Adaptation in the Writing Classroom

By Cat Champney

(FERPA Disclaimer: students are quoted in this article. All personally identifying information has been removed. Regardless, though, the students quoted here gave written consent to use their words.)

The goal for the first few weeks of my class sound simple: define adaptation. However, that’s not really so easy. As I mentioned in my first post, arriving at a single definition for adaptation is futile and perhaps even useless. We agree on a central definition of adaptation… then what?

After watching Adaptation (2002), I had students talk about what they thought adaptation meant, to the film. What does the film tell us about adaptation, and how might those features help us define it? The film allowed us to talk about adaptation in different dimensions: how was it a theme? How was it a genre? What about a format, or medium? Some of the class dipped into some literary/film analysis, which I entertained, but we quickly focused on the rhetoric of the film and its paratexts: what can Adaptation tell us about adaptation in writing?

The following class, we discussed two online articles about the Netflix adaptation of Persuasion. After briefly recapping our previous discussion, we talked about how the two authors considered adaptation in their arguments and what specific rhetorical devices they used to signal those considerations. I selected both articles because they used somewhat inflammatory language—terms like “Fleabagification”—to provoke students’ realization of the power of rhetoric. Students quickly came to realize that both authors, in a similar way, projected certain expectations on to adaptations. Expectations, of course, quickly gave way to talking about audience and genre.

Prior to assigning the film, I was nervous to its reception. Would students be caught up in the meaning of it all, or would we be able to focus on rhetoric? Would they be able to compare a film to an argumentative essay online? Or, would it be too distracting?

Ultimately, all of these fears were unfounded. There was value in the change of medium, from the film to the online article, and the topic was met with high levels of engagement. Even if it wasn’t apparent that students had read closely, they were listening to others’ elaborations and contributing their own thoughts on the many nuances to adaptation. I took this opportunity to open the room and ask about personal connections to the material: how do these qualities of adaptation apply to our own creation and writing processes?

These questions were strategically placed. My first assignment in the course is a low-stakes diagnostic essay. I began using these when I was an adjunct instructor as a way to gauge students’ strengths and weaknesses. I explain the essays as both introductions and samples: I want students to try their best to introduce their writing to me, without the added stress of grades. Then, students and I work together throughout the semester to build on their strengths and practice their weaknesses. The prompt for the essay is intentionally basic: I ask a general question and encourage students to use a mix of course material and personal experiences to back up some sort of central claim.

For this essay, as you might have guessed, I asked, what is an adaptation? Although only a sampling, I’ve included some interesting replies:

“An adaptation is a process of change due to disruption in the environment. The world’s smallest sunflower adapted to the sidewalk by wriggling its flexible stem through the fissures in the rock. This process of tactical revision, however, extends beyond nature; when a written work is to be ‘adapted,’ it too must acquire a new set of traits—a unique demeanor and fresh commentary…” (my emphasis)

“An interesting paradox I can think of that relates to this is the Ship of Theseus… But what if, over time, every part on the boat got damaged, and replaced with a new part? Would this still be the same ship? Would it be a new, different ship with a different identity?”

“Often it depends on the context of the work being adapted, however this basic format of an adaptation requires a balance. An adaptation is the balance between the accuracy of the original work and the updating to bring modern ideas into the new pieces of work”

Other students spoke of adaptation more generally, referring to their own adaptation from high school student to college student. Though I disagree with the categorization, many of them found such personal adaptations “unremarkable”—even though they’ve build an entirely new identity. Another student created an adaptation trifecta: Nature, Literature, and Culture as three ways to “center” or ground adaptation, while others approached the question in a less structured manner, organizing their paragraphs by evidence instead.

While I think every teacher is impressed with their students’ work, I found myself struck by the variety in their responses, even using the same evidence. I was happy to see some students flat out disagree with the argumentative essays, providing counter examples like Harry Potter and other media to construct their own definitions. While it’s just a start, that was the point in this assignment: encouraging students to think about how they define adaptation and how to enter into existing conversations about it. What matters, and to whom?

The next few weeks of the semester will build on their responses to this question and their skills in discussion questions about Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Hyde—how does this frequently-adapted novella inform us further about adaptation, and rhetoric? While there will certainly be challenges with this text, I look forward to talking about it… and reporting on it here!

Until next time!

Cat Champney is a second year PhD student and graduate instructor at the University of Delaware. She studies literary adaptation of the 19th century, with an emphasis on authorship and female gothic narratives. Prior to attending UD, Cat received her Master’s Degree in 19th Century Literature from Brooklyn College and a joint degree in English and Political Science from SUNY Binghamton. Her master’s thesis examined the absence of Scarlett O’Hara’s children from David Selznick’s film adaptation, Gone with the Wind. Prior to her current composition course at UD, Cat taught various composition and writing courses at CUNY Brooklyn College and City College of Technology. 

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Adaptation in the Writing Classroom

By Cat Champney

Adaptation is an appropriate key term for many composition instructors returning to the classroom for the first time since the lockdowns in 2020. All of us have had to change our syllabi, our assignments, and our mindsets around teaching composition in the digital, pandemic age. Even if we were tech-savvy before, a shift in and out of online classrooms (and potentially some time in a hybrid classroom) left its mark on all of our individual psyches. On top of the pandemic, we are living in an era of misinformation: teaching students how to evaluate sources, recognize bias, and write for specific audiences holds near-apocalyptic prescience.  

After reflecting on my own adaptation as an educator and, frankly, as a human being, I asked—why not center the composition classroom in adaptation itself? Why not talk directly about our shared experiences through adaptation as a process and medium? 

These questions, I must admit, were not brought on only by the pandemic and social injustices that sparked adaptation for so many of us in the last few years. As an adaptation scholar, I spend a considerable amount of time thinking about adaptation texts, how we define them (if we can), why we define them (if we do), and how adaptation studies fit in with English departments. For some, an adaptation is simply a film born out of a movie—and, of course, the book is always better than the movie. For others—myself and other adaptation scholars—that definition limits the vast potentialities of our field… and the book is not always better than the movie, my apologies. Before formally becoming an adaptationist (in training), I was most interested in the nineteenth century: but I never understood why many disdained movies that recreated the period. Who cares if Netflix’s Persuasion uses contemporary slang? Does it not send young, new readers back to Austen’s novel? I became more interested in other questions: what is the adaptation doing? – how does it do it – and who does it do it for?

As students begin to try and define themselves and their writing processes—which are both perhaps equally undefinable—why not use adaptation, then, as both a metaphor and a literal tool for first-year writing instruction? What is their writing doing? How is their writing functioning? What rhetorical devices achieve what ends? Who are they writing for?

Definition uncertainty aside, the process of adaptation in theory is a very useful, adaptable, term for writing instruction. Marty Gould writes, “when we focus our student’s attention on adaptation as a process, we help them understand that verbal and visual communication necessitates multiple contingent decisions involving audience, medium, and message, and this perspective should make them more aware of form and content in their own writing” (my italics, 636). That is, like many adaptationists, students are capable of reading beyond book fidelity (how loyal an adaptation is to its “source” text) in order to understand the process of adaptation in creation. How does adaptation as a process, then, help us to understand writing today? Especially in a first-year classroom, where students adapt to changes in location, lifestyle, and academic rigor, how might adaptation aid students writing for their institution and beyond?

All of these questions are the basis for my composition syllabus this semester, though I realize it’s doubtful I’ll form concrete responses in one semester, or twenty. In the opening of my syllabus, I ask students a serious of framing questions: “What is an adaptation? How do we adapt our writing for new audiences? How can we adapt writing from one format (a novel, or research paper) to another (a film, or digital advertisement?” By looking at adaptations and formulating hypotheses about the processes of adaptation, I hope that students then understand that they have the power to replicate, transform, and recreate their own reading and writing processes. Not to sound too metaphoric, but I hope students strive to become adaptations of themselves, in a way, well positioned to write for the college classroom and beyond.

My assignments and readings for the semester emphasize adaptation, with a secondary emphasis on digital media and content beyond creative texts—in conjunction with our department’s interest in multimodal writing. I began the semester with a viewing of Adaptation (2002), followed closely by two online articles about Netflix’s recent Persuasion (2022). The first assignment in the course is a combination of a literacy narrative and a traditional five paragraph essay: I asked students to try and define “adaptation” in three pages, using examples and evidence from the course content and personal experience. The definition they define in their essay will help them frame the rest of the semester, as we talk about adaptation, but also exemplify how reading new texts in new ways can change opinions, mindsets, and writing strategies. They should look at this first essay / first definition not as a formal argument that they must defend, but as a work-in-progress… much like their reading and writing processes at this stage in the semester.

As an overview—and by way of conclusion for this post—I intend this regular blog series to track the success of adaptation in the composition classroom. By the end of the semester (and the culmination of this series) I hope to find answers to the following questions:

First, how does adaptation function as a key term, a strategy, and a metaphor in first-year writing?

Second, what are the challenges and pitfalls of talking about adaptation? Will the class succumb to performing literary analysis, as opposed to rhetorical analysis? Or, will they challenge this opposition altogether?

Lastly, how can I adapt the syllabus, my own teaching, and my own understanding of adaptation to better meet the needs of post-pandemic students and multimodal English departments?

Though this is a large undertaking, I am not without support. Scholars like Thomas Leitch, Marty Gould, Julie Sanders, and Kamilla Elliott (to name only a few) all have excellent scholarship on adaptation in the English department. Similarly, the learning goals and objectives for first year composition at the University of Delaware are extremely compatible with such an undertaking and in line with pressure from adaptationists to include adaptation in the English classroom. Key terms from these goals, such as audience, context, multimodal, community, revising, and more apply to the process of adaptation, which is in itself a process of writing and rewriting. I will revisit these goals and objectives frequently in this series, to pinpoint how adaptations (texts) and adaptation (process) complete and exceed such goals and objectives.

Finally, and selfishly, I hope that this project works towards more unity between literature and composition departments. Though the University of Delaware is more united than most, it would be irresponsible to claim that there does not exist any tension between writing studies and literary studies—adaptation studies, in this case, might be a perfect mediator to two to-be-divorced parents who, to follow the metaphor, should remain married rather than pursue co-parenting.

Throughout the semester, I’m happy to invite visitors to class sessions, share content, and collaborate with other instructors on this endeavor—you can reach me at champney@udel.edu.

Cat Champney is a second year PhD student and graduate instructor at the University of Delaware. She studies literary adaptation of the 19th century, with an emphasis on authorship and female gothic narratives. Prior to attending UD, Cat received her Master’s Degree in 19th Century Literature from Brooklyn College and a joint degree in English and Political Science from SUNY Binghamton. Her master’s thesis examined the absence of Scarlett O’Hara’s children from David Selznick’s film adaptation, Gone with the Wind. Prior to her current composition course at UD, Cat taught various composition and writing courses at CUNY Brooklyn College and City College of Technology. 

The Pens of Blue Hens: Four Lessons from the Trenches of Online Teaching

By William Repetto

Over the winter session, we first-semester TAs took some time to reflect on our experiences. Our conversations covered not only English 110 conceptually as a course, but also the nuances of meeting every day via Zoom and interacting conversationally primarily on Canvas. As a final post for this column, I thought it prudent to share our reflections, which I hope will offer insight for navigating the spring semester. Hopefully this will be our last semester of mandatory distance learning and teaching. Ideally, however, our insights will be applicable wherever the computer becomes the primary medium of teaching.

Breakout… but…

In our super-section of English 110, each TA was assigned a group of three or four students to work with throughout the semester. For portions of the class meetings, we would meet with these students as a small cohort in Zoom breakout rooms. Though it took time for familiarization to grow, the breakout time was well-spent. One of my colleagues quipped that in the main Zoom room before the breakout sessions, “it was definitely really hard to tell if they were engaged or not.” Yet, when we returned to the main session after breaking out, this TA felt comfortable calling on one of their students to say, “hey, you had a really good point about this; why don’t you share that?” In other words, the Zoom breakout rooms functioned as an appetizer for generating meaningful discussion when the full group was together.

One caveat we would add to breaking out, however, would be to keep the breakout rooms consistent. We experimented with rotating groups of students so that people from the class engaged with new faces and more learners. The TAs I reflected with, however, preferred when the breakout room group was consistent because, as one stated, “It made it more conducive to get to know the students; it felt more personal.” In a phrase, this TA added, “I preferred my small group.” It seems that the online breakout room does not make a good media for quick icebreakers before focusing on a task at hand. Our advice then: break out! … but keep the student cohorts in the rooms consistent.

Chat

I espoused the virtues of the Zoom chat function in my first post for the column, so I don’t want to dwell too much on it here, but I would like to add two quick reflections. A fellow TA mentioned that during in-person instruction they would get to class early in order to make new friends or catch up with old ones. Such informal connections between classmates and friends obviously do not get their proper moments in virtual learning. I personally found such interaction integral to my college experience – in both undergrad and in graduate school – so a substitution should be worth considering.

You could schedule a five-minute informal discussion to start the course, or, as I opine, allow the chat feature to be the space for that. Not everything the TAs or students contributed to the chat was prim, proper, or laser-focused on writing, but, as another TA mentioned, “The chat function was a way to get to know each other in a way we might not have been able to in person.” That same TA added that the chat “was one of the unexpected ways we built rapport” and “it offered another kind of anonymity” because the TAs could vocalize any general concerns or specific questions that came up.

So, the chat can seem messy and off-topic, but be sure to maximize its potential; it certainly helped us.

Canvas about Canvas

We TAs loved Canvas. We used it primarily for reading student work and providing feedback in the absence of printed copies, but Canvas also kept us organized and on schedule. One TA said, “I did like the modules that you could click through in order to find what you had to do that day; I thought that was pretty helpful.” Another added that it was excellent for giving feedback; “especially with longer comments, I found myself speaking better to the strengths and weaknesses of students’ assignments like that versus trying to talk about it in person.”

One TA remarked, however, “I wonder if we had talked about assignments in class and brought up different trends we saw in the assignments enough.” Hence my advice: canvas about Canvas. With a large portion of a class held on a learning management system and the other biggest component happening on the Zoom interface, it might be easy for the illusion to arise of two separate courses – one where the student attends and listens and another where the student checks things off and submits assignments. A way to avoid such an illusion, as this TA implies, is to check-in often with students about how they are finding things on Canvas.

Align

Alignment is a buzzword is self-help literature, but let’s define it as the competent mobilization within one person or among a group of people toward a purpose. It is a bit of a catchall, but I believe it will suffice as a summary for the advice presented here as well as a last thought for this column. Communicating the expectations of breakout rooms, of chatting, of Canvas is key to keeping students, TAs and professors alike aligned. As said, alignment functions on personal and group levels. More than anything, the virtual environment seems to ask educators to find alignment in their own lives – where do I draw the boundary between work and personal wellbeing when everything happens in my house and on my screen? The virtual environment challenges educators to align our own expectations with those of our students – when are a couple of “video off” and “mute on” moments required to kindle further learning? These are questions we might not have asked ourselves only a year ago, when we already may have considered ourselves out of alignment, but during the pandemic more than ever, alignment should be sought and continually revisited.

William Repetto is a PhD student in the English department at the University of Delaware. He is also a TA and writing center tutor. William earned his MA in English at Villanova University after completing a bachelor’s in history at La Salle University. He wrote three theses at La Salle covering frame narratives, the influence of American culture on Japanese cartoons, and The Adventures of Tintin. His master’s thesis gave a comparative reading of Wallace Stevens and David Foster Wallace to show how conceptualizations of spirituality versus religion changed over the course of the 20th century in America. While at Villanova, he also received an entrepreneurship award and small grant for his work on diversity and inclusion at their Falvey Memorial Library. William has formerly taught English composition classes at Eastern University and English as a second language classes at La Salle University.

Congratulations to William Repetto!

Big News: An article by Bill Repetto, who has been writing a column for onehundredten.org about his first year TAship, will be appearing in Threshold Conscripts, a book project to be released in the spring of next year by WAC Clearinghouse. The article is titled “Redefining RhetComp Professional Development,” and covers the tension between obligation and freedom experienced as a first year PhD student at the University of Delaware during a global pandemic.

William Repetto is a PhD student in the English department at the University of Delaware. He is also a TA and writing center tutor. William earned his MA in English at Villanova University after completing a bachelor’s in history at La Salle University. He wrote three theses at La Salle covering frame narratives, the influence of American culture on Japanese cartoons, and The Adventures of Tintin. His master’s thesis gave a comparative reading of Wallace Stevens and David Foster Wallace to show how conceptualizations of spirituality versus religion changed over the course of the 20th century in America. While at Villanova, he also received an entrepreneurship award and small grant for his work on diversity and inclusion at their Falvey Memorial Library. William has formerly taught English composition classes at Eastern University and English as a second language classes at La Salle University.

The Pens of Blue Hens: Re-defining “Library”

By William Repetto

I’ve written elsewhere in defense of libraries. I’ve also used their services as an instructor before – Connelly Library at La Salle University in the English as a second language classroom and Warner Memorial Library at Eastern University in the composition classroom. I cannot say enough positive things about my experience as a graduate assistant at Falvey Memorial Library of Villanova University. I certainly never thought that I would see a day when “library” itself called for re-definition, certainly not as it has during the coronavirus pandemic. I found, however, that during our library session of ENGL110 with special guest speaker Assistant Head of Instructional Services Meg Grotti, we were calling for our students to do exactly that: re-define what’s meant by “library.”

The exercise that our du jour instructor Meg Grotti set up for us pertained to the course’s researched paper. The exercise was divided into two appropriately titled parts, “Part A: (Too Much)” and “Part B: (Too Little).” There was no middle section, or Part C, called “Just Right.” Part C’s conspicuous absence contains a powerful message: it’s rare in scholarship that you’ve got just the correct amount of information/data, and your thoughts are fully confirmed. The students were to fill out a matrix of questions that offered guidance for either narrowing down or expanding a topic. The worksheet covered such questions as, “what specific part of your research question/topic interests you the most?” and asked students to “critique your words… play around with these new terms mixed with some of those you started with.”

My group’s topics included food waste, children’s literature, and medicinal marijuana during the coronavirus pandemic. By filling out our matrices, we discovered that two of these topics required narrowing down and one required broadening up. Can you guess which? Irrespective, the exercise generated a conversation among my small TA group, a conversation of pedagogical import for research generally.

I started that conversation (drawing on the concept of the Burkean parlor) by saying that research can be a lot like walking into someone’s living room during a dinner party and trying to get caught up on the conversation, and my group quickly pointed out how, in the case of their topics, catching up on the conversations would require thinking geographically, psychologically, and across populations. From there, we dove into the particular work required to get caught up in an academic context; specifically, we highlighted the importance of keywords and finding the right database/journal.

The exercise, then, forced us to think both conceptually about research and practically about getting research done. The genius of the exercise runs much deeper, though. By showing what UD’s library still offers and the functions it still serves, the exercise taught us three important things about how to view libraries in a new light in a pandemic-stricken world.

First, when one takes a tour of a library or sits through a seminar on its various databases, the perception can arise that the library is this huge repository of answers, which you must learn to navigate in order to find the answers you want. By asking the questions of us that it did, however, the worksheet also asked us to re-think this perception. Instead of situating the library as a repository of answers, our exercise made it clear that the library is as much a repository of questions as a place to find answers. Now that I put it this way, it feels an obvious truism that I should have noticed in two years of working at a library or in inviting my previous class sections to the library, but it took a pandemic, and masterful curriculum from the UD library staff for me to recognize it–I hope my students picked up on it too!

Second, and this one I have recognized before, the exercise really highlighted how the library, more than a building and a digital space, is a collection of people. I cannot remember any of the other institutions I attended or instructed at offering such a personalized trip to the classroom. The worksheet, in reference to one of our class’ specific assignments, directed us to “Look at your topic as you wrote it in [Reading and Writing Activity] #5. Are there more sub-questions to this topic that might be useful to explore?” Connections to our course like this show how the library can be defined as a team of people whose scholarship and work support the learning of all the other various departments and groups that make up the university. Whether or not we get to re-enter the physical space of the library with regularity soon, we learned that COVID-19 will not stop our librarians from that part of their mission.

Third, we learned that in its present, mostly digital iteration, the library is still a safe space. As a graduate student, I know that I feel the pressure to be “right” all the time, and I remember, as an undergraduate, the pressure to be using the “proper sources” or finding material that would impress my professors. Grotti’s visit to our class, however, showed us that the library is a safe space for exploring where your opinions have gone off track or where the thought you’re having needs further refining. Even in the library’s, and indeed the world’s, current, mostly digital state, its databases and journals are still safe spaces to be wrong, to refine thoughts, and to ultimately challenge oneself.

I’m acutely aware that the above may seem an elaborate PR piece for the University of Delaware’s Libraries, Museums, and Press. I assure you, though, that these are my genuine reflections on library day in our class. My intention is to show the many ways that libraries can be re-defined during the pandemic. These lessons can be useful across types of libraries and certainly across campus communities. I wonder if it may be useful for scholars and librarians alike to return often to these new definitions when the pandemic subsides and library doors open wide again.

William Repetto is a PhD student in the English department at the University of Delaware. He is also a TA and writing center tutor. William earned his MA in English at Villanova University after completing a bachelor’s in history at La Salle University. He wrote three theses at La Salle covering frame narratives, the influence of American culture on Japanese cartoons, and The Adventures of Tintin. His master’s thesis gave a comparative reading of Wallace Stevens and David Foster Wallace to show how conceptualizations of spirituality versus religion changed over the course of the 20th century in America. While at Villanova, he also received an entrepreneurship award and small grant for his work on diversity and inclusion at their Falvey Memorial Library. William has formerly taught English composition classes at Eastern University and English as a second language classes at La Salle University.

The Pens of Blue Hens: Zoom’s Chat Function as Serious Pedagogy

By William Repetto

[FERPA Disclaimer: both students and TAs are quoted in this article. All personally identifying information has been removed. Regardless, though, the studens and TAs quotes here gave me written consent to use their words. The symbol […] has been added to show when bits of non-meaning-altering conversation have been cut out and YT refers to me, yours truly.]

In the first post for this column, I doted all over the chat function on Zoom. I did so because I see it as a secondary locus of teaching and learning in the digital space. Students use it to candidly express themselves. TAs use it to share links pertaining to the information presented in the classroom. It has its drawbacks—some students get distracted; some TAs (including me) can be the reason why; sometimes the chat discussion takes a different course from the verbal conversation. Despite these minor drawbacks, however, I find that the chat function does much more good than harm. In this post, I will explicate a set of the interactions my fellow TAs and our class had on Zoom’s chat box to show how I think it supports—rather than stunts—student learning.

The context: the TAs had just wrapped up an exercise in breakout rooms in which we discussed the potential obstacles that students might encounter in research. Among the solutions to such obstacles, someone mentioned how tough it might become to integrate two ostensibly different topics. Our fearless professor, Dr. C., discussed at length the mental exercises one may have to use to find the common ground between two topics. Then she warned that it might be folly to try to combine two topics that are not only ostensibly different but that are actually totally incompatible, like “anime and dogs.” Well, the chat erupted to a cacophony of corrections:       

TA #1 : Anime puppies. ❤

Student #1: Nintendogs

YT: Ein in Cowboy Bebop!!

TA #1: ^ you just opened a locked box in my mind

TA #1: ❤ Ein ❤

Student #1: scholarly article about why corgis are so good

Student #1: amazing dissertation

This interaction has hearts (<3) and markers of a new language (^), and so some educators might scoff at the idea of my considering it serious pedagogical discourse. I will argue that it is anyway. The prompting of tying anime and puppies together by TA #1 allowed Student #1 to point to a particular place where one can also see the overlap. I added the example about Ein from Cowboy Bebop–a corgi in that anime series. Student #1 then dreams big about the confluence of ideas, e.g., a scholarly article or a dissertation.

We often “sell” composition courses as places of self-exploration, where one can discover their passions in reading and writing. The chat function here fulfilled that promise, and, more importantly—whether or not dogs and anime interest the other members of the class—the Zoom chat function is accessible to everyone present, so everyone enrolled can see how TAs might assist in igniting, merging, and managing interests that a student wants to follow. In fact, the conversation didn’t stop there:

Student #1 : fandom would be so interesting to do research on but there are also millions of them

[…]

TA #2 : ^^^^^ true. I’ve done fandom research before, let me know if you’d like some guidance.

[…]

Student #1: there was a UD engl110 that was centered around fan studies actually

Again, the interaction has informal markers (^^^^), but a look at the content of the conversation shows that the chat function sped up the pace of discovery for Student #1. Student #1 figured out a way to step out of the frivolousness of the previous conversation and focus energies on an important, contemporary, academic conversation about fandoms. TA #2 steps in to offer assistance and demonstrate ethos. Instead of having to wait until office hours to hear that TA #2 has experience with fandoms and discover what kind of resources TA #2 would suggest, Student #1 is informed right then and there during class time.

Finally, and curiously, the student becomes a spokesperson at the end of the interaction; Student #1 gives a plug for the entire department by advertising other offerings. Ideally, none of the students enrolled will need to take another section of ENGL110, but Student #1 announces here the other types of experts available for assistance on the department’s faculty. I am not arguing that all students immediately took note of this and will reach out for fandom assistance. I am saying, however, that the chat offered those paying attention another perspective and another tool for approaching topic selection.

The chat is not entirely devoid of flaws; take a look at this interaction:

Student #2 : is anyone else confused on this ^

TA #1: Confused on what, Student # 2?

Student #2: Fan studies and Nintendogs

For Student #2, the conversation surrounding fandoms, fan studies, and Nintendogs did not generate new ideas or new passions. Instead, the chat probably functioned as a distracting meta-discourse on Dr. C’s lecture. It should be noted, however, that I’ve removed the time stamps from the conversations. TA #1’s response came only nine seconds after Student #2 asked for clarification. This kind of efficacy likely cannot be matched in a traditional, face-to-face classroom or lecture hall. It’d be twice as distracting to whisper/speak to a TA right in the middle of a lecture (or, doubly so to ask a TA what that TA is whispering about to another student!).

I’m hopeful that a movement pushes to implement something like Zoom chat into the traditional classroom when we return to our respective campuses. I could envision an anonymous feed integrated onto projection screens for students to externalize their thoughts as a lesson progresses. This would maybe give voice to students who feel uncomfortable speaking up or who would feel “stupid” asking a basic question. As with all technologies, we’d need to smooth out the kinks—e.g., how to filter out unwanted or inappropriate content. In any event, it’s an interesting experiment in thought: how could we splice the benefits of the Zoom room back into our traditional classrooms?

William Repetto is a PhD student in the English department at the University of Delaware. He is also a TA and writing center tutor. William earned his MA in English at Villanova University after completing a bachelor’s in history at La Salle University. He wrote three theses at La Salle covering frame narratives, the influence of American culture on Japanese cartoons, and The Adventures of Tintin. His master’s thesis gave a comparative reading of Wallace Stevens and David Foster Wallace to show how conceptualizations of spirituality versus religion changed over the course of the 20th century in America. While at Villanova, he also received an entrepreneurship award and small grant for his work on diversity and inclusion at their Falvey Memorial Library. William has formerly taught English composition classes at Eastern University and English as a second language classes at La Salle University.

The Pens of Blue Hens: Liminality and COVID-era TAing

by William Repetto

I could begin this series of articles by reminding you that these times are “unprecedented.” I could peddle clichés about how “we’re all in this together” or about the “new normal.” I could remind you that everyone feels uncomfortable on Zoom. I believe, however, that it’s high time to accept the realities that COVID-19 has created, to stop looking at how the system has been altered, and to begin thinking about how we as writing instructors and learners can begin to leverage our fresh perspectives to re-invent what rhetoric and comp can do.

Of course, such thinking requires defining that new perspective. For me and my fellow TAs, this means recognizing and appreciating our position as virtual TAs in a digitally mediated and so-called super section of English 110. We are first-year PhD students, beginning our new graduate school adventure in a way that perhaps no cohort has before. We exist in a liminal space. We are both educators and learners, both going to the University of Delaware and staying at home, and assisting a section that meets both synchronously and asynchronously.

There are disadvantages to this liminality, particularly in the ENGL110 classroom.

The most notable limitation of liminality so far, for me, has been the difficulty in establishing rapport with the students I have been assigned to work with. We’ve met both as a group and individually via Zoom. They are inspiring students who produce inspired work. They ask questions that far exceed my curiosities when I was in their shoes. That said, however, I do not know or believe that if we passed one another in the grocery store or on the street (particularly with masks on!) that we would immediately recognize one another.

Here I should say that I have taught English composition in the past – at nearby Eastern University. It was not uncommon for writing instruction to happen serendipitously. Sure, the lectures were important and class time valuable, but sometimes topics were generated and advice imparted when running into a student in the quad or by the dining hall and café. These interactions are entirely eliminated under the present circumstances. Huge parts of writing instruction, in my mind, depend on trust; trust is difficult to establish in the same way given the impossibility of unplanned, informal conversation.

Interestingly, though, the illusion of proximity despite physical distance created by the Zoom interface creates particular advantages within the liminality.

The synchronous online sessions are meant to transplant the lecture hall to the computer screen. I have noticed, however, that students tend to arrive to Zoom lectures and participate way less formally than students in the “before times.” Our Zoom chat has become a place to discuss ENGL110 Fight Club (I can’t say any more – them’s the rules); students have adjusted their cameras to show off golden doodles and cats emoting their indifference; still others proudly display posters and banners and flags of their interests behind them in their mise en scène.

In the stress of lecturing for our instructor or in the whirlwind of facilitating for me and the other TAs, it can be easy to miss that these very informalities are loci of writing instruction. The chat function on Zoom allows students to blurt out spur of the moment thoughts without structure and sometimes without completion—this is every descriptive grammarian’s dream. They just write without the self-critical mindset that leads to frustration and writer’s block. I credit this, at least in part, to being at ease in one’s own living space. Our own pets and decorations must provide a level of comfort of expression not possible in the lecture hall or around the seminar table.

This is not, quite obviously, a rigorously scientific theory. I’d like to take the time in the remaining posts of this column, however, to explore how my continuing observations during this semester deepen my appreciation of this liminal space. I’d like to consult with my colleagues and see if our understandings of Coronavirus-era TAing align. If I do my due diligence, this series of posts should be not only an archive for future online instructors to consult but also a space for discussion, reflection, and suggestion on how we might navigate the current ENGL110 landscape.

William Repetto is a PhD student in the English department at the University of Delaware. He is also a TA and writing center tutor. William earned his MA in English at Villanova University after completing a bachelor’s in history at La Salle University. He wrote three theses at La Salle covering frame narratives, the influence of American culture on Japanese cartoons, and The Adventures of Tintin. His master’s thesis gave a comparative reading of Wallace Stevens and David Foster Wallace to show how conceptualizations of spirituality versus religion changed over the course of the 20th century in America. While at Villanova, he also received an entrepreneurship award and small grant for his work on diversity and inclusion at their Falvey Memorial Library. William has formerly taught English composition classes at Eastern University and English as a second language classes at La Salle University.

Fall Composition Program Faculty Hour

This is our Composition Program Faculty “Office” Hour

Join us to chat, discuss ideas, and talk about teaching issues. All are welcome!

Join Zoom Meeting
https://udel.zoom.us/j/94533802461

Topic: CompPro Faculty Hour
Time: Sep 2, 2020 02:00 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)
Every week on Wed, until Dec 9, 2020, 15 occurrence(s)
Sep 2, 2020 02:00 PM
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Sep 16, 2020 02:00 PM
Sep 23, 2020 02:00 PM
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Oct 7, 2020 02:00 PM
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Profiles in Pedagogy: Shailen Mishra

Hello, again! After a stressful spring semester and as we collectively prepare for a precarious fall term, it seems like a perfect time for the second installment of the Composition Program’s new interview series Profiles in Pedagogy. This time, we talk with Shailen Mishra, a Postdoctoral Researcher with a background in creative writing. He speaks to the ongoing challenges that we face as instructors in negotiating the restraints imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The activist fervor undergirding his pedagogy likewise helps us consider strategies for promoting social justice and anti-racism in our sections of  ENGL110, an objective made ever more imperative by the recent police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and Ahmaud Arbery in Atlanta, among far too many others. Put simply, Shailen’s insights prove timely and urgent.

Shailen’s emphasis on transparency in the classroom deserves special emphasis as well. As we continually endeavor to adapt our courses to online platforms while still meeting individual students’ needs, he reveals that leveling with students over our choices becomes a necessary and usefully demystifying approach. This interview will hopefully prove both pedagogically inspiring and generative as we persevere and begin the fall semester in a few short months.


Brett Seekford, Assistant Director of Composition: I want to begin by asking how you have managed this sudden shift to online instruction in your sections of ENGL110 since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. I know it’s been difficult for all of us. What have been some of the challenges and successes you’ve encountered?

Shailen Mishra: The transition was definitely a time of uncertainty. I wasn’t worried about the technology; rather I was worried about convincing the students that we can make it work. Having taught an online course before, I know that the learning expectations operate very differently between face-to-face and online modes. Students in face-to-face mode are heavily dependent on the physical presence of the teacher to vet and validate their learning. It’s funny how much we complain that our students don’t want to be there in the classroom because of how distracted or disinterested they can be at times. But if the pandemic has taught us teachers and our students anything it’s that we’re deeply attached to the physical space of the classroom, and when removed from that structure it’s hard for us to find emotional connection to our respective roles.

At the onset of the transition, I stayed in touch with my students, assuring them that whatever changes I made to the syllabus or teaching mode would not lead to additional stress. I had to show empathy and care right away. I started a discussion session in Canvas, inviting students to share their concerns, fears, and frustrations. I read the posts and responded to each one of them. A few common concerns emerged, which informed the changes I needed to make. First of all, students were worried about the new apps or programs they might be expected to learn. I decided not to add any new digital tools other than the ones students are already familiar with. Second, students were concerned that they might miss deadlines, so I ensured that I sent timely email reminders for all minor and major assignments. Third, they were worried that the lack of regular connectivity would mean that they would fall behind in the coursework or feel isolated. Since I didn’t think synchronous teaching via Zoom would work for my course, I opted for a low-key alternative. Once a week on scheduled class time I required students to sign into the “Chat” space in Canvas for 15 minutes. The tool is text-based and bare bones, so the technology wasn’t overwhelming for the students. I used the meeting for weekly check-ins in the hope that it would give students the sense of community and structure that they were looking for. Fourth, students were worried that learning would be shortchanged. I ensured that we held regular online discussions on assigned reading; I tried my best to keep myself visible in those discussions. I used videos to introduce assignments and discuss key points on critical readings. I also sent regular reminders of my availability for the conference and some students did take up the offer to discuss any challenges they were facing. Ultimately, the effort was to ensure that my “presence” in the course wasn’t lost. Fifth, students were worried about the workload since we lost an additional week due to the campus closure. I dropped a minor writing project altogether to make the workload manageable. These measures were small, but I hope they added up to help students get the most out of the course, considering the unprecedented circumstances. Through this process, I learned how to make my online pedagogy more focused and student-oriented.

BS: Generally speaking, what is your ENGL110 class like?

SM: I would like to answer this question in terms of what’s most valuable to me as a teacher. I emphasize class discussion. On the first or second day of the semester, I share with students a few short articles on the benefits of discussion-based learning and why for a writing course, we—the students and the teacher—are best served by not just one person speaking or lecturing. I tell students that I need their help to make learning happen. And I sincerely mean that. Most of the time I walk into the classroom with a few points of my own to discuss on an assigned reading. Past that I’m clueless. But, you know, it’s the students whose ideas, opinions, and questions extend my thinking, and as I connect dots I arrive at something new each time, even though I have taught that article/essay before or even an hour earlier in another section.

To help students participate I transfer some of the decision-making power to the students. At the start of the semester, students determine different discussion models that we should try, and we cycle through a few of them until we land on a model that works the best for a particular class. I also give students alternate options to share their thoughts if they’re introverted learners and they don’t feel comfortable enough to speak up, especially when they’re getting to know their classmates and teacher. I try my best to create a supportive environment during class discussion through encouragement and affirmation. The fact that I learn each student’s name by the end of the first or second week allows me to use their names when praising someone and synthesizing individual ideas. I believe these small gestures help to build a learning community. I do push the envelope, though, when it comes to shy students. Past Week 5 or 6, I start to call students out if I see them not participating enough, and I contextualize whatever they offer within the broader argument so as to underscore that their views are valid and useful. My hope is that at the end of the course, if someone were to ask one of my students what you did in ENGL110, their response should be “we discussed a lot.” I’ll take that response.

BS: Can you talk a bit more about negotiating different discussion formats for different classes? That sounds so valuable but challenging. How do you broach it?

SM: The only challenging part is not having complete control over how the class discussion will unfold, which is not a bad thing. That said, there’s an overarching discussion structure which remains common to each class. We move through an assigned reading in a sequential manner (starting with the title to conclusion), which gives a sense of structure and predictability a class needs against a dynamic discussion format. If a class prefers small group discussion before regrouping for class-wide discussion, I assign each group a section or a set of paragraphs to closely analyze and discuss among themselves. That way we move sequentially, from one group to the next, with each group presenting their questions and thoughts to the rest of us, thus generating a class-wide discussion. Another popular discussion format involves sitting in a big circle when the space allows, and we raise hands (including me) to speak and each speaker calls on the next person. We make our way forward with me playing the role of a participant as well as a moderator. It’s a difficult but exciting discussion format. But if we do it enough the class gets the hang of it. One more discussion format that I’ve tested to some success is choosing two discussion leaders among students to lead and moderate the class discussion. This is totally a hands-off approach from a teacher’s stand point, and once again, it works better with a few repetitions and persistence. No matter the discussion format we as a class choose, it should provide ample opportunity for all 22 students to participate at least once during the class period. On days when I know that I failed to create such space, all students get full participation points. Transparency in the grading process and timely sharing of participation points are key to the success of any discussion format. Otherwise, switching between discussion formats can cause needless stress for students. For insight into how the grading process works, I followed this participation criteria file for one class from Spring 2020. The ideas and suggestions are put together after discussion with students in the first week of the semester.

BS: Is there any specific focus to your course? What are some of your major assignments?

SM: The last two semesters (Fall 2019 and Spring 2020) I made myths of creativity and creative protest the thematic focus of ENGL110. In the first half of the course, we talk about different myths surrounding creativity, and for the second half we pivot to the theme of “creativity” in mass movements. I encourage students to interpret “creativity” as “strategic” in the case of protest movements. By this, I mean the thoughtful and purposeful strategies that are employed by the leaders, organizers, or activists to unsettle the status quo, expose injustices, spread awareness, coalesce a mass movement, and hold the power structure accountable.

I used to do three major writing projects, but I have reduced the number to two, mainly because I realized that three major projects force me to rush and gloss over important learning activities. I find the pace of the two writing projects more manageable. Of course, each writing project is divided into multiple components: topic idea presentation, genre analysis, preliminary research, first 400 words, rough draft, peer feedback, revision goals, and final draft. I know the list probably sounds daunting, but it’s a lot more organic and ensures that students are developing their work steadily and incrementally and purposefully. The first major writing project is a popular science essay (~2000 words) that focuses on “busting” a myth of the student’s choosing. In one of the latest iterations of this project, I encouraged students to publish their work on Medium (the blogging platform) which led to interesting results. A few students’ works got picked up by Medium’s internal publication team and got included in their collection, which means anyone on the Internet can now read these pieces, and this helped students find that larger audience which we writing teachers secretly wish for our students. The second major project is an argumentative essay, which allows students to pick a genre such as an academic research essay, podcast, or video essay. The focus for this project is creative resistance or activism. I also do one or two minor writing projects, which are often closely related to the major projects. For example, I use a genre called Twitter Essay as a minor writing project, which serves as a “brainstorming” draft for the second major project.

BS: What is your favorite part of each semester in your class? Why does this moment spark so much passion on your end?

SM: There are two activities, actually, that I find very rewarding. The first one is the student conference, which allows me to discuss students’ rough drafts with them, give them feedback, and put together a plan for revision for the final draft. I really like the conversation part of it, the personalized attention that I can give to a student’s writing, getting to learn the student’s vision of his or her work, and putting together a plan for revision via collaboration. I also use the first two to three minutes of the conference to check in with the students about how things are going. It’s small talk but it’s genuine. I always enjoyed these informal interactions way more than my formal interaction with students in the classroom. Not until I came across our very own Deborah Bieler’s book The Power of Teacher Talk did I realize the power of such small talk and how transformative it can be for the teacher-student dynamic. I’m now very mindful of how I interact with students and how to make those moments meaningful and empowering for me as well as my students. Frankly, it’s these moments of personal connection that make conferencing sustainable, because many teachers (including me) find the process very draining. Yet, we don’t walk away from it. Why? At least for me, conferencing is that rare opportunity to develop an emotional connection with the writing because of the writer’s physical presence.

The second activity that’s rewarding to me is what I call the Learning Progress Report (LPR). To make ENGL110 more individualized, I ask students to set two to three writing goals at the start of the semester. They’re allowed to revise these goals over the course of the semester as they learn more about themselves as writers. They write these goals in a personal Google Doc shared between the student and me. Over the course of the semester, students add their thoughts, insights, or reflections to this Google Doc. It’s very similar to journaling but more sporadic. At the end of the course, I ask students to write a “report” assessing their growth as a writer and if they’ve found answers to their writing goals. And more importantly, how prepared are they to face the writing challenges in their respective discipline? Despite the debate that exists on the usefulness of the reflection genre, I find this exercise to be a productive way to develop metacognition and keep students focused about their learning in the course. It can also act as evidence of the learning activities that students enjoyed the most and the ones that didn’t work.

BS: How do you use outside readings in your classes? What do they help you and the students do?

SM: The course readings come in various “shapes” and “sizes.” For example, I’ve been assigning the book The Myths of Creativity by David Burkus for the last two semesters, which gives students an immersive experience in the popular science genre. We also take a look at popular science writing that appears in other venues, such as popular magazines or open access platforms. As a class, we try to engage with the manifestation of the genre in a variety of contexts so that broader awareness can be built on audience and “setting” of the genre which determine other generic conventions such as rhetorical appeals, structure, diction, and format.

For any assigned reading, the analysis develops in two interrelated strands. The first pertains to the development of genre awareness so that the students are not reading to complete just one writing assignment; rather they’re developing meta-rhetorical awareness which can be transferred to future and unfamiliar writing situations. The second strand of analysis is focused on the argument of the article, its clarity, its nuance, its placement, etc. We also pay significant attention to structure, rhetorical strategies, depth of analysis, and the quality of research. I prefer a more sequential and systematic approach to analyzing a text, so we start with the first line of the assigned reading and graduate to the first paragraph to second to next to the conclusion. It’s a time-consuming process and often we run out of time, but I find this process to be very satisfactory and fruitful. Also, to orient students’ thinking and get them brainstorming for class discussion, I ask students to respond to a discussion prompt in Canvas before class time. This earns them a portion of their participation points. We also listen to podcasts and watch video essays, especially in the context of the argumentative essay project.

BS: How would you describe your teaching philosophy? How do you bring that to your ENGL110 classes?

SM: Frankly, it took me a long time to figure out my pedagogical philosophy. I believe after years of head-scratching, I’ve found something that I can commit myself to. I believe in “dialogic thinking” or “dialogic education” when it comes to my teaching. The Bakhtinian notion of dialogism has played an influential role in the evolution of this educational theory. Rupert Wegerif, a scholar and educational theorist, explains dialogic teaching thusly: “what we think we know now is always provisional, contextual, multiply voiced and open to new understandings which you, the student, might be responsible for in the future.” There are a couple of keywords here that I take to heart: “provisional” and “multiply voiced.” Dialogic thinking challenges the notion that teaching is a one-directional transfer of knowledge from teacher to student. Similar to Bakthtin’s theorization that dialogue is dynamic and relational, learning too needs both student and teacher, bouncing ideas off each other in order to make meaning and co-create knowledge, which is “provisional” at its best and open to revision. Hence, the emphasis in my course on class discussion.

So, what does dialogic education look like in the context of teaching writing? The in-person feedback (student conference) is a case in point. I read the student’s rough draft prior to the conference, and I’m aware that the student’s work needs revision but remain unclear what direction it should take. The missing link is the student’s participation—his or her voice and his or her own vision—which finds space during the conference through Q&A and exchange of ideas. Yet, again, the “plan” is provisional, since students know that they have the option to deviate from the plan when they’re revising. As their research and writing move forward, the dynamic nature of these processes often compel students to deviate from the charted course. Even after submitting the final draft students know that the work is not done. Just because the student did well in a particular genre in my course does not guarantee that the student is ready to get the same genre right in a future context. This is where the discussion on genre awareness comes in handy. The change of context reminds the student that past knowledge cannot be simply transmitted to a new context. Instead, it has to be created anew in dialogue with different participants involved.

BS: Finally, I’m curious what it is that you as an instructor have gotten out of ENGL110. How has this class specifically helped you grow as a teacher?

SM: I’ve gotten a lot out of teaching the first-year writing course. In fact, I would primarily credit it with my growth as a teacher. My primary area of expertise is Creative Writing, but I’m challenged much more as a teacher in first-year writing courses, which bring in a diverse range of students with different degrees of interest and proficiency in writing. And the fact that the course is mandatory complicates the matter further. I had to figure out how to make the course relevant for each student. That’s a mind-boggling challenge, frankly, and my conversations with my colleagues over the years have clarified for me that many of us struggle with this task. But when you think about it, shouldn’t that be the challenge for each and every course that we teach? It is, in fact. Only in the case of a course like ENGL110, the challenge is multiplied. ENGL110 prompted me to question aggressively the relevance of my pedagogy. What can I do more? Why am I asking my students to do a particular activity? More importantly, how can I engage them further? The last question is crucial. It pushed me to be more open-minded and to try new learning activities. Something like the Learning Progress Report and Twitter Essay, which I have mentioned earlier, are the direct result of my effort to broaden the reach of the course to accommodate a range of topic interests and writing skills. A student recently thanked me for always giving a rationale for why we’re doing certain learning activities and assignments. That’s very encouraging to me. It tells me that I’m succeeding to some extent to make the course relevant and meaningful for my students.