For so many Freshmen Composition students, writing is something done in school by addressing a prompt using a prescribed structure based on what they believe the teacher wants. In this paradigm, writing becomes a syllogistic if-then statement: if this is writing, then I don’t like to write OR if this is writing, then I am a bad writer. As an instructor of composition my aim is to disrupt this by maximizing students’ agency. My pedagogy is rooted in the situated learning constructivism of Lave and Wenger, neo-Vygotskian Socio-culturalism, and ludological research into learning by theorists such as James Gee and Jane McGonigal.
At it’s base my class is an exploration of several different genres which mirror common types of real world writing, are anchored in the student’s personal interests, and are dedicated to further informing those interests. During each of these assignments, students choose their own topic and learn to embody the practices and rituals of those genres. In this way the assignments encourage an inquiry-based paradigm of learning where learners participate in a community of practice, receive feedback from a more capable other like their peers or me, and then attempt the activity anew.
“Nobody writes alone” is a phrase heard repeatedly throughout the semester. For every assignment students and receive peer feedback on rough drafts and instructor feedback prior to the final draft. I use this feedback to help their writing evolve but also to see what students are struggling with on a large scale. This allows me the opportunity to work emergently with the class on large scale struggles so that we fix them together. One example would be using sources authoritatively. It’s common to see students letting the quotes of their sources eclipse their own writing. When this happens the student becomes the mouthpiece for their sources rather than the agent of their own ideas who wields outside information as an extension of their ideas. To address this, before class I note one place in every student’s essay where they could take more authority over a source, in class I go over a model essay to demonstrate the practices and phraseology of maintaining authority in writing. Following this students pull up their drafts and begin to fix the problem, ask for advice, or receive further feedback. I have discovered that the most effective route for learning is the communication with students throughout the composition process. In addition good learning is not focused on proficient skills but those that are still in an embryonic state of development, which means that the learner might fail. However FAIL is simply a First Attempt In Learning and should be treated as an opportunity for further development.
In an attempt to encourage rather than punish embryonic learning, the class runs using contract grading. At the beginning of the semester every student tells me what grade they want in the class — A, B, or C. They receive feedback from me on every draft geared toward helping them earn that grade. So for example I would not push a student who contracted for a B to do A work. If their final draft does not achieve this grade they receive additional feedback and unlimited revision attempts to get the grade they want. Ideally this creates an environment where the consequences of failure are dampened or extinguished altogether which in turn encourages more risk in essays and more learning via revision if necessary. My pedagogical principles aim to cultivate a formative frame for viewing and engaging with the world via critical inquiry. I teach by these principles because of my conviction that they provide the most agentive means for bettering and educating oneself. However I am consistently refining my practice to develop better, simpler, and more ethical ways to keep students at the center of their education.