First-Year Writing

I’ve taught a pretty broad range of FYW courses. But underlying all of them is a sense of understanding writing as a series of choices, related to the goals, audiences, contexts, and ideologies we bring to the tasks at hand. This focus is especially important for helping students learn to invent the University, not as a replacement or a sophisticated development beyond naive previous ways of knowing, but as another resource to add to a larger process of languaging and becoming as individuals in the world.

At KU, the freshman-sophomore sequence included two composition courses: an introduction to college writing and an academic argument course. Because Amy Devitt taught my new-teacher practicum, I fell in with the idea of rhetorical genre studies early and based my intro to college writing course around Scenes of Writing. Students studied the texts they encountered as new college students (syllabi, prompts, review materials, lecture slides) and what those texts revealed about the goals and values of the University as a scene. We also played with studying genres in order to write and (in a few instances) critique the kinds of things they were encountering as new students.

An emphasis on genre awareness was also central at GRCC where I taught a second-semester composition course and a basic writing course. The curriculum was based in the standard exigency genres (narrative, explication, academic argument, and research),  but my goal for that course was to help students to see that words like narrative or argument aren’t really naming particular kinds of writing, but describe something that texts can do. Asking students to look around them – at course readings, at popular culture, at conversations they had outside class – for insights into how narratives made points or how evidence could be deployed in a given situation, offered a method that could make writing class matter beyond the confines of those four hours a week.

Similarly, the FYW course I designed at Michigan asks students to develop a context-aware repertoire of choices. Beginning with Mike Bunn’s “How to Read Like a Writer,” the course focuses on reading texts for their main moves, always asking how those choices are related to the author’s goals, the expectations of a given audience, and other nuanced and individualized needs of the particular situation. Students learn to write successful examples of mainstay academic genres when they want to, but they also learn to  blend these resources to create more hybrid pieces, like “Childhood as a Checklist of College Readiness Skills,” a narrative argument that won a University writing award a few years ago.

As all this talk of reading like writers should probably make clear, reading is also central to my FYW teaching, just like it was in my HS teaching. I hope to further develop the range of discussions we have about reading, building on the language-intensive research of people like Laura Aull and the incredible pedagogy of Ellen Carillo. Stay tuned.