by Chloe Smith
This semester, I am teaching two sections of English 102: College Writing and Research with a unique opportunity for community engagement. We are collaborating with a local organization called Learn Deep Milwaukee.
Learn Deep is focused on building a community-wide resource for career exploration for high school students in the area, and providing students the skills they’ll need for a rapidly changing workforce. According to Learn Deep’s website, to achieve this goal, “teachers and schools will need to adopt new methodologies that allow students to work in teams to explore real problems and how to get better at doing so.”
This partnership was a natural fit considering English 102’s emphasis on community-based research. The final project of the course asks students to research a topic or issue related to Milwaukee and produce an information product that could be useful to community members.
To gain more insight on issues facing communities in and around Milwaukee, the students in these 2 sections will be interviewing various professionals from the healthcare field who are associated with Learn Deep. Once the interviews are finished, we will transcribe them and code them to find topics for further research.
To prepare for these interviews, we have focused a lot on oral histories with an emphasis on ways in which they allow the person being interviewed to spend time reflecting on personal experiences and telling stories in their own conversational format. This focus will not only give students a greater chance to gain honest perspectives on issues facing the healthcare field in Milwaukee, but also allow them to foster a deeper connection with their interviewees.
Before choosing their interviewees, students spent time researching and discussing healthcare topics that interested them—with the results ranging from topics like the effects of racism on public health to hospital initiatives to the effects of vaping.
Based on their interests, students chose their interviewees from a list of professionals who volunteered to be interviewed for the project. Students have since been hard at work setting up interviews and drafting questions. We’ll spend the first week of October workshopping questions, practicing interviews, and even working with Pete Reynolds of Learn Deep and Joan Ward of Employ Milwaukee’s Center for Health Care Careers to receive feedback on interview questions and advice on coding the interviews once they’re finished.
I’ll admit that I came into these classes feeling rather nervous. Of course, I was over the moon at the opportunity of leading students through community-engaged research, but I wasn’t sure if they would share my excitement. Luckily, my worry was unfounded.
I’m blown away by how engaged these students have been, and how willing they are to work through a research process that, for most of them, is entirely new. They’re approaching these interviews—and the prospect of the research that will come after—with enthusiasm and creativity.
The interviews will take place during the week of October 7th. To keep up with how they went, the research they inspire, and some student reflections on the process, check back later on in the semester.
The Legacy of Virginia Burke
Virginia Burke taught writing and rhetoric courses at UWM for 31 years. She cared deeply about undergraduate students and worked tirelessly to improve access to and through college for all people. In her work, she validated the voices of Black Americans and argued against the enforcement of racist writing traditions. Virginia Burke’s career was also shaped largely by her commitment to support students and writers who speak and write in different dialects of English. She vigorously upheld the position statement from the professional Conference on College Composition and Communication on “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” and she wrote extensively on linguistic variation and its cultural values.
A New Kind of Ceremony
The Virginia Burke Awards honor the memory of this remarkable teacher by recognizing excellence in First Year Writing by students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In past years, the awards ceremony included a formal reading by students of their papers.
This year, winners were chosen by the UWM English 102 Digital Commons Editorial Board, which includes Ann Hanlon, Head of UWM’s Digital Humanities Lab, and UWM English graduate students and teachers Storm Pilloff, Katherine Dixon, Ryan House, Julie Kaiser, and Jenni Moody.
Winners worked closely with English 102 Coordinator Storm Pilloff to transform their papers into formal presentation posters. These posters will form a gallery space for attendees to peruse and to interact with writers.
In organizing the Virginia Burke Awards this year, we also wanted to highlight the writing opportunities for undergraduates in our Creative Writing department and important campus resources like the Writing Center. In addition to the gallery space, publications like cream city review and Furrow will have tables where undergraduates can learn about internship opportunities, publishing courses, and professional careers in writing.
Rethinking Award Categories
Led by UWM’s Director of Composition, Shevaun Watson’s new approach to the English 102: College Writing and Research curriculum that focuses on information literacy, the Virginia Burke committee this year worked to incorporate these values into the awards through creating new categories. Instead of awarding a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place for each of the three First Year Writing classes, we collaborated on forming categories that would showcase the variety of skills students need to succeed in their writing and research in the twenty-first century.
We’re excited to present these categories and winners:
2019 Virginia Burke Award Winners
Persistence: This award recognizes work that shows the writer’s persistence despite not finding answers, thereby achieving an expert researcher’s disposition. The willingness to resist easy answers and persevere through the frustrations and challenges of research helps writers develop new perspectives and insight. Winner: Gregory Kontny
Rhetorical dexterity: This award celebrates a student's remarkable ability to recognize a variety of means of persuasion. The ability to recognize different contexts for communication leads writers to use a variety of strategies to communicate effectively within these contexts. Winner: Emma Maude Knox
Creative thinking: This award recognizes work that stretches the writer’s creative capacity to meet specific writing needs and situations. This ability to push conventional boundaries and glean insight from divergent perspectives leads writers to effective problem solving. Winners: Brandan Naef, Terese Radke, Amanda Straszewski, Mai Chue Yang
Risk-taking: This award celebrates a student’s bravery and innovation in their composition and/or research practices. This willingness to take risks in practice and learn from potential failures helps writers and researchers imagine new ideas. Winner: Noah Steinhilber
Social Justice: This award recognizes work that focuses ethically on building a more just world for marginalized people. Using rhetoric for good is at the heart of education. Winner: Olivia Swanson
Community Engagement: This award celebrates a student’s investment and contribution to the community represented in their work. Recognizing the importance of the communities we are situated in diversifies academic spaces in realistic ways. Winner: Amanda John, Annika Noorlander
Multimodality: This award celebrates a student’s ability to compose effectively across a variety of modes. Delivering research in a variety of modes assures reaching a variety of audiences. Winners: Haley Steel, Luis Sanchez-Guevara
Research Practices: This award recognizes exemplary work that shows the researcher’s breadth and depth of source types used. Hearing from a variety of source types more ethically represents the range of voices “at the table.” Winners: Morgan Ellis, Erica Phillips
Please join us to celebrate work by these writers at the Virginia Burke Awards Ceremony this Friday, April 19th, from 2:30 – 4:00pm in the 4th Floor Conference Center of the Golda Meir Library on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus.
-- Storm Pilloff, English 102 Coordinator
-- Jenni Moody, English 102 Mentor
This week, we read Juan Guerra’s book, Language, Culture, Identity and Citizenship in College Classrooms and Communities, as well as Michelle Kells’ article, “Welcome to Babylon: Junior Writing Program Administrators and Writing Across Communities at the University of New Mexico”. While much of Guerra’s book focuses on theory and clarifying terms and concepts, the end of the book focuses on the WAC (Writing Across Communities) program at UNM, which is also the focus of Michelle’s article.
In our class discussion, we talked about how our FYW (First Year Writing) classes might (and may already) integrate some of the WAC ideas in order to empower students not only to write in the academic register but to engage rhetorically in public spaces. UWM’s FYW is already undergoing positive improvements in this area; however, how can we keep pushing towards a more empowering space for students to practice rhetorical action?
In her article, Michelle Kells would encourage such questions. She suggests that we should be complicating issues like these, not trying to contain them (Kells). We do this each Monday night in class, and I hope that these discussions can lead to tangible ideas and practices to incorporate in the FYW classroom. Here are a couple of considerations to make when thinking about whether more WAC principles should have a place in FYW programs at UWM.
Scholars have researched and critiqued limited programs similar to WAC. Guerra refers to some critics of college writing programs, including one which states that “limiting the focus to academic discourse in a WAC program disempowers students” (Guerra 146). These critics insist that “students need to figure out how to become effective readers, writers and rhetoricians in a rich array of personal, professional and civic spaces as well” (Guerra 147).
Academic research and conversations surrounding writing programs confer that students need to be expanding their practices to reach outside of their own community in order to engage across communities. WAC provides tangible ways to do this.
FYW programs should be willing to change – and that’s not a bad thing. FYW at UWM might need to consider how to work with other departments in order to give students real practice in engaging with concepts from various genres and subjects. Michelle Kells advocates for this strategy: “Writing Across Communities does not fit neatly into any one institutional category or space. It cuts across the academy, engaging what I call the ‘four P’s of the writing process’: poetics (cultural aesthetics), pragmatics (rhetorical contexts), polemics (political possibilities), and pedagogies (educational practices)” (Kells).
In order to allow students space to practice what it means to be a rhetorical agent of change outside of the classroom, they need access to more than just English and Composition content. In public spaces, various subjects are folded into discourse. How can students be learning these ‘real world’ strategies before they leave college?
WAC principles can allow students to regard the FYW classroom as a new space in which to find their voice and empower themselves. Instead of enforcing a space of enclosed power dynamics in FYW classrooms, UWM Composition instructors have been trying to find ways to give students more agency in the classroom. Guerra states that “we cannot prepare students for active participation in the personal and public spheres of their lives if we do not take into consideration what they bring with them to the classroom” (Guerra 106).
Altering the power dynamics of the classroom allows students to bring their own knowledge, experience, and identity into their creations. It may even change the classroom into a different space, a type of ‘third space’.
As one member of our seminar class suggested, each student should be allowed to speak from their own seat of knowledge. Each should be recognized in their positionality – not as a student that needs to learn from an instructor – but as a person who brings unique ideas and perspectives that can have a voice both in the classroom and in public rhetoric.
WAC principles can allow students a space to gain the confidence to stand up from their seat of knowledge – their culture, identity, experience, and positionality – and be rhetors in action. Thus, empowered, they can help to rewrite the structures of the educational institution, enabling more student empowerment.
Students are rhetorical agents. The most important and empowering aspect of WAC is that the driving force of this program is the students. Guerra cites Porter el al stating: “Institutions, as unchangeable as they may seem (and, indeed, often are), do contain spaces for reflection, resistance, revision, and productive action. This method insists that sometimes individuals (writing teachers, researchers, writers, students, citizens) can rewrite institutions through rhetorical action” (Guerra 154).
If UWM is to continue improving FYW, it will not be through systematic changes to curriculum (though that is happening), but through graduate students and undergraduate students who are empowered to take rhetorical action.
By allowing students a space to learn about and practice writing across communities, by being willing to grapple with the ensuing complications of WAC principles, by experimentation and lots of trial and error, and by empowering students to take rhetorical action, UWM can build a collective of students who are writing and communicating both in the classroom and in public spaces in order to make change on campus and across communities.