Opening Doors

This semester I’m teaching College Writing, and I’m about to begin our second unit – “Interacting with Texts.” Seems like a typical academic type assignment—students read one-two essays from our reader and then develop a critical response. Developing a critical response—meaning a response that moves beyond pure summary and agreeing or disagreeing with the author’s main point—may be challenging for students. As a writing teacher, this is a challenge that I feel a bit more comfortable with—developing ways through writing that enable students to develop their own ideas and responses to a text.

But what I really struggle with as a teacher is not so much with the writing process, but more with the reading process.  The essays in our reader have been selected to challenge first-year students and they do so for a variety of reasons. Many of the ideas raised by the authors included in Opening Conversations are complicated and complex, and combined with being unfamiliar with the different kinds of rhetorical choices these writers make in terms of form/ genre, our students may misread or misunderstand the content.

So here are a few things I try to keep in mind when I work through this unit.

What is an essay?

Many of our students may have traditional expectations when it comes to what constitutes an essay. They may expect to see a very clear and well defined thesis statement announced very early in the text. They may expect the author to be arguing either for a specific point or against it. Many of the essays we ask them to read don’t fit neatly into these expectations. These essays are meant to challenge our students’ notions of form and genre as a way to broaden their knowledge of texts. Since the audiences for most of these essays were not written directly for first-year college students, some of the essays will contain references (cultural and academic) that will be unfamiliar to our students. Our students may also bring a cultural frame of reference that differs from the author’s and our own. For example, I have to keep reminding myself that our students have grown up post 9/11. As a result, their relationship to the events surrounding 9/11 differs from those of us who are older and remember life before these events occurred. These differences can provide points of discussion as well as an introduction to research since students can research events and/or cultural references that they find unfamiliar.

Context – Mine and the Students.

One of the reasons why I wanted to go to graduate school was to have the space to continue reading challenging texts and discussing them with people who also loved discussing ideas and concepts. Many of the readings in Opening Conversations raises issues that many of us engaged in the exploration of these ideas want to discuss. However what I try to remember is that although these are ideas that I have been thinking, reading, and writing about for several years, this may be the first time our first-year students have come into contact with these ideas. Understanding white privilege, the fluidity of gender, systems of power are not learned in one 50 minute class period, or a week or even one semester.  Through our own reading and writing, this is what we work through most of our academic lives. College Writing provides our students with the space to be introduced to these ideas, a space that enables them to become aware of these different perspectives and to begin the questioning process.

When I was about to enter my first year of college, my mother told me that one of the reasons she and my father were sending me to the university was to expose me to new ideas, new concepts, new experiences that growing up in our small, rural New Hampshire town could not do. A part of being exposed to new ideas means having our assumptions and understanding of the world challenged in ways they would not be if we had stayed in our “comfort zones.” Sometimes this makes us uncomfortable and resistant. Sometimes this makes us confused and unsure what to say or think. Sometimes we may say things that may appear inappropriate.

As a teacher I try to practice what Judith Johnson, my mentor in graduate school, called a poetics of generosity—the assumption that everyone is writing and speaking from a good place, from a place where everyone is open to learning.  I try to keep reminding myself that our first-year students are beginning the process of understanding, and it is through the interaction of reading, discussing, and writing about these essays that will enable them to begin working through these ideas.

Building a Classroom Community

Since this may be the first time many students have interacted with the ideas raised in Opening Conversations, they may not only be unsure what to say, but unsure how to articulate what they are thinking. This may result in many uncomfortable silences in the classroom and students may make mistakes—they may say things that sound offensive.  Building a classroom community based on generosity, the assumption that we are all trying to figure these ideas out, and are all speaking from a place of learning enables students to work through these complex and complicated ideas without the fear of getting it “wrong.” Many teachers find it useful to work with the class to set up guidelines for discussions. Together as a class you can develop guidelines as to what kinds of statements would be useful, what kinds of questions would be useful, and the importance of clarification. “Class Discussions Suggestions” by Amber Engelson in the Writing Program’s Resource Database is an excellent example of how to establish a classroom based on generosity.

Opening Doors

I think the most important thing that I try to keep in mind is that in my first-year writing class, I’m opening a door to these ideas. Some students may have already taken the steps through the door, some may be willing to take a step or two through it, and some may be resistant right now to go through it. That’s all okay. They are just beginning. The important thing is that the door has been opened.


From the Writing Program’s Spring Symposium — “Beyond Cold Calling: Engaging ‘Quiet’ Students in Discussion”

In January of this year, the Writing Program held a symposium that explored how issues of diversity intersect with the first-year writing classroom. The symposium began with a talk from Professor Haivan Hoang entitled “Why Diversity Matters in FWY?” Our instructors then participated in a series of roundtables that focused on language, teacher identity, access/technology, discussion strategies, and issues of disabilities. As a way to continue the discussions that we started at the symposium, we will bring to you an overview of each roundtable’s discussion. This post features the discussion led by Sarah Stetson and Kate Litterer for the roundtable “Beyond Cold Calling Engaging ‘Quiet’ Students in Discussion.” Please add your own thoughts and questions.

Roundtable: Beyond Cold Calling: Engaging “Quiet” Students in Discussion

Leaders: Sarah Stetson & Kate Litterer
We wanted to structure our roundtable around “quiet” students in our classroom—with emphasis on “quiet” in quotations. We wanted roundtable participants to think about why students are quiet in the first place, whether or not teachers see that as a problem, and why teachers may want lots of students to participate. We discussed how to encourage teachers to think beyond the “cold call,” and we proposed the idea that it is okay if not every single person talks in large groups. We, also, discussed how to get students talking in other situations like pairs, small groups, conferences, and other classroom configurations.
We posed two questions to the teachers at our roundtable – “Why do you think students are quiet?” and “What is one thing you would adapt about a lesson plan to include more students in discussion?” Additionally, teachers shared specific examples from in-class discussions they had facilitated when they felt that their “quiet” students stood out.
Here are some comments we received from teaches about teaching “quiet” students.

Question: Why do you think students are quiet?
• Students are afraid to be tone policed
• Students are self-conscious or have stage fright
• Gender disparity in the classroom
• Students are happy to listen, and may talk a lot in conferences
• Students rely on other talkative students to lead discussions
• Students may not understand questions
• Students may not be paying attention
• The pace of conversation may feel difficult to enter and student is unsure of when to speak
• Students feel comfortable talking in small groups but not in large groups

Question: What is one thing you would adapt about a lesson plan to include more students in discussion?
• Have students comment on low stakes in class reading
• Listen and take notes with names so you can measure participation
• Ask students to lead a discussion and make their own discussion questions, so students can plan ahead
• Write discussion questions on an index card and pass it around
• Ask students to do generative writing before discussions
• Use “rock, paper, scissors” to choose students to speak
• Narrow down the scope of questions you ask students
• Have everyone contribute a little bit to answering a question, so each person says something
• Have students post on Moodle and read before class
• Have students answer a low stakes ice breaker question so they can hear their own voice in the classroom
• Have students play a role on a card you hand out, such as “devil’s advocate”

From the Writing Program’s Spring Symposium — “Localizing Discussions of Diversity: Bringing Campus-Wide Conversations into the Writing Classroom”

In January of this year, the Writing Program held a symposium that explored how issues of diversity intersect with the first-year writing classroom. The symposium began with a talk from Professor Haivan Hoang entitled “Why Diversity Matters in FWY?” Our instructors then participated in a series of roundtables that focused on language, teacher identity, access/technology, discussion strategies, and issues of disabilities.  As a way to continue the discussions that we started at the symposium, we will bring to you an overview of each roundtable’s discussion.  This post features the discussion led by Cal Angus and Nirmala Iswari for the roundtable “Localizing Discussions of Diversity: Bringing Campus-Wide Conversations into the Writing Classroom.” Please add your own thoughts and questions.

Roundtable: Localizing Discussions of Diversity: Bringing Campus-Wide Conversations into the Writing Classroom

Leaders: Cal Angus & Nirmala Iswari

I co-led, along with Nirmala Iswari, two short discussion sessions at the Writing Program’s Spring Symposium: Exploring How Issues of Diversity Intersect with the Writing Classroom. Our sessions attempted to address how TOs might go about engaging with controversial campus events or topics in their classrooms. Rather than wait for these issues to erupt in our classrooms, we wanted to provide TOs with a framework for bringing up campus issues in their classes early and often, even using them as lenses for different units or rhetorical strategies. This way, when something does happen during a semester, students are accustomed to talking through it in a mediated manner, and are hopefully even able to see it as an occasion for listening and learning from their classmates.

In our discussion sessions, we talked about establishing a routine that works for you, as the instructor, when bringing up controversial topics. Participants referenced one method shared during one of last year’s Center for Teaching sessions on diversity training, which emphasized a three-step approach to opening up a difficult conversation in the classroom:

Observe: Verbally acknowledge the atmosphere in the room, i.e. “I noticed that when you brought up _____, many people grew quiet or uncomfortable,” or “I’m seeing a lot of eye rolling or indications that people have differing opinions on this issue.” Bringing this out into the open makes you and your students witnesses to what is often an unspoken allusion.

Expressing Thoughts/Feelings: After acknowledging that a difficult topic has been broached in the classroom, express to the classroom why you think it’s important to stop and talk about it. i.e. “I think we should spend some time discussing this as a class so we can hear all the different points of view on the subject, and so no one feels silenced in this space.” This is also a good chance to draw connections between opening such a conversation and the lesson for the day, or the learning objectives for the unit.

Concrete Actions: Make clear the next steps the class should take to proceed with discussion. “I’d like for us all to get in a circle, and for people to raise their hands when they have something to say. We’ll spend the next twenty minutes listening and responding to our classmates, followed by ten minutes of reflective writing.” Be sure not to step away from the discussion, and to remain an active moderator, perhaps even adding a time limit or turn limit to prevent people from dominating the discussion.

Among our two groups at the symposium, we also discussed how campus issues can be used as a lens into both the personal and the broader national or global community. Students sometimes resist digging into their personal histories, especially early on in class, or else feel uncomfortable talking about larger social problems that could remain abstractions in their minds (racism, sexism, class etc.). But by talking about Black Lives Matter graffiti on campus that was vandalized, or past UMass admissions policies toward Iranian students, we can put these larger issues into context for students. Below you will find three scenarios that TOs were asked to read and discuss how they would address these issues in class, or how they might incorporate them into a lesson plan.

Stumbling Blocks

We also discussed that this is not a perfect framework, and that bringing campus issues into the classroom will often be more personally fraught for some students than others. This was one of the stumbling blocks we tried to address during our symposium discussions, but despite talking about it as a group, we didn’t get far in how to address it. Different TOs shared their strategies: some said they set clear expectations on day one about the political and personal content students are expected to engage with in their class, while others said they sometimes allowed their students to steer away from uncomfortable topics in their writing if they noticed it made them exceedingly uncomfortable.

In the end, it was pretty clear that there are some major obstacles or flaws with relying too heavily on campus events to form the backbone of a class. But the general consensus between our two discussion groups was that as a supplementary part of the classroom, discussing and analyzing controversial campus issues could provide a new way for students to examine rhetoric with personal relevance, as long as discussions are mediated and managed by the instructor. Instructors shouldn’t veer away from discussing such things, especially since often the chance to step outside of assigned readings is welcomed by students.


Please note that this is not intended as a “controversial issues worksheet” for students. Rather, these were used as examples for TOs at the Writing Program’s Spring Symposium, specifically those who wanted to discuss how they might address these issues in the classroom, or how they might incorporate them into lesson plans.

  1. In spring 2015, Black Lives Matter activists and members of the campus Black Student Union gave a makeover to the UMass campus graffiti wall in the central residential area with the slogan of the movement for racial equality and against police brutality in African American communities. The next day, the Black Lives Matter graffiti was painted over with “All Lives Matter,” with many of the activist slogans erased with red paint by unidentified individuals.
  1. In February, 2015, UMass administration made the decision to bar Iranian students from enrolling in specific programs in the Colleges of Engineering and Natural Sciences, citing federal recommendations that to do so could endanger national security. After the news broke, the Boston Globe ran an article in which State Department officials were quoted as saying they had never heard of such a restriction, and that UMass was “rare if not unique among U.S. universities” for instituting the admission ban. Around this time, negotiations for a nuclear deal between the U.S. government and Iran were ongoing. UMass eventually reversed its decision after vocal negative reaction from the UMass community.
  1. In 2014 the federal government pledged another $3 billion in support of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) programs. The same year saw federal support of the humanities education increase only slightly to $145 million. Meanwhile, a study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that graduates of the class of 2008 who majored in STEM averaged a significantly higher salary than those majoring in the humanities. A New York Timesarticle, however, still found a reason to major in the humanities: many STEM jobs could be easily computerized or traded overseas in the coming decades.

Seize the Teaching Moment

This week the conversation around campus and the whole Pioneer Valley is the “Blarney Blowout” and its aftermath.  Everyone is talking about it—some are claiming the police are too brutal, some are wondering why the students think it is okay to gather in a large crowd and drink, some are embarrassed by the negative attention this has drawn to our campus, some think everyone is over reacting, some are discussing what the University should have done, should not have done and what the University should do now. Everyone has something to say about this.

As teachers, and especially as teachers of first-year students, this seems like something that we should talk to our students about. But I’m afraid if I bring this up in class the conversation may start out okay, but would take a bad turn, and I would gradually end up sounding like my mother.

Me: “Did any of you go to the Blarney Blowout?”

The students: “It was fun.”

Me: “Fun? What are you talking about? People were arrested.”

The students: “It was fun until the police came and sprayed tear gas and beat people.”

Me: “People were throwing beer cans and ice balls at the police. What did you expect?”

The students: “It was really the police who started everything. It was really about police brutality.”

Me: “You shouldn’t have even been there. With that many people together drinking that early in the day there is bound to be trouble.”

The students: “We have a right to party.”

Me: “Right to party? What are you talking about?”

The students: “We have a right to have fun.”

Me: “What??  You aren’t here for fun. You’re supposed to be studying.  Do you know how much it costs to send you there?”

Okay—maybe not so gradually turning into my mother.

The other day I went to observe Zoe Mungin’s class as she was beginning our “Adding to the Conversation.” This unit asks students to select a conversation (topic), do some research to narrow the topic in order to develop a purpose to communicate to a specific audience.  Zoe began by asking the students about the “Blarney Blowout.” She asked the students what they thought about the weekend and then she let them talk. Her students said the things I’ve heard other students say this week—it wasn’t as bad as the media made it out to be, the police were too violent, if the University hadn’t “warned” students they, as first-year students, never would known about it, etc. She asked questions and more importantly she didn’t turn into my mother. She didn’t judge.

And then Zoe asked the students to think about the “Blarney Blowout” as a conversation.

“What have you read about the blowout?” She asked. “Where did you read it? What was it about? What perspective was it from?”

Again the students talked, but now drawing from a range of online sources. As the students talked, Zoe kept asking questions. She kept pushing. “Remember how we have been talking about credibility? Remember how we have talked about logical and emotional appeals? Is this a logical appeal? How so? Is this credible? How so?”

Soon the class wasn’t just talking about the “Blarney Blowout,” but rather how it was a conversation, a conversation consisting of a range of perspectives, all with different purposes for voicing their opinions.

“There seems to be a lot of different ways of looking at this,” Zoe said. “There also seems to be different issues to focus on here. What’s one issue we can focus on?” Now she was getting the students to narrow the topic.

“Police brutality,” someone said.

“Let’s imagine we would be writing an open letter about ‘Blarney’ focusing on police brutality to a news outlet. Name a news outlet.”

Fox News,” someone called out.

“Okay, who is the audience for Fox News? What tone would you use? What would this audience expect to hear?”

After the students worked through these questions, Zoe said, “Give me another news outlet. One different from Fox News.”

Her Campus,” someone else called.

“Okay,” Zoe said. “Who is the audience? How is this audience different from Fox News? What about tone? How would the tone here be different from Fox News?”

In other words, Zoe used the “Blarney Blowout” as a teaching moment. She was able to take something that all the students had an opinion about and turned it into a lesson about narrowing a research topic and the rhetorical situation.

And she also did something else.  By gradually moving “Blarney” from the main topic of discussion to an example to illustrate audience and purpose, Zoe enabled the students to begin seeing the “Blarney Blowout” from different perspectives.

The conversation about “Blarney” seems to be continuing. The University announced yesterday that they have hired former Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis to conduct a review of the University’s and the town of Amherst’s handling of the event.  I also heard this morning on New England Public Radio a very interesting report about “celebratory rioting” that not only broadens the conversation, but puts it into a different context.  It seems that “Blarney” may provide us with even more teaching moments as we move through the rest of the semester.

Please share how you are using this as a teaching moment in your class.

Why Don’t They Talk?

This semester I’m teaching first-year writing in our computer lab. I like the way the lab is set up. We have a large seminar type table in the middle of the room and the computers are all along the walls. This is great because we can be at the table away from the computers for certain parts of the class  (discussions, announcements, introducing activities) and then the students can be in front of the computers when they are writing. It works.

But the last couple of times I have taught in the computer lab I have noticed something. When we are sitting around the table having a whole class discussion things seem to go a little slow. Sometimes the discussion starts off fine, but then it seems to quickly die out until eventually there is silence.  I don’t know why, but the silence in a class discussion is not only the most uncomfortable silence in the world, but it seems to go on forever.  I’ve done all kinds of things to try to prevent this from happening. We’ve had a discussion about what makes a good class discussion, I’ve called on people, I’ve had them freewrite first and then discuss what they have written, but the end result is always the same. I ask a question and wait until someone answers. I ask another question and then wait.

And here is another thing. When I ask the students to do small group work, they talk up a storm, even when I come by and hover over their group. But when I bring them back to the table they become quiet.

One day this semester I finally asked the students what was going on. “Why is it,” I said, “that when you are in small groups you yak away and then when you come back to the table you’re quiet?” They all laughed and no one said anything. One student finally said, “Maybe when we’re at the table we think we’re supposed to be serious.”


But I’m wondering if something else is going on. A couple of times after the class discussion has died out I’ve asked the students to go to the computers to post and respond to one another on the online forum. They start typing and they don’t stop. The room becomes filled with the clicking of the keyboards. They can’t seem to say enough. And what they have to say is great—thoughtful, insightful, and interesting. Clearly they are thinking and making connections. They are saying the kinds of things on the online forum that I always hope they would say in a class discussion.

So why don’t they?

Recently I heard a Fresh Air interview with Sherry Turkle  from MIT who researches digital culture. The interview was fascinating! One of the points she made was that people, and particularly people of our students’ generation would rather text than talk on the phone. With texting they can control the conversation, they can think about what they would like to say and they can construct how they would like to say it before they say it. Talking on the phone (i.e. speech) doesn’t enable them to do that. They have to respond without the chance to think about their response. They also run the risk of making a mistake, of saying something wrong.

On the surface this may seem that we could blame the digital age for “ruining” our students’ ability to engage in a class discussion. But, I’m not sure about that. I remember as an undergraduate (and this was well before the digital age) that I was hesitant to participate in a class discussion because I was afraid of making a mistake. I just didn’t think I was quick enough to formulate what and how I wanted to say something.  I was afraid of bumbling, of mixing up my words, of sounding like someone who didn’t know what I was talking about.

I’m wondering if we need to think about class discussions in a different way. Maybe we are asking too much from these class discussions. We are asking students to construct thoughtful and insightful responses to our questions and to perfectly articulate these responses within the space of a minute or two. This seems like a lot. No wonder my students hesitate before answering. 

So maybe we need to step back and think about what we really want from class discussions. If we want our students to share what they are thinking and to think and respond to one another, maybe we actually need to give them the space and time to do that.  An online forum gives them that space. They can read, reflect, and then construct a response. Before hitting submit, they can read their responses, they can make sure they are saying what they intend. In other words, they can control what they are saying and how they are representing themselves in the discussion.

 Now I’m not saying that we should forgo with class discussion all together. I think there are moments in the classroom when class discussions should be used. But maybe we should think a bit more about what are our objectives for this classroom staple and think about when and how they can be the most effective. Sometimes it might be best to have the classroom filled with clicking keys than awkward silences.  

 So should we imagine a writing class with no class discussion? Any thought?