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.
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.