Core Writing Workshop Report

I was pleased to join several Core 101-102 faculty members for a recent workshop.  We shared excellent WAC-style pedagogy and I can take no credit for this; the Core faculty developed and led this event.

The most important lesson for this observer is that faculty are concerned about commentary.  I’ve long known that faculty work hard when designing assignments, but I’ve had an impression–probably mistaken–that most faculty are writing the sort of vague and counterproductive commentary I once saw as a Writing Center tutor.

Ray Hilliard moderated our meeting; Ray returned to his former position of coordinator while David Leary is on leave. Ray has always had a strong investment in improving students’ academic-writing skills, and we covered a lot of ground with our colleagues.  We discussed the follow topics, and participants used actual student papers to consider appropriate pedagogy:

  • Eric Yellin (History) had a very useful yardstick for measuring student understanding of an assignment.  He said that one mark of  a strong writer would be someone who was “thinking beyond the question” and doing original work as compared to a writer who might be “struggling with what the question was.”
  • Ray finds himself spending less time writing commentary now that he employs MS Word’s embedded commentary feature.  Several participants either use that tool or plan to do so.
  • We all noted that in our sample papers, the instructors began with positive reinforcement for something a writer had done well, then maintained a friendly tone all along. This is a pedagogical approach all Writing Fellows learn in Eng. 383.
  • We all agreed to “put grammar in its place” as an important, but not primary, concern when writing commentary. In Core, crafting one’s focus, analysis, and support are first-order concerns.  Grammar must be addressed, but faculty, again in the same way Fellows learn, agreed that finding patterns of error rather than isolated incidents would best serve writers.
  • Several faculty did lament that students were not being careful enough with word-choice. This lack of care and nuance can lead to prose that does the job but not in an eloquent manner.

Tracking the Candidates' Words in the 2008 Election

Particularly during a heated campaign season, I’ve often wondered how to broach the subject of political speech/political rhetoric (verbal/visual) in the classroom without creating a partisan-feeling discussion.  (This seems especially hard with the wide contrasts in rhetorical strategies employed by the 2008 Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates.)

I’ve just been reading through the posts (articles, really) on a site called Wordwatchers, which, “explores how we can learn about the candidates’ personalities, motives, emotions, and inner selves through their everyday words.”  This website seems like a nearly perfect backdrop of academic objectivity to frame discussions of current (almost daily updates) political rhetorical strategies.   This might be of particular interest to 103 faculty or Political Science.

Two Readings, October 20th & 21st

University of Richmond is fortunate to have two really dynamic writers giving readings on campus this week.  Both readings are free and open to the public.

Pam Brown – Australian Poet – 20 October 2008, 8pm, Weinstein Hall's Brown-Alley Room


Pam Brown has earned a living as a librarian, nurse, publisher's assistant, postal worker, artworker, and teacher of writing, multi-media studies and film-making. She has published fourteen books of poetry and prose, all with independent publishers. Her volume of new and selected poems, Dear Deliria, received the New South Wales Premiers Award and was cited for "its provocative and witty engagement with personal, social and political issues," ability to invite "reconsideration of mundane experiences and events," and "edginess of language and €¦ emotional honesty, daring, and intellectual curiosity." She has been Associate Editor of the online journal Jacket since 2004. Her most recent book is True Thoughts. She has lived in Sydney for the past 40 years.


Margaret Gibson – American Poet and Memoirist – 21 October 2008, 7pm, Keller Hall Memorial Room


Margaret Gibson is the author of nine books of poetry, including Long Walks in the Afternoon, winner of the 1982 Lamont Prize, and The Vigil: A Poem in Four Voices, a finalist for the National Book Award in 1993. Her most recent work is a memoir, The Prodigal Daughter: Reclaiming an Unfinished Childhood, in which she writes about her upbringing in Richmond, Virginia, and the process of making peace with the dichotomous forces of her past. As Shannon Ravenel confirms, "Margaret Gibson’s evocation of urban southern society in the 1950s is so on target it’s scary. This is a brilliant book." The recipient of an NEA grant, a Lila Wallace/Reader's Digest Fellowship, and two Pushcart Prizes, Gibson is presently Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Connecticut and lives in Preston, Connecticut.

“Immersive” assignments: students correct US

I am using a wiki this semester without a spell-checker and I’m not the best proofreader on earth.

In addition to that issue, I often forget to READ MY WORK ALOUD before I submit it.  Thus I find small errors cropping up. How do I keep myself honest and students engaged?  I give them extra credit on work if they spot an error in my own online posts and assignments. If I violate one of my own Pet Peeves, they get more credit still.

One of my class mentors said the wiki (and the work in Second Life) provide a great example of “immersive learning” for students.  I suppose they have at least learned that all writers must take care and be mindful of an audience’s watchful eyes.

 Score so far: 3 errors by me, no Pet-Peeve violations. Stay tuned.

composition and media: fruitful interplay

A useful assignment for writing classes, especially when studying creative nonfiction, is to assign a reading of Ned Zeman’s 2004 Vanity Fair article “The Man Who Loved Grizzlies” a day or more before a viewing of Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary “Grizzly Man”  inspired by Zeman’s article. Not only does the grisly tale grab student attention and spark engaged debate, each text offers a trove of interesting compositional choices that can enhance student understanding of narrative and the various media by which it travels.

Students take notes on their impressions as they read Zeman’s article and attempt to describe the image of Treadwell that is conveyed before they view Herzog’s film. As we review the article, students notice graphic layout, the clever beginning, the range of evidence, and the variety of specific detail and skillful description. By the time we view Herzog’s film, students have a loose framework for comparison that sharpens their eyes and ears for detail.

Follow up discussion builds upon these observations and moves to include closer examination of each medium, narrative choices, documentary approaches and directorial/authorial intrusion, as when Herzog denies viewers a hearing of the audio evidence yet positions himself within the frame, back to the camera, listening to it with headphones. Though the film is about the wild, technology is foregrounded in Treadwells 100+ hours of video footage where we can see the profound impact of a technology that is a kind of portable audience – or at least a promise of one.

Students can pursue focused research papers inspired by the film, or write critical analyses of each narrative, noting the specifics of how each achieves its unique effect or they can delve into drafting an argument essay about the environmental issues raised in the film, or the concept of authorship, or the the various limitations of each medium for this particular story.

Whether we call the documentary an “adaptation” or not, the interplay of message and media is a fertile space for intellectual exploration and the development of thinking through close reading and significant writing.