Wednesday, May 11, 2016
May 11, 2016: Semester Reflections: A Writing Associate in Major American Authors
[This week marks the final classes of the Spring 2016 semester, so this week on the blog I’ll offer some semester reflections, focusing on new texts or ideas I tried in my courses. I’d love to hear your spring reflections and any other pedagogical or personal perspectives you’d share!]
On one expected and one surprising lesson provided by my student Writing Associate.
As I noted in both my initial Spring 2016 preview post and my subsequent specific preview of Major American Authors of the 20th Century, this semester I had the chance to work with a Writing Associate: Seferine Baez, a Secondary Education/Licensure track major in our English Studies department (and the recent recipient of our very prestigious Nancy Kelly Memorial Award). Our department’s wonderful Writing Associates program (created by Patrice Gray and currently overseen by Steve Edwards) offers students who have taken a course previously the chance to return to that class as a partner with the professor, working closely with both individual students and the class overall on writing and assignments, as well as whatever else makes sense for the particular course, student, and professor. I’ve had the chance to work with around ten Writing Associates over the years, and have (I’m quite sure) consistently learned at least as much from the experience as have either the WAs or the other students in the class.
That trend held true this semester for sure, in both a more expected and a more surprising way. The more expected lesson (in that I’ve seen it with each WA over the years) had to do with the unique and vital role that collaboration and conversation can play in developing individual voices, ideas, and writing. I work hard to provide students with numerous opportunities to talk to me about those things, but at the end of the day, no student-professor conversation is even quite collaborative: there are just power dynamics and hierarchies in play that can’t be ignored. That doesn’t mean that such conversations aren’t valuable, but they can’t take the place of more genuinely collaborative conversations, the kinds that a great WA like Seferine can have with the students in a class. I don’t require students to meet with the Writing Associate, but I strongly encourage (and reward) them to do so, and the results are always striking: student work, ideas, and papers that are consistently and thoroughly stronger because of those conversations. And stronger in one particularly telling way: they’re more genuinely the students’ own, built on their perspectives and passions in ways that aren’t always easy to find in required assignments and analytical writing.
Seferine’s work in Major American Authors also offered a more new and surprising lesson for this (somewhat grizzled) AmericanStudier, however. Since she’s a teacher-in-training, I wanted to make sure to offer her a chance to do some teaching of her own on the communal level as well as in such individual conversations, and she took me up on it, leading a discussion of a complex story/chapter (“Lulu’s Boys”) from Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine. She did a great job, both in the moment and then in reflecting on and learning from it, but that wasn’t the slightest bit surprising. No, what surprised me was how differently I was able to observe this pedagogical moment than has been the case in other, seemingly parallel instances such as student presentations or peer evaluations of colleagues. I always learn a good bit from both of those kinds of experiences, to be sure; but watching Seferine both extend and redirect our two prior discussions of Erdrich’s text, seeing her bring her own perspective and interests into the mix and then draw out student voices through those lenses, shifted my take on the class and its dynamics in truly unique and significant ways. I’ll most definitely be making room for such WA discussion leading in my future classes, and they’ll have a impressive example to live up to.
Next reflection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Responses to this idea or others you’d share?