PALS Note: PALS welcomes a guest post from Christine Kozikowski, an Assistant Professor in English at the College of the Bahamas. Kozikowski writes about teaching similar skills in introduction and upper-level writing courses. We hope this post spurs a discussion about how people change syllabi, assignments, and in-class work for different undergraduate and graduate audiences. For example, what shifts when you teach a text to first-year students and the same text to M.A. students? What freedoms or restrictions do you have on the type of material you can teach in each class? Read below for Kozikowski’s reflections on teaching different levels this spring.
This past semester I taught a lot of writing classes and not all the same writing course either. I taught a section of every writing course that my college offers: both the first and second sequence of the first-year writing requirement and advanced composition. As have many people in the past, I, too, sometimes felt that I was teaching the same class regardless of the level. Similar lessons on sentence structure, word choice, style, research, organization, citation, and even thesis creation occurred in each level of writing. Was I accidentally teaching the same class in triplicate?
Certainly, each level of writing instruction is designed to be different: different papers, different lectures and discussions, different issues, and different expectations. And in the beginning of the semester, it’s easy to go into each class knowing that they are different, but as the weeks pass, everything starts to feel . . . the same. There are a lot of good reasons for this sense of similarity, but the top two have to do with the books used and the problems students face.
In composition classes, it is pretty common to use a single basic text for all levels, which makes sense, at least initially, because it includes information and examples for all of the writing necessities. And, as I will talk about next, students seem to have similar obstacles throughout their composition careers, therefore texts like the St. Martin’s Handbook, the Norton Field Guide, or the Bedford Guide provide useful references for students’ improvement. But is using the same book for multiple levels really that useful for students or teachers? Certainly in terms of cost it makes sense. Publishers price composition books at a premium because it makes them an incredible amount of money; students buy a single book that they can use in multiple classes, making the hit to their wallets slightly less painful; teachers familiarize themselves with the content lessening their prep time. All good, right?
Maybe not. In the three institutions that I have taught at, we have all held, to varying degrees, discussions about how to make sure that students are getting appropriate instruction at each level of composition. All of these institutions have all incorporated a single base text for their main composition text. Because some form of composition is required for the majority of students and colleges employ large numbers of teachers, each who has his or her own ideas about what students need to learn in a given class, using a common text will guarantee that there is some amount of continuity among classes. However, using the same book for different course levels adds exponentially to the amount of material that crosses over, regardless of whether or not the assignments differ per level. Students are given the same examples, which if they didn’t help the first time, they still might not help any subsequent times, and that assists no one.
In addition, using the same book for all levels of composition adds to the sense of homogeneity about writing that we are all desperately trying to counter in our students: there isn’t one single correct way to construct a thesis statement; there isn’t one single correct way to construct an argument. Writing is different depending on the purpose, the audience, and the subject, as everyone who follows a WAC model knows. But using the same book for a multiple levels of composition doesn’t really demonstrate that, and although the internet is a wonderful place for examples and material to draw upon, I think most teachers use the books their students pay for.
The other problem that adds to the class similarities are the hurdles that students face, which could potentially be linked to using the same examples in the same books. Writing is difficult; it is a process, and students struggle because they believe there is a “right” way to do it. (And sometimes there is. . . for grammar, citation, etc.) And teachers often think they know the “right” way. But regardless of this, since students in all levels deal with many of the same obstacles throughout their writing careers, it becomes easy to repeat the same lesson on revising topic sentences or developing a research question, which becomes awkward if you’ve had the same student repeatedly (as I have).
Now that the semester is over, I think about what I could have done to better differentiate the various levels of composition classes from each other. Certainly developing assignments that are different in scope and objective is one easy idea. Each of my composition classes were required by the writing department to have a final, academic research paper of differing lengths and research criteria. My first sequence writing class and advanced composition had basically the same assignment with their own level-specific requirements, while my second sequence writing class had something slightly different; they had to define and solve a problem that related to sustainability. While the objectives were more or less the same for all three—come up with a suitable topic and thesis statement, conduct and incorporate appropriate research, make an argument, and use proper citation styles—my students who solved problems had significantly different questions, which led to a wider variety of lectures and discussions. Another way I could differentiate between levels is not only make sure that my expectations are different, but that students understand how my expectations have changed as they progress through the class levels. Perhaps the easiest way to make sure that each class isn’t the same? Make sure that my prep for each is different.
The question of difference is not only applicable to composition classes, but for any class that is offered in dual forms such as a literature for non-majors and its sister class for majors or any text that is taught to students in different levels. Frankenstein, for example, is a very popular text for intro-level classes and for classes on monsters, ethics, development of the novel, which may mean that students read it multiple times and that a teacher may use it a number of times herself. As a medievalist, I have a tendency to try to include Beowulf wherever possible, so my English majors read it more than once. Students new to the text often get the deer-in-the-headlights look the first time, so in those situations, it is very helpful to have my more experienced students bring their new peers up to speed.
Unfortunately, I won’t be teaching any sequenced classes next semester, so I won’t be able to practice what I’ve preached here, but I’ve made notes so it’s going to go better next time. Or at least it will go differently.
Christine Kozikowski is an Assistant Professor at the College of The Bahamas, where she teaches a variety of composition and literature courses. Her research focuses on Middle English literature, particularly Middle English romances, privacy, and place.