A Conversation with Charlee Sterling

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This is my second post focusing on the work being done by two-year college teacher-scholars who contributed to Teaching Accelerated and Corequisite Composition, a collection I edited for Utah State University Press, which will be published in November.

This month, I spoke with Charlee Sterling. Charlee earned her Ph.D. in English and American literature from New York University in 2003 and currently teaches writing and literature at Goucher College in Baltimore. Charlee’s scholarly focus includes twentieth-century and contemporary American literature and Anglo-American modernism. She has previously written on the work of Edith Wharton and William Faulkner and on the ups and downs of teaching online; her current work focuses on composition pedagogy and comics, specifically the important role comics, multimodality, and popular literature and culture can play in the writing studies classroom.

Charlee’s contribution to Teaching Accelerated and Corequisite Composition is “Revisiting Dweck’s Growth Mindset in the First-Year Classroom.” As its title suggests, the chapter takes another look at Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck’s concept of growth and fixed mindsets. One of the bedrocks of accelerated composition instruction, growth mindset maintains “that intelligence, talent, and ability can be learned; growth and improvement can happen through sustained effort: persistence, practice and help from others allow us to improve.”

Charlee’s chapter begins with a problem: her college’s corequisite writing class is not coming together, and talk of a growth mindset seems to be especially lost on three student athletes who are loudly disruptive and openly mocking of her class. The trio is not alone in their discontent. Across the college, corequisite students often report “feeling demeaned by the class or by their professors,” which results in “a lack of engagement and, often, outright resentment.” However, after revisiting Dweck’s ideas, Charlee reconfigures her classroom so that she is able “to create opportunities for students to experience success in real time, bringing about a growth mindset by providing students with an effective strategy and praising them for using it successfully.”

For Charlee, “The most important section of the chapter for current teachers of accelerated composition is the latter half, in which I discuss specific, hands-on strategies for fostering a growth mindset in the classroom.” She argues that it is essential to think deeply about “how we design our activities and assignments, how we assess them, how we encourage our students to collaborate and reflect on their own learning.” She adds that “even the most experienced teacher amongst us might have a class that we struggle with: you are not alone! Thinking about and acknowledging our own fixed or growth mindsets when it comes to teaching praxis is crucial: does what I am doing work? What could I improve upon? Where can I get the help I need to make that happen?”

When I asked about any additional insights she’s had since writing her chapter, she remarked: “If you teach first-year students, then you are seeing the effects of Covid-era learning directly; we need to create inclusive classrooms with even more opportunities for growth-mindset ‘wins’ in real time so that students can see how effort can lead to improvement.”

Inevitably, the specter of AI entered our conversation, with Charlee emphasizing the importance of ensuring that “students are learning to write while also learning to use AI in appropriate ways that maintain rather than undermine academic integrity.” In the current semester, she is looking to “create even more ‘metacognitive moments’ in my schedule, so that I’m not merely praising effort, but giving students the space to reflect on what they’ve learned by making the effort in the first place, which is another way to challenge the ubiquitous nature of AI writing applications.”

Charlee ended our conversation on positive note, saying that one of the students she describes in her chapter as “problematic” has become “a writing major, and is now taking upper-level courses with me. There is something so powerful about this narrative, and I can’t wait to share it with my accelerated composition students!”