We’re presenting at the Conference on College Composition and Communication in Pittsburgh, PA on Friday, March 15, at 8:00. Our presentation title is
Making Space for Student Voices with Eportfolios and Grade Contracts.
Here is our proposal—it’s this idea that got this blog started!
In “Working Class Lives,” Nancy Mack calls out the potential Othering of students by traditional research assignments, the kind still present in many First Year Composition courses: “I have long been dissatisfied with traditional research paper assignments that render working-class students powerless by discounting their experiences, histories, and ways of making knowledge. […] I do not look forward to pointless papers about hackneyed topics selected for their available sources, simplified positions, and prepackaged worldviews. I want more interesting writing from my students that reflects their remarkable lives.” We take her critique to heart, and have sought ways to make space for disenfranchised students to create work that “reflects their remarkable lives.”
Composition and rhetoric scholars are vocal in identifying the ways non-dominant voices are excluded from the academic discussion. Yet as a field we continue to struggle to increase the voices and experiences present and made overtly welcome in our classrooms, especially in first-year composition classes. The majority of students first interact with rhet/comp in FYC, making it the place where we may have the greatest influence on their lives as well as upon discussions within the university itself. By designing meaningful assignments that include every student, we can perform “welcoming” for the university community, inspiring others to widen their ideas about who is “university material.”
In this presentation, we will discuss how we made our FYC sections more inclusive of diverse experiences through the use of new media projects, ePortfolios, and a grading contract. We found this combination helps students to express themselves within and beyond the university; it welcomes students to write from their experiences, validating their right to be present and heard; and it gives students a safe space to practice new ways of expression. New media projects, portfolios (electronic or otherwise), and grade contracts are nothing new for composition classes. Yet we find that their combination —used as we have in a setting where many students express uncertainty about whether they “belong” in a university— can lead to greater engagement, success, and self-confidence.
We work at a regional, four-year institution where many students come from underprivileged backgrounds. Our university positions itself as a “school of opportunity”— yet many students arrive with a sense of not belonging, whether as a result of placement scores that label them “not college ready,” messages received from home and high school, or a combination of both. The expectations and assignments students encounter in first-year classes can reinforce these feelings of otherness. As Mack states, “if they are to survive at the university, working-class students must construct a position that is not discounted as underprepared or limited to an acceptable imitation of the elite original but a respected, working-class-academic identity.” Students from many disenfranchised backgrounds suffer a similar fate— be it tied to race, class, gender, disability, or sexual orientation. Too often, students learn to perform the status quo and silence their individuality.
We made our FYC classes more welcoming to students and open to the expression of their ideas and selves through creativity, collaboration, and introspection (Alexander; hooks). We did this in a way that simultaneously enhanced students’ development of audience awareness, information literacy, and genre flexibility. Drawing from research on new-media composition (Palmeri; Selfe), multi-genre (Romano), and multi-vocal projects (Johnson & Moneysmith), we designed and taught an alternative model of Second-Semester Composition where students drafted multimodal texts from multiple views, posted their projects on blogs, and interacted regularly in person and online by responding to peers’ posts and drafts. Each student’s projects came together through the high-impact practice of compiling and designing ePortfolios (Eynon & Gambino). We supported students’ freedom to experiment by using a grade contract, allowing them to determine their own successes and learn from their failings; to focus on their compositions, not fixate on scores (Danielewicz & Elbow; Inoue). Throughout the semester, students generated material that “reflects their remarkable lives.”
Our approach privileges interactions between students as readers and mentors. We made ongoing peer feedback central to the experience by requiring students to comment on and read each other’s work in process. Students commented on blogs, volunteered to be in each other’s videos and audio essays, made suggestions about points of view to explore, and supported each other by taking their classmate’s work seriously; each student understood how meaningful the topics and projects were to their peers. In select sections, students practiced further collaboration through peer-mentor interactions with a Course-Embedded Consultant who acted as a model for students, not by enforcing a learning style, but as a model for student diversity, critical thinking, and developing research texts.
In this presentation, we will theorize our approach; share assignments and processes; showcase our course blogs; and demonstrate how our students used their ePortfolios to express themselves and voice their experiences. The process of planning, teaching, assessing, revising, and representing this pedagogical approach has been collaborative from the beginning. In the spirit of the project, and the spirit of collaboration we encourage amongst our students, the three performers/presenters will share stage-space and time; we will interact and support one another. That said, each performer will take primary responsibility for particular topic areas connected to their research and teaching specializations:
- Presenter 1: summarize the theoretical approaches that informed our pedagogical design, describe the basic framework for our course that those theories led us to, and situate the project in terms of our local university situation.
- Presenter 2: discuss practical classroom experiences and practices— not limited to writing, but engaging in creative expression, design, and time-based media in an attempt to open the discussion to multiple approaches and student aptitudes.
- Presenter 3: discuss the liminal experiences of disenfranchised students navigating FYC in terms of integrating their performance of personal identity alongside the instructors’ identities through means of composing under expressive, collaborative feminist pedagogies.
The presenters will make their assignment/handout archive and bibliography available online. This same resource is available to our students, to model how we put our own work “out there” in public view.