Adjusting Our Course Designs
About one-half of the first-year writing faculty have decided to teach remotely during the pandemic. Synchronous online teaching, coupled with the compressed semester have led the Program to recommend (not require) a modified arrangement for quality writing instruction. With class size lowered from 14 to 12 students (Fall 2020) or 9 students (Spring 2021), we are able to provide tailored, individualized support for students in their capacities as both readers and writers. We believe that the essence of liberal arts writing instruction begins in tutorial-style conversations with our students, who benefit from our support and guidance as we listen to them interpret and analyze texts under consideration and who grow as writers with small-group discussions of work-in-progress as they draft and revise their arguments.
In a large Zoom classroom, first-year students can at times feel isolated, ignored, or even lost. By videoconferencing with two other students and the professor, no student is left behind. Each student arrives prepared and ready to engage partly because we ask for that and expect that of the small group. What’s more, since small groups meet with the professor once a week (in our prototype syllabus) students have ample time to prepare to offer responses to readings and classmates’ drafts. With class size limited to nine students, it is by no means necessary to design courses anchored in small-group meetings. Some faculty will prefer to meet more frequently with the whole class. And other faculty have chosen to split the difference–to arrange some classes for small groups and others for the whole class.
It is always been part of Writing 101’s pedagogy to highlight and make it possible for individual students and small groups to meet with the professor, typically to offer critiques of one another’s drafts. In the past, when we scheduled those sorts of meetings, we cancelled a regular class meeting or two in order accommodate students’ schedules (making sure that those who have difficulty meeting outside of class could be insured a time slot within the regular class hour). Students report that the most important and helpful part of our instruction comes in private meetings with us. As we all know from our other teaching, there is really no substitute to working with an expert who can raise thoughtful questions, recommend tactics and new approaches to drafts, and report squarely on his/her experience of reading a student’s work.
Here are three documents: one describes the general motivations and guiding principles of enhancing individualized work with student writers; the other two sketch out daily activities (for both Monday/Wednesday/Friday and Tuesday/Thursday arrangements). Since each major writing project typically takes four weeks to complete (as it moves through a cycle of reading, discussion, drafting, critiquing, and revising), the prototype offers a plan for four weeks of work. The activities of the days within that for week cycle would be repeated three times over the course of the semester (12 weeks). A thirteenth week has been left open for things like introducing the course, perhaps doing a short introductory reading before the first project begins, a day’s work on, say, avoiding plagiarism, or talking about styling sentences for readability, etc.
Embedding Writing Fellows
In Fall 2020, we launched a new project designed to give students an additional layer of support. Davidson Writing Fellows, undergraduates chosen partly because of their success in WRI 101, and partly because of their personal interests in written argument, attend several of our classes and meet with the entire class twice during each of the three major writing projects. One meeting is timed just before drafts are due, and the conversation focuses on planning for the argument; the other meeting is timed just before the final, revised version of the paper is due, and the conversation focuses on revising techniques. Fellow work approximately forty hours a semester and are paid $9.00 for their work. They also are expected to touch base with you early in the stages of each writing project to learn generally of its focus and become familiar with the major writing assignment itself.
Unlike consultants working in the Writing Center, Writing Fellows meet with the whole class and openly share strategies and insider knowledge about academic writing, in some cases, the professor’s preferences–all in the spirit of acting as an ally, as someone who has weathered the course and remembers the difficulties of the transition from high school writing practices to the demands of academic and intellectual work. You will find below a “Davidson Writing Fellows Guide” that outlines roles and responsibilities, and offers the general philosophy of the project.