Genre-based writing, “preparation culture,” and the marshmallow test

Trying something new here. I’m sharing my pre-recorded presentation from the 2022 TESOL conference, where I spoke as part of the Second Language Writing Interest Section panel on genre-based writing across ESL contexts.

My bit was supposed to be about teaching genre in intensive English programs (IEP), but I took the opportunity to reflect on the mindset of “preparation,” which I think is an impediment to good writing instruction. Along the way, I take swipes at the five-paragraph essay (of course), traditional points-and-average grading, and the obsession with assessment.

At the end, I introduced the approach that Ann Johns and I take in our new textbook, Essential Actions for Academic Writing, available now from University of Michigan Press.

New book! Essential Actions for Academic Writing

I am excited to announce the release of Essential Actions for Academic Writing, co-authored with Ann Johns and published by the University of Michigan Press.

Essential Actions is a textbook for novice writers: students who are just starting their journey in (English) academic writing. Through a genre-based, research-informed, language-focused, rhetorical approach, we guide writers through the essential actions of academic writing: explaining, summarizing, synthesizing, reporting and interpreting data, arguing, analyzing, and responding. Each action is embedded in meaningful genres and contexts, both academic and beyond the classroom. Finally, teachers can choose from four extended, scaffolded projects that show how academic writers navigate among multiple actions and genres.

Essential Actions is suitable for ESL/EAP classes as well as monolingual and multilingual writing classes and can be used in intensive English programs, community colleges, developmental writing programs, first-year composition classes, and graduate preparation courses.

A teacher’s guide and other resources (including an entire extra chapter on source-based writing that we couldn’t fit in the book!) are available on the companion website.

For more information, please take a look at my post on the Michigan blog or visit the publisher’s page to purchase (print or ebook) or request an exam copy. Essential Actions is also sold by Amazon (print and Kindle format) and VitalSource (textbook rentals).

If you have any questions about teaching the book in your course, or to arrange a workshop for your colleagues, please don’t hesitate to contact me!

Ungrading online discussions

The fact that we are not graded each week lessens the fear that we might miss a task/quiz/reading and in fact, I think it encourages us to do/read more widely because there is not so much pressure to do perfectly on one assignment. It’s kind of like a buffet (where we have to try everything, but will like some things more than others and can get add’l servings!)

I also tend to like to participate in discussions a lot; sometimes this makes me feel self-conscious because I don’t want people to think I’m contributing so much just for a good grade. But your course isn’t set up that way, so I don’t have to worry about that perception.

participant in an MA TESL course (used with permission)

Two weeks into my ungrading experiment, and things are going quite well. One of the interesting side-effects has been a shift in the way I ask students to engage in online discussions. The go-to method in online teaching is to require a certain number of posts and replies, perhaps with a rubric that differentiates between substantial and superficial responses. But that leads to a checklist attitude, increases stress, and results in very dull discussions. In addition to encouraging minimum effort (what’s the least I have to do to accumulate points?), it also discourages students who actually do want to engage, as seen in the feedback I quoted above. I hadn’t thought about it from that perspective, but it makes complete sense.

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Don’t panic! Emergency and/or planned hybrid teaching

In the classic BBC comedy Dad’s Army about the Home Guard during WWII, one character-Lance Corporal Jones-would respond to every week’s presumed crisis by losing his cool and frantically shouting, “Don’t panic! Don’t panic!” It’s a peculiarly British comedy: the series depicts one of the darkest times in recent history by both valorizing and lightly mocking the veterans and others who, too old or unwell to serve abroad (hence dad’s army), volunteered to protect the homeland from the constant yet distant threat of invasion.

In the past 2 years (2 years!), I sometimes wonder if I sound like Corporal Jones urging my colleagues-and myself-not to panic while we lurch (sorry, pivot) from in-person to online to hybrid to everything at once. Covid is both lapping at our shores and a faint dark cloud on the horizon. And it’s nothing to laugh about. I watched re-runs of Dad’s Army as a child in a (mostly) stable, (somewhat) powerful country, (largely) at peace and free of the dangers that justified Jones’s comedic panic. I live through these times without those assurances and without the benefit of hindsight. So, yeah, sometimes I panic a little.

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Ungrading the Grads

I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about ungrading in the past year. Gmail always tries to autocorrect the word to upgrading, which as my colleague pointed out, is actually quite apt. I happen to have an unusual schedule of 3 very different graduate courses this spring, so I’m going to dive in and ungrade/upgrade the whole lot of them. And blog about it, of course.

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What Jonathan Larson teaches us about writing

I’ve been haunted by Tick, Tick … Boom, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s movie adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical musical, since I saw it (twice) the weekend it was released on Netflix. It helps that my eldest son immediately decided to learn the stunning opening number, 30/90, on the piano. But beyond the background soundtrack to my afternoons, I can’t stop thinking about the lessons the film offers for academic writing. (Err, spoilers follow, but seriously, watch the film!)

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It’s not passive voice you hate: it’s intransitive verbs

Was there ever a grammatical form more maligned than the poor passive voice? Read that sentence again — see what I did? Look, I get it. Strunk and White told you not to use it (while writing several verbs in the passive on the very same page); Word’s grammar checker assaulted you with wiggly green lines; even Orwell warned you against it (and I’m a fan of everything else he wrote).

The problem is that the passive voice is only one way of disguising agency, and I don’t think it’s always the most insidious. When I see rants on Twitter about the alleged use of passive voice in news articles, the examples that are highlighted are almost never actually in the passive voice.* That’s not to excuse disingenuous writing, but it’s important to name the culprit.

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How remote learning changed online learning

I really don’t want to write one of those “One year ago today was the last time I …” posts I’m seeing on social media. Mourning what and who we have lost is important. But instead, I want to think about ways in which teaching and learning in higher education have changed in those 12 months, and what these developments mean for us now.

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Improving the student experience in an LMS

In the online pedagogy reading group (or online-pedagogy reading group) I facilitate, we have been talking a lot about our learning management system (LMS), Canvas. This is a topic that gets EduTwitter quite impassioned. Here’s one I saw just now:

We are somewhat more sanguine, and I personally am much less tidy.

We established early in the shift to remote learning that every course would have a Canvas site and that we would use two main organizational tools: Modules to collate pages, links, activities, and assessments, with roughly one module per week; and daily Announcements with the upcoming class- and homework. By using templates, including a standard home page, we have created a consistent look and feel for both students and teachers alike.

It’s not “brutal.” It’s clear and predictable, which is good because we teach English learners of all levels who are not only learning language but also new kinds of digital literacy. We use consistency to make sure students don’t get lost, confused, frustrated, and disengaged. And frankly we need it for our own sanity: We teach 8-week sessions, so we’re finishing up our 5th fully online teaching session now, and some teachers have cycled through several different courses in that time. But every class has a “coursepack” we’ve created to import into the new Canvas site so we don’t reinvent the ball every two months.

In my role as Online Program Manager, I work with colleagues on their Canvas sites for both new and revised courses as we try to figure out how and why to use the affordances of the LMS in our teaching. Tressie McMillan Cottom’s words resonate with me:

It doesn’t matter whether or not a tool can do something; it matters whether or not students can make sense of what the tool is doing.

Rethinking the context of Ed Tech

Here are some of the issues we look at to help us make sites that students can make sense of:

  1. Modules can be repositories as well as learning pathways. Canvas was originally designed for asynchronous or blended courses; it works differently for synchronous courses. For example, we wouldn’t recommend adding files and links directly to an asynchronous module; instead, the link or file should be linked from a page, discussion board, or assignment that clearly explains the purpose and directions of the task. However, if the link or handout is just waiting to be used in a synchronous class, then it could just be dropped into the module.
  2. We have generally followed the advice of our ed-tech colleagues at the university to create one module per week. However, our classes meet 10 hours a week, so that can create very long and unwieldy modules. Perhaps modules could instead be organized as resources, with separate modules for synchro and asynchro learning (I discussed our strategic approach to blending instructional modes earlier on the blog)? Or maybe modules could be separated by theme, skill area, or assignment? There’s plenty of flexibility within the template.
  3. Why do we even use Canvas for fully synchronous courses? That’s question we need to ask! Well, for a start, it means students always look in the same place for their teacher’s contact info, Zoom room, textbook links, syllabi, and grades. But if the course is fully synchronous, maybe we don’t always need modules. For example, in one course at the beginner level, the teacher uses Pages and Announcements to send students the agenda, links, and handouts they need for each class and the homework for the next class. The modules are still there to organize the materials for teachers, but they’re hidden from the students.

As we approach the anniversary of the Great Shift Online, I am very aware of the limitations of Canvas. We should be concerned about the ways that our LMS, like any platform, shapes the way we teach. But I also believe–because I’ve seen it–that we can make the technology conform to the ways we want to teach. Those are not always the default settings, and we should certainly question what the defaults are pushing us towards. But with a bit of creativity, a lot of support, and some frantic Googling, we can take back control.