Since I'm another of the mad scientists who birthed this approach, I'll throw in some quick reflections. For those who don't know, three colleagues and I piloted a new approach to introductory composition this past fall. 80 students were divided into 18 groups based on student interests. A full list of topics is available here. Students used pseudonyms to protect their identities. Now were interested in publishing something on this, so let the inventive process begin.
- Quantity, not quality. This might sound like blasphemy coming from someone who is earning a Ph.D in rhetoric and composition, but I think revision is a waste of time with first-year writers. Or, at least, the way revision is currently taught. While upper-division writers might benefit from refining an idea for scholarly or professional presentation, introductory writers need more experience with the generative, inventive process and with structuring an idea [including incorporating and contextualizing sources]. Certainly, there is a need to revise during the composing process, but requiring complete rough drafts that go through a revision process is (in my opinion) a waste at that level. I also believe rough drafts are counter-productive to teaching writing as a way of learning: students generate The Draft and are then hesitant to explore opposing positions, tangents, or to reconsider the structural arrangement of their writing. Essentially, this blogging course required students to produce three short rough drafts a week. The experience they gained outlining and structuring an idea showed marked improvements to their writing over the course of the semester.
- Workshopping Works. I've never been a big fan of peer review with introductory composition- mostly because the comments students receive then to focus on grammar or are ambiguous and less-than-helpful [i.e., "this needs to flow better" How does that help anyone?]. With this course, every Thursday worked as a workshop day- I brought in posts and we read and critiqued them as a class. I provided students with specific tasks--underline the best sentence, circle the least effective sentence--and we discussed them as a class. I asked students if they thought this was an effective use of class time; they consistently responded "Yes" because, while they might not have learned what to do, they certainly felt they learned what not to do. This reminds me of an argument for peer review Donald Murray made way back in the 70's- students benefit from exposure to prose similar to their skill level. At some point, after reviewing 20 papers or posts, students internalize what doesn't work. And then they don't do that anymore. Brilliant.
- Make Sure There's a Community, Make Sure There's Real Interest, Make Sure There's Something To Do. By far, the more successful students were those who entered a community in which they were already invested. And a community which aims to DO something- posts became a kind of reflection on activity. Cooking, skateboarding, sampling, watching horror movies. A simple word for these activities: hobbies. A better word? Passions (in the best case scenarios). These groups regularly produced engaging writing. What to avoid? The next time I teach this I will absolutely disallow "Being a College Student." Why? First, it doesn't have a cohesive online community- different schools offer blogs on college life, but these posts leaned toward being repetitive and predictable. My students in these groups were strong writers, but it was difficult to come up with topics for posts. If I did soften my stance and allow this one, it would have to be more like a journalist role: reporting upcoming events on campus etc. The other thing to avoid? Something general like "humor." While this might be a great topic for upper-division students, asking first year writers to compose 1000 words a week on a theoretical topic [what is humor?] is quite difficult. It is much better to ground them in something they do, something that a bunch of other people do, something upon which they can write reflectively.
- It Fucking Works. To echo my colleague, the marked improvement to student writing was at times staggering. This quantitative, student-centered approach to instruction made my students better writers. I'd link to a bunch of posts from the beginning of the semester and a bunch of posts from the end of the semester, but since a few of my former students read my blog that doesn't seem right. For now, you'll just have to take my word on it. But I know that after teaching this class, I don't think I could ever teach freshman composition any other way. It just fucking works.