Writing about Writing in the Community College: Workshop Assignments

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In my last post Writing about Writing in the Community College: Another Classroom Perspective, I described how I am implementing a writing-about-writing (WAW) approach to first-year composition in a community college.  This week, I’d like to continue that discussion with a look at the workshop assignments I use in my course.

In the first four weeks of the semester, my students read articles by Douglas Downs and Elizabeth Wardle, David Jolliffe and Allison Harl, Cheryl Hogue Smith, Rebecca Moore Howard and colleagues from the Citation Project, and several others. We spend time in class examining how these pieces are structured and how the authors have used their sources.

To help students practice summarizing, selecting, and integrating sources, I have them do a series of what I call “workshop assignments,” beginning in the third week of class. These assignments are not high-stakes; students earn points for participation and completion, regardless of the ultimate quality of the work. My goal is hands-on practice in working with sources in writing, and specifically, in building a coherent literature review that characterizes an on-going scholarly conversation and ultimately invites the student to join that conversation.

I generally start with a question for the first part of the workshop. Depending on what we have read, for example, I might ask the students to explain what academic discourse is (and whether it exists in some universal form), or I might ask them to characterize a “novice” reader or writer. The students must answer the question in a 1-2 page Google Doc, using at least two of the articles we have read as background before introducing their own opinions. In the following class, we look as a group at a couple of samples from previous semesters, noting how writers introduce sources and provide context; we focus on developing a conscious sense of our readers when we are working with complicated source material.

The students then share their work with others in their groups (usually 3 or 4 other students). They use the commenting feature in Google Docs to ask questions, make suggestions, and respond to the writer’s work. Student comments generally vary: some address the mechanics of citation, while others ask questions to elicit more explanation or clarification from the authors.

I then ask students to revise the piece at home, taking into consideration what their classmates have said. But I also ask them to bring a classmate’s voice into their revision, connecting something they read in a classmate’s paper to their own analysis as a way of expanding it. The students must summarize, quote, or paraphrase another student in their revision, with an appropriate citation.

At this point, many students ask for my input on their work. Many of them resist taking peer reviewers’ comments seriously, and some even say that they don’t want to change anything until they know what I think—but I don’t respond at this point.

Once students have revised their pieces at home, I make general comments on their work, responding both to the writers and to the peer reviewers, but I try to avoid evaluation. Instead, I focus on highlighting strengths, asking questions, and offering citations that might help students evaluate their own work more effectively.

At this point, we will have been working on this single piece of writing for nearly two weeks. For the next workshop assignment, I ask the students to expand this piece to include at least one additional source from our classroom reading as well as some kind of additional data (something I share from my own research, data from published research, or from a simple survey in the classroom).  The expanded piece is reviewed once again by peer groups, revised, and then submitted for a grade.  Students who have worked through the process earn full credit for two workshops. More importantly, they have experience to draw from when they begin writing their own literature reviews a week or so later.

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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.