The Spotlight on First-Year Composition Series is a collection of interviews with some of our best and most experienced teachers in the English Department. Topics in this series include best grading practices, classroom management, and teaching strategies. In this second installment of this semester’s short revival of the series, Bre Lillie discusses teaching First-Year Composition, designing innovative assignments, and encouraging students to be curious and creative.
Bre Lillie holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and a BA in English from Wofford College. As an instructor of FYC courses, she strives to provide a safe space for her students to learn, think, and write in creative ways. Her most recent publication, a short story entitled “Guilty Until Presumed Dead,” received an Honorable Mention in the 2022 Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest. Her stories and poetry have appeared in Appalachian Heritage, New Limestone Review, and River and South Review. In her spare time, she enjoys paddle boarding, Olympic weightlifting, and spending time with friends and family.
You have extensive training teaching composition here at UT. Can you share some of your experiences with these courses and how you come up with such innovative assignments?
This is my second full year of teaching at UTK, and third in an FYC classroom (I was a TA my first year of grad school). In some ways, I still feel “new” even though I’ve taught the same classes several times now. I always change it up. As much as it would probably be easier to simply reuse what I’ve already created, I’m not wired that way. I have that writer trait where nothing is ever finished, so I revise my classes constantly, reshaping and rearranging just to see how my students react and learn in a new setting. I feel like I learn as much as they do, if not more. This revision mindset certainly has helped me develop my own constructed ethos, to draw on a term from English 101, and I think building my own confidence as an instructor has helped me be a better resource for my students.
Before I taught English 101, I was a tutor at the Judith Anderson Herbert Writing Center, where I reviewed FYC concepts with students all the time. The students I met with often struggled with stasis theory, a concept that was completely new to them. Stasis theory was new to me as well. I’d never encountered it before UTK, so I came up with a very brief explanation for the students I tutored that explained stasis theory in terms of something familiar to them, a romantic relationship between two college students.
In this scenario, the two students weren’t in agreement about the definition of their relationship.
One desired monogamy, and the other wanted to keep her options open. I would draw the “stasiscase” on a sheet of scrap paper and walk through this doomed relationship from both viewpoints of the two hypothetical students. It was perhaps a silly example, but grounding an abstract concept in something as familiar as young love and relationship problems seemed rhetorically appropriate. That moment where I could see stasis click for those students I tutored was invigorating.
I shared this way of explaining stasis with a few of my grad school friends at some social gathering or another, and they loved it so much that some of them adopted it in their own classes. It got me thinking maybe I was onto something.
As to how I come up with innovative ideas, I guess they find me out in my real life. My way of explaining stasis popped into my head when an acquaintance was sharing his relationship woes with me, so I did what fiction writers do and repackaged the truth into something I could use in my work, something just a little too on point to be real. Good fiction is emotionally true, even if it isn’t narratively true. Sometimes it’s hardly fictional at all, but I digress.
I believe I do have some advantages being less than a decade older than my students. While their woes are very different, their world is not so far removed from mine that I can’t relate. We watch the same shows, listen to some of the same music, workout at the same gym, and I can empathize with their attempts to maintain a school-life balance. I don’t want to pander to my students, but if I can connect with them in some way and that helps them grasp FYC concepts, then I feel like I’ve done my job.
Granted, the stasis unit in English 101 is usually one of the most difficult for students to grasp as many of the concepts are new. How do you make this unit easier for your students and how have they responded to your lessons/activities on stasis?
When I began teaching English 101, this saga of two star-crossed college students grew into a fictional case study centered around characters named Brad and Angie, who are definitely not in stasis as to the status of their relationship. Brad is smitten with Angie, and the evidence from the case study suggests Angie might be interested in seeing other people. This is my favorite lesson to teach every semester. I first read the case study aloud to my students, then I break them into pairs to discuss. I assign half the class to take Angie’s viewpoint and the other half to look at things from Brad’s perspective.
Once they’ve worked through to understand each perspective’s arguments of conjecture, definition, quality, and policy, I bring the class back together for a rousing discussion about where it went wrong that never fails to entertain. I’ll have students in the front row saying Angie is right to want her freedom and others saying she doesn’t deserve Brad. The boys almost always take Brad’s side, saying he should drop Angie and find someone who wants to commit. Though one of my favorite comments this semester was “They’ve been dating seven weeks? That’s too long. It’s time for that relationship to end.”
Even students who almost never speak in class usually have something to say, and as the debate gets heated, my students draw on evidence from the case study to back up their claims, looking for the smallest detail to prove their point. It’s the most in-depth analysis they do all semester, and they don’t even realize they’re doing it. I do introduce stasis a few times before I do this case study with them, but I don’t think it usually clicks until this lesson, because it enables my students to apply stasis theory effortlessly in a context they understand.
When the debate ends, my students are shocked to hear this case study is loosely based on a series of true events. They always ask me how the story ends and are disappointed when I admit I don’t know.
After the discussion, I’ll walk my students through my own analysis of the relationship,* citing definition as where things begin to diverge for the couple. I like to show them my viewpoint after the fact, because I don’t want to color their analysis with my own ideas, but I also do it because it allows for a conversation on how people can have different readings of the same text. Since I’m all about helping my students gain confidence as writers, I like to affirm that, hey, we might not agree, but your claims are still valid if you can back them up with evidence. I want my students to learn to trust themselves as readers, too, and tools like stasis theory are an excellent framework to shape their understanding of the texts they encounter. If they know the lay of the land, they’ll feel much more prepared to join the conversation.
*Here’s my slide for my stasis analysis of the case study
What are some of the biggest challenges/rewards of teaching composition? How do you keep the material new and exciting for you and your students? Are there any suggestions you have for teachers of composition who also want to revamp their assignments and incorporate fun activities in class?
My pedagogy is heavily influenced by the fact that I was homeschooled K-12. Before you ask, yes, I did socialize, work, play sports, and do other normal kid things. Aside from my formal education, I had space and time to study what I was passionate about from a very young age. I read all the time. If I was interested in something, my mom and I would find out more about it. Sometimes, it doesn’t really compute with me when my students aren’t willing to trust their understanding of a concept until it’s been lectured to them or when they assume they can’t do something just because they’ve never done it before. I hate that so many of my students ask, “If I
do this or that, will you count off points?” That is a sad thing for me, realizing my students have been punished more than they’ve been equipped to try new things. I understand the value of learning the basics—the artist in me comprehends that I must know the rules before I can subvert them—but no wonder novice college students often hate writing if they’ve never had any encouragement.
I think the challenges and rewards of teaching composition are closely intertwined. Aside from the normal frustrations (missed deadlines, attendance, poor grades, etc.), it takes vigilance for me to stick to a pedagogy that asks questions instead of always answering them. I don’t want my students to assimilate my reading of a text. I want their reading of it. The way I often respond to their questions with “what do you think?” is new for my students. They’re not used to being the ones in charge of their education, and I know this question frustrates them. But it also forces them to articulate their viewpoint and parse out exactly what they’re thinking about a subject or course concept. Some of my students hate this question all semester, but once my students realize there are a lot of ways to be right, they tend to relax and produce better content. Of course, I don’t want to aggravate my students into giving up, so I do pair this kind of questioning with a willingness to re-explain course concepts as needed. I let them know I’m right there with them to help out as they do the work. When they feel safe enough to simply try, I find that really rewarding.
I credit Dr. Kimberly Hall, Assistant Professor of English at Wofford College, for showing me how ambiguity can play a huge role in student learning. I always wanted to be a professor, so I used to analyze the way my own professors managed their classroom. Dr. Hall struck a balance between a reliable structure and an open-endedness that fascinated me. She knew what concepts we needed to learn, but she put us in the driver’s seat, letting us choose the direction of conversation. Her assignment sheets left room for interpretation that made other students uncomfortable. They didn’t understand why she wouldn’t just tell us what she wanted, why she wouldn’t prescribe a formula for everyone to follow. I thrived in that environment where I could be creative even in a “non-creative” English class—I think it was a class entitled “Global Digital Cultures,” if I’m remembering correctly. Her class was the first time a professor ever put an
Instagram account up on the screen and asked us to analyze it. It was something related to the Arab Spring, I remember that. She asked us what we saw, how these posts formed a narrative, what argument they were making. I sat, fascinated.
Fast forward to the present, and I look for opportunities to be creative every step of the way. Sure, some days are just lecture, activity, writing, etc., but for the most part, I try to engage students on some level through group activities and conversations. A few activities I love to do:
• Every semester, I set aside time to ask my students what the latest slang is. I ask them about terms and words and make my students define them and explain what context these terms can be used in. I personally find it interesting to see how quickly slang changes, but on a more practical level, it segues into a conversation about rhetorical appropriateness for a given audience and the “language” of specific discourse communities.
• I ask my students to explain TikTok to me. I pretend I don’t know anything about it (which is pretty much true), and ask clarifying questions about intended audience, genre conventions, etc. This is a great opener for when I teach about genre and discourse communities.
• To aid my students in being students, we have mini-lessons and activities related to time management, well-being (reflective writing that they don’t turn in to me), and finals week prep.
• I also have some in-process activities that I’m still developing. I often tell my students that if they can’t explain a concept to someone else, they don’t fully understand it yet. Early this semester, I assigned groups one term from English 101 and had them come up with a lesson plan and activity to explain the term. Our students are creative! They have first-hand knowledge of what their peers are thinking and how they learn best. I hope to expand this activity next semester.
Some good advice I received from a former colleague, Julia-Scott Dawson, was to change the course theme/topic when it got boring to teach. My theme for English 101 is health and wellness related. Specifically, we analyze and intervene in a debate about the ketogenic or “keto” diet. I didn’t choose to completely change my course topic this semester, but I did choose some new sources, and it’s been more enjoyable. In English 101, my students encounter a myriad of genres: recipes, blogs, social media accounts, commercials, newspaper and magazine articles, scholarly sources, to name a few. I start with sources that are easier to digest (pun intended) to let them gain confidence.
This semester, I reverse engineered my course schedule for the first time. I took everything out, put the deadlines in, and then went through and decided what the “necessities” are for English 101. Reframing my own understanding of the course gave me a bit more space to create new content.
What do you recommend as resources for those wanting more information about incorporating assignments/activities like these in their classroom? Do you have some favorite sources that you can suggest?
Honestly, the best resource I would suggest is to talk to young people. Try to get in touch with what their interests and motivations are. I try to stay vaguely aware of what’s happening in pop culture. #FreeBritney was big a few months ago and now Zendaya and Tom Holland’s relationship has captured attention. Even if I’m not on top of every trend (I’ll never understand TikTok), speaking a little bit of the language of my students is helpful in getting them to engage. This might be a bit easier for me since I lecture at UTK and run a young adult group at my church, so I’m surrounded by young people a lot of the time, but it really does help.
I create all of my own lessons, because for some reason my brain cannot wrap around someone else’s lesson plan. That being said, a great resource I have found is looking at what my peers do
in their classes. Maybe I don’t replicate it, but I still learn from it. I also like to ask my colleagues about their activities: What worked well? What didn’t? I borrow what makes sense for me and reshape it for my courses.
I also like to think back to what helped me learn in college. What did my professors do that made me a better writer or student overall? My professors asked a lot of questions. They encouraged me just as often as they gave constructive feedback. They gave me space to be curious. They expected excellence. They had a sense of humor—I had a religion professor who would spend the first 5 minutes of our 8 a.m. class every Tuesday and Thursday morning telling us a story about the weird things his young kids did on a daily basis.
We have access to a lot of course-building materials on the First Year Composition Canvas page, so that’s been quite useful.
Sometimes when I get stuck on lesson planning, I take a step back and think about how I could create a lesson that would be entertaining for me to teach. Chances are if I enjoy teaching it, my students will enjoy it as well. Have fun with it. Take the pressure off.
I understand not everyone (student or instructor) thrives in a creative space. However, I do believe every field requires some degree of creativity, just under a variety of different names: innovation, entrepreneurship, experimentation, process improvement, etc. The best way I can equip my students is to give them a framework for understanding concepts on their own. FYC at UTK lets them learn how to wield their curiosity in effective ways.