Tweaking the Syllabus (or Why IRW Instructors are Never Bored)

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Every so often, I encounter myths about my work as a community college writing instructor, and I feel compelled to disabuse my well-meaning friends or colleagues of their mistaken assumptions. For example, I have been asked (more than once) how I can possibly continue in such a “boring” line of work; surely it must get tedious teaching the same thing over and over again. “After all,” they hint, “there’s a reason that the ‘grunt work’ you are doing in first-year and developmental writing often falls to those who are lowest on the academic hierarchy!”


At this point, I smile and share a little secret: in over 20 years of teaching IRW, first-year composition, grammar, and ESL courses, I have never taught the same course twice. Granted, the institutions, course names, and even textbooks might be the same, and the syllabi might be quite similar. But my classroom is an on-going laboratory, and the content and pedagogy of my courses evolves continually. How can I possibly be bored when I am waiting to observe just how the latest adjustment will influence the writing, reading, thinking, and “languaging” that I see in my students?


Here’s a simple example. Like many writing instructors, I assign a literacy narrative in my first-year/ALP course. I first incorporated this assignment in my courses as a novice instructor working in a “process approach”: I spent time with my students in pre-writing activities, creating time-lines and freewriting about powerful memories. We then worked through multiple drafts before editing the final version. Later, as colleges moved to integrate reading more explicitly into the classroom, I began to ask students to read literacy narratives and react or respond to them in the context of their own writing; the assignment shifted to focus more on reading skills and the value of connections between texts and students’ experiences. More recently, under the influence of the Writing about Writing (WAW) approach to composition pedagogy, I have added excerpts from theoretical readings (from articles by James Gee or John Swales, for example) as students prepare to write literacy narratives; such excerpts provide students with a language lens through which they can analyze and reflect on their experiences. We are still working through a process and focusing on reading, but I’ve extended the assignment to address a vocabulary for interpretation and analysis.


This coming semester, I am considering another change to my assignment. In this case, it will be a change in sequence. I have always done the literacy narrative as the first paper in the course, but I would like to see what happens if I make it the final paper instead (or perhaps I can structure it as a two-part paper, with both an initial and final version). I plan to incorporate more structured reflection into the course as a whole, and I would like to give the students a chance to use that reflection as primary research—in conjunction with a semester of assigned readings—to develop the literacy narrative at the end of the term. Perhaps that would spark more analysis, more reflection, more metacognition, or perhaps even a stronger foundation for my students to transfer writing knowledge and writing habits to new contexts.


I’m excited about the possibilities for instruction based on a change in my assignment sequence. My enthusiasm certainly marks me as a very specific kind of teaching-nerd, but I am perfectly ok with that.


What changes are you planning for your spring composition or IRW courses? What do you hope to see as a result? I would love to hear from you.

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About the Author
Miriam Moore is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Georgia. She teaches undergraduate linguistics and grammar courses, developmental English courses (integrated reading and writing), ESL composition and pedagogy, and the first-year composition sequence. She is the co-author with Susan Anker of Real Essays, Real Writing, Real Reading and Writing, and Writing Essentials Online. She has over 20 years experience in community college teaching as well. Her interests include applied linguistics, writing about writing approaches to composition, professionalism for two-year college English faculty, and threshold concepts for composition, reading, and grammar.