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A Sequence on Sequencing: How? (Part I)

posted: 3.18.15 by Barclay Barrios

Last post I talked about why I choose to sequence assignments.  In the next several posts I’d like to offer some techniques I’ve found useful in designing sequences so that you can create your own.

One of the methods I use is reading centered.  I start with a reading I really want to teach and then I build out the sequence from there.  Given the shape of our semester we can usually cover four readings.  I like to use the following pattern for assignments:

  • Paper One on Reading One
  • Paper Two on Reading One and Reading Two
  • Paper Three on Readings One, Two, and Three
  • Paper Four on Reading Four and one other reading of the student’s choice

You might select a different pattern but I will say that having students work with more than one reading offers good opportunities for analysis, synthesis, and critical thinking.

So, before the semester I will skim the table of contents and think about a reading I’d really love to teach because it’s interesting or has good ideas or would work well in the classroom.  The quick annotations in the table of contents of Emerging can help with this part of the process if you’ve not experienced a reading before.

For example, let’s say I select Michael Pollan’s “The Animals: Practicing Complexity.”  From experience I know that students love this essay.  I love it because it deals with complex adaptive systems, which I love thinking about.  I know it works well in the classroom so it’s a good choice.

My next step is to jot down all the ideas and themes in Pollan’s essay.  Emerging offers a number of tools for this, from the tags in the table of contents, to the questions accompanying the reading, to the thematic table of contents, to the existing sequences, to the Instructor’s Manual.  All of these tools help me see what Pollan does and what readings connect easily to his. My list might look something like this: organic farming, food, holons, ecosystems, education, agribusiness, industry, nature, economics, systems, health, eating, animals.

That last term, animals, is appealing to me. I’ve never taught a sequence with that focus so I think I will pursue it this time.  My next step is to use all the same tools to look for readings that have some connection to the idea of “animals.”  That list might look something like this: Dalai Lama (genetic engineering with some discussion of animals), Hal Herzog (ethics and animals), and David Foster Wallace (ethics and animals again).  I broaden the list to include useful counterpoints; in this case what it means to be human: Brian Christian (humans and artificial intelligence), Patricia Churchland (genes and behavior), Francis Fukuyama (genetic engineering and what makes humans human), and Richard Restak (brains and technology).  Finally, I look for “universal” essays, ones with ideas that apply to just about everything: Kwame Anthony Appiah (how change happens) and Daniel Gilbert (how to be happy).

Now I have a list of possible readings to use in the sequence.  The complete list looks like this:

  • Appiah
  • Christian
  • Churchland
  • Dalai Lama
  • Fukuyama
  • Gilbert
  • Herzog
  • Pollan
  • Restak
  • Wallace

I know I am going to use Pollan.  I want to also use Wallace because he’s so fun to read.  Herzog is a natural match because his ideas work so well with the other two.  I sometimes choose a final reading from what seems to be left field, one that picks up on something entirely new and offers students completely new perspectives.  In this case, I might choose something about education.  But instead I am going to stick with the emerging theme and select Fukuyama, who talks about what it means to be human and why, for example, we don’t eat grandma.

See the readings together, there’s a clear theme: the ethics of eating.

Now I consider the order.  I’ll start with Pollan.  He has a few ideas but also a lot of narrative.  For my second essay I will want something with more ideas in it.  I’ll go with Herzog.  It’s brief but has a good central idea about ethics.  Wallace will work well as third since it’s so cohesive.  Fukuyama will end to open it up to larger issues about what it means to be human.

Final step is to write the assignments.  I’ll write the first two, perhaps, and then see how they go, adjusting later assignments as needed.

I wrote recently about the intellectual work of sequences.  I think it’s distinctly pleasurable work.  Hope you will give it a try.


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A Sequence on Sequencing: What and Why?

posted: 3.11.15 by Barclay Barrios

I chose a sequencing approach to the assignments in Emerging.  I thought it might be useful to talk a little bit about why I made that decision, so over the next few posts I hope to offer you an introduction to assignment sequencing—and also some tips on how to make your own sequences. 

Sequenced assignments are a series of assignments in which each new prompt builds on the work that was done in the previous assignment.  Students start by working with one essay in one assignment but then return to that same essay as well as a new one in the second assignment and then return again to those readings in the next assignment and so on.  Most sequences are organized around a central idea or theme and students develop their understanding of that idea or theme by working with the different readings repeatedly.

Deciding to use sequencing in Emerging was a bit of a natural choice for me since it’s the approach I learned when I started teaching—I’ve always sequenced assignments.  But I think there are very good reasons for taking this approach:

  1. Critical Thinking.  I like the way that sequencing allows me to help students develop their skills with critical thinking.  By using different readings to examine a central theme, students are offered a variety of tools to explore the ideas of that theme.  Sequencing also allows students time to develop more mature understandings of the ideas of a reading since they work with that reading multiple times.  And sequencing presses students to think critically about how they understand readings.  They may feel one way about an author after first reading an essay but by placing that essay in the context of other essays, students are often forced to reconsider their understandings.  Bringing new ideas into play constantly prompts them to think more critically.
  2. Coherence.  Sequences bring coherence to my class by establishing a central theme for the semester.  Students spend the class exploring that theme and developing their ideas around it.  It offers them help in terms of writing their assignments, since there emerges a common vocabulary drawn from the readings.  It also then serves as a kind of touchstone for us to consider the world outside the classroom, as current events often reflect and rebound on the theme we’re working on.
  3. Depth. Students develop a depth of understanding because they spend weeks working on the same readings.  Often, on the first assignment working with a reading, students “flatten” the ideas to their simplest dimension.  But as they continually return to and reread the essays they are forced deeper into the ideas of the essay, as well as their limitations.
  4. Scaffolding.  I imagine that as they enter their disciplines, students will be expected to produce writing that works with multiple authors (perhaps as a researched assignment but perhaps also just in the context of a final exam).  Sequencing offers them some scaffolded experience with this skill.
  5. Springboard. Similarly, sequencing can serve as a springboard to researched writing.  Students develop two kinds of skills that will serve them in contexts of research.  Not only do they learn to draw from multiple sources in support of their arguments but they also gain experience with sustained work, both within a paper and across the semester.

I don’t think sequencing is for everyone.  And I can tell you now that it has some drawbacks too.  Students, for example, become quite tired of some readings as the semester progresses, though I offer them options in later assignments so that they can jettison works that they have chewed through thoroughly.  Still I do feel that this approach serves students well.  For me, it remains the right choice in my teaching and for Emerging.

Next post: some tips on making your own assignment sequences.

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Assignment Sequences and Intellectual Labor

posted: 3.4.15 by Barclay Barrios

Work on Emerging 3e is, thankfully, coming to a close.  Don’t let anyone ever, ever tell you that writing a textbook is easy.  It’s much more work than I ever imagined.

Right now I am working on the new sequences.  We’re going with eight brand new sequences, touching on every reading in the book and including two new research-based sequences.

What’s on my mind is the nature of intellectual labor, particularly in relation to teaching.  You know, one of my colleagues pointed out that when someone asks us about our work we’re likely to talk about our research, but the truth is that the bulk of the actual work we do is connected to teaching.  For me, working within composition, pedagogy, and writing program administration, the relation between my research and my teaching is even stronger.

My passion and my intellectual labor—my work—is deeply connected to teaching: to the classroom, to the design of courses, and to the shaping of assignments.  I’m not sure the depth of this intellectual labor is always recognized by departments or the institution, which is a real shame.

I will say that crafting each sequence for Emerging involves re-reading each essay I plan on using, thinking about the ideas of each, thinking about the ideas of each in relation to each other, considering how these ideas sequence, carefully wording assignments to guide students to explore those connections, crafting questions to prompt students’ thinking, integrating work from other assignments connected to the readings.  That’s a lot of thinking.

So much has been written about the status of composition and its laborers within the institution.  I can’t help but think that if we continue to foreground not the work but the intellectual work we do then perhaps we can begin to shift the conversation and then the culture.

Or maybe I am being totally unrealistic.  Thoughts?

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Online Classes

posted: 2.25.15 by Barclay Barrios

It’s always surprised me that I don’t teach online.  I am a tech-heavy guy, often an early adopter, and much of my work has involved computers and composition.  But I tried teaching a writing course online once and, frankly, I thought it was a disaster.  Granted, I was doing it somewhere around the turn of the millennium; I’m certain the technology has changed since then.  But I’ve been stubbornly dead set against writing instruction online for most of my career.

That must change.

In part, it’s my whole “teachability” thing: I think I need to look back and reexamine old conclusions.  A more pressing part, though, is a new mandate from our school to get our FYC courses online.  It’s not entirely clear where the pressure is coming from: eLearning, the Dean of Undergraduate Studies, the Provost.  Dunno.  But the orders have come and now the challenge is making it happen in a way that maximizes student learning and success.

My basic objections have always been related to two points.  First, composition classes are process-based classes, not content-based.  Sure, I can see how it would be easy to put a video lecture on Blackboard, toss up some quizzes, add an exam and be done with it.  It seems easy to me to deliver content through Content Management Systems (duh). But how does one teach process online?  It strikes me as being as odd as trying to teach sculpture online.

My limited experience suggests that any attempt to do so triggers my second objection: time.  Specifically, it feels like writing courses takes a lot more time online.  If I am having discussion in a 50-minute class it takes 50 minutes.  Move that discussion onto a discussion board, though, and I have to read each student response, engage appropriately, and redirect or respond, a process which I think ends up taking a lot longer than 50 minutes.

Maybe I am wrong.  I have to be.  I know that lots of schools teach writing online.  I’m just not sure how they do it effectively.

I may be signing up for the Cs workshop on the topic and you can bet I’ll be reading widely in the field.  But if you’ve taught online and feel that you’ve found a way that really works, let me know, OK?

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posted: 2.18.15 by Barclay Barrios

I just made my reservations for the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC).  Wow, some lessons learned.

The first lesson: reserve rooms early.  I couldn’t get into the host hotel or the backup hotel or even the backup, backup hotel.  I’m only about a mile away from the conference but I know from past experience there is no greater pleasure than getting through a long day of panels and then simply stepping into an elevator and collapsing in my room. This year I will be taking a hike before collapsing.  I have to admit I was really kind of shocked.  I just never expected it to be that hard to find a hotel room in Tampa of all places.

The second lesson is closely connected: CV lines are expensive.  I tried every traveler’s trick I know, including Kayak, Orbitz,, AAA discounts, state government rates—everything. I still can’t believe it costs $250+ a night to stay in Tampa. When all is said and done, I will be spending about $1,000 to attend the conference.  Luckily, it’s just across the state from me so I can drive there.  If I had to fly in, that cost would be even higher.  That’s a lot of money, it seems to me, for a line on one’s CV (especially since I am not presenting this year and so, really, it’s not a line on my CV).  It prompts me to think about the costs of tenure: the money we invest while on the tenure track to get our work out there, to stay current, to connect to others, and to move towards tenure.  The cost problem is compounded for me since I won’t be getting department funds to travel this year, as I am technically “out of unit” and up in the dean’s office.  I’m trying to think of this as a critical investment in my career but it’s a tough sell to my bank account.

Third lesson: they do an awesome job with the conference.  Yes, I’m in sticker shock thinking of what I am paying for where I am staying.  But in getting things together for the conference I was really impressed with all the work they’re doing.  I watched some YouTube videos about the location, I see they have more poster sessions (with cash awards!), and super kudos to Joyce Carter for all that work—there are a ton of new features to look forward to.

I’ll be sure to enjoy many panels and will delight in seeing professional friends that, really, I only see at Cs.  But I have to admit what I look forward to the most is the Bedford party.  For me, it’s the highlight of the conference.

Hope to see you there.  And you can bet I will be taking these lessons with me as Cs moves to Houston in 2016.  I’ll be saving up, booking early, and thinking about some new formats to share my work.

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Categories: Barclay Barrios, Professional Conferences, Professional Development & Service
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The Teachable TOACA

posted: 2.11.15 by Barclay Barrios

I’ve recently come to realize that I am now what I would consider a “TOACA,” a Teacher of a Certain Age.  Granted, that has more to do with chronobiological age than professional longevity.  And let me be clear that it’s not that I feel like things are “over” (thank goodness). Still, there is a certain sense that I am reaching the top of the hill, so to speak, no matter how long it may be on the other side.  This realization has prompted quite a bit of reflection about my life and career. One of the things I’ve decided is that it is time for me to be teachable again.

Curious, I think, for a teacher to seek teachability.

I’ve been teaching for quite some time now, successfully.  I say “successfully” but I am now coming to wonder how much of my success results from a certain kind of inertia, the simple fact that I have kept doing what I always did.  Maybe it’s time for that to change.  I’m committing myself to exploring new things in my teaching: new methods and approaches, new kinds of assignments, new approaches to the classroom, new pedagogies.  For so long I thought I knew the answers; maybe it’s time to ask new questions.

I’m not entirely sure what this is all going to look like but, as a quick example, I have been thinking a lot about a conversation I had with our point person for student success across the entire university.  She explained that studies show that student learning increases when a teacher takes just a couple of minutes at the start of class to discuss what was covered last class, what will be covered this class, and why it matters.

It seems a pretty low stakes change for me and so I feel it’s worth a try.  I can picture myself saying something like “Last class we worked on how to make arguments more specific.  This class as you read through your peers’ papers I want you to focus on arguments to see how specific they are.  Not only will this help your peers to improve their papers but it will give you practice that can help you with your argument as well which will help you improve your writing and your grade.”  So simple, really.  It’s a small change in my teaching but one that may have a large impact.

I’ll try to share other little shifts I make in the classroom but the most important shift, I think, is that I am ready to shift.  I’m wondering if I am alone in this.  Well, really, I am wondering if I am the only one with so much hubris as to think that what once worked will always work.  How often do you switch up your teaching?  How teachable are you?

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Video? Video!

posted: 2.4.15 by Barclay Barrios

I’ve been playing around with video since the Flip cameras were big—so about 7 or 8 years now.  As the cameras on cell phones got better and better, I moved to just using my iPhone 5s to capture video.  iMovie has given me good results for the longest time but having just purchased a Retina 5K iMac, I’ve decided to take the plunge and move to Final Cut Pro X.  Prosumer ho!

I’ve been thinking about how to harness what, till now, has been a hobby.  I thought perhaps I would make some videos about Emerging and its essays and how we use it here at FAU.  I talked with Bedford folks about it and they think it’s a good idea, so I’m going to work on a couple and see how it goes.  I was thinking I would start with my take on sequencing assignments—why I chose that approach for Emerging and how I come up with my sequences.  I figure it might be a good way to spark conversations about that aspect of the book.

Given that I am going to dump some portion of precious free time into this, I am wondering how to maximize usefulness.  What do you think about video discussions of a book?  Useful or too infomercial-ly?  What topics might you like to see me talking about?

I’m open to suggestions, so please jump in!

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3e Progress

posted: 1.28.15 by Barclay Barrios

I’m happy to say that we’re pretty much done with the bulk of the work on the readings and apparatus for the third edition of Emerging.  Whenever I go through a revision cycle I am reminded of just how much work it can be to put together a textbook.  Fortunately, I am also reminded of just how much fun it can be, too.

I’ve had many great and engaging conversations with my editor Sarah just talking about interesting essays: “What did you think about … ?” “I loved it but I am concerned about ….” “Yeah me too but it would work so great with ….”  That kind of work always takes me back to what I love most about teaching: the intellectual energy of shaping a course.

And we ended up with some great pieces.  I might talk about them a bit more in coming posts, but for now I will say that one of my favorites is by Yo-Yo Ma.  Why?  Because Ma.  But also because I think the essay represents the kind of work I love to see students do: it is engaged, it is reflective, it is smart, and it draws from multiple disciplines.  Awesome.

I still have to work on the assignment sequences and I pray we get all the essays we want (permissions is a byzantine process, to say the least).  But it’s nice to see the next edition coming together.

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What’s a Syllabus?

posted: 1.21.15 by Barclay Barrios

Amazing how quickly the break goes, right?  Here at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) we’ve been back since January 5 (we start so early!) so I’ve been thinking about syllabi and wondering just what a syllabus is (or might be) (or could be) (or should be).

I’ve known some who consider the syllabus a contract and in fact implement some form of contract grading (à la Peter Elbow) and certainly here at FAU the syllabus is, in part, a bureaucratic instrument, filled with mandated statements to ensure compliance with various state and university policies.  But I think for me, a syllabus is something else, and I have been trying to figure out what that something else is.

Centrally, I view a syllabus is an intellectual project.  It’s my chance to imagine, project, and describe this “class” I have in my head (the one that’s perfect and thus never happens).  I mull over each element, consider how one flows to the next, tweak this and that.  In some ways, I frontload my intellectual labor given how much time I spend designing the syllabus.

Syllabi are also design projects for me, which is to say I use them as visual essays / arguments / statements about the class.  I spend a shocking amount of time just choosing the right font.  I also consider the layout, the typography, and images.  I want the design to say something about the class and its goals.

So I guess I would say that for me a syllabus is like a mini-essay.  I am laying out a line of thinking about the issues of the class, carefully organized through each week, and I am inviting students as my readers to follow that argument.

What exactly is a syllabus for you?

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Trigger Warnings

posted: 12.10.14 by Barclay Barrios

I learned about trigger warnings for the first time this semester.

Trigger warnings, whether presented on syllabi or before class readings, warn students that material in the course (such as content on sexual abuse, war, or rape) could trigger those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  At the very start of the semester I learned about them when one of our Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) approached me about a student in her class.  The student, a rape victim, was concerned about one of the readings we were using in our standard sequence this semester, Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s “Kiki Kannibal: The Girl Who Played With Fire,” which discusses Kiki’s rape and consequent bullying and shaming.  Now at the very end I am getting ready to read a paper about trigger warnings in the writing classroom written by one of our GTAs, a vet with PTSD.  Slate may have called 2013 The Year of the Trigger Warning but I guess I am a year behind.

The practice is not without controversy.  There are those who support them and those who oppose them.  What’s clear is that the discussion about them is just starting.

We haven’t embraced them as a writing program yet but I’ve already talked to my editor Sarah about adding them to the instructor’s manual for the next edition of Emerging.  We have quite a few essays that might merit such an advisory, including one about a war photo too powerful to publish, one about rape culture, and one about kids sexting.

And for me as a teacher, it’s something I will be grappling with.  And I think that’s the real advantage of the whole discussion: a chance to reflect on what I do as a teacher and why I do it and an opportunity to consider the material I teach in relation to the needs of my students.

So what say you?  Trigger warnings… yes or no?

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