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Spotlight on First-Year Composition: Allison Clymer

Allison Clymer, one of our graduate teaching associates, speaks about her successful teaching practices.

Allison Clymer

Allison Clymer is a Ph.D. candidate and graduate teaching associate in the English department. Her dissertation focuses on gothic, transnational ecologies in Victorian fiction. She is currently the Assistant Director of Composition at UTK and was the recipient of the 2018 John C. Hodges Excellence in Teaching Award. She earned her M.A. in 2013 and B.A. in 2011, both from Bucknell University.

The Composition Office recently interviewed her about the revision strategies she teaches in her classes.

 

Our interview follows:

 

Could you tell us a bit about your revision policy? How many papers do you allow your students to revise and how do you grade them? Do students have to meet with you or how do students take advantage of this opportunity?

My revision policy is similar to the department’s in that students are allowed to revise two of their first three papers, and the revision process requires a meeting with me and a revision memo. The revision memo I require students to complete, however, is a bit more extensive. When students decide they want to revise their papers, they must first complete two paragraphs of a revision memo. The first paragraph asks them to reflect on the in-text and end comment feedback they received from me, describing what they understand they need to work on, as well as any other problems they noticed when rereading their papers. The second paragraph then asks them to map out a revision plan, discussing where they intend to start and what they intend to prioritize. Students are then required to hold a meeting with me where they present their revision plans. After the meeting, they then add a third paragraph to their revision memo in which they describe any new insights or changes this meeting brought to their revision plan.

I was initially worried that a more complicated revision memo process would deter students from revising their essays, but it’s actually had the opposite effect. The number of students who revise their papers has doubled, going from a fourth to over half of the class, and these students’ original grades were across the spectrum.

What I’ve seen is that students feel more confident about the revision process and take ownership of their writing goals. By attending these meetings with a revision plan, students are challenged to take the lead on their revisions. They also often come prepared with questions and ideas that enable us to be more specific and focused in our discussions.

In the past, many students would come to these meetings without having thought about how they’d go about revising their papers, and some hadn’t even read over their papers since they originally turned it in. The beginning of these meetings were spent waiting for them to reread their papers or going through the feedback together, and the meetings would end up achieving little beyond me restating what I already told them through my written feedback.

Having students come with a revision memo asks students to more actively engage in their revision process, and it has transformed these meetings into more student-led, productive discussions where I see students really progress and grow as writers.

 

How do you teach revision in your classes? Do you have certain strategies that you model for them? How do you teach which issues are a priority when revising?

Reverse Outlining a Paper Draft

My favorite revision tool, particularly to teach first-year students, is reverse-outlining. It’s something I was taught in a writing-intensive class when I was an undergraduate at Bucknell University, and it changed everything for me as a writer. I actually still use reverse outlining to revise my own work.

To reverse outline, students take their paper drafts and number the body paragraphs. On a separate sheet of paper, they then write a short-hand version of the major claim of each paragraph in that order. Reverse outlining helps students understand how to make clearer, more complex arguments that progress toward a larger claim rather than simply list reasons to support that claim. It also helps them to think about paper organization in a more complex way, pushing them beyond an over-reliance on transition words such as “also” and “additionally.” For a more in-depth explanation of reverse outlining, I highly recommend Duke University Writing Studio’s guide.

I love the Duke University’s description of reverse outlining as the “Swiss army knife of revising.” It’s very appropriate as it has so many uses for students, even beyond paper writing. They can also reverse outline advanced academic texts as a way to better understand a scholar’s larger argument and the ways their smaller claims fit into it.

Using a Reverse Outline to Improve a Progressive Thesis

Once they’ve completed a reverse outline, I also show them how they can use it to create a progressive thesis to make sure their paper has a clear logic. Their introduction can then serve as a road map for this argument progression.

In high school, students are often taught to write in a five-paragraph style, with an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Theses for five-paragraph essays often feature a three-pronged thesis: Claim because reason, reason, and reason. This is a great tool for students learning how to write argumentative essays, but our goal as first-year writing instructors is to teach them how to construct more complex and sophisticated arguments.

During their fall semester, first-year students are sometimes frustrated when they’re told they need to get away from some of the ways they were taught to write in high school. I’ve found that by learning these revision strategies, students feel more confident about attempting more advanced forms of organization and argument development. It makes academic writing seem less daunting because they’re starting from a familiar place.

I recently worked with a student during a paper conference and taught her how to do this by having her write her thesis in a 5-paragraph essay style, then using her reverse outline to create a draft of a progressive thesis. Although this thesis still needs work, I feel like it serves as a good example of how to use reverse outlining to teach progressive theses:

thesis

 

What are some common mistakes students make when they revise? How can teachers guide students in avoiding those same mistakes?

As part of the revision memo, I ask students to describe their revision plan, including what they will revise, in order of priority. This helps me see at the start of the revision meeting whether they’re focusing on bigger issues. It’s common for students to start revising by changing grammatical and spelling errors, so their revision plan serves as a useful starting point for a conversation about prioritizing larger concerns. In class, before each paper is due, I also ask students to tell me, in a class discussion or in-class writing, what they believe to be the three categories on the rubric that will have the most impact on their final paper grade. This is a good way to begin that conversation, and I’ve found the revision plan to be a useful way to reinforce it.

 

Do you have any other suggestions for teachers who offer revision opportunities for their students? Any particular strategies to get more students to revise?

In addition to having students write revision memos and teaching reverse outlining and progressive theses, I also suggest building more revision into homework and in-class assignments. Like anything, revision takes practice, and this practice gets students used to revising so that it feels familiar by the time they’re facing a full paper revision. For example, as an in-class activity I gave students back their proposals for their academic position papers and asked them to revise them with specific goals in mind. Most students made significant improvements during that time, and afterwards, several students commented that they felt like that in-class opportunity to revise was incredibly helpful.

 

 

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