TEACHING Narrative

I’m focusing my attention here on several iterations of ENGL 2010; on the two courses I developed for the Writing Certificate of Completion; and on some changes I’ve made in my approach to two creative writing courses I teach. These courses represent the broad outlines of my teaching; I want to show the ways that I use collaborative energy, scholarship, assessment, and invention to drive the process of revising courses.

ENGLISH 2010 (Intermediate Writing)

I have embraced the commitment to teach composition in my role as a member of the English Department. I have worked with various colleagues and partners in the department, as well as weighing currents in the field and in higher education at large, to design, redesign, and transform the curriculum of the writing courses I teach.

COURSE DESIGN. When the College adopted Vista, a Blackboard course management system, like other faculty, I undertook the training. I opted for the course designer training because I wanted to have as much control as possible, and the ability to fix things as they arose. I didn’t quite realize until the training was underway that opting into this more substantial training would also allow me to learn to think with the system, which allows one to work with the platform more productively.

I say ‘work with,’ but I want to be clear that this doesn’t mean to work uncritically with. It simply means trying to understand the logic of the system as it is designed. I have found this stance to be useful. Having now worked with three learning management systems, it’s clear that each will have its affordances and its constraints. It’s good, though, to understand the affordances, and to exploit them as thoroughly as possible.

For me, the affordances of Vista Blackboard included the ability to sequence and section learning activities more mindfully. Like many higher education faculty, I had little training in course design, and Vista required that I think much more carefully than I had heretofore about course design issues. The result is that I became a more mindful designer of my online courses, and from there, the face to face courses I occasionally taught. I learned how to communicate to students the architecture of a course through its design, how to design meaningful learning experiences in a course, and how to balance a sense of predictability—the sense of what’s coming next—with a sense of challenge and surprise.

Having learned these lessons from getting trained in, and then using, Vista Blackboard, I found it easier to move into Canvas with most of the same practices. Canvas’s more fluid design and more intuitive tools were a plus, but I still designed with the goals of a clear architecture, meaningful learning experiences that connected, and a balance between predictability and challenge or surprise.

GENRE-FOCUSED APPROACH, and its discontents. From Trimbur’s work in The Call to Write, the very first edition, I took two key premises: that ‘writing is much more than a school subject. Writing is an activity individuals and groups rely on to … organize their social lives, get work done,…and voice their needs and aspirations’ (Preface,’ The Call to Write, 1e), and that writers must choose from an array of tools available to them in any situation. Among the tools that people take up in order to accomplish their intentions in writing are genres. The department—not without ongoing discussion—also basically committed to a genre-focused ENGL 2010 course.

Over time, I began to notice that various genre textbooks, began describing and predicting genre-based work in ways that troubled me: first, the genre typology started to signal more toward typical school genres, rather than the more flexible, situatable genres and the more public-engaged orientation of Trimbur. The default medium of the pieces in the textbooks seemed to be print; the modality seemed to be primarily alphabetic. And I began to see what seemed to be a greater predictability in what I received from students, so much so that I started thinking that the problem was probably coming from the assignments, the course design, the apparatus, as much as the textbooks themselves.

Kati Lewis, Jennifer Courtney and I began to reframe some of the material of the course. While keeping a community-engaged, public-writing, research-driven, and genre orientation to the course, we talked about adding invention material to the course that would point toward exploration, language play, and multimodal or multimedia responses to assignments. Geoffrey Sirc’s essay ‘Box Logic’ had a powerful influence on this redesign and indeed on my teaching as a whole. I think particularly of his notion of the wunderkabinetten: Sirc notes that, as a compositional frame, ‘the box offers a grammar which could prove useful in guiding our classroom practice in light of rapidly shifting compositional media: it allows both textual pleasure, as students archive their personal collections of text and imagery, and formal practice in learning the compositional skills that seem increasingly important in contemporary culture’ (116).

To this end, we designed an ongoing notebook practice in the class, one with many, many prompts, so that students would always have a choice of ways to explore and write ‘to the side’ of whatever major writing project they had in play at the moment. This notion of what we called ‘side-writing’ chimes with Sirc’s account of the way he works himself ‘—jotting notes on the fly, sound-bite aperçus that sound good by themselves but can also become workable bits in a larger structure’ (114).

ARTIFACT: The Notebook Prompts page on the Google Site we use for students to access various suggested prompts from week to week. I co-developed these notebook prompts with Kati Lewis, Jennifer Courtney, and Benjamin Solomon. The Google Site itself was a collaboration between the faculty team (Jennifer Courtney and me) and the instructional designers we worked with in eLearning, Sandy Durtschi, Jeffrey Brandt, and Megan Avery. The instructional team manages and maintains the site.

ARTIFACT: This is Your Notebook (screencast). I authored this screencast.

We put some effort into lacing what might be designated as ‘creative writing’ approaches to writing and invention into the overall canon of notebook prompts, as well as narrative strategies. We also created many ways for students to play with multimodal and multimedia composing tools for the notebook. We wanted to invite students to try things, to consider experimentation and invention as regular parts of their composing repertoire. We wanted them to, at least occasionally, have fun.

This redesign has proven to have remarkable durability. In fact, I used it as the basis for one of the two threads of the Online Plus redesign.

ONLINE PLUS: from pilot to scalable pilot to …? In Spring of 2013, the office of Educational Initiatives released a Request For Proposals for courses that would combine ‘online learning with additional instructional activities in an open learning lab setting.’ Brittany Stephenson took the lead in doing a redesign of ENGL 1010; with Jennifer Courtney, I wrote the proposal for ENGL 2010.

Our redesign built carefully upon the 1010 pilot, but added a few features:

  • A strong part-time faculty support component, made explicit in the form of an online Instructor’s Guide, and implicit in a well-maintained DEV site.
  • A rich set of resources for the course that made it implicitly remixable.
  • A commitment to housing most reading materials online, and thus a commitment to openly available, changeable, and updatable reading materials.
  • Opportunities for students to frequently check their learning—the ‘soft barrier’ of concept-based quizzes.
  • A strong commitment to an instructional team approach, which provided better support and engagement for part-time faculty, as well as expanded opportunities to improve the course, drawing from multiple, diverse perspectives of the team.

Our course proposal drew upon and responded to the Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education (Chickering & Gamson), as well as the ‘Eight Habits of Mind,’ taken from the Framework for Success in Post Secondary Writing (WPA Council).

We are still processing the data we have obtained from pre- and post- surveys of the pilot group of students, as well as follow up surveys of students in subsequent semesters. We have planned and are currently midstream in carrying out a multimodal, multiphase assessment of Online Plus ENGL 1010 and 2010. We’ve worked with Institutional Research to do another set of pre- and post- surveys of students (we’ve had a 38% response to our pre- survey, which is highly satisfactory), and are currently planning the ePortfolio learning outcomes assessment.

This course—the redesign, the assessment, the teaching—has has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my teaching life. Let me begin with the assessment part. With my colleagues, I have engaged in a sustained way with Institutional Research, as well as with multiple peers in the department, to plan this assessment. I believe that one of the undersung values of an ongoing assessment practice is the opportunity that this practice creates for faculty, full- and part-time, to engage in meaningful discussion of and reflection upon a shared endeavor. I have this hope for our assessment as well, but I also hope that we can demonstrate that it is a viable design, viable in terms of student learning but also in terms of sustaining and supporting our part-time colleagues. My observation of the interaction we have built into the model suggests that we’re doing a good job of this sustaining and supporting. If that’s the case, then perhaps a small project like this can be one lever by which we, as an institution, but certainly as a department, rethink our approach to part-time faculty support. This seems to me to have been a meaningful outcome of our project, and we continue to inquire into the course to keep learning from it.

As for the design process, I found the experience of building the course in tandem with a longtime, respected colleague, Jennifer Courtney, along with a new, promising colleague, Benjamin Solomon, and with the support of eLearning and the team of instructional designers, an intense and powerful learning experience. As I mentioned before, we had in hand a course with a high quality and durable pedagogical design as we entered the redesign process. What we built together was not only a course, but a point of future access for other instructors, with a particular focus on part-time faculty support. Having many stakeholders and interlocutors in the project helped us to think and rethink our designs. Moreover, each instructional team—now, the principle full-time partners are myself and Benjamin Solomon, along with additional full- and part-time partners Justin Jory, Michelle Szytela, Beth Bailey, and Laryssa Waldron—has taken as part of its responsibility an ongoing reexamination of the course, so that it continues to change and improve. We have added resources and revised learning activities. The process of design, as we originally predicted, continues, with all partners contributing. I find this one of the most valuable and instructive parts of this experience.

And the teaching, with its emphasis on close attention to student writing, and on the instructor-and-student conversation, is intensely rewarding. One design feature of the course allows students the opportunity to have conversations with more than one instructor, thus diversifying the sources of their feedback. We have evidence that students value these features of the course highly as well. We’re looking forward to the learning outcomes assessment, which will include sampling from sections of both courses taught in all modalities. We hope to see even more evidence of what our students are learning.

ARTIFACT: Proposal for Online Plus Project. I co-authored this with Jennifer Courtney.

ARTIFACT: English 2010 Hybrid Survey Analysis and Final Report (The survey we designed with Institutional Research; report by Jessie Winitsky-Stephens). This represents our commitment to assessing this model, which continues to the present. We continue to use and review this data.

ARTIFACT: Outline of Assessment Plan for ENGL 1010/2010 Online Plus. I wrote this summary for department information and review. The plan itself is a collaboration between me, Benjamin Solomon, Brittany Stephenson, Ron Christiansen, and staff from Institutional Research, principally Jessie Winitsky-Stephens.

ARTIFACT: Choosing an Issue comic. I authored this comic.

ARTIFACT: Multimodal Composing video (screencast). I authored this screencast.

I’ve discussed my work in ENGL 2010 at great length—it represents the majority of my teaching, and I have made a substantial contribution to this course. While I will discuss the courses below more briefly, they represent the breadth of my teaching, as well as contributions I’ve made to other major areas of the English Department’s curriculum.


The Writing Certificate emerged after several years of discussion. One of its origins was a proposal I made that a group of interested department faculty read and discuss Robert Scholes’ The Rise and Fall of English, which advocated reframing the work of English Departments around textuality, with an emphasis on production supplanting the traditional literature degree’s investment in interpretation/exegesis (roughly, writing as opposed to reading). The Certificate gained traction with the arrival of Andrea Malouf, who, with her background in publishing, was able to help us strategize, put together a PAC, and pull together the curriculum work. I was the principle designer and author of two Writing Certificate of Completion courses, ENGL 2500, Grammar and Style, and ENGL 1820, Publication Studies, which are two of the small set of core courses in the Certificate.

ENGL 2500, Grammar & Style

This course originated when we developed the core curriculum for the Writing Certificate of Completion. We did not have a grammar course on the books, nor a course dedicated to style. The premise of the course is that control over style–that is, a flexible, adaptable prose style–can be learned and practiced, and that understanding syntax can be a powerful tool for doing so.

I developed the course, consulting with Allison Fernley and Jamie McBeth, who both made significant contributions to the ideas and structure of the course. I taught the course the first three times it was offered. Charlotte Howe sat in on the course to prepare herself to teach it. Students, particularly Writing Certificate students, consistently cite this course as one of their most transformative experiences.

ARTIFACTS: English 2500 Syllabus and English 2500 Midterm & Final Exams. These are materials from my most recent teaching of the course.

ENGL 1820, Publication Studies

This course also originated as a core course of the Writing Certificate. I developed the concept for the course, and consulting with Lynn Kilpatrick and Andrea Malouf, wrote the course curriculum. The course makes students in the class the publishers of a student chapbook–the winner of the chapbook competition.

Because the course is experiential, it is almost entirely unique among English courses. Students work on aspects of design, production, publicity and circulation. They see the production of a book from the very beginning to the very end. They smell the glue that binds the book, because they are doing the binding. I taught the course the first two times it was offered. Two faculty, Lynn Kilpatrick and Kati Lewis, sat in on the course the second time, and Lynn subsequently taught it. Charlotte Howe has taught the course the last two times. Given the highly immersive nature of the teaching and learning, the fact that we have offered the course successfully this many times, and the fact that multiple instructors have taken it up, all form a strong argument that the course is a success. The chapbook publication is now one of the signature events on the department’s annual calendar.

The premise of this course is one that has long interested me: the idea that considering circulation should not be divorced from production of texts. The tangible experience of taking a book project from manuscript to publication is invaluable to the students who engage with that process. The two student documentaries I have provided as artifacts demonstrate the scope of the students’ experience in the course as I taught it.

ARTIFACT: Student documentary, Translation

ARTIFACT: Student documentary, God’s Country


I teach creative writing courses, and believe that creative writing has more in common with composition studies than the current disciplinary separations would suggest. My thinking about these courses has evolved, but what has stayed consistent for me for quite some time is the idea that practicing many kinds of writing can be useful for nearly any kind of writer who is interested in writing itself.

Most of the writers I admire do not see writing, creative or otherwise, as solely expressivist. Research, argument, genre, language play, attention to the shape of language, attention to various audiences (‘the reader’) are all activities that can drive the creative writing course.

For me, one engine that helped me transform my teaching of ENGL 2250, the introductory class, was hearing the poet and multi-genre writer Joyelle McSweeney talk about undoing the three-genre economy of the creative writing class. She talked about making language itself, its ‘flexing and flexible fabric,’ the subject of the course. This idea—she talked about making jokes, puns, ghosts, palimpsests, metamorphoses, representation, appropriation, the driving concepts of the intro course—has retained its power for me. In a recent post-tenure review portfolio, I described the most recent iteration of this course this way: ‘I focused on the word (wordplay, sound play, etymology, imitation, parody); on how writers create the voice-effect; on how writers create a sense of location or place, including using the rhetorical topoi as common strategies to locate all sorts of writing as writers articulate ideas; on how writers slow or speed writing, to create a sense of stillness or movement; and on (finally) a repertoire of shapes, or genres and hybrids. I felt this class was successful; it was idea-rich, and the writing the students produced was varied and theorized.’

When I first put Introduction to Writing Poetry online, I treated it as a forms class. It was the class I wish I had had when I was beginning to write poetry. I realized, though, that this didn’t necessarily serve my students, or at least not most of them. So I redeveloped the course to focus on a stronger invention practice, and a stronger reading practice. I used the Academy of American Poets site, the Poetry Foundation site, the Poetry Daily and Verse Daily sites, as sources for reading. I’ve assigned single author collections, to focus on the ways that manuscripts come together. I find that even my most basic assumption—that a student who takes a poetry class probably thinks of him or herself as a poet—is not entirely reliable. So I try to come at the class in a number of ways, to encourage notice and awareness of language use, to focus attention on the presence of poems in the world. The last time I taught the class, I asked students to propose and carry out a public act of poetry, and to participate in the creation of a collaborative poetry map.

The prompts to which I ask students to respond are varied, ranging from ‘Write an anaphoric poem (where each line or stanza begins with the same word or phrase, such as “I remember” or “this was the day” or “I promise you” or “A curse be upon”)’ to ‘Write a poem based on your own name.’ This makes the course more available to students—the writing I get from students is more engaged, more lively, less cowed by the ‘let’s write a ghazal!’ approach. For all of my creative writing courses, I plan, with the students, a publication of their revised work, and a performance–usually a reading–to conclude the course.

The creative writing faculty recently did a learning outcomes assessment, drawing on the ePortfolio signature assignments to focus on the critical thinking outcome. We knew from feedback we had received in the School curriculum process that there was some skepticism about the capacity of a creative writing course to provide meaningful, rigorous experience with critical thinking. As with much assessment, the value came in our discussion afterward: we made commitments to sharpen the focus on critical reading, and to make consideration of the course reading a more explicit part of the required end-of-course reflection; to focus on critical reading and response, as students respond to their peers’ drafts; and to front-load the idea of revision as one of the key ‘literacies’ of the course (among other points of discussion). This assessment allowed us to sharpen our courses, as well as to sharpen the account we made of them in our CCOs and curriculum presentations.

ARTIFACT: syllabus 2250 + schedule

ARTIFACT: syllabus 2260 + writing prompts + schedule

Recently, in Sherman Alexie’s discussion of his selection process for The Best American Poetry 2015, he says: ‘So what did I learn during this poetry siege? Well, none of us ever needs to write another poem about crocuses, or croci, or however you prefer to pluralize it. Trust me, we poets have exhausted the poetic potential of the crocus. If any of you can surprise me with a new kind of crocus poem then I will mail you one hundred dollars.’ I have many reactions to this, but I think it demonstrates something true, which is that any writer who also teaches has, or comes to have, certain instant revulsions. I would be happy never to read a poem with the noun crystal or any of its variants, for instance, or the verb scream. The noun scream either, frankly. But my own tastes should not be the beginning nor end of my responses to my students’ writing, in any genre, in any course. My goal as an instructor is to help each writer to enlarge her means, to give each writer challenges, to offer more than one way in to any writing situation, and to have more than one strategy for revision. I want each writer to have better ways to imagine his readers. I am excited by my students’ willingness to try new things, and by the ways they clearly value the opportunity to do so.

When we challenge our students with new modes of composition, new tools for composing, when we multiply the means by which students can take up new writing situations, we also create new obligations for ourselves as instructors—to invent materials that will support their explorations, to address their antecedent genres, as Amy Devitt calls them, to offer support to them by helping to articulate new intellectual and writerly contexts. For me, this has meant challenging myself to learn new things, and in so doing, to share my own explorations with my colleagues and with my students. My work as a teacher exhibits this wholehearted embrace of critical amateurism (my own term), which is the willingness not to be expert, at least not always: instead, I aim to be a user with enhanced pedagogical and critical purposes, so that in discovering and using new tools, I also explore potential teacherly opportunities, and design new contexts of use.

For a long time, my teaching philosophy was founded on three values: teaching as intellectual work, as response, and as invention. Now, I would add to those values the following:  teaching is a profoundly communal act. It involves engaging not only in local collaboration, within my department, but in ever enlarging circles: in conversations about general education, in thoughtful consideration of institutional data, and in the larger discourses within my field, which have had and continue to have a constitutive influence on my teaching. I value greatly helping to build structures that help facilitate shared curricular work and assessment. I value the opportunity to put energy and research into what makes a course—and beyond that, programs—rich, rewarding, and sustainable, not just for me but–ideally–for all of us. And I value good design. A well-designed course is itself an act of good pedagogy.

PROFESSIONAL ACTIVITY Narrative  |   SERVICE Narrative  |  Additional Documentation