Welcome to the first installment of Profiles in Pedagogy! The Composition Program has started this initiative to highlight the pedagogical brilliance that is present in ENGL110 classrooms across campus but that often remains acknowledged only by our students and administrators. By conducting interviews with a range of faculty teaching ENGL110 in the English Department at the University of Delaware, we hope you come to appreciate the diverse approaches that your colleagues are bringing to this course and adopt any strategies, assignments, or themes that you believe would prove effective in your class. More than anything, Profiles in Pedagogy aims to ignite and encourage ongoing interdepartmental conversations about the teaching of ENGL110.
With the plan being to post several entries each semester in the months and years ahead, these interviews will ideally inspire you to continue revisiting your pedagogy to meet the unique challenges of first-year composition. Moreover, we highly recommend reaching out to featured faculty with questions about their class, a means of dialogue that will establish a sense of community and represent merely a starting point in a conversation already in progress. Due to technical difficulties, the first few installments will be written interviews, but the long-term goal is to record videos to be posted to the site. Stay tuned for future updates. And who knows? You could be the next person asked to take part in this exciting project!
Below the fold, you can find our first interview with Andy Ross, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow who regularly teaches ENGL110. We think his insights perfectly embody the spirit of Profiles in Pedagogy and have much to offer instructors with varying levels of experience. As we prepare to enter the spring semester, whether as new or longtime teachers, Andy will surely give you more to consider in designing your course. We hope you enjoy!
Brett Seekford, Assistant Director of Composition: How long have you taught ENGL110?
Andy Ross: I’ve taught ENGL110 at UD for three years now, but have designed and taught first-year writing courses for about ten years (at three different universities).
BS: What is your ENGL110 class like? Is there any specific focus?
AR: I teach place-based first-year writing courses that encourage students to write about their own personal geographies and the ethical commitments that come along with them. I’ve also taught courses themed around climate change/the Anthropocene, and “the attention economy.”
My course is designed to introduce students to what I see as the real work of writing (particularly academic writing) by offering a structure in which students can work together as peers and practice writing not in isolation but with other texts, writers, and readers in mind. An average ENGL110 class meeting might look like this: we begin with a brief student presentation in which they share some of their views and experiences with a writing approach/principle (sometimes it’s a “bad idea” about writing that they want to counteract). After the presenting student facilitates some conversation about this topic, we might move into a group or individual activity in which students practice a skill they’ve encountered in the assigned reading for that day and which they’ll further develop in whatever larger writing assignment they are working on. I am a big fan of peer workshop and review work, so quite often class periods will involve an opportunity for students to practice giving and receiving feedback from each other (a skill that I think ENGL110 is especially good for teaching).
BS: Can you talk a bit more about the importance placed on “place” in your class? Why do you emphasize this concept? And what do you think it helps students achieve as thinkers?
AR: I like using the concept of place in an ENGL110 class for lots of reasons—some of them theoretical, and some more practical. First-year students are typically navigating a moment of displacement—they have often just left home, and are working through figuring out their place on campus, in their social circle, etc. They’re also thinking about home plenty, and it seems like often times they start to look at the places they come from (and the issues those places represent or confront) in a new way. So an invitation to think about the role of rhetoric as it relates to places, or an invitation to explore a new place through research and writing sparks something in students. On the more practical side, I find that the concept of place offers a way of focusing research and steering projects toward breaking some new ground. In other words, because I typically make an emphasis or connection to a specific place a requirement of students’ research papers, it means that if they opt to write about a “hot-button” topic, they have to focus it in a specific place, thus raising the possibility of more nuanced and interesting research questions. A paper about social media becomes an investigation of “regional emoji dialects”; a paper about gun control becomes a rhetorical analysis of “campus carry” laws; a paper about concussions becomes a proposal for improved physical education in rural primary schools, etc.
BS: You mention papers designed to realize this framework. What are some of your major assignments? Do you have a favorite?
AR: I want students to learn and practice analysis as well as argument, so the semester typically begins with a rhetorical analysis assignment—often having to do with rhetoric “in place”—and then moves into a series of linked assignments around place-based research (in which students expand and revise a project around a research question they develop themselves).
Two favorite assignments come to mind, both of which have to do with audience awareness: the first is a project in which students work in groups to meet with leaders of campus units like transportation, food, residence life, etc., and discuss their department’s sustainability initiatives. Then, the students write proposals in which they outline ways that such “green” initiatives might be more effectively communicated to undergrads. This requires thinking about both how to communicate sustainability to their peers, and how to write to an audience of campus leadership.
The second favorite assignment is quite different, in that it’s multimodal. At the end of the semester I often ask students to build on their place-based research by designing a commemorative space or monument. Students produce a series of visuals (and along the way learn some principles of design and visual communication) and then justify that space in writing, as though it was part of a design competition. These “speculative” spaces give students the chance to think about how to write in a persuasive, immersive way, and also about the relationship of written rhetoric and how individuals experience public space, community, justice, and memory. Many of the designs that students develop blow me away with their creativity and sensitivity to location, access, and history.
BS: How would you describe your teaching philosophy? How do you bring that to your ENGL110 classes?
AR: One of the best things I can do as a teacher is to try to shift students’ view of writing as a series of rules to an experience more akin to an on-going conversation; I help students see themselves as writers who are producing knowledge, not just consuming it. Even though some of them might consider themselves novice writers, my philosophy is to emphasize the contribution all writers can make as they respond to other texts/writers and write with a specific audience in mind.
One of my favorite “conversations” to have students participate in is about what it means to live and learn “in place” and how our sense of place develops. I’ve found that when students have something of a personal connection to the work that their doing, or when they can recognize their own interests in their assignments, their confidence as writers grows. So I encourage students to find a conversation that they are interested in and then to research and write in a way that allows them to articulate the value of what they are bringing to that dialogue.
BS: What role does the library play in your class? Can you talk about the importance of the librarians and their resources for your students?
AR: I can’t imagine teaching ENGL110 without the help of the library! In addition to welcoming my students for instruction on research methods or joining our class for a session about information literacy, I have had many students tell me about how helpful it is to meet with a research librarian. One fabulous resource that I have used in my courses are the information literacy activities for ENGL110 classes that a team of UD librarians recently developed. These activities are easily adaptable, and work well at various stages of the research and writing process. I’m always impressed by how much librarians are willing to adapt their instruction to match my goals for the class and to be as individually useful to students as possible.
BS: I’m always curious about our growth as teachers. What is it that you as an instructor have gotten out of ENGL110? How has it helped you grow as a teacher?
AR: For one thing, I think I’m a stronger writer because of the work that I do as a teacher. About mid-way through most semesters, I tell my students about my commitment to write every day. Then, usually at the start of class, someone will pipe up to keep me accountable or ask how my writing is going (sometimes I think they do it to see me fidget uncomfortably when I haven’t gotten to it). I do the same with them and we start to support each other in our progress as writers. Teaching ENGL110 has helped me develop ways to anticipate and navigate some of the roadblocks that tend to pop up when writing, and to genuinely take pleasure when students overcome them. I love when students finish a semester stronger and more confident in their writing and with a clearer sense of what they offer to their discipline or community.