Getting started with Teaching Writing Online

I’m teaching a graduate seminar in rhetoric and composition this semester and next week is the first week, the week to get our collective feet wet, and while we’re splashing in that virtual brook, be like Phaedrus and Socrates on that riverbank and ask some deep questions about what it is we do and how best to do it. From time to time this semester, I will be blogging about our readings in ENG 725: Teaching Writing Online, and this time I want to ask, If kairos is the core of persuasion, and if what we teach in Writing I and II is how to persuade, mostly through writing, then how do we follow the NCTE beliefs for the teaching of writing when we can’t be face to face? I am especially pleased to see that the NCTE Committee on Best Practices for Online Writing Instruction is meeting at the CCCC this March. It is co-chaired by the authors of my two main texts for ENG 725, Beth L. Hewett and Scott Warnock. I will be at the Cs, and I will be sure to attend this meeting if it is open to non-committee members. The agenda , which is interesting in itself, is here.

Speaking as one who greatly values the process time one-on-one with students as they draft that a computer classroom allows, I see this as the core question: How do we teach process in a content space? For the online course, no matter how many added bells and whistles, IS a content space. A CMS or LMS like Blackboard, Moodle, or Sakai when taken down to code is a database. It is a sophisticated way to sort and deliver content.

A lot has changed since I took a similar course myself in teaching writing online while a graduate student. At that point, Blackboard was a baby and the only option examined, and since it was light-years ahead of anything else at that point (Remember early WebCT? Ouch!), rightfully so. At that time the discussion board was heavily used to build community and to replicate classroom discussion, which can be a big part of FYC (first year composition), but not the most important part. The virtual classroom feature was touted for online office hours, but in real life students would just phone or send questions in an email. Looking back, I can see some real possibilities for the virtual whiteboard, but in practice it quickly turned into chaos. This was pre-Facebook (imagine!) and blogs were the primary social software out there, although there was NOT any blog module in Blackboard. Essentially, it was a CMS (content management system) not a LMS, and was a somewhat functional depository for course materials. I supplemented it in 2003 with a Drupal blog, a communal blog that all class members contributed to. Drupal was pretty powerful, really, even then. It had polls and chat, and it even had a wiki module that could be used to build an in-course textbook. Through that experience, I learned how to modify CSS and became more fluent in HTML, both very good things in the long run.

The options are vast now and much more user-friendly, but the question remains, How do we get the writing process modeled, get it analyzed, how do we give the same quality of feedback as in a face-to-face class? Written feedback transfers fine, but what about the writing conference? Anyway you look at it, the situation is not ideal, but it is also not going away. Online writing courses are here and the teachers called on to “make it work” are commonly the teachers with the least power for significant pedagogical innovation, which is what is needed as the social media landscape shifts and expands. Per course, adjuncts, graduate students, lecturers– these are the front lines for teaching writing online and these are the ones least likely to have a doctorate or masters degree in rhetoric and composition, even less likely to have any coursework specifically in teaching writing online. I am thrilled that my university is doing something to change that dynamic. My class this semester is a special topics course, but our composition director has a course proposal up for approval for a permanent course in teaching writing online, a course that I believe has a strong chance of being required for those in the rhet/comp track, and I hope, required for other areas as well.

Here is why I think it is an important course for literature and creative writing track MA students also: Truth be told, MA English grads in literature or creative writing who want a full-time teaching position at a university or community college will not be teaching literature full-time, if at all; they will be teaching composition, if they are lucky enough to get one of the very few openings. Our last full-time instructor hire was in 2005 and our situation is not unusual. We’d love to hire, but economics dictate that we cannot. When an opening does occur here or elsewhere in our area, online teaching is the growth area for composition, and those who can say that they have coursework in it will have an advantage in the job market. Their teaching portfolios will have modules to show potential employers what they can do.

But I digress. How do we teach writing online? I’m going to go with the short answer for now and let my students work out multiple answers through the forum on our Moodle site. The short answer, I believe, is this: Not by doing the exact same things we did face-to-face.

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Author of the poetry collection The Tethered Ground and Professor of English at Missouri State University. Contact me for readings or for workshops on writing/publishing and on teaching writing online.

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