On Teaching a Research-Based Writing Course: What Worked and What Didn’t

Author’s Note: This is the second part of a three-part series. You can find the first part, On Designing a Research-Based Writing Course, here.

I’ve already discussed my approach to scaffolding a research-based writing course to encourage students to focus on the processes of research and writing over the final product, and to engage in metacognition by reflecting upon their thinking and learning. Now it’s time for me to reflect on how these processes unfolded. There are many aspects to the course that would be worthy of such reflection, but for the sake of brevity, I have decided to limit myself by selecting:

  • Three things that went well
  • Two things that didn’t work so well
  • One thing that I would definitely change if I teach this course again

What worked well

→ Using a combination of student-centered activities to foster thinking, discussion, and in-class writing. Composition is a subject and skill that many students experience in terms of “rules” that make it “boring.” I knew that I wanted to create an environment where students have the opportunity to share what they know, try out new things, and learn from each other—as opposed to feeling like they don’t understand “the rules.” I knew that I would use active learning strategies and student-centered methods in teaching this course, in keeping with the values of the CUNY Humanities Alliance while drawing on my own experience as an educator and my understanding of what is most effective for student learning. This also meant using various modalities and activities in each lesson and class session to create multiple entry points for students with diverse learning needs: Not only mini-lectures and long documents or slideshows to convey new concepts and information, but also illustrations and YouTube videos, or drawing ideas and mindmapping in addition to writing prompts. Finally, it also meant organizing and guiding students to do peer reviews of each others’ drafts, rather than depending solely on the professor’s feedback.
Students did not respond to these activities in equal measure, but overall, this approach encouraged and engaged students. And most importantly, it demonstrated my utmost respect for them as thinkers, writers, and scholars in their own right.
→ Doing check-ins and mini-conferences with students throughout the semester. These check-ins gave me insight into my students’ needs, interests, educational goals, and progress in their research and writing. On the first day of class, I asked students to fill out an index card with several pieces of information, including a response to the question, “Why are you taking this class? What do you hope to learn here?”  and “Do you have any learning needs that you would like to share with me?” During our check-ins, I learned about how they felt they were doing in the course, and just as often, I learned about students’ lives outside the classroom, and how this impacted their learning. I asked questions to find out what helped them learn, and what they found challenging, as well as what else I could do to facilitate their learning and our work together. Midway through the semester, I also designed a brief evaluation that students could complete anonymously online to provide feedback about the course and my teaching. (I plan to write more about this process and what I learned, so stay tuned!)
→ Getting out of the classroom. Students really enjoyed getting out of the classroom. This is not surprising, if you think about our specific industrial-era classroom setting: A room with no windows, an institutional beige paint job, flickering fluorescent lights, rows of desk/chair combos, and a large column in the middle of the room. (I should note that we spent the last hour of our three-and-a-half hour class in a computer lab with moveable chairs and marginally better lighting.)
Entering other kinds of spacesfrom an orientation to library research in the new LaGuardia library to a group tour of the Activist New York exhibit at the Museum of the City of New Yorkprovided students with an opportunity to engage in different learning activities and environments. For example, in advance of our visit to the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives archivist and LaGuardia adjunct social science professor Tara Hickman worked with me to create a document file for our course; during our visit, she and her colleagues divided our class into two groups in which students would learn about the archive, and how to identify and interpret primary source documents. The latter involved a close reading of a 1982 New York City Council resolution calling for the release of Haitian refugees from detention centers, alongside documents from local community-based organizations, and a guided discussion that placed the document into historical and contemporary context. The small-group setting gave the discussion an intimate seminar feel that was hard to achieve in our classroom of twenty-eight students. Students were excited by the way that the reading of these documents could make local history come alive; several told me they had “no idea” about the Archives, and were glad to see a resource like this at their own school.

What didn’t work

→ How I responded to classroom disruptions. This is something that I generally find hard to address. In this class, I had one student who would talk loudly or make jokes during class, often when we were doing an activity, or while other students were trying to speak or doing in-class writing. Drawing a clear line at the outset could have helped. Instead, I found myself trying to be “nice”—a learned response that is obviously gendered and racialized, and one that wasn’t helpful. The behavior continued, and this student received attention by goading responses from classmates seated nearby. Other students were frustrated by these distractions, and how much time they took away from the class.
→ Trying to do too much in a twelve-week term with digital tools that were new to most students. In addition to developing their research and writing skills, students in my course were using digital tools to do in-class writing and complete their assignments. I decided to use Google Drive and Docs for several reasons: The Google suite allows for real-time collaboration and feedback, it’s a free tool that uses an account most (in our case, all) students already have, and it enables writing and sharing across multiple devices–allowing me to share documents with the class, and allowing students to submit assignments and drafts of their papers for feedback from multiple readers. In addition, I set up a course website through cunyhumanitiesalliance.org, which is built with the Commons in a Box (CBOX) plug-in on WordPress.
Most of my students were completely unfamiliar with Google Drive, and all except one had never used WordPress before. I introduced Google Docs and WordPress to create opportunities for digital writing and editing while learning and using tools that have become common to many offices, organizing efforts, and personal contexts. This turned out to be a matter of too much, too soon. Some students found it very difficult to navigate these tools, revealing that what some of us find “easy to learn” or “intuitive” is actually habituated through years of learning and using tech platforms. Students became flustered or impatient when things didn’t work, which set the tone for some of our writing labs. Many also felt overwhelmed by the process of developing new habits to manage their work across these platforms. (Again, there is a lot to discuss here, and I hope to write more about this in a future post.)

One thing I would definitely change

→ The research paper assignment. Yes, the research paper, the final paper assignment that structures the entire course. What would I change, and why? Read my next post to find out.

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