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To me, one of the most exciting aspects of teaching a WID-based curriculum was student conferencing, which I tailored in a unique way to fit the assignment sequence and objectives for the English 101 courses I taught at NC State.
There are at least two ways to approach teaching a WID-based composition course. First, you can ask students to analyze texts representative of the fields in which they’re majoring. The second approach is to ask students to produce texts native to those disciplines. Of course, these two approaches are not mutually exclusive, and what I learned from other faculty in our program at NC State was that different faculty emphasized different approaches.
My assignment sequence at State went like this:
1) Research Topic Proposal and Presentation
2) Primary Research Logbook and Reflection
3) Literature Review
4) Revised Primary Research Design and Academic Conference Poster.
For the research topic proposal, I asked students to analyze two scholarly articles (preferably empirically-based research studies) as a basis for proposing their own research questions and methodological approaches for the semester. Students had autonomy in selecting their articles, but they were accountable for explaining the methodologies and results reported in the articles when they delivered their proposal.
I conferenced with students immediately after they presented their research topic proposal, and these conferences stand in my mind as some of the most enjoyable moments in my nearly twenty years of teaching First-Year Writing.
Why did I find the student conferences so enjoyable? We talked ideas. We talked about interests. We talked.
Far too often student conferences break down into a teacher explaining why a particular sentence is “not good” or “could be better written this way.” This kind of conferencing is just painful to me because invariably a student feels talked down to and becomes defensive. Furthermore, it promotes a hierarchy I find counterproductive to authentic learning.
Typically I would start a conference with small talk to get a student chatting and put him/her at ease. I’d get the spotlight off of me by asking them questions. We would talk about their research topic proposal, what they learned, what they liked, what they didn’t like. I would ask students about their background, interests, hobbies, jobs, favorite vacations, what they were thinking about majoring in, and then out of that conversation a beautiful and marvelous thing would happen.
We would begin talking about how to shape their interests, their expertise into legitimate and authentic research for the rest of the semester. Students would come to realize that they were experts in areas that I was not, and that they could teach me something (and others, too) about their interests. I’ll offer one example to keep it concise.
A student comes into my office and sits down at the table across from me. We’ll call him “Michael.” Michael is shy but obviously very bright and seems a little fearful of the teacher (me) and how this first conference is going to go. After small talk about the week and how things are going, we discuss his research topic proposal, and he says he has no idea how he’s going to conduct research this semester. He tells me he’s majoring in Materials Science, a field of which I know exactly squadoosh.
Ten minutes go by, and Michael is really stuck. I’m kind of stuck, too, because I don’t know anything about Materials Science. I’m a novelist for crying out loud.
So I ask Michael, “Do you have any hobbies?”
He looks at me with a sheepish sparkle in his blue eyes and says, “Not really. I play the guitar. I don’t really have any hobbies.”
“You play the guitar? That’s cool. How’d you get into that?”
“Oh, I had a buddy in high school who was a luthier.”
I’m thinking, What the heck is a luthier?
Michael breaks out of his shyness for a moment, gets kind of excited, and tells me, “He had a workshop, and we used to build guitars.”
And then like Bam! Pow! his research design landed on that table between us like a finely tuned Martin acoustic.
I said, “Well, there’s your study. You’re majoring in Materials Science. Why don’t you research different types of guitars?”
He thinks about it for a moment. “I could look at different types of woods, densities, strings, timbres? Stuff like that?”
“Uh, yeah. That would be kind of brilliant.”
I have never in twenty years had a kid take off and run with research like Michael did the rest of the semester. Turns out he was an absolute expert on guitars and digital audio equipment far beyond my ken. And most importantly my lack of expertise in both—and in Materials Science—didn’t matter.
In that fifteen-minute conference, I had talked with him. I had let him know that his interests mattered. They were valuable. And that as his English 101 teacher I wanted him to teach me about what he knew and what he would come to know the rest of the semester.
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