As I contemplate the start of a new semester and prepare to craft student learner outcomes for my professional writing class, I thought it might be an useful exercise for me to consider the five qualities that John Warner uses to judge a writing curriculum rather than my traditional Good, Bad, and Ugly or ProfHacker 3×3 reflection strategies.
Genuine Rhetorical Situation
Warner argues that a writing curriculum should involve “a genuine rhetorical situation with an audience other than a teacher assessing for a grade.” As I have blogged many times in the past, I despise disposable writing assignments. That is why my professional writing class has long been built on a project-based learning model. Students develop a project designed to solve an authentic need in the professional community they intend to join. The proposal and project development process requires that students study the rhetorical situation and common deliverables of their intended profession and each of the units (or achievements as I like to describe them) focuses on a deliverable that they might encounter in the professional world. We culminate with individually developed web sites, grant proposals, social media plans, business plans, and much much more.
Warner contends that a writing curriculum should create “conditions where students learn something they did not know previously” noting “this can be content related and/or related to their metacognitive understanding of the writer’s practice.” As the only upper level rhetoric class many of these students will take (our English requirements are heavy on literature and creative writing once students get past composition and speech requirements) we study rhetoric as well as professional writing olus practice deliverables such as infographics and elevator pitches. Students spend the entire semester working well outside their comfort zone and crafting assignments and deliverables very different from work they have done before.
Warner advocates for a writing curriculum that “invokes multiple dimensions of the writer’s practice (skills, attitudes, knowledge, habits of mind of writers.)” All of my writing classes guide students through the writing process and support feedback loops to support those writers, but in professional writing we spend a lot of time studying and collecting models so we can discuss rules, strategies, and tips for creating specific deliverables. We also study the specific rhetorical context of each of the students’ intended professions while they identify and study professional mentors. My hope is to help students develop strategies that can help them continue to grow as professional writers long after they leave my classroom.
Warner presses for a writing curriculum where the “writing is intrinsically interesting for the students themselves.” This is one of the major reasons for project (or passion) based writing. Students choose a topic that they care about and that matters to them. Warner writes in his blog post and his book, Why They Can’t Write, that allowing students to write about topics they find interesting is crucial to engaging them in the process of their own writing development. Every semester I see this result in students putting in a lot of work and worrying about getting the project right rather than their grade. I also hope the process will help my students find their place (or at least see their place) in their intended profession and what could be more interesting than that.
While I agree with each of these criteria, it is this last that resonates the most with me as I have always built reflection into my classes because I agree wholeheartedly with Warner’s judgement that reflection plays an important role in developing “students’ metacognitive understanding of the writer’s practice.” I recently wrote a blog post about the final reflections that my students engage in every semester and have written many other blog posts about the importance of reflection (for the teacher as well as the student). I challenge my students to think about their writing throughout the semester and regularly check in with them (which of course forces them to reflect about where they are with our current deliverable) and we develop the standards for each achievement and engage in conference-based assessment.
My professional writing class is still a work in progress. I’m still struggling to balance the demands of providing the only upper level rhetorical instruction for many students with my less is more initiative. Every semester I strive to streamline my syllabus and course calendar, but sometimes in the heat of the semester I don’t do as well as I’d like. One thing I have vowed to do better next semester is to make it clear how each activity within an achievement (unit) and how each achievement within the class builds toward the final project. Some students lose sight of the forest for the trees and I admit I do too.
How do you evaluate a curriculum and your course plan? Do you find Warner’s standards an useful guide for your reflection as I have? How do your classes hold up to your personal values of what is important for nurturing and fostering writers? I knew that I agreed with John Warner on many things, but upon this self-examination I am satisfied that my professional writing class matches my personal values as a writer and teacher of writers. I am also satisfied that while the class is still under construction I am doing far more than meeting my first standard to first do no harm.