What do students want from a freshman composition course?
February 15, 2011 12:30 PM   Subscribe

I'm a freshman composition instructor who wants to rock the evals. But how? If you've taken a first-year college writing or rhetoric course, what teaching practices made for a good (or horrible) experience from the student's perspective?

I'm an advanced grad student, and will be teaching a few sections of freshman composition at a middle-tier 4-year college. I'd really like to do well at this, particularly on student evaluations. I know being an easy grader is a huge part of that, but there may be quotas in place, so I don't know how much control I'll actually have on that front.

I've taught intro composition before, but I never felt like I really "got" it. I'll admit that I loathed my own fresh-comp experience with a fiery passion, despite doing well in the class. I'm personally an INTP, science-y, hyper-rational type, so a big problem was that I never saw the point of it-- all the random decontextualized readings that don't enter anywhere else in the college curriculum, the aimless circle-style political discussions, the tiresome quasi-journalistic, quasi-confessional/creative essay assignments that had almost nothing to do with actual academic writing or thinking in any discipline.

When I trained as an instructor it became clear that the profession as a whole was also kind of confused about freshman comp: should it be an intro to research and academic argument/thinking? an intro to argumentation in general? a general course on creative essay-writing? some sort of political awakening? or a place to find one's authentic personal voice as a writer? My instinct in the past has been to focus very closely on the construction of scholarly arguments, ditching most of the touchy-feely/creative stuff and breaking everything down in a very clear, systematic fashion with detailed draft-evaluation checklists, clear grading rubrics, etc. I've gotten okay-to-good evals, but I always wondered whether the non-NT majority of my students might actually have preferred a more creative, personal, identity-based, literary and/or artsy freshman writing experience, after all. I'll be delighted to show in-class movies or, you know, have people write poetry about their cats if it'll help keep everyone happy and engaged with the course.

So tl;dr, for the most of you out there who've yourselves sat through an introductory college writing course, and written evaluations on same, I'm soliciting suggestions for:

1. Overall course rationale: was your first-year college writing course presented in such a way that it felt important, relevant or useful? If so, describe!

2. Particular techniques and activities: What did your freshman writing instructor do that you loved or hated? What practices would you be likely to reward or punish come evaluation-time?

Both dos and don'ts are welcome-- and obviously, if you're yourself a comp instructor who's received good evaluations based on something other than pure sex appeal, than I'd love to hear from you, too. Anonymous in the interests of preserving the wall between my professional life and my considerably-more-salacious existence on Metafilter. Thanks!
posted by anonymous to Education (12 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
"clear grading rubrics"

When I started teaching freshman composition, this was the #1 most complained-about thing by students (although, of course, they didn't use the term rubric). After I implemented them, my evaluations improved significantly.

So in that respect, you're in good shape already.
posted by AugieAugustus at 12:35 PM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Clear grading rubric, and prompt grading/return of assignments.
posted by schyler523 at 12:42 PM on February 15, 2011

Create your own informal midsemester evaluations (which should, like the formal ones, be anonymous). That way, if they're dissatisfied, you have a chance to fix things before they complete the real evals at the end of the semester.
posted by chicainthecity at 12:54 PM on February 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

I had a rather tough English comp teacher, but I didn't mind too much because she made it abundantly clear that she was very available to help students proofread and correct their papers. And more importantly, she followed up on that offer and really did help students outside of class. Granted not all students take advantage of this, but it definitely helped my evals.

If I get a F on my paper, I want to know why. While having rubrics helps, handing back grades with a clear explanation referencing the rubric why I got that F is just as important. I had a comp teacher who simply wrote, "You write in an esoteric style," and docked me 10 points. Stuff like that doesn't help.

As far as in-class discussion went, I liked that we were able to discuss ligature mostly like adults without the constraints of high school "the white pigeon on the lake ONLY means this" BS. Being a teacher who can lead a discussion and keep it flowing is key though.

Though YMMV, I found built in class time for peer-editing to be awesome. Of course, if someone gets peered up with a slacker or whatever, their opinion of peer-editing may be less than awesome.
posted by jmd82 at 1:09 PM on February 15, 2011

I agree that the clearer you can be, the better. Your students will still be getting used to the rules of college, and they will test your boundaries with every chance they get. If you can point to the syllabus and say, "That's where it says what happens; you knew that from the beginning of the course," you'll have a good start. Make the course materials easy to reprint so they can get them again after losing them for the eighth time. Repeat the rules for assignments on every assignment sheet.

I never took freshman comp, but I've been intrigued by the way the writing classes are presented here on campus. For your purposes, you might look at the Intermediate Composition (English 201) resources, since you'll probably have more flexibility with your course content.

There are 13 sections, each of which engages students with a different general theme. Does your university have first-year groups, or orientation courses, or anything else that's sort of a semester-long interdisciplinary course that introduces students to college-level work and resources? It's probably a bit like that.

That's how they teach certain graduate-level journalism courses, too. Our magazine feature writing class focused on food. Everybody always had something to say about it -- the politics of food, memories of holiday meals or cookies with Grandma, trying to eat healthily in college, whatever. Moreover, it gave us a great chance to explore the many ways we might react to the same thing. We went to a fancy cheese shop, for example, and one of us wrote a "shop talk" article suitable for the business section while another reflected on his childhood in a housing project and the impact of government surplus cheese -- the kind that the cheesemongers poo-poohed.

Basically, it gave us an even playing field while encouraging us to be more creative within the boundaries. It also allowed us to build in time to examine each others' work. It really connected us to the purpose of our writing, and it encouraged us to find what was most meaningful in our own writing -- developing a voice.

To that end, it would probably be helpful for you to suggest places for them to have their work seen by a broader audience, either now or later. Maybe you could structure it so that they write pieces that are publishable in the local paper, or in a literary magazine, etc. Or you can take an overview of the types of papers they might have to write later in college and do one assignment from each (a research paper, a paper responding to readings, a journal entry reflecting on in-class collaboration, etc.).

Another bonus is that a lot of our English 201 sections have service learning components, which colleges love. That's a great place to do some advocacy writing or provide writing services for a nonprofit, thus giving the kids some real-world experience.

You might also find this link (spotlighting some English 100 lessons and objectives from last year), this link (developing an intermediate comp course) and this link ("Integrating writing into your course," from our Writing Across the Curriculum site -- not just for English 100, but includes comments from those classes) useful.

Feel free to MeMail me if you'd like some more tips from my colleagues :)
posted by Madamina at 1:18 PM on February 15, 2011

I never took a college writing course but I'm enjoying "How to Write a Sentence" by Stanley Fish at the moment. You may find that helpful
posted by Fiery Jack at 2:36 PM on February 15, 2011

How much control do you have over your syllabus? Do you choose the readings and the assignments for your sections? Are there college-wide standards or assessments you have to teach to? Can you advertise your sections in a way that makes your approach clear, or is there one set course description for all sections? Do you have a faculty mentor who can answer these questions?

I'm quite removed from my student days, but I think you can accomplish a lot by setting appropriate expectations, and then meeting them. A clear, detailed syllabus, sensible rubrics, useful feedback, and willingness to work directly with students will go a long way. However, truth in advertising in the course catalog will also be crucial. If you are planning to teach a course with an emphasis on research and scholarly argument, students need to know this in advance so they can choose another section if they'd rather have a different frosh comp experience.
posted by expialidocious at 2:51 PM on February 15, 2011

If you have the latitude with course design, establishing a clear thematic arc to the course is a good way of giving some larger consequence and coherence to combat that sense of a bunch disjointed stuff that doesn't matter. When I've taught freshman comp, that theme was already built in to the prescribed text list, but I still tweaked and focused it with my discussion and essay prompts. If you're feeling particularly masterful, you can revisit these themes every few weeks with a course review class, where you pull together the ideas from various texts and how they add new facets to the main idea.

When teaching freshmen, who are in this class whether they want to be or not, I make sure to give them a choice between at least two prompts for every assignment. This is in response to the same worry you have about alienating the more artsy kids with rigorous logic and rhetoric, or putting off the science-y kids with too much feeeeelings. So for any given assignment, where the topic is, say, demonstrating the construction of an argument, one will ask for a close-reading of how the argument presents ideas and what the logical assumptions are behind them, and one will ask the writer to interrogate her own emotional response to the text and what rhetorical approaches provoke that response. Both prompts get to basically the same point, but they're angled so that students will self-select into the approach they're more confident in taking. (I'm talking really abstractly here, but I'd be happy to send you particular examples of these kinds of assignments if you send me a message.)

I think my approach works pretty well--I get good evaluations that often note that students dreaded taking this required class and were surprised at how interested and engaged they were, due to my presentation of the material. Since you already know what you don't want to do, you're on a good path toward successful freshman comping.
posted by MsMacbeth at 5:55 PM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Kerry Walk's comparative analysis explanation for the Harvard Writing Center is a superb foundation for some of college writing's main objectives. The work on the "lens analysis" is particularly appropriate and lucid.

The "classic compare and contrast" stuff is terrific, too: students at that age often don't really know what makes a good c&c work, and the document provides a crystal-clear explanation of how to go beyond mechanical c&c and actually introduce meaningful analysis.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 10:12 PM on February 15, 2011

Rocking the evals has a lot to do with stupid things you can tweak. Find the "Jedi Mind Trick" thread at "The Chronicle of Higher Education".

I create a notebook for each class, with 1 page of notes per hour taught. At the beginning of the semester, I write down one thing I want to pay attention to in this lesson.

Here's my list of tricks (I have small classes in the comp sci/math field)
1) First lesson has to be awesome. There's a high correlation between evals after first and last lessson. It also sets the tone. Be strict, you can be nicer later on, but you will never manage to be stricter.
2) Drop one or two assignments/quiz per class (so use 8/10). Better yet, only use the 8 best assignments (which is 8/10, too). They'll be begging for quizzes. :-) Honestly, this got rid of all the whining AND they thought I'm the nice guy.
3) Learn their names and majors. Just jot down a plan in first lesson, where they sit, it usually doesn't change.
4) Summaries, outlines and co. Even if it seems boring to you, they can't get enough of structure.
5) Get in the habit of writing your powerpoints / sheets in the same style (font size, header..). It's stupid, but you seem so much more organized.
6) Try to get the eval sheets early. Figure out what they want to see. For example, there is a question about the practical usefullness of your class, get in the habit of telling them about "one USEful application" and "a very USEful idea" and "you can USE this for.." They totally believe this. (I usually pick one point per semester and talk like this. It's always one of the highest eval points).
7) Personal midterm evals. Google "Classroom Assessment Techniques", they are quite useful.
8) Let them decide on things you don't care about (weight of homework) or something which you can manipulate (so they want an earlier deadline? Well, then you just need more time to grade..). Also, let them pick between assignments - maybe you can give a choice whether to be creative or not .

All of those tips have nothing to do with your content and some are a bit cheap - but they work for me.

I'm nowhere close your subject, but I remember adoring my writing teacher for showing us how to read scientific papers "without reading them for real". (Basically, we looked over articles, read abstract - tried to figure out the structure of the paper, read the conclusion..). But maybe that's because I'm not native, and in my first language, you don't follow such strict rules.
Also, we analyzed some Pullitzer-prized writing and had to write one paragraph in that style.
posted by mathemagician at 9:08 AM on February 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

You mention you've taught these types of course before, so what sorts of feedback did you get? How did your "not getting it" actually translate into effects on their experience? We could prolly advise better if you specify the areas on those previous evals where you didn't "rock" as much as you wanted to.
posted by taramosalata at 10:59 AM on February 16, 2011

If you have any control over your assigned reading and writing assignments, go in the direction of creative non-fiction. There are lots of great books that apply. Think In Cold Blood, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, The Boys of My Youth, A Room of One's Own, etc. Choose good books. Also, try to make the assignments engaging. Can they write a personal essay? A new journalism piece? This all depends, of course, on how much freedom you have to design the class. If you can't control content then just be engaging, interesting, and interested.
posted by tacoma1 at 7:56 PM on February 16, 2011

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