Blog Post

Teaching Public Writing in the Graduate Seminar

Image of chalkboard and pencil with "Teaching Public Writing in the Graduate Seminar" written in white

In Fall 2018, I attended an event at my college organized by my colleague Cori McKenzie on “Innovations in English Language Arts Teaching and Learning.” In this event, McKenzie’s graduate students presented their research projects in progress, on topics ranging from the importance of multimodal composition to teaching diverse books in the K-12 classroom. I was so inspired and impressed by what I saw that night that I took to Facebook to share some photos and highlights. It wasn’t long until the comments section became filled with versions of the question, “how can I learn more about their work?”

While I didn’t have a solid answer at the time, I decided that I would organize my Spring 2019 graduate seminar on Feminist Worldmaking in a way that would help us answer that very question. For this course, instead of writing a traditional final paper that would be read solely by the instructor, I decided that the final project would ask students to share some aspect of their learning or research with a public audience.

As an educator, I have observed how writing for a public audience dramatically improves the quality of students’ writing. I’m also interested in how public writing assignments can leverage the affordances of digital platforms to both help students increase their digital literacy and teach them that their voices and perspectives on contemporary social issues matter. While I have previously written about teaching public writing at the undergraduate level, in this blog, I explain how I incorporated, framed, and scaffolded this public writing assignment for a graduate seminar.

Assignment Overview

Feminist Worldmaking was, in many ways, my dream course. In this seminar, we used a cultural studies approach to explore how texts - from contemporary memoir, short stories, stand-up comedy, to syllabi - reshape our notions of difference. We asked: how are resources (opportunities, wealth, food, healthcare, housing, pleasure, etc.) unevenly distributed along embodied axes of race, class, gender, sexuality and ability? What roles do language, literature, education, and culture play in reproducing and challenging these conditions? How can we build a more just, equitable, and pleasurable world? In addition to discussing feminism, we also sought to enact feminist pedagogy in the classroom. Given that classrooms reproduce hierarchical configurations of power and knowledge, we tried to alter these by jointly making decisions about the course. While I selected four short units ahead of time - genealogies of women of color feminism, speculative fiction, feminist pedagogy, and comedy - the remainder of the semester was designed and led by the students. For their midterm, each student used what they had learned about pedagogy to create a syllabus for their dream course. They created syllabi on topics such as anarchy, feminist approaches to young adult literature, "alien feminisms," and women in fairytales, which they then used to shape the remainder of our course. 

Students were told from the first day of class that our seminar would conclude with a piece of public writing. As stated on the syllabus:

Public blog post for HASTAC.org (20%)

For the final project, you will make a public contribution to knowledge by posting a blog to the academic network HASTAC.org. HASTAC is an interdisciplinary community of more than 16,000 students, professors, authors, activists, and educators committed to “changing the way we teach and learn.” Your task is either to write a blog post related to something you learned this semester or to write a blog post that introduces your research to a public audience. If there is a different publication or platform you prefer to write for, you may do so with the instructor’s permission. Your blog should be roughly 1500-2000 words, though this might vary depending on the topic you select.

I explained that we were embarking on this project 1) so the students could connect with others doing similar work 2) to share what they’ve learned in hopes that it will be useful to others 3) to practice tailoring writing for a specific audience and 4) as part of a larger feminist movement for pedagogical, institutional, and social change. Given the increasing privatization of knowledge and the fact that mainstream media, public discourse, and curricula remain dominated by what bell hooks calls “the capitalist white supremacist heteropatriachy,” public scholarship, writing, and knowledge sharing are part of the much larger project of building feminist worlds.

Rather than treating our course solely as a form of individual investment, I wanted to challenge students to make their learning useful to an audience beyond our classroom and, in so doing, to think about education as a collective societal project and an opportunity to contribute to the public good. This project was inspired by scholars like Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Katina Rogers, Chris Newfield, and Cathy N. Davidson, who argue that universities, and the humanities in particular, need to reinvest in our commitment to improving society and serving diverse publics. As the graduate assistant for one of Davidson’s seminars, I learned that one way we can do this is through public projects like Structuring Equality, in which each graduate student in the course authored a chapter of a free book on teaching and learning methods.

Scaffolding

Rather than having the assignment come crashing down on us in the final weeks of the semester, we incorporated discussions about public scholarship throughout the course.

My approach to digital pedagogy is to teach students how to analyze the affordances and limitations of different tools and platforms in order to select the best one for the work they want to do. And so, this public writing assignment began with a critical analysis of HASTAC as a platform. Early on in the semester, we read HASTAC’s About page and Lindsay McKenzie’s article, “The Ethical Social Network” and discussed how HASTAC earned that moniker by remaining a free and open academic network that protects users’ privacy and has promised to never sell their data. We also addressed questions like, what topics are HASTAC users interested in? What genre conventions can we discern in HASTAC blog posts? What works well, for instance, in terms of incorporating media or for citation processes? In the future, I would also incorporate a close reading of the CFPs for HASTAC’s recent conferences on “The Possible Worlds of Digital Humanities” and “Decolonizing Technologies, Reprogramming Education.”

In addition, we explored the different ways HASTAC organizes information according to topics and groups. Next time, I plan on incorporating a mini assignment, in which students have to identify three groups and topics that interest them and/or relate to their work.

During our unit on feminist pedagogy, we discussed how education remains structured by colonial, racist, sexist, and heteropatriarchal values at the levels of both content and curricula. We read part of June Jordan’s Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint to think about how publishing feminist syllabi and other teaching materials as well as feminist perspectives on current issues, can be part of a grassroots movement for pedagogical, institutional, and social change. We discussed how, often, teaching materials like syllabi and lesson plans are treated as individual intellectual property. However, by sharing them, we are giving others examples, models, and methods they can borrow from, use, and remix to produce feminist education. That same week we read the introduction and afterword to Structuring Equality to think about how the internet has expanded the possibilities for grassroots participatory resource sharing in exciting ways, and how digital platforms like HASTAC can increase the potential impact of public scholarship. We also discussed how the internet is changing the means for scholarly knowledge production, and how institutional reward structures ought to shift to better incentivize this kind of work.

Throughout the semester students were given options for their blog: they could introduce their research to a larger public audience, they could post a version of their syllabus assignment with additional context and framing language, they could expand on the blog they wrote for our course, or write a new post about something they learned this semester. In addition, students were not obligated to write for HASTAC if they didn’t feel that was an audience their work was addressing. Instead, they were welcome to propose any other platform, and one student chose WordPress to better accommodate her multimodal composition.

One key activity that led to the development of students’ final projects was analyzing how a contemporary scholar presented her research in two different ways, as both a traditional scholarly monograph and a blog. We read Sami Schalk’s terrific book, Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction and discussed how Schalk took some of the key arguments and ideas from that book in order to write a blog: “Reimagining Ourselves: Race, Gender, and Disability in Black Panther and a Wrinkle in Time.” More specifically, we discussed how Schalk drew on public enthusiasm and debate over these new films and analyzed them through the perspective offered by her research.

Fortuitously, two blogs on the process of public writing were published throughout the course of the semester: Sean Gerrity’s, “Advice on Moving Toward Engaging Public Scholarship” and Norah Elmagraby’s “Navigating my way through Public Scholarship.” Considered together, these posts and Schalk’s example allowed us to discuss the question, how do you translate specialized research for a public audience?

As the submission of their rough drafts drew nearer, we read a sample blog from HASTAC and discussed what we thought were the blog’s strengths and weaknesses as a way for students to think about how they wanted to approach their own posts. We also did an in-class writing exercise, in which students were given five minutes to write in response to any of the following prompts:

  • What is your HASTAC post about?
  • What is the aim of your post? What do you want it to do in the world?
  • How far along are you? What have you done vs. what do you still need to do?
  • What difficulties have you encountered?
  • What questions are coming up as you work on this? Anything we as a group can help with?

Afterward, we went around the group and each student presented their response and we asked questions and gave feedback.

On the day that students’ rough drafts were due, we did a peer review session in class. While peer review is invaluable to my undergraduate composition and literature courses, I was disappointed that, in my own graduate education, it wasn’t more explicitly incorporated into our seminars (of course, my friends and I constantly exchanged work outside of class). As someone who considers feedback a gift, I wanted to create a space for peer review within our seminar. I gave students two options: we could do a rapid-fire peer review in which they would each have seven minutes to read their peer’s rough draft, which would allow them to get a taste of everyone’s draft, or they could do a sustained peer review and spend fifteen minutes with two or three of their peer’s drafts (they opted for the former). Their drafts traveled around the circle and I used a timer to ensure that we stuck to our 7-minute time limit, during which they left comments on each other’s drafts as they read. By the end of the 50-ish minutes, they received their original rough draft back, now covered in feedback and suggestions from their peers.

The final step on this journey towards producing a piece of public writing was presenting their work as part of a graduate symposium on “Adventures in Worldmaking” at our college.

Pink and green Flyer for Adventures in Worldmaking: Snapshots of Graduate Studies in English with an Africa-centric map

This gave students the opportunity to practice tailoring their research for an audience of undergraduate non-specialists. Many of the graduate students engaged their audience by incorporating visuals, framing their research in relation to their personal narratives, and increasing the number of concrete examples they incorporated to illustrate more theoretical points. This, in turn, contributed to the process of revising their rough drafts into final posts for HASTAC.

Through this assignment, we explored how writing for a public audience does not diminish the complexity of our research: it increases its impact and sharpens the quality of our thinking. I am profoundly grateful to the generous and creative group of graduate students who were willing to journey with me down this path of public writing in hopes of making higher education less of an ivory-covered enclave. If you are interested in learning more about their work, please see the posts below:

Image credit: Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

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