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.