When it comes to assignments, Leah Washburn says, "the funkier, the better."

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Leah WashburnLeah WashburnLeah Washburn (recommended by Wallace Cleaves), Bedford New Scholar 2021, is pursuing her PhD in English Literature at The University of California, Riverside and hopes to graduate in Spring 2023. She graduated from University of Central Florida in 2018 with an MFA in Creative Writing, where she taught Intro to Creative Writing. She also worked two years on The Florida Review, coordinating undergraduate interns and providing administrative support. During her undergraduate years, she worked as a writing fellow at Rhodes College for three years. Her research interests include digital media, ludology, narratology, contemporary speculative fiction, and postmodern fiction.


What do you think is the most important recent development or pedagogical approach in teaching composition? 

I don’t know if I would consider it recent, but the increase in contract grading and understanding that effort is not the same as product. Product- versus process-oriented learning has been the shape of the field for the past decades, and I think the contract grading system is just a more equitable continuation of that. I first heard about in Asao Inoue’s Anti-Racist Writing Pedagogies, where he outlines the contract he gives to his student and spends a whole class period negotiating it with them. Giving students agency and power is important in a class where they have to repeatedly share writing, an act that makes them extremely vulnerable. I appreciate that more and more the idea of effort and “productive failure” is prioritized in the composition classroom. I’m a former athlete, so it always seemed strange to me that classrooms would not give students safe spaces to fail and then learn from the failure. I’m glad that more and more pedagogy is prioritizing the student learning process and giving them safe spaces to learn from their mistakes. 

What is the most important skill you aim to provide your students? 

Critical reading and thinking are a vital part of the argumentative rhetorical process, and in brief semesters—or even briefer quarters—I think this gets overlooked for the sake of writing mechanics. A lot of times students hear critical reading and critical thinking and their mind goes to deep analysis of “literature” that relies on an encyclopedic understanding of fancy literary terms. That’s not what critical thinking is. They often do critical thinking in their everyday life. Questioning whether it’s better to buy off-brand cereal or the Kellogg’s bee; debating what they should wear to party; deciding how to manage their inventory in a video game. Our students are doing acts of critical thinking all the time. In my classroom, I just try to make them aware of this and then apply that to a text. Why did the author make this decision? Ok, this sentence made you feel sad—why? Encouraging the inquiring spirit is vital to building their critical reading skills. 

What’s it like to co-design or work with the editorial team at Bedford/St. Martin’s? 

Working with this editorial team was very wonderful because, clearly, they all listened. I know that seems like such a small thing, but (especially in academia), there tends to be times where you hit a wall where people just stop taking feedback. While maybe we Scholars didn’t know the logistical side of making ideas come to life, the editorial staff was happy to answer questions and eager to learn from us. It always felt like a conversation open to discussing how to make something the best version it could be.

What have you learned from other Bedford New Scholars?

No one is perfect, and the funkier the assignment, the better. Let me clarify: the more creative and personable an assignment is to your class, the better it goes. Student’s write tons of essays, but having them do something that is unique and new allows them to stretch their writing brain. And there are a lot of ways to twist an “essay” into something that fits the course requirements but also invites the students to think differently. 

Leah's Assignment that Works

During the Bedford New Scholars Summit, each member presented an assignment that had proven successful or innovative in their classroom. Below is a brief synopsis of Leah's assignment. For the full activity, see Dungeons and Dragons in the Composition Classroom.

This assignment is designed to introduce students to the “Analyzing Stories” essay from the St. Martin’s Guide to Writing, but it can be tailored for any assignment or classroom. The goal is to help students critically think and read without revealing to them that they are actually doing it. For my class, I created four different puzzles designed to help them move toward the essay. Students got into groups of 4-5 and then each person chose a “character” to play from 6 options. Each group could only have one of each character. My challenges were geared towards citation, essay structure, analyzing stories, and general argumentation, but you can substitute whatever areas you think your students need to work on. The materials provided are the ones I came up with but change them as you will. The goal is to give students opportunities to make choices and think critically about the challenge in a “game-like” way that sneakily introduces them to information they need to know. 

About the Author
This is the shared account for the Bedford New Scholars TA Advisory Board.