I just finished up a semester teaching an online 200-level writing course called “Writing Machines” for the first time. I developed it as 100% online and asynchronous, so we were not affected by any covid-related social distancing policies. But the stress levels, fatigue, and multitude of external events pulling on our collective attention affected my students and me as much as any face-to-face class. The exhaustion I feel, and that my colleagues and students have shared that they’re feeling too, differs from the usual end-of-semester exhaustion. And not in a good way.
Despite these hurdles, I feel like the class was a success. I had several goals in mind as I developed the new content, some of which I met more effectively than others. In the spirit of reflection and writing in public view (the same wringer my students have to go through), I’ll share them here.
Goal #1: Do not require any book purchases. The cost of textbooks in many general education courses is way too high, and our campus encourages faculty to consider OER materials. But sometimes you need a very specific text for a specific reason: it’s about the author, context, style, and argument more than just the information conveyed. Fortunately, our campus library has many of the books and articles I wanted to assign, so by using e-books through our library and a few articles posted freely online, I was able to create (what I believe to be) an amazing reading list of relevant articles and chapters written or edited by rhet/comp experts. Eliminating book costs as a barrier to completing the course was an unqualified success.
Goal #2: Focus on diversity in the reading list. Amplifying the work of missing or marginalized voices in one’s field is more important than ever, and I feel good that our final reading list includes professional writers who identify as women, Native American, Black, Latinex, LGBTQIA, and as members of the disability community. Goal #2 was difficult, in large part because of Goal #1. There were many texts written by a wonderfully diverse group of professionals that would have cost too much money. Finding a better balance is something I will focus on in future semesters. [Students, I challenge you to review your course reading lists next semester and consider what kinds of writers are included and excluded, and then consider why that might be the case.]
Goal #3: Incorporate hands-on, non-digital activities. A course emphasizing the materiality of writing, taught in an online format, relying solely on digital texts sounds like an oxymoron. Is it possible to describe online the differences among papyrus, linen, and bark papers? Yes. Could I post pictures of the 18th century pages with heavy typesetting embossing? Yes. Would this be anything like holding, sniffing, folding, and writing on those papers yourself? Not. At. All. So I mailed out packets of supplies, and then we wrote a series of blog posts, each of which required some kind of experiment or project and reflection. In addition to the tactile aspects, I also wanted students to do some of our classwork away from the computer because we were all suffering some degree of “zoom fatigue.” AND I wanted to give them a reason to practice their own writing style and voice through public writing. I think most of the students really enjoyed this part of the class. I know I did.
Goal #4: Make explicit connections to Writing Studies pedagogy, and specifically to Writing About Writing. About 50% of our ENGL 111 classes in the fall used this textbook (our First-Year Writing program has not adopted an OER textbook), and I wanted to reinforce some vocabulary and concepts for those students. For other students, I wanted to introduce the concepts. The book was not a required purchase. I used a series of assignments from the textbook, modified for our particular course content. I think it worked pretty well and served as a springboard into some amazing student papers.
I have some revision and development to complete before I teach this again next year based on student feedback and my own lagging to-do list. While a couple of students have expressed dissatisfaction or frustration, it does seem that most of them had at least a good experience, if not an outright enjoyable one. In their final blog reflections (you can read a couple here, here, and here) a great many of them explained how their relationship with writing had changed for the better and how their own identity as a writer had become better developed.
You can read more about the course here. If you want to talk about this class, about “writing machines,” or about the materiality of writing, let me know! I would love to have a conversation.