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Spotlight on First-Year Composition: John Nichols

John Nichols, one of the nominees for the Experienced GTA John C. Hodges Excellence in Teaching Award, speaks about his successful teaching practices.John NicholsJohn Nichols is a third-year Ph.D. student, studying 20th-century American literature. He is interested in the relationship between ethics, aesthetics, and various ecosystems, especially as this relationship appears in American poetry.

The Composition Office recently interviewed him to find out more about the improv-type class activities he leads in his composition courses.


Our interview follows:


Could you tell us about how you started using improv-type activities in some of your FYC courses? Which are among your favorite class activities?

I started using improv-type activities in my FYC courses after joining a local, UT improv workshop and performance group. After learning some of the basic techniques used in improvisational comedy, I realized that these games and theoretical models would have potentially successful application to teaching pedagogy within an FYC classroom.

There’s a rule in improv: never say, “No,” to an offer; always say, “Yes, and.” Adapting this rule to my classroom has been one of my favorite and most successful ways to keep students talking and to limber them up for discussion and writing. Asking my students, “Yes, and what else?” is a less intimidating way of getting them to come to terms with the bigger “So what?” types of analysis we want them to consider in their writing.

Other games I use can get them thinking about the strength and validity of other people’s arguments and help them to be more associative in both their writing and discussion. To keep them on track, however, I make sure to provide students with more strict parameters for the activity than a normal improv workshop would.


How do you decide which research concepts need a class activity to teach versus a lecture or a discussion? Or do you have some lessons that combine all three?

To decide what research and writing concepts need class activities versus a lecture or discussion, I tend to think in “big picture” terms. If a concept is essential, say something like the logos appeal or what archival research is and isn’t, I tend to keep a tighter reign on the class at first and use a combination of lecture and discussion to help my students arrive at a knowledge of the concept I’m teaching that day. This tends to work, especially if the concept is theory-heavy or brand new to the students (like archival research).

But, I never use just one method. I always try to incorporate discussion with lecture and lecture with activities. This is especially important for me when students need to learn a concept in a voice that isn’t mine or the textbook’s. So I’ll have them do a guided worksheet or activity that is jargon-free and leads them to, at the very least, a basic knowledge of the concept being covered that day. This has worked especially well when I teach the rhetorical appeals using tweets about Nickelback (or T. Swift).


When you conduct class activities, how do you break up your students into groups? Do you assign them partners/group members or do you allow them to choose? What is the advantage of doing so?

Usually, I break up students into groups by giving them the number of people per group and let them group themselves, especially early in the semester. However, if I notice that the students keep getting off track in their current groups, I will be more hands-on the next time we do group work in order to remove that distraction from the students. If that occurs, I usually use a sequential numbering method to have students count off and group themselves by number.

Only occasionally will I intentionally group certain students together, especially if the exercise warrants it; for example, when my students conduct qualitative research, I will often group students by their proposed interests so that they can more effectively decide on good research questions and instruments.

I find that this hands-off method of grouping students allows them to be more open and comfortable and more likely to share the results of their activity with the class, since much of the time students are able to group themselves with people that they already know. I also like this method because it helps those who don’t know anybody in the class get to know other people. This method also gives students more responsibility and agency within the classroom, which is important for students to have.


Do you have any other tips for teachers who want to start incorporating more class activities into their curriculum? Any advice on getting started? 

The best advice I can give for teachers who want to start using more class activities in their curriculum is to, well, improvise! If something seems remotely interesting or applicable to teaching practice, try it. That’s how I discovered improvisational techniques work. Don’t be afraid to experiment with activities; if they fail, then they fail, and you’ve learned something in the process.

It’s been my experience that what works in one class doesn’t always work well in another class, so try things and toss what doesn’t work at all. Sometimes—most of the time—the activity you do in class won’t come off without a hitch or be the prettiest thing in the world, but if it accomplishes the goals that you set out for the class, then it’s a success.

The important thing to remember is to know what your goals are for the class and the activity that forms part of that class. There’s nothing worse, for students or teachers, than to have an activity that seems disconnected or isolated from the topic or course goals. If you know the goals and the students know the goals, then there’s something to aim for and something to accomplish. If using more activities in the classroom is something you want to do, I’ve found that the best way to get started is to do some small, simple things to get comfortable with that shift from you to the students of the burden of learning and to use your fellow teachers as resources. Many of our activities have been inherited from someone else who has done it, and we are happy to share!

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