Applying Writing Across the Curriculum Principles in Management 3800 Courses

Riffing off Josh’s thoughts about Challenges in Writing Across the Curriculum at CUNY, I want to consider whether WAC can be meaningfully implemented even though fellows have, as Josh puts it, “wildly different experiences.” His characterization of the WAC programs at CUNY is spot-on. Over drinks this past weekend, I discussed assignments with some friends who are also beginning their fellowships and we discovered just how much they diverge across the colleges (I know, that’s some riveting bar talk). While the divergence speaks to the unique program needs at the different colleges, this inconsistency is at odds with the monolithic way WAC was presented during this summer’s orientation for new fellows. So I thought I would use this space to work through how standard WAC principles might apply to my particularly non-traditional assignment coaching Management 3800 students on the delivery of their in-class debates.

Initially, it was a bit bewildering to me to be a Writing Fellow whose work doesn’t directly relate to writing. Dare I say that I failed to see how my role coaching oral presentations could possibly have anything to do with the approaches to assignment design that I spent two days evaluating and preparing to put into action during the WAC orientation. However, having met with the professor whose courses I am supporting and gotten a sense of his thoughts about debating and what he is looking for, I now see how implementing WAC practices could help his students meet these expectations. To this end, I generated the following ideas that integrate WAC principles into aspects of the debate assignment:

WAC Principle: Scaffolding

Debating well requires various skills related to effective communication, like “the ability to subordinate ideas,” “the ability to think and speak in outline terms” and “the ability to adapt” (I am borrowing this language from a document the professor distributes to the students at the beginning of the semester). Because students must develop these related but different skills, it makes sense to scaffold, or break the larger, high-stakes assignment into a number of lower-stakes, skill-specific activities. Last week I visited the classes to introduce myself and there was a palpable fear among many of the students about the prospect of debating in front of their peers. For these students, the stakes, indeed, are high. Scaffolding the assignment to enable progressive mastery of the skills needed to debate well would likely help alleviate their anxiety and build their confidence. In coaching sessions, I then could ask students struggling with a particular aspect of communication to recall the skill-building activity from class.

WAC Principle: Reflective Exercises

Related to the above, assigning metacognitive activities that ask students to reflect upon their own reasoning process could support the development of communication skills. For instance, exercises might prompt students to ask themselves why they thought it made sense to present their points in this order versus any other, or why they thought this was the most convincing evidence to present here to support an assertion versus evidence that might be held in reserve. This kind of reflective strategy can help students internalize—rather than memorize—their debates, enabling them to adapt more readily in the moment. Metacognitive reflection also emphasizes that a successful debate is “a process not just a product”—a WAC slogan that was repeatedly thrown around during those two days of orientation.

WAC Principle: Develop a Voice

Students who have a strong voice for their opinions are better able to communicate with confidence and thus convincingly engage in a debate. Using VOCAT as a tool for students to orally engage with current issues related to their coursework would help them develop a voice. Or, setting up a course blog where students express their ideas and respond to their classmates can give them a chance to exercise their voices in a lower-stakes setting which simulates the exchange of opinions in a debate.

Currently, in the Management 3800 classes with which I am working, the debate assignment is not scaffolded in the ways I describe here. While I discussed these ideas (rather gingerly) with the professor, I do not feel particularly empowered as a WAC fellow to encourage him to adapt his assignment design. My role is to support the students in meeting the oral challenges of the assignment as it stands (it seems this is the institutional precedent for how fellows are to work with Management 3800 courses). There are obvious obstacles to accommodating scaffolding in the course, including a.) the way the debates are spread out over the semester (with the first debate occurring only a month in) and b.) the likely reluctance professors would feel toward revamping their course structure.

The size of the class is also something to consider. During a past semester, the professor I am working with had a particularly small class so that students gave two debates rather than one. I asked him to reflect upon whether he saw a difference in the performance when students were debating twice and he gave a resounding yes. His exact words were, “the learning process from the first to the second debate was incredible.” But with twenty-eight regularly enrolled in the course, he can only fit each student into one debate a semester. In this light, the case for scaffolding in Management 3800 becomes even stronger.

Challenges in Writing Across the Curriculum at CUNY

Following up on Kristina’s post about her experience as a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) fellow at Baruch this year, I thought I’d report on a meeting I attended recently that gave me a glimpse into the state of the WAC fellowship across different CUNY campuses. About a dozen current WAC fellows working at different colleges got together at the Graduate Center at the beginning of April for an unofficial information session to share our experiences with each other and with incoming fellows. The portrait that emerged from the discussion was that of a WAC program that is implemented inconsistently across campuses and of wildly different experiences for WAC fellows.

(A bit of background for those who are unfamiliar with the CUNY system: Most of the CUNY colleges have a WAC program; CUNY graduate students with five-year fellowships are assigned to work as WAC fellows at a particular college in their fifth year, following their stints as Graduate Teaching Fellows [GTFs] in their second through fourth years.)

The tasks that WAC fellows work on at different colleges vary greatly. Perhaps one of the most common things WAC fellows do is work with faculty to help them incorporate WAC principles in their classes. While fellows at many colleges represented at the session I attended undertook this type of work, at some campuses this did not happen at all. Moreover, several fellows reported that it was difficult to recruit faculty to participate in WAC programs, especially in cases where their professional development was not being remunerated, and that senior faculty sometimes expressed discomfort with being advised by inexperienced graduate student fellows. Among many other specific responsibilities, WAC fellows worked one-on-one with students at writing centers, created websites for their college’s WAC programs, edited publications for student writing, and collaborated with faculty from different departments to implement a “linked” course environment. My work at the BLSCI this year offers examples of yet other duties to which a WAC fellow might attend. It was essentially divided between: (1) working with small teams of students in Management and Society courses to help them polish the delivery of their in-class debates; and (2) exploring themes relating to WAC, communication, pedagogy, technology, etc. through my contributions to this blog.

While I don’t think that the diversity of WAC fellows’ work is inherently problematic, one of its main drawbacks, as I see it, is that fellows receive vastly different levels of immersion into the world of WAC. It appears that in well-supported programs where fellows were able to work closely with receptive faculty to revamp their syllabi according to WAC ideals, the fellows themselves came away with lots of resources for their own teaching. On the other hand, tutoring students through writing centers did not seem to give fellows the opportunity to learn deeply about WAC strategies. Personally, even though I did provide the professor whose students I was coaching on oral presentations with some WAC-inspired ideas about low-stakes writing and grading rubrics, my work at Baruch wasn’t centered specifically on WAC. I got some cheap laughs at the meeting by introducing fellows at the other campuses to the acronym that had guided most of my work at the BLSCI, which wasn’t WAC, nor WID (Writing in the Disciplines)… but CAC (see the title of this blog).

Another issue that arose at the meeting that is related to differing responsibilities for WAC fellows is that of uneven workloads. While some fellows felt that their supervisors were squeezing every possible work hour out of them, others had a large amount of idle time due to disorganization in the program at their college. Fellows at more than one campus (including at senior colleges) reported that lack of adequate compensation for the WAC coordinator positions was resulting in a high rate of turnover for this role and leading to frustratingly chaotic conditions for them.

It seemed evident from our discussion that there is a great need for a re-examination of how WAC is implemented at the different colleges and for a forum where the strengths of each program can be shared. Another important point that was raised by numerous fellows was that they felt that they would have benefited enormously from learning about WAC during their prior assignments as GTFs. An idea that I found compelling was that GTFs should get good training in WAC principles after their first year of teaching and have the opportunity to experiment with different WAC strategies during their next two years as instructors. Then, by the time they take on the WAC fellowship in their fifth year of graduate studies, fellows would have a much stronger and personally tested grounding in WAC pedagogy that would not only enhance their own teaching but also put them in a much stronger position to advise other faculty on how to implement WAC. In the past, CUNY WAC fellows had the opportunity to develop their skills more profoundly and offer continuity to their college WAC program over the course of two year appointments. Since the prospect of getting funding from CUNY for two-year WAC positions seems dim, allowing five-year fellowship recipients to engage with WAC ideals earlier in their careers could bring back some of the benefits of the two-year appointment. This change could help address the uneven exposure to WAC that fellows at different colleges receive and provide for a much stronger training than the inadequate CUNY-wide training for WAC fellows that was provided at the beginning of the year (which was also the subject of a good amount of griping at the session).

In light of the challenges faced by WAC fellows, the Doctoral Students Council agreed to discuss the concerns presented at the informal session at one of their plenary meetings, and a DSC working group might be created to evaluate the WAC fellowship.

Notes on Writing Across the Curriculum at BLSCI

This piece serves as a reflection and elaboration of my current work as a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) Fellow at BLSCI. I would say that the WAC principle of scaffolding assignments in the classroom—that is, breaking work into smaller, skills-specific exercises that link together as a meaningful whole—holds true for developing and rethinking curricula. During this academic year, I navigated the various (and exciting) pedagogical initiatives at BLSCI by identifying a small set of questions to think about across different contexts and learning communities (i.e., faculty members as a group, one-on-one development with a professor over a semester, one-on-one sessions with students, in-class workshops). Specifically, my inquiries and energies were directed towards experimenting with ways to get CUNY undergraduates to simultaneously synthesize course content while exercising a skill that develops and sustains their individual, intellectual interests. This is an extension of what I try to do with students who work with me: students simultaneously rehearse the skills of the discipline and (ideally) gain familiarity with practices that would encourage them to continue producing knowledge that’s meaningful to them, beyond the space and time of a class. What follows, I hope, is a contribution to the ongoing conversations that my BLSCI colleagues have maintained—conversations that inspire me to actively integrate into my own work the value of syncing the uniqueness of one’s voice with a personal commitment to a learning community.

 1. FACULTY DEVELOPMENT

I helped facilitate the “Why the Research Block?” Faculty Roundtable in October 2013. Professor Louise Klusek and Professor Stephen Francoeur led an informative discussion on how to teach undergraduates the structure of and the various approaches to academic research. They illustrated the importance of stressing to undergraduates that academic research is an exercise of multiple skills over a period of time. For example: strategically identifying keywords, locating the proper databases, evaluating the quality of sources, and synthesizing those sources are all constitutive of the research process. The roundtable discussion left me with this question: how do we get students to creatively, critically engage the source materials of their chosen discipline, whether that may be a passage in a novel or a set of numerical data? This inquiry became the motivation behind my pitch for the “Writing About Numbers” Faculty Roundtable.

The “Writing About Numbers” Faculty Roundtable, which I co-ran with Professor Bill Ferns about a month ago, is informed by my experience as a student and instructor at CUNY. I developed variations of teaching a tripartite structure to critical thinking. The three parts include: a claim, evidence to support the claim, a narration of how the selected evidence relates to the claim (the analysis). This is a version of my own approach to research writing and it is an approach that I learned from reading Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations before I started my doctoral studies.

I developed “Writing About Numbers” from my experience in teaching content-heavy courses while modeling for students techniques of argumentation. During class, I frequently ask students to engage directly with the course content, the evidence if you will, and then we build claims together based on an assessment of the evidence (i.e., its textures, effects, and utilities). The evidence and methodology varies from discipline to discipline, but there is an obvious overlap between the disciplines: a shared value of teaching our chosen discipline’s techniques of synthesis and critical thinking. My sense that writing and mathematical reasoning as mutually reinforcing skills comes out of this notion and Toby Fulwiler’s observation that: “Writing and arithmetic provide general tools for manipulating and expressing ideas and information.” The citation for this source and the outline of my presentation can be found here.

Working and co-presenting with Professor Ferns has been generative, especially in opening up a conversation about how instructors can guide students in clearly narrating and effectively visualizing data through communicative models (i.e., graphs, maps, charts).

 2. FACULTY SUPPORT

I provide support and collaborate with faculty in developing writing assignments for their courses. In the fall, I helped a Great Works instructor in preparing students for their term papers. I gave an in-class workshop on how to draft for papers on literature.

I’m currently working with David Gruber, who is a professor of Biology and Environmental Science, and we’re collaborating on scaffolding a few assignments that relate to symbiosis and microbes for his upper-level course “Microbial Ecology.” Two weeks ago, to prepare students for their final research project, I gave an in-class workshop where students and I discussed the structure of scientific prose. Professor Gruber had assigned a chapter from Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters. Microbe Hunters is a stylishly-written, narrative-driven popular press book and I walked students through a conversation about how de Kruif’s style is reflective of his research content. We talked about writing to different audiences. We also discussed how to strategically position, and reposition, the topic of a research paper in order to develop ideas. George D. Gopen and Judith A. Swan’s “The Science of Scientific Writing” was instrumental in my framing of the workshop.

3. STUDENT SUPPORT

Throughout this academic year, I meet with students for one-on-one sessions.  For an hour, I work with a student on an assignment from their Great Works course. These sessions are incredibly instructive in getting me to think about my own pedagogy. Because I frequently work with faculty at Baruch, these sessions serve as a reminder that each student’s learning process is characterized by a different set of particularities and struggles.

These sessions give me a sense of what works (and what doesn’t work) when creating an assignment or essay prompt (specifically in how questions or prompts are framed). Additionally, last semester, when I joined BLSCI Director Suzanne Epstein for a grading session of student writings in aggregate, it was useful to think about my sessions with individual students in connection to Baruch’s English Department’s rubric and standards.

4. BLOG WRITING (AS PROCESS, PEDAGOGY, AND SCHOLARSHIP)

I just want to note that participating in the ongoing conversations at BLSCI has pushed me to think more broadly about public humanities, the various genres of scholarly labor, and the technologies that shape those forms of scholarly labor. In particular, I’ve been thinking through Tressie McMillan Cottom’s blog and Brooklyn College’s Professor Corey Robins’ piece on Aljazeera.

On the matter of numbers

Mindful of other deadlines, I finally applied pressure to my felt-tipped pen while in transit, on a quiet Sunday morning subway-car. I felt unsuited, ill-prepared, to start writing. No notes to work from. Just a folder full of documents unrelated to this blog post. I did have, for better or for worse, an inky pen with a soft point (ballpoints are better for business) and the blank surface of a manila folder. I began drafting this contextual blog post for the “Writing About Numbers” faculty roundtable that Bill Ferns and I will co-run next week. I ended up with this: drawing out, crossing out, sketching again, a recurring discomfort I’ve had since grade school. The story of this recurring feeling is not particularly remarkable, one that is not so dissimilar from my impulse to avoid the freshly opened new word-processor document on my laptop screen (blankness). The story:  I am immediately stunned by numbers and, in defense, my mind triggers a blank.

scribble

This anecdote is a roundabout way of saying that the initial discomfort I sense when writing in a familiar language is, in some ways, akin to the perceived challenges I feel when encountering figures and languages that I am less literate in (i.e., numbers, data, French). It is, quite frankly, the discomfort–some blending of vulnerability and responsibility–that arises when one communicates while learning, thinking, processing. There is always recourse, though, to leave things blank or to remain silent.

* * *

slaveship

But what does writing, discomfort, and silence (blankness) have to do with numbers and data? I’ll try to explain by turning to a context, by relating my academic work in literary study to the subject of numbers. I study Atlantic slavery and its relationship to literary production. The archival materials and texts affiliated with the Atlantic slave trade have been read as documents that reveal the ways in which lives of the enslaved were reduced and dehumanized by violent abstraction. That is, ledgers, balance books, nautical journals and other accounts of the transatlantic slave trade converted captives into commodities, lives indexed by numbers and figures. Take for instance Stephanie Smallwood’s description, in Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (2007), of how ledgers rationalized the violent logic of the slave trade:

 “The ledger’s double-entry pages and the neat grid of the invoice gave purposeful shape to the story they told. Through their graphic simplicity and economy, invoices and ledgers effaced the personal histories that fueled the slaving economy. Containing only what could fit within the clean lines of their columns and rows, they reduced an enormous system of traffic in human commodities to a concise chronicle of quantitative ‘facts.’… Instruments such as these did their work, then, while concealing the messiness of history, erasing from view the politics that underlay the neat account keeping” (98).

In spite of the violent accountings of the slave trade, practitioners of the humanities–historians and literary scholars in particular–have been able to supply nuance, variation, and interpretation to realities that are gestured at but not revealed by the neatness of numbers, charts, and graphs. In the area of slavery studies, robust and incisive work has emerged from scholars who engage with and rethink the politics, ethics, and historical contexts that adjoin the quantitative facts and the administrative records of the slave trade. This is evidenced by recent scholarly gatherings, like “‘Against Recovery?’: Slavery, Freedom, and the Archive,” and digital projects, like Vincent Brown’s cartographic narrative of an eighteenth-century slave revolt.

To return to the question: what does writing, discomfort, and silence have to do with numbers and data?  Writing is a practice in working through the discomfort of learning whatever our subject of study might be. If there’s discomfort, I’ve told students who are silent or on the brink of giving up, it’s because learning is challenging and that thorny realities are involved in subjects we choose to study. Whether working on a formula, or analyzing a set of statistics, or deciphering the mind of Milton’s poetry, writing sets into motion a cycle of processing, self-assessing, and renewing material.

Because writing is a striving for the precise combination of words and signs that correspond to a thought and, simultaneously, an exercise that invites feelings of vulnerability and responsibility, it seems to me that writing is a practice of ethics and politics. In other words, through the process of writing, we reflect on the matter that characterizes whatever our study might be and, as a result, learn a bit more about the limits and the possibilities in what matters to us.

sievers

 Works Cited

Smallwood, Stephanie. Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora. Cambridge: Harvard University Press,  2007.

Source of image #2 and #3: The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record (Click on images for exact url address).

Dear Students,

[In honor of 50 years of Beatlemania]

Dear Students, open up your eyes

Dear Students, see the sunny skies

The wind is low, the birds will sing

That you are part of everything

Dear Students, won’t you open up your eyes?

 

Look around round

Look around round round

Look around

The word “theatre” comes from theatron, the Greek word for “seeing place.” Actors ask audiences to look at them. As instructors, we ask students to look at the world… as it was, is, and could be. It often helps to ask students to begin by looking at themselves.

I start the semester with a letter to students that I project onto the screen and read out loud. I then ask the students to write me a letter about their understanding of contemporary theatre and any prior performance experience –including sports, debate team, dance, and singing. I also ask them to identify two learning goals for the semester.

Sometimes I feel awkward doing this classic WAC tool. Do the students think it’s hokey? A handwritten letter; what is this, a Jane Austen novel? But, I love the students’ responses so much that I keep returning to it.

This semester I am teaching a weekly three-hour night class, which means almost all of my students work full-time and this Intro to Theatre course is being squeezed into very packed lives. I started my letter with “Welcome to the Spring 2014 semester. Although you may have signed up for this class to fulfill a requirement and because it fits your busy schedule, I am convinced you will get a great deal out of our exploration of Western theatrical conventions.”

A fake letter that I wrote to myself.

A fake letter that I wrote to myself.

Perhaps it seems too self-deprecating to begin the semester assuming that most of the students have not chosen to be there. However, many of the students referred to this opening line, acknowledging that this was an accurate description of their situation and, in so doing, expressed relief that they did not have to perform enthusiasm.

At the same time, most students let me know they were hoping enthusiasm would develop throughout the semester and they were looking forward to our many class theatre outings and guest speakers. They also shared wonderful biographical details that I don’t think would have come out in the classroom. It turns out there are four competitive  ballroom dancers and former ballerinas in the class.

Also a fake. But you get the idea.

Also a fake. But you get the idea.

I was surprised by the number of students who wanted to work on their public speaking skills and even try some acting. This was very valuable information for me and I am tweaking my assignments and classroom activities to respond to these goals.

As an aside, in this digital age, it is fun to sift through a stack of (yes, sloppy) handwritten letters. –Fun because I don’t have to grade them and look for strong arguments and mastery of content. I just have to take in how the students have chosen to express themselves. I enjoy looking at the ink looped and scratched across the paper. I note who covered the page with ideas and memories and who wrote just a few sentences. The welcome letter is an ideal low-stakes / high-impact tool.

Writing as Therapy

For the sake of variety, I had hoped that I wouldn’t start this final blog entry of the semester with a personal anecdote, as I’ve done in many of my past posts. But the reason I even considered the topic I decided to write about here is quite personal.

Over the last few months I’ve been dealing with the serious illness of someone in my immediate family. Something that has struck me in going through this experience has been the extent to which the act of communicating can be a trigger for emotional release. I’m thinking of “communicating” here fairly narrowly as being on the outgoing or receiving end of verbal or written communication. What I’m talking about is how you might be more or less holding it together, emotionally speaking, until you talk to someone about what’s going on or read the supportive words of dear friends. At least that has been my recent experience. What I haven’t tried out is the potentially therapeutic outlet that writing about difficult experiences appears to offer a lot of people.

I think there’s a general notion in our culture that for a lot of professional writers, putting pen to paper offers them a crucial emotional vent (like music for musicians, painting for visual artists, etc.—though I think most people would exclude academics and journalists from this group). I’d imagine that people who practice regular journaling might affirm that the emotional benefits of writing about one’s personal travails are in fact available to the wider public. Personally, I haven’t practiced the type of “expressive” writing that I think could yield such benefits. For the better part of ten years I’ve focused almost exclusively on the research-based writing that is standard in grad school, neglecting most other literary modes. I’ve been thinking about the therapeutic value of writing recently as I’ve come across memoirs by people who have gone through serious illness and as I started reading a friend’s blog dedicated to her own health issues. So, for this post I figured I’d do a quick web search for “writing therapy” to see what the popular wisdom of the internet has to say about it. Here’s some of what I turned up:

Psychologist James Pennebaker appears to have done important research that sought to investigate the positive effects of expressive writing. In a widely cited article published in 1997, he compared the long-term effects on a group of subjects who wrote extensively about traumatic events to a control group that wrote about “superficial” topics. According to one assessment:

If you followed the people in these studies [who wrote about personal trauma] over time, they reported fewer illnesses, they went to the doctor less often, and they suffered fewer symptoms of depression in the future. They were less likely to miss work and school, and their performance at work went up. These effects lasted for months and years after writing.

A 2008 study on cancer patients who were involved in an expressive writing program found that for a sizable percentage of them writing about their illness brought about some improvement in their quality of life. On a more anecdotal level, a search for the tag “writing therapy” on The Huffington Post brings up a number of interesting articles describing different people’s experiences with using writing as a tool to overcome some sort of difficult experience.

Since the rise of the internet age, blogs have become the preferred medium for people of all stripes to share their personal turmoil. By 2005, a Washington Post article reported that blogs combined the benefits of writing about one’s problems with the possibility of forming virtual communities. An AOL study cited in the piece indicated that “nearly half of bloggers consider it a form of therapy.” Unsurprisingly, blogs about people’s experiences with serious illness—written by themselves or by their relatives—make up a sizable portion of the blogosphere.  Early on, hospitals began featuring patient blog postings on their websites, apparently recognizing both the therapeutic value to patients but also their marketing potential. Over the last decade, there have been several efforts to scientifically explain the potential benefits of blogging.  A recent study on teenage blogging concluded:

the engagement with an online community allowed by the blog format made it more effective in relieving the writer’s social distress than a private diary would be.

*              *              *

In the process of writing several drafts of this post I wrestled with whether or not I wanted to test out some of the ideas outlined above by writing something more confessional. That didn’t feel like a risk I was ready to take yet. But in versions in which I specified up front the “illness” (cancer) and the “someone” (my mom), I was again caught off guard by the emotional power that merely typing characters into a word-processor can effect. I probably won’t start up a blog, but I may do well to practice more of the low-stakes writing us peddlers of Writing Across the Curriculum philosophy tend to preach.

Writing Assignments and the Business Curriculum: A Laboratory of Ideas Gets Underway at Zicklin

This semester, as a postdoctoral fellow at the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute, I have begun working with the Zicklin School of Business on the development of its Writing Initiative, which aims to strengthen students’ writing and critical thinking skills across the undergraduate business disciplines. Part of this collective effort is driven by the realization that, in an increasingly competitive labor market, our students need to become proficient writers, whether their major is Finance or Marketing. In her recent piece for CNBC, business journalist Kelley Holland notes that “many employers complain that they can’t find qualified candidates.” One reason, they cite, is “candidates’ inability …to write clearly.” Whether it is a one-page office memorandum, a three-page executive summary, a business proposal, or a letter to investors, a piece of writing needs to state its main points and do so in lucid, persuasive language. To this end, the Initiative also focuses on genre and audience.

Although writing assignments are already an integral part of many courses at Zicklin, the need to meet the demands of an increasingly competitive and complex job market means that we have to refine, and in some instances rethink, current writing projects. A foray into this Initiative was an intensive workshop last spring in which Zicklin faculty from various disciplines met with staff from the Schwartz Communication Institute. They discussed objectives, shared concerns such as how to structure, implement and grade writing projects, and drafted assignments. All of these elements are part of our “laboratory,” as we begin putting ideas into practice and immerse ourselves in this joint venture. In supporting faculty efforts to make writing an important feature of their courses, I also am addressing an understandable concern: how to include writing assignments in courses that focus on financial analysis or operations management. Where can one create room for writing assignments in courses that are already filled with lectures and projects specifically related to Accounting or Management topics? Discovering how writing is elemental to a business course’s learning outcomes begins to address some of these concerns.

Of course, in order for any writing assignment to be effective, it must be clearly linked to overall course objectives and worded so that students understand precisely what is expected of them—and why. Clearly expressed prompts are essential to both students’ comprehension of an assignment’s details, and their understanding of how the assignment relates to the material being studied in a given course. Thus, part of my effort in assignment (re)design is to help faculty formulate clear descriptions of assignments within the context of learning goals and course content. We are also developing grading rubrics for these assignments—rubrics that not only offer a framework for grading a project, but also provide a springboard towards assessment for a given assignment and course. I call upon my background as a Writing-across-the-Curriculum and Communication Fellow, and my experience teaching English composition and literature, when I sit down with faculty to design and pilot assignments, give in-class presentations, work one-on-one with students in reviewing their drafts, and plan faculty roundtables that will support these initiatives. One of our long-term goals is to draw business faculty together in an ongoing, shared praxis.

The Writing Initiative is also guided by the desire to ask business students to think of themselves as writers, as well as accountants, managers, or entrepreneurs. The Writing Center and the Student Academic Consulting Center are partners in this Initiative. Their one-on-one and group tutorials provide invaluable support for all students at Baruch, and they offer sessions tailored for ESL and nonnative learners. Through this Initiative, we want students to see proficient writing as essential to their professional lives and their broader roles as critical thinkers and engaged citizens. Thus, we are working to incorporate not only well-developed writing assignments into business courses, but also a culture of writing into the curriculum at Zicklin. In other words, the goal of helping Zicklin’s students produce strong writing for school and workplace is connected with the belief that writing is essential to their lives as thoughtful leaders and productive members of their communities.

Innovative Writing Pedagogies Beyond the Humanities: Following up on a faculty development workshop

I recently had the opportunity to co-facilitate, with Professor David Gruber, a roundtable based on David’s experiences incorporating writing activities and communication-intensive practices in his natural sciences courses. He worked intensively on these assignments with another Schwartz Institute fellow, Priya Chandrasekaran. All of what follows comes directly out of the work that David and Priya did together.*

I am posting this piece to make information on Writing Beyond the Humanities available, both to those who came and to those who weren’t able to make it. Hopefully this can serve as an open educational resource, something our institute thinks about a lot, and which has been written about quite a bit on this blog, including this recent, eloquent, and thought-provoking piece by Michelle Fisher.
Our roundtable was intended to do three main things:

  1. Describe “Writing to Learn” and “Writing Across the Curriculum” practices and rationale.
  2. Give specific examples of writing to learn practices. Many of these examples were based on David and Priya’s assignments.
  3. Give the attendees an opportunity to describe their own classroom objectives and brainstorm with the rest of us on ways they might incorporate writing to learn strategies.  Our attendees were professors teaching a wide range of courses (psychology, information systems, statistics, and computer ethics to name a few) and all of them left the roundtable with strategies in mind for using writing in their classrooms to achieve their specific learning goals.

I made a PowerPoint for the presentation which covers a lot of the conceptual ideas we discussed, and I’ll embed that here:

  • Many of these writing activities work best when done frequently. Free-writing once can be strange and might not be productive. Doing it regularly, though, can be very productive. Once your students are used to it, they can really begin to use and respond to the exercise well.
  • Many of these writing activities work best when they are part of scaffolded assignments. For example: free writing at all stages of an assignments, reflections after learning about the assignment, reflections after doing a draft, writing as part of the assignment itself, and writing in response to the assignment once completed. David’s assignments are really nicely scaffolded and include writing at all stages.
  • Doing some of these writing activities in a non-humanities class can feel odd. Asking students to free write in a statistics class, for example, will seem strange at first to professor and students alike. Being clear about your goals, and being willing to go through some strangeness at first is part of the process. Students respond really well, especially when they see how much they’re improving, but as an instructor you have to be willing to take some risks.
  • Assignments like a written reflection on a difficult reading will give you insight into what’s going on with your students. It gives you an opportunity to troubleshoot in a more personal way and at your leisure, either in office hours or in a written response to your students’ writing, rather than during class time. It also gives students more self-awareness of what they are understanding and what they need to work on.
  • A lot of these writing practices ask students to display mastery of material by expressing course content in lay terms, a skill many of the professors in attendance considered one of their biggest challenges.
  • One concern is that assigning writing gives the professor more work (reading and responding to the writing). First, many of these activities can be done without your needing to read the writing. Free-writing, for example, is not collected (though it can form the basis of a class discussion, especially focused free-writing). Second, a reflection can be turned in, or it can read by a peer who might respond to their peer’s reflection. This might generate a lot of discussion, and a more satisfying class dynamic. Third, in cases where you do read their writing, it will ideally save time and effort in other areas of your teaching. For example, since they will gain understanding and mastery through the practice of writing, their work will be stronger and will ideally require less correction. Fourth, grading lab reports, for example, can be boring after a while if they’re all the same. Assigning a digital lab report that incorporates writing and creativity, though, can be a more fulfilling grading experience.

Please let me know if you have any questions about this roundtable. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

*David and Priya’s work was developed over several semesters of collaboration. The work they did together has really inspired me. Priya’s eloquent and thoughtful writing on this collaboration can be read on this website: here and here and here and here. Our roundtable was based in part on their collaboration, and so reading Priya’s posts will provide a lot of the context behind what we discussed in our roundtable. You should especially look at her post on David’s “Mutualism” lab assignment (which is one of the links above, but for ease of access, here it is again), as it goes through the whole process of doing one assignment, and includes many writing to learn components they used to teach the lab, such as free writing, reflecting, and writing/producing a digital lab report. The timeline she created is pretty rad. You can also look at the timeline here.

Speaking to Learn

Like many of my colleagues in the PhD program in English at the CUNY Graduate Center, I’ve spent a lot of time in the first five years of my program teaching (and even more time learning to teach!) college writing to undergraduates. I’ve taught freshman composition at Borough of Manhattan Community and Queens Colleges, completed a writing fellowship at Medgar Evers College, and currently teach research and writing in the humanities and social sciences to juniors and seniors at York College. What was less familiar to me as a new Communication Fellow with the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute at Baruch College is the Institute’s focus on formal oral communication in the classroom. Of course, students in both my composition and literature classes spend plenty of time — at least half the period — talking to each other. Like most English teachers, I assign discussion prompts along with readings and put students into small groups to hash out these questions before responding to the whole class. Yet, I seem rather to have inherited these practices from my old teachers than to have thought about how to structure them into my syllabi and align them with my learning objectives. It occurs to me that, until this year, I’ve never tried to teach my students how to speak in class, nor made that teaching part of my syllabus.

So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to structure class discussions around a specific set of learning goals — especially how students can use what they are saying in class as pre-drafting exercises for their more formal communications. One of the core principles of Writing Across the Curriculum is the use of writing throughout the syllabus as a pedogogical tool rather than merely as an instrument to assess student learning — what’s known in WAC lingo as “writing-to-learn.” Likewise, in a truly communication-intensive course, the goal of classroom discussion and oral presentation should be more than simply to demonstrate what students have learned at the end of a reading, unit, or course. More than that, oral communication in the classroom can be — should be — an opportunity for students to practice the rhetorical moves they will use in their formal writing and public speaking. Students should be speaking not simply to demonstrate prior learning, but also to activate new learning. After all, the elements of persuasive writing we teach in the classroom — argument and evidence, audience and tone, clarity and structure — have their roots in the Classical rhetoric of oral argument. Moreover, I suspect, students already have a sense of what these things sound like, even if they don’t always know how to translate that sound into their own writing. Indeed, even before my conversion to CAC principles in the classroom, I have long suspected that much of the “jerkiness,” the lack of fluency, in students’ writing comes from their never having spoken about what they’re writing — perhaps never even having read their writing aloud, even to themselves.

With these considerations in mind, while designing the theme and choosing readings for my new Research and Writing in the Majors course at York College in Jamaica, Queens, I thought about what would not only engage students’ interest, but also provoke strong opinions and stimulate lively classroom discussions. Our theme (arrived at after some trepidation, which I will discuss later) is “Policing the City,” and the readings revolve around U. S. District Court judge Shira A. Scheindlin’s opinion in the the case of  Floyd v. City of New York – the “stop and frisk” lawsuit against the city and its police department — which was filed just two weeks before the start of classes at CUNY late this summer.

The attractions of this theme were two-fold. First, not only was the case much in the news and, therefore, already familiar in its basic facts to most of my students; many of my students are African-American and Latino youth from high-crime neighborhoods in the city and, therefore, much more likely to be the targets of stop-and-frisk policing than their cohorts at, say, NYU or Columbia, as Judge Scheindlin’s opinion explicitly finds. Second, ever since my own undergraduate years as a Human Service Advocacy major with a minor in legal studies (I worked as a client advocate in community-based HIV/AIDS service), I have come to believe that the study of legal reasoning and research is the best education in persuasive writing. I learned to write (to the extent that I can write) by drafting hypothetical legal briefs — finding applicable statutes and case law and applying them to a set of facts, always with an ear to what would make a compelling oral argument. Even today, as a second-career, PhD student in English, I still have an easier time with the difference between “probable cause” and “reasonable suspicion” than with the distinction between metaphor and metonymy.

I have said that I began this course with some trepidation. Like all my anxieties, this one took the form of two polar opposite fears: either my students would bristle at the presumptions of this middle-aged, white guy with his New England speech patterns, and shut down before the conversation even began; or else they would be so animated (not to say agitated) by the subject and their personal experiences with it that they would be unable to analyze and discuss the readings with equanimity. I am happy to report (albeit only 3 weeks into the term) that the sentiment of the class has tended toward the latter extreme: the push-back against personal anecdote and emotional appeal has provided many “teachable moments” already this term. To be fair, I give students the opportunity to pose an argument of their own in the second essay. But at first, I ask them to straight-jacket their opinions, and simply to analyze the Executive Summary of the judge’s Opinion in light of Jeffrey Toobin’s  New Yorker article, which provides some background to Scheindlin’s history of judicial activism. During classroom discussions, to facilitate this dispassionate analysis, I provide a template for students that is inspired by some of the templates in Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s composition text They Say, I Say, which guides students to a three-part full response:

  1. Introduce the source (either the text or the student to whom she or he is responding);
  2. Summarize or paraphrase the source’s argument; and
  3. Respond to the source with his or her own argument — either in agreement, disagreement, or something in between.

For example, when one student argues that the city’s stop-and-frisk policy has been an effective tool in fighting crime, another student might be prompted to respond:

I hear you say, based on your understanding of the city’s testimony, that the intrusion on individual liberty is a reasonable price to pay for increased security. While there is a certain ‘common sense’ truth to this argument, as Judge Scheindlin argues, this case is not about the effectiveness of the practice, but rather about its constitutionality. What’s clear from the testimony and the judge’s decision is that there is a clear violation of the the 4th Amendment, and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U. S. Constitution in the prosecution of this policy. Either of which is intolerable, even in the face of the public’s fear of increased crime rates.

While some might argue that such templates restrict students too closely to a particular rhetorical form, I have found them to be effective means for students to gain initial entry into academic discourse. Even while students are working on the nuances of their arguments, they can begin to think of their oral responses as full rhetorical structures, rather than simple “I agree” or “I disagree” responses.

It’s early in the term. In fact, I’m writing this blog post in between writing the guidelines for our first peer review, which we will be conducting tomorrow! But, based on the classroom discussions our course has generated so far, I expect to see some lively and thoughtful analysis of this judicial ruling. What I hope will come of our guided classroom discussion is that students will have a bank of analyses to draw upon as they write their own opinions of the case in their next essays. Moreover, through their readings and guided classroom discussions of ancillary texts, I want students to have learned a pattern of quote-and-respond — oral and written — that will serve them in their individual disciplines, throughout their college and professional careers.

Scaffolding and Revision in Business Policy

Granted, this is not the most beguiling blog post title. However, I was inspired by Priya’s recap of her work  and decided to share my own musings about my first year as a Communication Fellow. My reflections quickly landed on scaffolding and revision, two foundational principles of Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC). As a New Yorker I am not a fan of scaffolding. As an educator, I am a big proponent.

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Unwelcome scaffolding in Soho.

I have worked with three different professors who each teach Business Policy (BPL 5100) in very different ways. BPL 5100 classes require a final group presentation on a particular company, but this assignment is presented and evaluated differently professor to professor. While one professor might require a 40-minute presentation that includes an extensive explanation of financial indicators in an effort to determine if purchasing the company’s stock is a good recommendation, another professor might assign students a specific “critical issue” for a company and ask students to talk for twenty minutes about how the company could most effectively address the issue.

This semester I worked with Professor Cornelius Marx and I have been struck by how much assignment design has influenced student work. Professor Marx uses the “critical issue” premise, which helps focus students’ research efforts towards developing a strong argument. The key for me, though, is that Professor Marx assigns a paper in which the students, as a group, write up their research (an industry analysis, a list of possible alternatives for the company, recommendations for which alternatives to pursue, and implementation plans for those recommendations). Students submit revisions to help clarify their argument, add or remove feasible alternatives, and improve language skills. The paper is due long before the oral presentation and receives its own grade.

I asked Professor Marx about his approach and he explained that he’d made this pedagogical decision two years ago to help students avoid procrastination and to improve the overall quality of their work. He shared his perspective with how these WAC principles have worked in his classroom:

This increases the workload for me but the quality definitely improves. If the paper is put to rest before the oral is begun, the oral inevitably improves because they know their material much better… Of course there are still teams that do it at the last moment but the average quality of both paper and presentation has improved.

Because students came to their oral presentation rehearsal knowing more about their topic and their vision for the company, we were able to spend the rehearsal discussing the fundamentals of good public speaking: converting the written paper into listener-friendly speaking notes, connecting with the audience through eye contact and vocal clarity; proper introductions and conclusions; using transitions, internal previews, and summaries to create group cohesion; and the importance of consistent PowerPoint design.

As a former Teaching Fellow and current adjunct instructor at Baruch, I’ve often wondered if my students were really “getting it” and if scaffolding and revising were worth my additional efforts. It has been a heartening revelation to watch a more experienced professor’s pedagogical process and see its clear benefits.