I teach at a small liberal arts college in central New Hampshire as a Teaching Lecturer. It is one of the best parts of my life—I have the opportunity to work with college students, deepen my understanding as a writer, and am afforded the support of a caring and thoughtful department. With six classes of College Composition under my belt, and the introduction of Open to the campus (in the form of several professors embracing those concepts) I decided to give it a shot myself. Open speaks to my thoughts around academic instruction: puts students in the driver’s seat, allows for interesting and thoughtful participation, embraces technology, and allows for a more rounded academic environment. These echo my own educational experiences as a writer, where the main academic arena is the workshop. With new ideas and some examples, and a thirst to do something meaningful, I went about designing a course that would enthrall and invoke the truest experience of academia an incoming first-semester student had ever experienced!
And then it fell flat. The only thing that saved the course from total failure were the students, who battened down the hatches as we sank and stared baling.
As a part of reflective practice, it’s important to look back at the places that did not go as planned and learn from them. In my first experiment in Open, there were things that on the outside looked like the correct thing to do. Some activities were very successful. Others were not. By looking backward, we can build from both places to remix and create something out of what was (which is, after all, a tenant of Open).
First, College Composition is offered at most institutions of higher education. This course serves as an Introduction to Academic Writing and is often one of the first classes taken during a student’s first semester and offers training in how to enter academia, hopefully allowing for successful writing. Traditionally, there are several essays required, the MLA citation process is gone over extensively, and there is remedial grammar education.
Six Compositions in, I was ready for a change and so went about building the class. Borrowing on the idea of digital portfolios, I wanted students to create a landing page for their academic work that they could tailor to their own needs. With the support of the classroom technology department, I laid out a plan for the students to create a portfolio using WordPress where they would submit drafts of their work, comment on each other’s entries and finally create a front-facing artifact of their work.
The goal here was for students to embrace their work as reflections of themselves and invest their personal energies into it. Second, it would cut down on the costs attendant to printing and distributing multiple drafts of essays, which would then be recycled after the essay was submitted for grading. All-in-all a win-win situation.
Next, students would help decide course policies. Aside from the mandatory policies adopted by the University, I would support the students in whatever made sense for them. This required setting aside my six-courses deep policy of not accepting late work. Ever. It also meant that the attendance policy would become more organic and less rigid, as three absences from the course had negatively impacted final grades in previous incarnations of Composition. Additionally, rather than assigning readings, we would together to find texts that served as exemplars. The goal here was to remove the professor as the gatekeeper of what was “good” and allow us to develop a definition and criteria of successful writing. It would turn the classroom into a place for us to nurture and develop our understandings and appreciation.
For a first-time-open, that sounded pretty good. I had had some thoughts about using Twitter to form professional learning networks, but decided to pass, as my previous attempt (with an introduction to literature course) had had lackluster success, and I spent a lot of my time parsing through students’ personal lives.
When Section 21 launched in Fall 2016 it was with twenty students from a broad range of experiences. There were folks from New Hampshire, New England, and beyond. Some had chosen majors while others were still deciding on what their academic path would be and where they wanted it to lead.
Our first set of activities was to create course goals. Students were asked to brainstorm alone, and then in pairs what they wanted to gain out of the class. From a master list (created using a shared document) the list was pared down to this:
- Develop skills / learn how to write a “college essay”.
- Practice skills to make perfect.
- Passing the course.
- Engage in good group work.
- Increasing self-confidence and becoming a better writer.
- Develop skills that will help finding job in the future.
We also developed the criteria for grading:
All final drafts have a 2-day grace period to submit with no penalty
Final grade will be determined by participation and a portfolio ½ of all writing.
Then came the attendance policy:
Students will have 2 excused absences. Each absence after will decrease their final grade by 5%. Students who miss no classes will be awarded a 5% increase in their final grade (not to exceed 100%)
These policies were, from my perspective, good. The students were engaged in their creation and by mutually agreeing to the expectations of their learning community, the hope was that they would be more engaged, overall. This engagement would (I hoped) translate to successful outcomes as described by the six goals of Section 21. We were on a roll.
Over the following week, we looked at past academic activities that hadn’t felt disposable. From here, we created a tool to evaluate our own work and begin crafting our first set of assignments. We established that for Section 21, effective writing included the following:
- Clear and concise.
- Catchy / Interesting.
- Good use of Grammar and Vocab.
- Reliable sources.
- Audience “gets” it.
Students were invited to use a shared document to begin looking at topics for our first essay. The original list was pared down to two prompts:
- Describe a person who change your life and how they changed it
- Discuss a decade you would wish to live in, and why?
Students were engaged in deciding that this essay should be between two and four pages and take approximately two weeks to complete. Everyone was on board, and the class was excited, and ready to roll. We discussed traditional topics for a Composition class, looked at hooks and how to format and create paragraphs and spent a little time in class brainstorming ideas for these essays.
This is when things started to go wrong, and the holes in my understanding of Open, and my pedagogy started appearing.
The first issue was in creating digital portfolios in WordPress. Students were, as a whole, unfamiliar with WordPress. We spent a day in class working through creating the site, making sure that students weren’t paying for their own domain, and working through the kinks to remove any/all of the pre-created text in headers, footers, and blogposts.
The second issue occurred when the first essay was due. Less than half the students completed the essay. Which, in turn, made it challenging for folks to comment on rough drafts that were submitted to the digital portfolios. When asked, the students identified that since the course would be graded using a portfolio at the end of the semester, they weren’t planning on including the first essay, and thus did not do it.
In hindsight, I realized that the grading criteria was too broad, and had come with the expectation that the students would engage in the writing process, understanding and appreciating its value. In an effort to remove the draconian underpinnings of some courses, we were faced with the issue that the really was no reason to complete the essay if they weren’t planning on using it. This offered an opportunity for a more experienced educator to readjust expectations, augment the syllabus, etc.
When meeting with the department chair following this, her advice was that work for the portfolio should have been mandatory from what was submitted, and that only work submitted could be used. Hindsight is 20/20.
The next thing we ran afoul of was the attendance policy. Folks were given two absences and then were deducted 5% for every additional absence. As the semester rolled, the students of Section 21 began to not appear in class. In part, it was the annual autumn plague which hit particularly hard that year, and also the experience of a first-semester student, away from home and not wanting to appear at an 8am class.
By not attending class and participating, the assignment following the disaster of the first essay was also more complicated. The students were asked what they were interested in reading. Ten students were in class the day this was discussed, and the students were asked to share their pieces via a shared document, which folks would then vote on to read. Two days later, there were two texts on the shared document, neither of which had any votes.
Some of this is to be expected. Students were asked to engage in a way that was very unfamiliar to all of them, coupled with the realities of a first-semester college experience and the shifting priorities attached. Beyond this, there are places where I, as the professor could have helped, rather than relying on the existence of skills that hadn’t been nurtured.
My notes indicate when we started having to bail. About a month in to class, we suspended the use of the digital portfolios. Students weren’t posting, and were picking and choosing which assignments to complete (largely, not complete at all), which was frustrating others. Following the first text failure, students were given choices from a list of examples and invited to choose whichever appealed to them.
When the semester began to come to a close, we faced our last obstacle: the creation of the portfolio which would assign a grade to the class. Some students had submitted little-to-no work prior to this, and had had spotty attendance. Students created drafts for prior essays when they realized that they did not have sufficient work for the portfolio, and what followed as a mad-dash to ensure there was enough work to satisfy the expectations of the portfolio.
In the end, only one student failed the class, having missed approximately three months of class. They arrived the week before finals expecting to successfully complete all the coursework, and ran into the attendance policy, which caused a fatal deduction of course points despite their portfolio submission.
In hindsight, there are some things that I would do very differently, while still engaging in the principles of open. The first and most important would be to provide further guidelines and scaffolding for the course policies rather than relegating those responsibilities to the course as a whole. This would include some scope of which essays would be required for the course (Research, Narrative, Personal, etc.) while challenging the group to refine off of those expectations.
I would also modify the portfolio. Rather than imagining the WordPress site as a single assignment, it would be best to use it as a place where students could develop the message they’re hoping to send about their academic work. This would dovetail into a professional space where examplars of their own interests could be shared with the wider public. The portfolio for Composition would need to have more explicit instructions, ensuring more concrete expectations in terms of completion.
Reviews from the course were mixed. Students appreciated the approach, but felt that the lack of clear guidelines impacted their ability to know where they were at in terms of success. The issues with attendance were also brought up, where students felt as though their classmates didn’t care about the class and thus impacted the overall learning environment. I got called up with the Chair of the Department for a course that didn’t succeed, and the overall negative feedback.
Open is a valuable tool and an important way to reconsider the traditional paradigm of education. In traditional academic classes the power differential is generally tilted toward the professor and the students may suffer from a lack of true engagement as a consequence. Lecture courses don’t often inspire discourse and personal investment in the work. While some topics may be interesting, the assignments imbedded in them are disposable. If they are disposable past the moment when the grade is assigned, Open allows us to consider how each step in the academic path might run connect into the larger world. But, sometimes the path isn’t always clear or easy. By being reflective practitioners (and perhaps by failing a few times at first) we grow as a larger community toward forming an educational experience that fulfills the goals of all those involved.