the student the support a fledgling thinker needs with the independence of the teacher being at a remove, but how do we reasonably fit these exercises into an already tight discussion session, for example? Time is a precious commodity and peer-exercises can take a lot of it. On the other hand, it does let the teacher slough off some of the more nit-picky aspects of teaching “style” and “word choice” since those students who already have that mastered can help the rest while the teacher can focus on more of the technical elements of structure, but it is still a very difficult thing to construct, especially when, as a GSI, you might have very little control over how the class is structured as a whole.

    It’s an interesting problem that deserves a lot of thought, but I think these modules give a lot of food for that thinking!

  • August 29, 2017 at 12:14 am

    I’ll be teaching Great Books 191 this fall semester. I would like to echo sentiments already expressed by Andrea B and Alison R. in regards to prioritizing “higher” level issues (thesis, argumentation, and use of evidence) over “lower” level issues (syntax, grammar, spelling). I have worked as a GSI or grader for eight courses at the University of Michigan, and I have often worked with students who have struggled with basic grammatical and syntactical questions. I find it ironic that we consider basic grammar and syntax, the building blocks of language, to be “lower” level issues, when these are the skills which I believe students absolutely must learn before they leave university. We need to work with students who may have difficulties with the basics of writing. To ignore these struggles is to harm the student, in my opinion. I would hope that we can address this issue in the orientation in a thoughtful manner.

    With that said: I’ve taught several courses with a particular focus on writing, so I am familiar with some of the material in the modules (particularly on creating assignments and assessing student writing). I found Module 3 (Moving Students from Course Materials to Inquiry and Argument) and Module 4 (Turning Arguments into Papers) particularly helpful, as I brainstorm ideas for activities for my sections this term. I will definitely use a modified Round Robin activity this semester, since I think it is quite useful for students to observe how their peers answer questions. I’ve often found a similar activity yields quite interesting results when leading discussions: I give students a question and give them a moment to write down an answer. We then go around the room, so each student has one turn speaking about what they wrote. I find that students will often build on what their classmates have already said, and when every student has had a turn speaking, then others can jump back into the discussion with other thoughts.

    I also thought that the exercises provided on the Sweetland page “How Can I Create Stronger Analysis?” were quite useful. I have always found it quite difficult to give students an exact definition for the term “anaylsis.” I think that the exercises which ask students to identify the weaknesses in the pairings of Evidence and Analysis is quite good, and I would like to introduce this as a worksheet in my section. In previous sections, I’ve also organized a similar activity: I choose a paragraph or two from an article on a subject we’ve read (For Great Books 191, we might choose a portion of the introduction to the Epic of Gilgamesh), and ask the students to identify the paragraph’s claim, the evidence used to support that claim, and the analysis of that evidence. I think that provides students with a nice model for their own writing.

    I also thought that Module 6 (Using Peer Review to Improve Student Writing) was particularly helpful. I think that peer review would be quite an interesting activity during section, but I had the same misgivings which the Module spelled out: Would the students provide adequate feedback to one another? Would they feel that I had “cheated” them out of comments from their GSI? I believe that I will first implement some one-on-one peer review on low-stakes writing assignments and then have the students write an assessment about the activity.

    These modules have proven quite useful, as I plan out my sections for the semester and put together some possible activities for sections.

  • August 29, 2017 at 2:56 am

    I am excited to join the teaching team for Honors 240: The Games We Play. My fellow GSIs have raised many interesting perspectives/concerns (adequacy of feedback in the face of time constraints and the politicization of course content to name a couple) and I look forward to our discussions about them on Thursday. For now I would like to focus on the role of office hours in learning (for both students and the GSI).

    I have taught two upper level writing courses in the Political Science department. On both occasions I found my students most receptive to feedback when meeting with me face to face. This setting offers multiple advantages; it allows shy students to speak up, students seem more willing to accept weaknesses in their writing and it provides an opportunity to communicate to the student the multiple subtler comments that failed to make it on to the paper given our time constraints (I am sure we can think of more advantages to such a setting). Most importantly (to me), it allows one to get to know their students at a personal level. This helps tailor feedback and cater to individuals who come to our courses at varying levels of writing and analytical proficiency. The consequence? Greater incorporation of feedback into future submissions – the lack of which is a concern I have heard voiced by many fellow GSIs.

  • August 29, 2017 at 12:23 pm

    1) First, a practical question about low-stakes writing: how much of this can GSIs implement into a lecture course whose syllabus and grading rubric has already been developed?

    Essentially, unless this has already been built into the syllabus it seems like we can only use “no-stakes” writing, which is of course just as useful but it might be more difficult to convince students of this. No matter the case, it would also be a good idea to coordinate with all the GSIs in the course to implement low-stakes writing so that some sections are not doing more or less than others.

    2) Our own assumptions / limitations

    One of the early modules pointed out that we too have our assumptions, like students. I think that making this clear to our students and asking them to push back against our own assumptions and to point out any of our blind spots is a good first step to building a community within the classroom.

    It’s also important, as the module says, to avoid becoming “caught up in [our] own perspective.” This relates to what Andrew and Jan have written about responding to racist / supremacist or even micro-aggressive Eurocentric comments. I think that one answer is to respond to such claims by questioning rather than jumping in with our counter claims.

    Look, for example, to Lunsford’s exempla of how to respond to a factually questionable claim in writing:

    (1) This isn’t what Darwin says.
    (2) Where does Darwin make this claim?

    etc. (there are other examples)

    Not just in writing but in class discussions as well I believe that using these kinds of questions to facilitate students’ self-exploration (and, in the classroom, debate with their peers) is the most productive and democratic way to respond to instances of politically questionable positions. As the students try to assemble evidence and analysis to justify their questionable positions, it becomes easier (if not for the student him/herself then for other students in the room) to identify weak spots in that thinking and to offer counter-arguments and evidence. We can of course help supply evidence and ideas but I think that it’s just as important to start with a question rather than a counter-argument.

    If there is a real and persistent problem, however, I think that collective consultation with our fellow GSIs and lead instructor is the soundest way to proceed.

    3) Combining discussion and writing

    * The modules’ suggestion of how to handle a particularly heated discussion was very innovative: have everyone stop; identify the contentious point; have them each write their own point of view. I would add these ideas too: have them try to turn it into a miniature claim, with evidence and analysis. Then, collect the papers and redistribute them randomly, and have each student treat the paper s/he gets as a source to which s/he is responding. They’ll take it home and for the next class write a brief summary of the source’s point, then their own response. It could be a good training exercise for how to conduct academic debate with sources, how to respond to other ideas and integrate other claims (through disagreement, agreement but pushing the claim in a new direction, pointing to a limitation, etc.) within their own writing.

    Just an idea. I had my first experience with Honors students last fall and was impressed by their responsiveness in class but we didn’t really have any tense moments of debate or disagreement, despite the election season. But essentially there’s no reason we couldn’t do this with normal discussions as well, concluding the day with five minutes for students to stake out a position etc.

    * I also am intrigued by the ideas of the questionnaire, which might be a way to intermittently get student feedback and diagnostic on the class

    4) Lower- and Higher-order Concerns

    My experience with FYW courses has been that, given (1) the importance of critical thinking and argumentation, (2) students’ need to structure longer analyses and more complex claims with multiple moving parts, and (3) the **limited time** that we have and the varying background of each student, devoting too much space to morphological, grammatical, syntactical, or stylistic eye-sores is counter-productive.

    I’ve had success in the past using the method of focusing on an example paragraph and telling them: “There are similar usage issues in the remaining essay. Can you find X# of them?” If the problem persists into later essays in the term, I ask them to come to my office. My experience has been that the majority of students do not need a lot of work on basic usage and that only two to three in the class demand extra care on this issue.

    On a final note, it’s also important to question ourselves on where the line falls between “error” and “variation.” Remember that “error” ultimately means a “wandering away” from standard expectations; yes, this can (most?) often be the result of poor facilitation in earlier educational environments, so that student X simply has not acquired the skills to express her/himself successfully in *any* written linguistic community, but those variations can also sometimes be part of a real linguistic community’s mode of expression that simply doesn’t align with Standard English.

    As Alison writes in her comment, it’s important that students “know the rules” before they break them. To help politicize language, in the past I’ve found it useful to teach Anne Curzan’s “Says Who?” and H. Samy Alim’s “Talkin Black in this White Man’s World” (in _Roc the Mic Right_).

    The most important point, I tell students, is to know that there’s no right or wrong way to express yourself in writing; there are only successful and unsuccessful ways of doing so, and this means knowing your specific audience and the sets of rules that they have agreed upon. If students want to push back against those rules or break them, I readily encourage them to do so, but they must be prepared (1) to justify those choices through argumentation and analysis and (2), having devoted space to such argumentation, to see their main argument possibly getting sidetracked by linguistic choices, since the focus of their audience will then be directed away from their ideas on topic X (this is what really matters). They should always consider what will lead to a *successful* argument.

    If they can turn their main argument into one about language usage, that’s wonderful, but this is not always possible. Successful writing means understanding our audience’s expectations and strategically meeting them or bending them towards ours. This is true in both the mechanics of our language and the articulation of our ideas.

  • August 29, 2017 at 8:57 pm

    I have quite a few concerns. I’ve never been a GSI, and the schools I attended weren’t large enough that GSIs or TAs were common in classes. I’ve also never been in charge of a class before. Some of my concerns stem from responses I’ve received as a student in discussion courses. For example, one concern is that I’ll get caught up in the material to the point that students may feel they don’t have a chance to respond or interact in class. The GSITO was very helpful because many of the sessions gave suggestions for different ways to interact with classes, as well as different ways to get the material out and understood.

    Another concern has to do with time management. Not only do I worry about keeping up with my own classes and research, but I worry that I might get behind with teaching responsibilities, even though I’m trying to come up with a strategy to keep that from happening. I’m also not sure how to fill up an hour’s time, especially because I don’t know what discussion sections are like or how they’re structured.

  • August 29, 2017 at 11:50 pm

    This fall, I will serve as a GSI for Honors 240. I taught for this course last year as well. Sadly, I will miss the engaging discussions that you will have about teaching honors students and improving their writing on Thursday. I thought I’d add my questions and perspective here, at the very least.

    From the Guide and the various questions many of you have outlined above, I found that three topics stood out to me: setting a grading standard in groups with multiple GSIs, correcting higher vs. lower order writing errata, and engaging students in the current political moment using course materials.

    I largely agree with the Guide’s argument that higher order concerns should be the primary focus of our editing. However, I have found that highlighting one specific lower-order error in a piece has helped my students to identify and overcome those errors in their future work. These examples can also be used to encourage students to use their peers for this type of lower-order editing. Typos and sloppy editing aside, I am concerned that many perceived syntactical or grammatical errata are quite normative (see: passive voice). In focusing on these mistakes in particular, we run the risk of enforcing a meaningless standard on students from diverse backgrounds. I believe that we need to be mindful of unconscious bias in these situations. If an essay is poorly structured and the student misinterprets the prompt, but has beautiful style and syntax, do they deserve a better grade than a student for whom the opposite is true?

    Questions like this also lie at the core of group grading, but are rarely discussed. Rubrics can help to alleviate this problem, but I also believe we can openly discuss our expectations for first year honors students. Do we judge first years on the same scale as a graduate student peer? Do we judge them against the best student in the room? Or do we judge them against the average? I’m not sure which is correct, but I believe it’s worth considering.

    Bringing political moments into the classroom are equally worth careful consideration. While leading social science discussions during the election last year, a conversation about the current political moment was almost unavoidable. Given the tension of the moment, however, I allowed my students to connect the dots rather than forcing the conversation in that direction. I also did not share my political views with my students. I’m not sure that this was the “best” way to facilitate these conversations, but I believe we should think carefully about how best to welcome all perspectives within discussions. This applies particularly to charged political issues.

  • August 30, 2017 at 11:46 am

    I will be a GSI for Great Books in the fall, having previously taught a couple of FYWR classes in past. History 195, for which I was able to craft the syllabus, readings, and assignments, was particularly enlightening for many of the issues raised in the modules and posts. I particularly liked the modules’ treatment of time management and prioritization of corrections (for style, content, and/or argumentation). It’s usually time-saving to remember that students are far less likely to implement the content of a course in their later lives (especially if it is an ancient history or Classics class), than the strategies of synthesizing and presenting information that accompanies the content. While I don’t advocate letting blatant factual errors slide, just keep in mind the likely careers of the students and prioritize addressing the skills they will need most.

    This is a slippery slope, however, with regards to issues of style and grammar. While its often enough for students to drive their argument from conception to conclusion, we should care about the shape of the car when it arrives. Applications, cover letters, etc. can easily be sunk by such issues. That said, and as the module makes clear, it is easy to demoralize a student with too much red ink. I would suggest a strategy that rides a middle road: take note of consistent stylistic or grammatical errors across the class and address them orally as you return the essays. This will allow you to articulate the problems to them, such as capitalization (some students seem to think we follow German rules or, worse, texting norms), punctuation, or who/whom issues, without any student feeling like you are singling them out for inadequacies. I just pick one or two per assignment so as not to overwhelm and it avoids spending too much time or ink on the essays themselves.

    Another aspect of the modules that I appreciated was the low-stakes preparatory assignments. These can often be vital to highlighting the fundamental processes of argument creation and presentation. There is a question above about how to avoid low-quality effort on low-stakes assignments and I would suggest turning them into group or peer-review exercises. By convincing students that their effort is vital in helping others improve their writing, by tying peer success and development to the students’ own effort, you can create a more communal effort at writing improvement. Of course, some students are immune to guilt or shame, so it doesn’t work universally.

  • August 30, 2017 at 12:29 pm

    Hey everyone – I’m teaching Great Books 191, which will be my 6th semester as a GSI but my first FYWR and my first time teaching classical studies (usually I’m on the modern European history side of things). I’ve been wanting to teach this course for a while now & am *really* looking forward to it, which is why I’m relieved to see that a lot of people have already brought up one of my main concerns, the Eurocentrism/whiteness problem. Like Andrew and several others, I’d really like to talk on Thursday about how to respond to students who express overtly problematic views. But I’m also interested in how we as GSIs can use the subject matter of the course to counteract Eurocentric visions of the ancient world, for example by talking about women and other disempowered groups or about the importance of mobility/migration, or maybe by historicizing the processes by which ancient texts have been transmitted (i.e. talking about the role other societies and cultures played in preserving those texts, for example in the Islamic world).

    With regard to “lower” vs. ”higher” writing issues… I’m with the pro-grammar faction. I remember signing up for honors writing classes as an undergraduate and seriously resenting teachers who were too “nice” to give me straightforward feedback. But I agree that the hard part is figuring out how to balance the two.

  • August 31, 2017 at 2:24 am

    Hi everyone. I’m going to be teaching Honors 240, The Games We Play. This will be my 10th (and final) term as a GSI. I’ve appreciated reading everyone’s comments and all the issues already raised. Some of the concerns, like setting standards for grading across sections/GSIs, seem to lend themselves better to clearer solutions (e.g., rubrics and communication between instructors). However, other concerns seem to involve judgment calls based on particular situations (e.g., which aspects of writing in a paper to focus on most to help a student improve). I think the latter is the kind of balancing act that I continue to work on better navigating as a teacher, so I look forward to hearing more of the discussion about them.

    While reading the modules, I also found myself trying to think through how they might work with the class I’ll be teaching, particularly since I haven’t taught this class before and still have much to learn about it. The idea of low-stakes writing struck me in that respect. From what I understand, Honors 240, in its gameful approach, emphasizes the value of failing safely, which sounds like it’s already building into the course a very similar philosophy to that of low-stakes assignments.


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