Vol. 5, No. 1: Spring/Summer 2009

Theory into Practice

by Jeremy Shere

Veteran associate instructors mentor new teachers in the Department of English’s Composition Program

No course is more synonymous with the college experience than freshman composition. Every year, at universities across the nation, tens of thousands of students struggle to unlearn the orthodoxies of the five-paragraph essay and grapple with thesis statements, analytical thinking, and college-level reading and writing. For many students, these tasks can be alien and off-putting, making freshman composition seem like a required chore, a hoop through which they must jump in order to graduate.

More than 4,700 Indiana University Bloomington undergraduates undergo the rigors of W131 Elementary Composition each year. But as difficult as composition can be for students, it’s often even more challenging for the instructors—mainly English graduate students with little or no teaching experience. One of the difficulties for instructors, says Christine Farris, IU English professor and director of the composition program, is the realization that undergraduates don’t necessarily share their enthusiasm for analyzing and writing about texts.

“Some instructors may think that they’re teaching versions of themselves, that the students like to read and write as much as they do, but that’s not always the case. Instructors have to learn to teach the people in front of them, to diagnose what they need and figure out how they’re going to stage it and sell it a bit. The challenge is, how are you going to get students interested in intellectual inquiry? It can be discouraging when the answer isn’t immediately apparent, when the students have entirely other goals.”

Five years ago, Farris, working with a group of instructors, retooled the IU composition program to benefit both students and instructors. “We asked ourselves, what would we do if we were starting from scratch in terms of the readings, our approach to how we organize and present the material, and how we teach teachers to teach,” Farris says. “And I think we came up with some pretty good answers.”

One of the first and most significant moves Farris made was to hire four assistant directors—graduate students who worked closely with Farris and with one another to rethink the program. Dissatisfied with the predominantly pop-culture emphasis of their approach to teaching analysis and argument, Farris and her team went about creating a new curriculum and a new textbook.

“We wanted the readings to lend themselves to more of a comparative historical approach because previously, when we asked students to complicate ideas that they may have taken for granted, they didn’t have much context for doing it,” Farris says. In the revamped version of the course, students spend more time comparing texts and images—a newspaper story and a newspaper photograph, for example—and thinking about how those documents frame the stories they tell. The goal, Farris says, “is to encourage students to get beyond the obvious, to do more with evidence and complicate their initial thesis.”

The new textbook, Readings for Analytical Writing, custom-published with Bedford–St. Martin’s, includes essays on a wide range of topics, including celebrity, consumerism, film, gender, race, history, and language. The book’s first section, “Keystone Readings,” includes six essays by major theorists (John Berger, Susan Bordo, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Michel Foucault, Clifford Geertz and Friedrich Nietzsche), one of which instructors choose to study with their students. Working through these difficult texts gives students theoretical tools to guide their analyses throughout the rest of the course.

The fact that the textbook and new curriculum is shaped in large part by instructors who have been in the trenches and experienced the ups and downs of teaching composition has helped streamline the program, Farris says, making it more accessible for students and more flexible for instructors. Plus, having a revolving group of four assistant directors who work continuously to update and revise the curriculum not only keeps the directors invested in the program, but also makes them better mentors for first-year associate instructors.

Mentoring begins during the summer, when soon-to-be instructors undergo a weeklong orientation, during which Farris and the assistant directors lead sessions on everything from writing a syllabus to generating discussion, to dividing time between teaching and graduate coursework. Novice instructors teach practice lessons and learn the finer points of grading student essays.

“When I first came to IU as a graduate student, I thought the idea of a boot camp was strange,” says Jonathan Blandford, an assistant director now in his sixth year of the Ph.D. program in English. “But I really came to appreciate it because it’s not top-down finger wagging. There’s lots of support and scaffolding, but instructors still have a lot of freedom to choose the topics and readings their students write about.”

Once classes begin, the assistant directors act as mentors to first-year teachers, meeting with them weekly to discuss lesson plans and assignments and observing their classes. New instructors also take a proseminar with Farris, where they discuss pedagogical strategy and theory.

All that preparation and mentoring for a basic composition course may seem like overkill, but they pay dividends in the classroom. No matter how well prepared you think you are, says first-time instructor Laura Clapper, it’s still a challenge to step into a classroom for the first time and confront 23 students counting on you to help them make sense of difficult material.

But the careful structuring of the textbook and curriculum and the strategies taught during orientation and the proseminar helped to smooth the way almost immediately. When Clapper showed her class clips from two films—Fight Club and Rebel Without a Cause—and then broke students into groups to analyze and compare specific framing techniques evident in both clips, the comparative approach worked better than she could have hoped. “I’d planned to go group by group but found that when one group began to share its analysis, people from other groups couldn’t help but chime in. So we ended up having a real, organic conversation and creating an environment where classmates feel free to speak with each other in a challenging but affirmative way.”

Examples abound of similarly successful teaching moments. Blandford is often astonished by the creativity and resourcefulness of the associate instructors he mentors. To teach a difficult essay by Friedrich Nietzsche, one instructor crafted a Nietzsche puppet and created a stop-motion video of the puppet explaining passages from the essay.

Another associate instructor played students the Beatles’ “We Can Work it Out,” followed by Stevie Wonder’s version of the same song, instructing his students to notice differences in tone and mood. Before long, Blandford recalls, they’d filled up the board with observations, which naturally led to a discussion about how Stevie Wonder’s version was influenced by civil rights. “And the students were led to do the analytical work without really thinking about it—it just came naturally because they were comfortable talking about something familiar from popular culture,” Blandford says.

For Farris, the Composition Program’s emphasis on instructor training is beneficial for students because it produces better teachers. It also benefits graduate instructors when they go on the job market. “The feedback we get from other schools is that our graduate students are able to talk about teaching at a very sophisticated level—a skill that gives them a competitive advantage in today’s academic job market.”

Blandford appreciates the pedagogical training he’s received. “It’s pretty fantastic to have had the opportunity to be so integrated with the curriculum, to gain administrative experience and to be treated as a colleague in the department,” he says. “We put so much energy and work into teaching, and I’m proud of the product and happy to be able to say that. I feel like we’re doing a good job.”

Jeremy Shere is a freelance writer in Bloomington.

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