I learned an important lesson this semester: less is more. I scaled back the number of assignments in both types of classes I teach (professional writing and general education writing) and discovered that everyone won. In fact, so much so that I have no idea why I was doing so many assignments before. Well, I do, but it doesn’t reflect well on me and it definitely does not reflect well on the forces that strive to control what is taught in classrooms with little or no regard for pedagogy or best practice, but that is a topic for another blog post. Not everything was perfect, there is still some work to be done, but fewer assignments gave us so much more room to breathe and learn.
In both classes (professional writing and general education writing) I reduced the number of assignments to four. Previously my professional writing class had six assignments and that was a reduction from years past. The former incarnation of my general education writing classes (which include our Writing I and Writing II) was even worse with eight assignments. What was I thinking? No wonder I was so stressed as the semester progressed. It is a wonder that all my students didn’t hate me. Our semesters are only 17 weeks long and with breaks that is really only 15 weeks of instruction and then finals week. Even considering that some of those assignments (between 1-3) were focused on reflection and class community support that is still a lot of pressure.
Some of this overload was simply a result in my shift in recent years to building my classes around a theme while also being reluctant to let go of assignments I loved (see literacy narrative). In previous years my popular culture theme gradually spread to play a larger and larger role in my gen ed writing classes so it was not until this semester and my game theme that I actually built the whole class with the theme in mind. It was last semester’s American Creed theme in my Writing I classes that brought me to that realization. It was too late for those classes but inspired the structural changes I made for this semester’s classes. Another problem was that I built more and more reflection and class support activities in and decided to assess those separately. I kept the activities but built those assessments (or accountability) into my new streamlined assignment list and it worked just fine. Of course, I’m still left wondering what to do about the literacy narrative as I believe it is an important introduction to college writing work, but that is a problem I will work on this summer.
I have known for years that my professional writing classes were too much. It is a struggle because this is the only class in which our English majors are exposed to rhetoric and writing that is not focused on literature or creative writing. I wish there was a better balance in the curriculum and many of my students reflect this as well but it is what it is. So there is so much pressure to do all the things I want in terms of professional writing (including unpacking the very idea of professional vs. technical vs. business writing/communication) as well as lay a solid foundation of rhetoric and all the reflection and class support activities I know are essential to growing as a writer and thinker that it is enough to make my head explode. However, as with my gen ed writing classes I was able to incorporate the reflection and class support into the achievements so that was one problem solved.
The six core assignments for my professional writing classes were networking, infographics, proposals, white papers, usability, and project. For this version of the class the networking served to help students better understand the professional network they intended to join, the infographics unit introduced that deliverable type as well as other typical professional writing genres that would be acceptable for students’ final projects, the proposal focused on the student’s final project and deliverable, the white paper in turn served as a jumping off point for the final deliverable, the usability unit tested the final deliverable, and the final project wrapped things up. This semester I folded networking into proposal and sort of floated the infographic as part of our preparation for usability but I was not happy with that solution at all. I think the networking/proposal marriage is OK although I still need to work on smoothing it out (and eliminating a few things as it is pretty jammed), but working in infographics is still important to me. In part, because it is an useful lesson for English majors and other writers who are accustomed to thinking about all communication as writing (and only writing), but also because I use them to introduce my students to a wide range of deliverables that exist in the world so final projects are (hopefully) appropriate for audience and purpose. In the past students have considered this work one of the most meaningful experiences of the class so clearly I need to fix this. Well that is something to think about this summer.
While my less is more philosophy still needs work when it comes to my professional writing classes, I am quite pleased with the way it worked out for my gen ed writing classes. Because we were doing less we were able to spend more time thinking about and preparing for each writing task which was a much more beneficial writing process than our previous packed calendar. Because we were doing less we were all able to enjoy the process and each other. Because we were doing less we all did better work. In the past, especially when it came to gen ed writing, I’ve always felt the pressure to do more, but by doing less I actually found more room to work in smaller lessons and to have more fun. Now that I’ve fixed that problem in my gen ed writing classes here’s hoping I can fix it in my professional writing classes.