Monday, March 4, 2013

Dry-Erase Dictator: Reflections on Student Comfort in Writing Workshop

By Nicholas Hayes 

Sometimes on Sunday mornings, I wake naturally. My partner snores gently. A cat stretches over my chest and belly. Another cat, balled tight, leans against my calf. In these moments, I don't have to worry about my inadequate health insurance or my student loans. These mornings are the navel of my world. Everything on the queen-sized mattress seems right. In these moments, my comfort is supreme. But eventually, inevitably, the adorable ball of fur will swat the cat on my chest. They will hiss and spit. Eventually, inevitably, I have to think about my finances. I have to get out of bed.
            Students who have enrolled in Writing Workshop are often running from the bad dreams of previous academic experience or doubt in their own academic ability. Their nerves can be so frayed that I find myself wanting to create the academic equivalent of the Sunday morning bed for them. I don't want them to worry. I just want them to sit in the classroom, talk with each other, and find that this can be a comfortable environment.
            In the classroom, I want students to know they are not alone. I talk to them about my own struggles with writing. At times, I will even show them drafts of papers I am writing. I show them the notes I make on my work. I point out the errors I have made. I insist that they are not alone. Most people have made the same bed and take the same steps to get out of it. I invite students to talk about their writing difficulties. They see they are not alone. I try to show them they do not have to be uncomfortable when they write or when they are in class.
            Having created this environment, many students find ease in silence when I ask a question or request a volunteer for peer review. Some think they can hide in the silence. But I break this silence by saying I will take "voluntary volunteers first, and then involuntary volunteers." Everyone needs to participate not because of some grading checklist, but because attempting to answer and finding the confidence and comfort to share work is the only way to build a worthwhile learning experience. Some students try to bargain. They'll share their work if they can do it anonymously, but I have tried to do this in the past. And when their classmates were unshackled by anonymity, their feedback was blunter and the anonymous students' found less comfort than in the open peer review.
           Certainly, comfort is not always conducive to learning.
           From my own educational experience, I learned the most from the teachers who made me uncomfortable. Those instructors who inhabited tiny, book-cluttered offices would clear a small square on their desks so that I could set my work out for them to scrutinize. If my reasoning or translations were unsound, Dr. B would sigh, "Nicholas, I didn't think you were any idiot but [the quality of that thought was lacking.]" In graduate school, one of my advisors would disdainfully slide my short stories back to me. She grit her teeth and made me map out each sentence and explain how the syntax fit the nature of the story. The anxiety from these experiences still makes me want to vomit. But the lessons I gleaned from these experiences are clear and indelible. When students ask me to hit the metaphorical snooze well past the time we need to be challenged, I imagine Dr. B whispering in my ear to stay firm for the students' sake. This academic daimon knows I must demand clearer thinking and finer phrasing. I push (but with a softer touch than Dr. B could manage.)
             A vocal minority of students who believe they can only learn from a dry-erase dictator armed with a free-flowing red pen complicates this reflection. These students think education is to be battle hardened. But they miss out on the fact we need to know we belong. At times, I have to send these students to their metaphorical beds to look at the good work they have done. 
              Workshop more than other classes requires balance between comfort and challenge. So many students have been traumatized by past educational experiences that they are reluctant to attempt writing. Providing an environment in which they can salve their wounds is the first step in getting them on track. Of course, once students know they can be comfortable they need to start the difficult task of writing. Finding this balance changes from class to class, and it requires instructors to use the soft skills of reading a room. Most importantly it requires instructors to remember Writing Workshop prepares students to find comfort in an academic community that will challenge them.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Online Course on Using Writing for Teaching and Learning in the College Classroom

  • Do you frequently find yourself frustrated by student writing?
  • Do you wonder how to address student writing issues when you are trying to teach your content?
  • Do you spend too much time giving feedback on student papers? 

If so, consider taking EA 541 Teaching with Writing in Any Course 

Credits: 2

Offered: Online from 6/17/13 to 7/28/13.

Course Description: This two-credit online course (six-modules) for teachers in any discipline focuses on making the most of writing as a tool for teaching and learning in undergraduate and graduate courses. In the course, teachers will explore practical ideas for in-class writing assignments that initiate discussions and provide quick input regarding student learning. Teachers will also learn strategies for developing assignments and providing feedback while maximizing efficiency and minimizing frustration. Opportunities to share ideas and receive coaching on current writing assignments and ways of giving feedback are included. This course does not have prerequisites; however, those taking it should have undergraduate or graduate courses that they wish to develop or revise and experience teaching at the college level that they can draw upon for discussions.

What Previous Participants Have Said:

“First, take it! Do plan your schedules so you can delve into the assignments--they prompt reflection and imagination.” – Catherine Marienau

“I know my concern about this class was that it was going to require me to increase my time teaching and grading. However, much to my surprise, if I change a few things, I may be able to help my students improve their writing without increasing my workload.” – Lu Rocha

“If you are debating about taking the course seriously consider changing your schedule so you can. It will make teaching easier and more rewarding.” – Barbara Donnelly

“Be prepared to be surprised by how many things you’re already doing right, how many others you’re doing that can hamper students’ progress, and best of all, how many genuinely useful ideas and techniques you will learn from the readings and from your classmates.” – Carolyn Allen

About the Instructor: Michelle Navarre Cleary is an Associate Professor, Coordinator of Writing, and Associate Dean of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment at DePaul University's School for New Learning. She received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Theory from Northwestern University and has taught at Northwestern and Olive-Harvey College. She has published in several journals, including Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, WPA: Writing Program Administration, and Teaching English in the Two-Year College. Her current research is motivated by two questions: How do adult students develop as writers when they return to school? How can the teaching of writing to adult students be improved? To learn more, see 

To Take the Course: Please fill out the online application as a School for New Learning, graduate, non-degree seeking student: The $25 application fee will be waived. Have official transcripts from each institution attended sent directly to Sarah Hellstrom at the address below.Once these items have been received, your admission will be processed and the Graduate Office will reach out to you regarding registration steps.

Sarah Hellstrom Associate Director of Graduate Programs | School for New Learning| DePaul University 14 East Jackson Boulevard Suite 1400 Chicago, Illinois 60604-2201 Tel: (312) 362-5744 | Fax: (312) 476-3220 |

DePaul Tuition Waiver: To use the DePaul University part-time faculty tuition waiver, please fill out the form here: Submit the form to Jenny Prey: or drop it off at the SNL front desk and the receptionists will put it in her mailbox.