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Get a Room

posted: 10.19.12 by archived

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m currently working on a research project on Donald Murray and his impact on the Freshman English program at the University of New Hampshire. When Murray first arrived at UNH to establish a journalism program, the first thing he asked for was a room to teach in that was full of typewriters. That was in 1963.

Murray knew then what I’ve been coming to realize now: you don’t teach writing around a seminar table, in the 20th century or the 21st. I’m coming to envision the paperless writing class as embodying this unique but not necessarily original approach to teaching and learning. Recently, I realized just how unique this approach is to higher education when I found myself sitting around a seminar table with a group of English majors for a course I am teaching called Studies in Rhetoric. The room in which we meet is called The Shakespeare Room and it is one of the more sought-after teaching spaces in our building. A small, wood-paneled room in the corner of the building with a bookshelf full of faculty publications in one corner and nice views of the quad, the Shakespeare Room is the kind of place where veteran members of our department lead intimate senior seminars or profess to small groups of graduate students. Until recently it contained a wonderful old wooden seminar table (we now have moveable desks in the shape of a giant rectangle). It has the basics of instructional technology: wireless internet, a desktop computer, an LCD projector, and speakers. But what the Shakespeare Room doesn’t have is a computer for each student. And this, I’m realizing, is what’s making teaching there a challenge.

While I’m grateful to be a position to teach in such a venerated space, and while I see my ascendance to the Shakespeare Room as a kind of symbolic payoff for the work I’ve put in to get there, the truth is that over the past couple of years, I’ve been spending most of my time teaching in computer labs, where the students can slide around in moveable chairs and everyone has a computer. This experience of working in rooms that encourage not lecture and not discussion, but, something else…something more akin to activity is one of the key factors enabling the development and evolution of the paperless writing class. Rooms and what’s in them matter. They make certain kinds of teaching and learning possible and make other kinds of teaching and learning, if not impossible, at least less likely. It’s as difficult to teach writing in a room without computers, I’m coming to believe, as it is to lead a discussion in a lecture hall.

What I have come to understand, sitting around the table with my students in the Shakespeare Room and feeling somehow displaced, is that I’ve grown accustomed to this other kind of teaching–this pedagogy of activity. I’ve grown accustomed to all of my students having access to a computer. I’ve grown accustomed to, for example, creating a google doc on the fly, in the very midst of class, sharing the link via our learning management system (LMS), putting the students into groups, and giving them some task where each group contributes to the doc (and I  use the “comment” feature to monitor and give feedback on their writing while they’re writing it). I’ve grown accustomed to students always having access to all of their written work in class (because it’s stored in the LMS). I’ve grown accustomed to having students read and discuss one another’s discussion board posts in class, in preparation, perhaps, for a class discussion or some other writing-related activity. I’ve grown accustomed to having the ability to do all these things and more. And it’s the architecture of the room and what’s contained within it that makes all of this work possible.

But that’s not all. I’ve also grown accustomed to a different way of spending time with students. Each week, I have two two-hour blocks with each class I teach. I’ve grown accustomed to providing students extended stretches of class time to draft their papers (and then circulating as they write–checking in and offering guidance and feedback as they work). I’ve grown accustomed to giving a class a series of small tasks and then setting them free to work for an hour or so (e.g. read this short article posted as a PDF in the LMS and then post a comment about it to the discussion board and when you’re done with that, post a comment to your research blog explaining how you’re doing finding sources for your research project and then once you’ve completed that, come back to the discussion board and read and respond to a few of your classmates’ posts, and then sign up for a conference for next week, and then read two more of your classmates’ posts and then post a question you have about the article we read or about the online discussion of that article to a Google Doc and when you’re done with that I’ll probably have finished reading your research blogs so check back there to read my comments). I’ve grown accustomed to creating classes where students (and I) move from one activity to the next for most of the class period. And I’ve grown accustomed to having the space and the tools to do this kind of teaching–to teach the paperless writing class.



Categories: Michael Michaud
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