By Jenni Moody, Chelsea Embree, and Danielle Koepke
For students and instructors alike, Spring 2020 was certainly a semester to remember. While there was definitely comfort to be found in the fact that we were able to forge new connections through this shared experience, learning and teaching in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic presented unique challenges for every individual. This post details the experiences of three graduate students at UWM.
Jenni Moody served as the Coordinator of the College Writing and Research composition program at UWM during the 2019-2020 academic year. After completing her PhD this past semester, she is now an Assistant Professor at Mount Mary University. Chelsea Embree is a second-year masters student in Literature and Cultural Theory. The 2019-2020 academic year was her first year teaching. Danielle Koepke is a second-year PhD student in Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement. During this past semester, Danielle had to balance her teaching and studies with the schooling of her children.
At the beginning of March, the WPA (Writing Program Administration) team made a short contingency plan in case COVID got worse. A few days later we had emergency meetings with the Department Chair. I sent a short email with a suggestion to take books and plants home before Spring Break, worried I was overreacting. Spring Break was extended to give teachers time to move a few weeks' worth of course content online while the university and the country assessed the situation. And you know the rest -- we didn't go back.
Our guiding principles from the beginning were honesty, flexibility, and support. Our challenge was to communicate information and resources to teachers without overwhelming them. Every teaching organization, website, and academic Twitter feed was full of op ed's on how to approach emergency online instruction. We sent emails frequently in those first days and weeks, sharing resources and ideas, clarifying broad statements from the university on grading policies, encouraging teachers to take care of themselves and each other, sharing the information we had and admitting what was still being decided by those higher up. The Interim Director of Composition sent out a survey to teachers early on asking how we could help, and those answers shaped our response. We held two optional virtual meetings for teachers to help them with technology. These provided a safe place where they could ask questions, click on buttons to see what happened, and brainstorm ways these online platforms might be helpful in their classes. We expanded our mentor groups for new GTAs into larger communities of care that included upper-level GTAs and academic staff. And then we quieted down. There were so many emails from the university about dorms closing, events cancelled, a constant spiral of change. We shifted to reaching out individually when it was needed, and keeping our composition program emails short and only for important updates. This strategy of early and honest communication that changed to less-frequent check-ins based on the emotional overload we witnessed teachers experiencing was the biggest takeaway from my time as coordinator during Covid. It made me think more critically, and with the aid of the same rhetorical awareness we teach our students, about the role of WPA communication in minimizing teacher stress.
I see teaching as a constant exercise in problem-solving, so much of the process of turning English 102 into an online course was just one big problem to solve. I learned how to make videos of my lessons using Loom (a service — which is free to educators! — that I would highly recommend), simplified my assessment practices, changed the parameters of the final project, and front-loaded a ton of content so that my students can complete the course at their own pace.
But I missed my students. A lot. When I recorded videos of my lessons, I imagined myself at the front of the classroom and visualized my students sitting in their usual spots. Pretty much every day, I worried about them. I had students who just didn’t like email under normal circumstances, and I especially worried about them because email became the only tool I could use to reach out to them. I was upset that this internet-centered experience made class so much more difficult for students who feel stronger about their discussion skills than their writing skills, and students who don’t have reliable access to high-speed internet in the first place. Once it’s safe for us to return to our in-person lives, I hope we’re all able to recognize that the internet — as amazing as it is — can’t replace everything. And I hope we collectively value our very human need to see each other’s faces and hear each other’s voices.
As a graduate student, I particularly missed the voices of my colleagues. Being able to spend a few hours a week discussing what we’ve read for class is really important for my learning process, and that can’t be replaced by reading online discussion boards. Even though I feel about as confident about my writing abilities as I do my speaking abilities, there’s still something that gets lost when we try to have a discussion online. An online seminar moves much more slowly, which means it’s less responsive and also takes longer to digest.
The one silver lining of this weird new lifestyle is that I’ve gotten more in touch with how my energy levels flow throughout the day, and can respond accordingly. I marked the beginning of each day with a short wake-up ritual, and I posted in my online discussions on the days I normally would have had class; otherwise, I rolled with it. I felt well rested every day, which hasn’t happened since probably childhood, and I didn’t feel like I was forcing myself to do things I didn’t have the energy for.
I remember the moment we got the official email – UWM would be having an extended spring break, followed by two weeks of online learning – I was in the middle of a seminar, and everyone was speculating over what the future would bring. I forwarded the email to my spouse, writing something like, “maybe we should get some extra toilet paper, just in case.” He grabbed some on his way home from work. We didn’t see any in stores for the next two months.
During Covid-19, all of my roles in life collapsed into one space – our home. My spouse worked 9-5 at our one desk, located in our main living space. My two kids shared devices and resources in order to accomplish their online school assignments each day. I balanced helping them with teaching my own English 102 students, tutoring online for the campus writing center, and doing my PhD coursework. A typical day felt like this: wake up, go over zoom schedule and assignments with older child, make coffee, help younger child get started on their school for the day. Warm up cold coffee. Lock myself in my room to tutor with writers who were stressed and anxious. Make lunch for everyone. Listen to what my spouse would have discussed with a colleague if he’d been in the office. Finish cold coffee. Respond to emails from my students, write discussion posts for one of my asynchronous seminars, prepare for my other seminar, which was synchronous. Hold virtual office hours for my students, read my own assigned texts while my kids entertained themselves by mostly watching YouTube and playing Roblox. Make dinner, which was most likely some form of pizza – rolls, bagel bites, slices.
There was not much creative capacity left in me to complete seminar projects, and sometimes, I let the kids skip an assignment because I didn’t have the energy to do things like go on a nature walk and find 20 different kinds of leaves. While I was in one space – home, which should have felt comforting – I was balancing changing school assignments for my kids, new levels of engagement as a PhD student, and supporting my students during this time.
As I reflect, I’m grateful that it is over. I’m also grateful for the grace and understanding from my own kids, my English 102 students, and my professors as I juggled many roles during this unprecedented time. From student reflections at the end of the semester, I was content that they wrote that I helped them get through this time and that I did not add stress. As we look ahead to all the unknowns of the fall, I hope I can continue to be flexible and supportive to others through my many roles as we work through new ways to be students and teachers at every level.
From the Editors
We’ve tried to offer a variety of perspectives on the experience of balancing teaching, learning, and other roles in the midst of this pandemic, but we recognize that these are merely three of the many experiences out there—and that this experience is not over. If you would like to share your own experience during these times, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Gitte Frandsen
When COVID-19 disrupted our F2F classes this semester and we moved online, a Cultural Rhetorics framework helped me make sense of my online teaching and focus my efforts to maintain a classroom community. Though the second half of the semester created a stressful and difficult learning environment for the students, it also gave me an opportunity to examine what I value in teaching and to reflect on how I can create a better learning environment for my students.
A Cultural Rhetorics framework helped me to understand my classroom dynamics, and especially the dynamics between the students and myself once we moved online. Cultural Rhetorics highlights the notion that all cultures are constituted by rhetorical practices that help members make sense of their world and build community. Cultural Rhetorics studies how members make meaning in and through relationships. It focuses on how material bodies interact with each other, and how our embodied experiences shape and are shaped by that relationality. Cultural Rhetorics studies cultures such as Native American cultures, workplace cultures, and crafting cultures; I would argue that a classroom is also a specific culture, albeit a temporary and perhaps more loosely knit one.
Though we had only just started developing relationships in the classroom when COVID-19 happened, I was struck by the relationships I developed with many students in spite of the distance. I had wanted to maintain a collaborative learning model online to continue learning with and from each other, but realizing how many access issues COVID-19 caused for the students, I dropped the collaborative element to simplify the expectations. I remained in touch with everyone regularly though. Students expressed feeling isolated, lonely, and longing for the relationships in the classroom, but simultaneously they cultivated their relationships with me. They reached out about their circumstances and shared personal stories. They expressed extreme gratefulness for the fairly simple acts of kindness I provided by being understanding and flexible. I couldn’t help but reflect that, ironically, though the virus forced us apart, it also made visible how interconnected we are. Models of the contagion particularly demonstrated how many people’s lives we touch, so the models became a strange metaphor for the relationality between us.
These changing and meaningful relationships with my students happened while I was struggling with isolation from many other personal relationships, and while I had to adjust to new relationships with my family, as we were all home, working and being home-schooled. All of us were trying to negotiate our new life which was difficult. I, too, was sharing my struggles with my students. And somehow there was a silver lining in these positive relationships that found a new way to grow.
Cultural Rhetorics also centers storytelling, and the potential for stories to create meaning and build community. Because my students clearly yearned to tell stories about their experiences, I gave them an option to write a research project that centered their stories on how COVID-19 had affected their lives, workplaces, or communities. I had students who were working as RNAs at hospitals and nursing homes, or who worked in retail or at restaurants. I had students who suddenly became the breadwinners of their families; students who got ill with COVID-19, or who witnessed people die from COVID-19. I had students who were struggling with their school work because retaining learning was difficult in an online learning environment, and students whose teachers suddenly gave them way more homework. There were so many stories. It was clear they wanted to tell those stories in order to make sense of all the confusion and pain COVID-19 had caused. Although the goals for the research project shifted to center personal stories over “rigorous” research, the stories that emerged had strong voices and rhetorical awareness. The students thought carefully about the genres they picked, the modalities they used to tell their stories, the audiences they wanted to engage.
COVID-19 certainly was and will continue to be tough. It has amplified many of the access and accessibility issues students face under normal circumstances: technology, food and housing security, supporting families, childcare, and physical and mental health problems. Still, I value the lessons I learned from and with my students this semester which I will take with me into future classrooms. I think the relationality between students and the teacher, as well as among the students themselves, can be strengthened by sharing each other’s stories. We can listen to, validate, and learn from others’ and our own stories and use those stories to develop research questions, explore our positionality, and think rhetorically about how those stories can make meaning and maybe make a difference.
Gitte Frandsen is a 2nd year PhD student at UWM in Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement. Her teaching and research focus on linguistically, culturally, and socially sustaining pedagogies.
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.
By Claire Edwards
PhD Student in Public Rhetorics & Community Engagement
UWM’s English department welcomed a batch of new Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) to the fold last month. As one of this year’s five GTA mentors for English 102, I played a role in the planning and organizing of the orientation festivities. This was a big deal for me as I am still grappling with the fact that my own first year of the PhD is already behind me. I couldn’t have imagined a year ago that I would be one of this year’s mentors, getting a whole new group ready to teach English 102.
This all got me thinking. Grad school is a weird experience as so many, including our new GTAs, will find themselves enacting the roles of both student and teacher. This is a dichotomy all GTAs must simply come to terms with, one way or another. In some ways - and I stress, only some - it is the best job: you are actively learning while capitalizing on expertise. It is a fun apprenticeship of sorts. And, you can appropriate your favorite pedagogical tricks from your own professors. In retrospect, I hope that our orientation process was able to convey that teaching is rewarding and a way of more deeply engaging with your own learning.
Our group this year represents a range of experiences both in terms of prior teaching experience and primary academic disciplines. The mentors and our director, Shevaun Watson, considered these variations as we determined mentor groups. Each group was then assigned to a mentor and will meet for weekly check-ins and will act as a trouble-shooting support group for all-things pedagogy. As mentors, we will also informally observe our mentees in their classrooms once this semester to provide suggestions and encouragement.
TAing was my own first foray into college teaching during my MA program ten years ago. I am ashamed to admit now that I never really sought out the pedagogical advice of the mentor assigned to my cohort of eight GTAs. His felt like more of an honorary position, and I was never quite sure what I could or could not ask him about. Because of that experience, it is now important to me to be available for my own mentees and to continue to encourage them to come to me for guidance and support with any aspect of teaching that proves challenging.
One of the main reasons I have the goal of guiding my mentees this year is that I myself ended up learning so much from my mentor last year. When I came to UWM’s English PhD program in 2018 with several years of college-level teaching under my belt, I assumed I would not need a mentor. But, I quickly realized that because of the hands-off nature of my MA GTA experience and the largely isolated work of adjunct teaching, I never had the opportunity to really interrogate my teaching style. My own mentor, Jenni Moody, taught me a lot about things I had not valued enough in the past: quiet space in the classroom and introversion as a strength, being two huge ones. She also ended up inadvertently teaching me about how to be a supportive and encouraging mentor.
There is a lot we want our new GTAs to go into the year thinking about, not the least of which is the concept of persona. I’ve always thought of teaching as requiring a sort of persona. While I still believe that, my perspective on what the persona can be has changed. I previously saw a persona as inherently different from a person’s “true” self and behaviors, and I was comfortable with this because it provided a sort of barrier between myself and that scary classroom in front of me. After encountering, and continuing to encounter, such varied teaching styles and approaches, I see that the persona I choose to effect can actually be me - introverted, a little weird, sometimes quiet, not at the center.
I hope all of our 2019-2020 ENG102 GTAs will find a persona and a classroom temperament that is just right for them and that allows them to make the most impact on their students, focus on what they value most, and feel comfortable in their dual roles of student and teacher during this weird grad school experience.
The other members of this year’s English 102 Mentor team include ENG102 coordinator Jenni Moody, Julie Kaiser, Joni Hayward Marcum, and Beth Vigoren. The director of composition is Shevaun Watson.
By Rachel Bloom-Pojar
“Wherever we end up in May is exactly where we should be at that point.”
These are the words I repeated to the graduate students in my research methods class throughout the spring 2019 semester. We set out in January to design, implement, and conduct a preliminary analysis of a qualitative research project on the linguistic resources of students at UW-Milwaukee (UWM). We took an asset-approach to exploring what innovative ways UWM students write and speak in their daily lives. The course included assigned readings about research methods and methodologies about qualitative research in communication and rhetorical studies. They learned about collaboration, developing research questions, ethical considerations, and more. If you want to read more about how the course was set up, you can read about that here.
So, now that the month of May has come and gone, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on what happened throughout our research process. There is so much I could say about the amazing things that this class wrote, worked through, analyzed, and developed in our time together. Since much of my course design was centered on “learning by doing,” I thought I’d reflect on a few major takeaways that we could only learn by doing.
1) Qualitative research is messy
I said this a number of times, but the experiences the team had this semester confirmed that qualitative research is messy, nonlinear, and spectacularly human in all of its challenges and triumphs. Although I made several revisions to the course schedule and we didn’t have as much time to discuss readings as I would have liked, the group still moved across the stages of project design, IRB proposal and acceptance, data collection, and preliminary analysis at an impressive pace. That may have been helped, in part, by the ways that I facilitated the process. I placed limits on how long we would spend with any one activity, synthesized ideas for moving more quickly toward consensus, and encouraged specific ways of dividing up tasks.
It didn’t feel like an impressive pace to most of the team members, though. Many shared anxieties in their field notes and comments after class about how long everything was taking, how "unstructured" the process was, and how they didn’t think we would ever get to the data collection stage. As much as I wanted to ease their discomfort, I knew this was a natural part of qualitative research and the unpredictability that comes with collaborative work. Through navigating this process, the researchers had to figure out how to handle ambiguity, change, and the nuances of qualitative research.
2) You have to rely on other people for qualitative research
Whether you are conducting interviews, focus groups, surveys, or another form of data collection in qualitative research, the data are not just data...they are words, thoughts, experiences, and contributions from people. From working with research participants to co-researchers to IRB reviewers and more, the process of qualitative research is never a solo act. Traditionally, graduate courses in English studies are structured in similar ways that emphasize collective learning through discussion and peer review, but ultimately place the highest value (through grades) on individual performances and products. So, students become accustomed to that structure and way of evaluating how “well” they are doing in class. That structure does not reflect qualitative research nor does it emphasize the ways we need to rely on others to “do well” with community-engaged work.
At the start of the course, I quoted a phrase from a community group that Professor Steven Alvarez writes about in Brokering Tareas: “Muchos manos hacen ligero el trabajo. Many hands make light work.” That was our motto for the semester--to work together so that it would make the work lighter. And it did. With engagement from all team members, we were able to accomplish a lot more than any individual could have in the same amount of time. The group conducted and transcribed 14 interviews and 10 artifact descriptions with corresponding artifacts that were created by participants in our collaborative composing workshop. That is a great start for any qualitative study.
3) Qualitative research will challenge your notions of objectivity and the “truth”
At its heart, the reason why qualitative research challenges notions of objectivity and the “truth” are not, as many assume, because it is “less rigorous” than quantitative research. Conducting rigorous qualitative research takes hard work, care, and patience as you navigate the messiness of working with people, interpreting their words and experiences, and constantly checking your own biases and assumptions in the process. Coming to terms with how our perspectives, biases, and interpretations impact research--any kind of research--is something I hoped the students would take away from this course. Once we start to challenge notions of a single “truth” that we’re searching for, and instead we welcome and wade through the complexity of literacy, rhetoric, and communication...well, that’s where we might discover innovative approaches to advancing knowledge, theory, and practice together.
I am so grateful to this group of students for trusting me and trusting the process of this class. Reading their final reports, field notes, and evaluations confirmed that they learned a lot about themselves, qualitative research, and collaboration. While I took a huge risk designing the course this way, I’m glad that I did. It wasn’t always easy, comfortable, or fun, but we all (myself included) learned a lot along the way.
I want to end by sharing some recommended readings since the team requested it. These are only a few suggestions, and I welcome others in the comments below or on Twitter with the hashtag #writingmke. Stay tuned for more information about new developments at Writing & Rhetoric MKE this summer, and as always, thanks for reading!
The books we read this semester included:
Writing Studies Research in Practice edited by Lee Nickoson & Mary P. Sheridan
Methodologies for the Rhetoric of Health & Medicine edited by Lisa Meloncon & J. Blake Scott
Field Rhetoric: Ethnography, Ecology, and Engagement in Places of Persuasion edited by Candice Rai & Caroline Gottschalk Druschke
Qualitative Communication Research Methods (3rd ed) by Thomas R. Lindlof & Bryan C. Taylor
Other books the research team and other readers might be interested in include:
Rhetorica in Motion: Feminist Rhetoric Methods and Methodologies edited by Eileen E. Schell & K.J. Rawson
Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with Youth and Communities edited by Django Paris & Maisha T. Winn
Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches by John W. Creswell & Cheryl N. Poth
Lots of great books available online at WAC Clearinghouse: https://wac.colostate.edu/books/
One of my first experiences in academic writing happened during the first week of my freshmen English 102 course. My professor, a slight woman wearing a cardigan with an affinity for English literature, stood at the front of the classroom and spoke to us about a short writing assignment due by the next class. At the time, I was 20 years old, and scared. I was paying for college myself, had signed up for classes on my own, and felt truly alone in my goal to earn an Associate’s degree since that goal was not supported by my parents or siblings who hinted routinely that they thought my place was on the family dairy farm, building my parent’s business. Compounding that fear, it had been over two years since high school, and I was worried I would not remember how to write for a school assignment, or worse, that I had never really learned to begin with. Would I embarrass myself? What was my writing supposed to look and sound like?
It’s an amusing story to look back on now, because that writing class ended up being one of the most challenging and reassuring classes for me as I learned how to write academic papers. I have not thought about that moment of slight panic and being alone for years, but the memory came back to me during our first face-to-face class this semester when we talked about linguistic diversity, and how presumed mistakes in student writing are traditionally seen as errors, when in fact, they can reveal strengths in student communication, strengths that can be called out, and celebrated. Not every student in that first class finished English 102 with me. I wonder if their experience would have been different had our professor been more aware of the language diversity in her students, and called out our strengths in communication, instead of our deficits.
For our team of researchers in English 713, that is the goal of our qualitative research project: to gain a sense of the linguistic diversity of UW-Milwaukee students and how that diversity can be viewed as not something to change to write well, but something that can be valued outside of academics. Sara Goldrick-Rab and Jesse Strommel write in their article, Teaching the Students We have, Not the Students We Wish We Had, “the work of higher education — as with all of education — has to begin with a deep respect for students. They are not mere data points, not just rows in an online grade book. Students are human first.” Appreciating where students are linguistically is one step in the direction of deep respect for where students are, not for where we wish they were in their writing journey.
The first step of beginning our research project was completed on Monday night, February 11th to answer the question of how we would hold each other and ourselves accountable for learning and growth. Over the past week we added information to a “Collaboration Contract” document to share what our personal and professional needs were. In class, we coded the data from patterns we found across our responses, and working in small groups, synthesized the feedback into four categories of expectations: Communication, Workload, Accountability, and Respect. To complete the process, we each signed the contract and then turned our attention towards writing a research question. Multiple ideas for a potential research question were shared, with no clear plan reached before the end of class.
But that is okay. Although an often-quoted self-help book encourages aspiring successful people to “begin with the end in mind,” our work on the collaboration contract helped provide a set of expectations for moving forward. We know how we will arrive at the end, even if we do not know yet what the end result of our research will be. While I felt alone during my first weeks of class in English 102, I did not have that feeling in English 713. Here, I am surrounded by a group committed to shared expectations and professional goals. We have a purpose to gather data to support a conclusion about the diverse languages, dialects, composition practices, and resources that UW-Milwaukee students use in their daily lives as they move across campus spaces. And, the results of our research has the potential to shape our own, and our campus’ view of student language and writing, from a deficit, to an understanding of linguistic diversity and complex communication navigation skills.
The spring semester is underway at UW-Milwaukee, despite the multiple blizzards we've had here in Wisconsin. This semester, eleven graduate students are taking my course on Qualitative Research Methods in Rhetorics, Literacies, and Community Engagement. In this post, I'll share a bit about the course to set the scene for my students' posts this semester. Here's an excerpt from the syllabus: "To achieve the learning objectives for this course, everyone will work together to design, implement, and conduct a preliminary analysis of a qualitative research project on the linguistic resources of UWM students. We will take an asset-approach to exploring what innovative ways UWM students write and speak in their daily lives.
...What this project will look like depends a lot on how engaged everyone will be in the process and what we all decide we want to do with it. I hope you’ll reach the end of the semester with a good sense of who you are as a researcher, what informs the ways you research, and what you might take from this class into future studies or work. I also hope everyone finishes the semester with two things: pride in the work that they’ve done (individually and collaboratively) and confidence that they’ve learned something and developed as a researcher along the way. With these goals in mind, the 'end product' of this process becomes less of a focus, since wherever we end up in May is exactly where we should be at that point. Hopefully, if we do not meet the goals we set up at the start of the semester, we still have learned a few things throughout the process that would positively inform our approaches to research and collaborative work in the future. After the semester is over, some of you may decide to stay on as part of the research team with this study and we can pursue grants and future steps together."
My idea behind this design was to give students the space and time to experience the complexities of qualitative research, while also getting hands-on experience with designing a qualitative study, "collecting" data, and doing a preliminary analysis. These courses are often taught in a way that sets students up to do some portion of their own research projects, but for a variety of reasons, I thought that the experience of collaborating as a class on a single project that could be developed beyond the semester might be a better approach. Students will also write at least one entry per week in a "field note" journal and I want that to be a space for whatever is most useful for them--reflecting on the process, noting something they observed in their daily lives, or working through ideas for the project.
The blog posts that you'll see this semester are an extension of those field notes. I've asked them to write "From the Field" posts (and I'm defining "field" very broadly) about their experiences and highlights from class, readings, and research activities. You'll soon see what the students are thinking about the process so far, but my take is that we're off to a challenging (yet productive) start in taking on the ambiguity of a new project, the ways small details make a big difference, and how we have to constantly return to our proposed schedule to adjust and revise based on the groups' needs. It's unlike any class I've ever taught, and I imagine it's unlike any class most (if not all) of them have ever taken. It's risky and we're going to make mistakes along the way, but if I've learned anything from my seven years doing qualitative research, it's that this type of work--working with people, communities, and other researchers--requires an ability to adapt and a set of skills that are difficult to teach by just giving a lecture or assigning readings. So, I'm trying something different with the way I've set this up, and we'll see how it goes. I hope you'll join us each week and see what kinds of conclusions, reflections, and research findings we come up with together.
We have fourteen weeks of theory resting between our ears. Throughout the semester, we’ve interrogated how language, culture, and race are theorized in the field of composition and rhetoric. Importantly, our understanding of these theories has not been developed in isolation. We did not read tucked away in the library or at our desks over our lunch breaks, only to sit and ponder these ideas in isolation. Each Thursday evening, we convened in a small simple room to talk, to question, to criticize, and to understand. We engaged in rhetoric to convey ideas and relied on literacies to understand our texts and each other. Through our linguistic repertoires, we engaged in a collaborative social process to develop our ideas. We navigated meanings, and hopefully, developed an attuned orientation towards the interaction of race, culture, and the practice of language.
This is where we are, shortly after our penultimate class meeting, in the moment that I sit down to converse with you about our experience. Our professor challenged us before our discussion, “What is theory?”, and an underlying question rose to the surface, “How do we apply theory in practice?”. These questions seemed to shape the conversation during the first half of our weekly gathering.
Echoing and enforcing our ongoing semester-long dialogue, we dug into the theory and practice of translingual approaches to literacy and writing. Drawing upon the words of Bruce Horner, Min-Zhan Lu, Jacqueline Jones Royster, and John Trimbur, one classmate oriented us towards a recurring theme from not only this week’s readings, but also from across the semester. We were reminded that stances of openness towards language and literacy practice require us to view “language differences and fluidities as resources to be preserved, developed and utilized” (Horner et al., 2011, p. 304). This flexible view of language, taking a position that language is an inherently dynamic process rather than a static perfection, allows the space to ponder Horner et al.’s recognition that “we are all language learners” (p. 304). In class there was an acknowledgement that, for some, this is a profound perceptual change to the nature of language. What are the implications of this reoriented perspective, of engaging in what A. Suresh Canagarajah terms “linguistic pluralism”?
No longer is language a thing to be tamed, taught, and tested. Rather, it assumes mutable organic qualities we often associate with living beings; growing, changing, responding, and evolving. The translingual approach pushes this concept a bit further. Language cannot be wrangled into a singular truth--because core to its nature is difference. According to Min-Zhan Lu and Bruce Horner, “difference is the norm” (2013, p. 585). In class we pushed this theory towards practice by recognizing that there is not a singular way of speaking or writing. Linguistic practices are not monolithic, and we ought to keep this orientation at front of mind when we work with students. We must create environments where students can draw upon their personal linguistic repertoires not only to navigate, but also to co-create the contextual language practice in our learning spaces. An act Lu and Horner have cited as language sedimentation.
After discussing Jerry Won Lee’s Beyond Translingual Writing we intentionally moved the conversation towards the practical application of translingual approaches. How can we make these ideas work for us and our students? Linguistic agency, the ability of language users to recognize and control their own practice and experience with language, can inform the way we understand our student’s language practices. We can assess linguistic agency by incorporating reflective writing into our curricula, and in conjunction, committing to engaging in dialogue with our students regarding their language production.
Even though we engaged in a rich and rigorous discussion, I still wonder about Won Lee’s linguistic social justice, something we only briefly touched on. Or, what about the relationship between language practices and power dynamics? These might be theoretical questions for the next class to tackle.
It is imperative to note that there is no set of practices, no how-to guide, no tricks of the trade. The translingual approach, is an orientation, not a dogma. Therefore, it serves as a guide that ought to be thoughtfully and lovingly applied in our specific contexts. The embodiment of this orientation in our practice might create a space where students--each in possession of a unique linguistic finger print--can freely engage in the social nature of language, collaboratively constructing the norms of practice.
English for Academic Purposes (EAP, henceforth) at UW-Milwaukee offers ranges of courses for these students for whom English is not the first/only language/dialect. EAP students come from different language and cultural backgrounds and gather as one community with one purpose—to get better at English. However, #uwm812 exposes us to readings that challenges our long-held beliefs regarding this community, especially with regards to student errors/mistakes. Especially thinking about the early readings, for example Mina Shaughnessy’s Errors & Expectations raised intriguing questions student errors produced by Basic Writers (BW). Also, Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children also highlights the debate surrounding standard vs non-standard English that gets to the very definition of what should be considered standard English. Both Shaughnessy and Delpit discuss student community who has multilingual and multidialectal language background—something Vershawn Ashanti Young and Suresh Canagarajah also underline in their works.
EAP students’ mistakes can be open for interpretation, or better yet, up for debate depending on who is looking at it or from what angle. EAP teachers from a pure linguistic point of view may see a rather non-standard language form as a mistake while a first-year writing instructor may see it from a rather rhetorical vantage point. Just thinking about the word “mistake” itself, the question is who is missing the take (pun intended) on the apparent student error? Suresh Canagarajah’s piece “The Place of World Englishes in Composition: Pluralization Continued” that we read gives a good example for this complex issue. Canagarajah examines the Chinese student’s “peculiar” use of “can able to” in the same sentence as that makes sense in the student’s first language. However, judging solely from prescriptive grammatical rules of standard English, “can able to” is an error of redundancy since “can” and “be able to” has interchangeable meaning in English.
Now this can be ruled out just as a discreet and individual example. However, my personal experience teaching EAP students at UWM resonates with Canagarajah’s example. During my tenure at UWM EAP, one of my Saudi students pronounced the word “people” as “beoble”. Another student with Arabic language background would pronounce the word usually (with P sound) but write “beoble” when he would write it on paper. Now because of my familiarity with Arabic language, I know Arabic does not really have “p” sound in it. So, these apparent mistakes were rather transfer from their first/other language. Therefore, this community of students who are dynamic in their linguistic repertoire, may produce language forms that is apparently erroneous, but actually stem from their meta-linguistic abilities. Students with more than one language may make apparent mistake that is open for such interpretation. When EAP students make these apparent mistakes, there may be more than just grammatical errors that is happening there.
I am using the word “apparent” here because on face value they may seem like a mistake however, upon deeper reflection, and also possible active negotiation with students these mistakes may come out as another form of language. I am echoing Canagarajah here, “To meet these objectives, rather than focusing on correctness, we should perceive "error" as the learner's active negotiation and exploration of choices and possibilities.” (593). However, does this mean a student never make mistakes or every mistake is some sort of meta-linguistic activity? I do not have a definitive answer to this question. It is complicated to say the least, and students do make mistakes.
So, how do we approach this student community in terms of assessing them? One way to go about it, is to talk with the student in person to find out what he/she was thinking while s/he was languaging. Also, important is more coordination between teacher communities too since teachers from different background may look at these mistakes differently. For example, looking from a language instructional perspective, mistakes may seem just like mistakes. However, teachers of rhetoric may look at these mistakes from a rhetorical standpoint. I am not saying one is better/more important than the other, on the contrary one (language instruction/teaching) can complement the other (rhetoric). Therefore, as much as we need to think about student communities, we should also think about teacher communities too. Teaching and learning both are communal.
This week’s readings were Rebecca Lorimer Leonard’s “Multilingual Writing as Rhetorical Attunement” and A. Suresh Canagarajah’s “The Place of World Englishes in Composition: Pluralization Continued .” Both authors work with ESL / TEOFL and multilingual teaching & writing. Below are some highlights from both the articles and the class discussion.
The class discussion centered on fostering strategies and values to teaching multilingual writing and speaking. The general concerns were basically how to serve students to the best of their ability, and how teachers may want to consider different approaches and what do teachers value when it comes to language learning and composition in the classroom.
Pluralism and Space
Canagarajah supports a “pluralizing composition” (p.587) or the co-existence of approaches between multilingualism and monolingual standards. He explains, “they compel us to think of English as a plural language that embodies many norms and standards” (p.589). Primarily, what new strategies or approaches can teachers provide which students can use in their writing and speaking now (‘pedagogy of space’ as he puts it) rather than over a period of time as proposed by Elbow’s two-pronged approach (p.598)?
Key Highlights from the Class Discussion
Rhetorical Attunement & Sensibility
Lorimer Leonard explains “how writing across languages and locations in the world fosters as rhetorical attunement: a literate understanding that assumes multiplicity and invites the negotiation of meaning across difference” (p.228). She also states, literate repertoires are not static (p.228), and language learning is interactive, engaging and it entails language negotiation. She further explains, “one way to think about this difference —monolingual writers hear a note; multilingual writers hear a chord” (p.244).
Other Highlights from the Class Discussion
A side note: Although I was a little intimidated in taking this class and since I do not come from an English composition and teaching background, I wanted to give a shout out to the instructor and the classmates for the sharing of their thoughts, and experiences on Rhetoric and Composition.
Best wishes to all of you in both your teaching and academic careers.