[This week I start my 14th year at Fitchburg State. For that momentous occasion, I decided to focus in this fall preview on one thing that has evolved for each class I’m teaching, and one that’s a bit more longstanding. Leading up to a special weekend update on my next book project!]
On the value of stability, and the need for growth nonetheless.
I taught two sections of First-Year Writing I in my initial (Fall 2005!) semester at Fitchburg State, and have taught at least one section of the course pretty much every year since. It’s quite difficult to remember much about my mindset or work as a teacher (or just about anything else about me) way back then, but in this case I’ve got a very clear memory aid: my Writing I syllabus, the overall structure of which has stayed fundamentally the same across those 14 years. I start with a unit on personal essays (reading examples and then writing and analyzing our own), move to one that uses short stories to write thesis-driven analytical essays, transition to a brief unit in which we practice the skill of close reading on songs of our choice, and then conclude with the most complex unit and genre, one in which we read and then write essays that combine the personal and the scholarly to deal with broad overaching questions and topics (a genre modeled by Adrienne Rich’s “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision” and Richard Rodriguez’s “The Achievement of Desire: Personal Reflections on Learning ‘Basics’”).
I know it might sound pedagogically problematic to use the same syllabus for a decade and a half, but I would argue that there are at least a couple significant, interconnected benefits to having done so. For one thing, as I’ve discussed elsewhere in this space, a class like Writing I is to my mind entirely focused on student skills and voices, on helping them practice and develop different sides to their present and future work as a college student (and beyond). I believe these units, readings, and paper genres work very well for those purposes, and as long as they do so I wouldn’t want to reinvent the wheel. Similarly, for a class to achieve such student-centered purposes, it seems to me that the professor has to be able to focus virtually all of his or her time on working closely with each and every student, rather than (for example) reading and engaging with a ton of new content or materials. Obviously if a particular reading—or an entire unit or genre, or the whole syllabus for that matter—no longer feels as if it works, it’s important for us to be able to recognize that and make a change; but again, as long as it continues to feel that way, this is one more argument for maintaining some fundamental stability in Writing I in order to maximize our success in achieving the course’s crucial collegiate objectives.
Yet fundamental stability doesn’t preclude specific additions or changes within that course’s syllabus, of course, and indeed keeping the overarching structure the same can make it easier for a professor to make such focused tweaks. As I’ve also discussed here previously, finding ways to add digital and multi-media content and paper options has been one such tweak I’ve attempted in my last few Writing I courses, and I plan to continue doing so this fall. But for this semester’s section, I’ve also been thinking about ways to get the students writing more frequently without it feeling to them like busy work. My current plan is to do so on days when there’s a reading in front of us, and to try to find prompts for brief bits of in-class writing that will both help drive our discussions and connect to their ideas or work in progress for the upcoming paper. But as always, I’m very open to thoughts or suggestions, for likewise as always my continued evolution as a teacher depends at least as much on all those in my community as on my own fourteen years of experiences!
Next preview tomorrow,
PS. What do you all have going on this Fall?
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