Monday, December 2, 2013

Final Reflection

Bass and Elmendorf’s description of “authentic audience” has resonated with me all year. They urge teachers to create learning activities that gives students the chance to develop “their knowledge in contexts that centrally ask them to think of their audience as someone other than their professor...whether it is other students or some external audience" (Bass and Elmendorf 2). As I’ve mentioned in one of my early posts, I’ve struggled throughout my teaching career to impart the sense that writing an essay involves communication, not just performance. As such, the student author must provide his/her reader with the necessary background information throughout the discussion. Despite my persistent efforts, far too many students over the years have seemed unable to make the crucial cognitive and imaginative leap into their reader’s mind. In hindsight, this failure wasn’t too surprising, since I’d been creating a completely fictional rhetorical situation. I was most likely the only person who'd ever read their work, and they knew it. Moreover, even students exchanged drafts within the class for peer response, they would still be writing for someone who was generally familiar with the subject matter, the essay question, and the readings being discussed. Given my past frustrations, the possibility of having my students actually write for that elusive “authentic audience” through Facebook was intriguing and exciting.   

In the Fall, I had my ENG101 students exchange “sandwiched” paragraphs with Thomas Meacham’s ENG101 students. (These are analytical paragraphs built around a key quote from the reading. The quotation is preceded by a “top slice” that provides a general introduction to the subject matter, and it’s followed by a “bottom slice” that explains, discusses, or comments on the material.) When performing the connecting activity, I was struck by how much more time, care, and effort my students were put into drafting and polishing their work. In a class where I had usually needed to nudge students to take their writing a bit more seriously, I actually had to extend the allotted activity time from 30 minutes to a full hour because they were so absorbed in their work. Even better, I was very satisfied at their paragraphs, which were largely clear and well-developed. Here’s a fairly representative sample:

In his article “How Do You Know When It’s Love?” writer and blogger Harris O’Malley emphasizes that love comes in more than just one form and we often mistake genuine love for its various cousins that look a lot like love. He points out that lust and infatuation can sometimes be misunderstood and taken for the real thing. O’Malley uses a metaphor, saying that “mistaking lust or infatuation for love is like mistaking the ignition for the car” (74). He explains, that the noise catches our attention, but it is only a part of the whole. Love is much more “gradual emotion” than we tend to believe. Love may start with sexual desire and attraction, but it has to grow into something bigger and deeper. Just like an ignition will not take you far without a car, relationships that are based only on lust and infatuation are doomed to failure, because love is a feeling that is based on emotional intimacy and desire for partnership, not just a physical attraction or the need for sexual release.

In all, the results surpassed my expectations. At the time, I speculated that my students had worked so hard because they knew their paragraphs would be visible to everyone in both Composition I sections. In short, no one wanted to look bad to their peers.

However, the next semester’s connecting activity has led me to question my initial interpretation. Since Thomas left LaGuardia for UConn (boo! hiss!), I linked my Comp I course with Maria’s ESL097 class. Since my spring ENG101 students knew their readers were less skilled English-language writers, I anticipated less performance pressure. As a corollary, I predicted a drop-off in the quality of their posted writing. I was half right. My students indeed seemed much less anxious when posting their paragraphs on Facebook; rather than taking an hour to polish their work, they were done in barely 20 minutes.  However, I was surprised to see that the quality of writing was comparable to the previous semester’s posts. For example:

Couples, according to [psychologist Sonja] Lyubomirsky, have a difficult time trying to adapt and understand the changing feelings of love, in that the change between passionate and companionate love is normal. Lyubomirsky mentions hedonic adaptation as a cause for the change in that human beings are ultimately susceptible to “an innate – and measurable – capacity to become habituated or inured to most life changes.” (Lyubomirsky 201) Like with a new video game or a new piece of clothing or even a new car, the change in those two types of love happen because we lose the thrill of having to play the game of finding that one lucky person to whom to spend your life with. We lose the satisfaction of finding “The One” to be with since now, there’s no need in searching for something that’s now footsteps away.

Since the second round, I’ve been wondering if I had overestimated the role of peer pressure in the success of last Fall’s connecting activity. Perhaps peer pressure and performance anxiety aren’t the decisive factors to writing confidently and well. (Who knew!) Perhaps the secret sauce is the very act of writing to a receptive reader, a real-life person who wants to listen and understand, someone who doesn’t have a red pen and a grade book. As Bass and Elmendorf assert, the presence of an “authentic audience” creates the "sense that something is at stake in sharing one's ideas other than getting a grade" (5). And this is a wonderful place to inhabit when teaching--and learning--about writing.

This year has been a huge eye-opener. The connecting activities, which I approached with a lot of anxiety at the beginning of the seminar, have given me a sense of expansiveness and authenticity that I now realize were missing in my pedagogy. Moving forward from Community 2.0, I don’t think I can go back to a pre-connected classroom. This is a huge development in my teaching--maybe the most significant one since I first learned about process-based teaching. It’s been a genuine pleasure, and I hope to work with everyone again!


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