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Spotlight on First-Year Composition: Myles McDonough, Erin Elizabeth Whitaker, and Brooke Clark

Nominees for the New GTA John C. Hodges Excellence in Teaching Award speak about their successful teaching practices.

Every year, the Composition Office offers a number of teaching awards. These awards are based on a class visit and a teaching portfolio composed of syllabi, assignments, handouts, course evaluation cores, and graded student papers.

Myles McDonough, Erin Elizabeth Whitaker, and Brooke Clark were all nominated for the New GTA John C. Hodges Excellence in Teaching Award.

The Composition Office recently interviewed them to find out more about their English 102 courses and the exceptional work they do in the classroom.


Our interview follows:


Could you tell us a bit about your English 102 topics, and why you chose to teach these themes?

Myles: My 102 course topic was Inquiry into Meditation. I chose this topic for a few reasons. Firstly, I am personally interested in studying meditation as practiced by different groups of people at different times throughout history, and I felt that my enthusiasm for the topic would help create an engaging classroom experience for my students. Besides this, I felt that the topic lent itself well to the requirements of the 102 curriculum, as there are plenty of journal articles and archival materials for the students to reference while completing the Secondary Source, Archival, and Qualitative research units.


Erin Elizabeth WhitakerErin: My topic for English 102 was Inquiry into Fantasy. During my apprenticeship year, my mentor, Allison Clymer, taught Inquiry into Myths & Monsters, and I saw how fun and engaging such a creative topic could be for our students. I knew that I wanted to teach something similar. I decided on fantasy which is such an interesting topic because it allows my students to be very creative with their research—it allows them to make connections between concepts and ideas they never would have considered before. For example, I had a nursing student write her Secondary Source research paper on the importance of escapism and unstructured play for children (especially those dealing with trauma) and how fantasy can serve as a vehicle for that. I just love seeing how creative my students can be in their research and showing them that research can be fun if they are working with a topic that is significant to them in some way.


Brooke ClarkBrooke: My English 102 topic was Inquiry into Gender and Sexuality. Ultimately, the course examined how gender and sexuality shapes individual, social, cultural, and political experience and asks whether gender and sexuality have clear classifications or lie on an indefinite, ever-shifting spectrum. I chose the topic because it is a great critical approach to pair with the writing and research objectives of English 102. The subject matter links to student’s academic interests and professional pursuits. It’s also a topic that connects to everyone in some way, as our gender and sexuality identities constantly and even unnoticeably affect us while we move throughout the world. I think it’s crucial for students to be aware of how they situate themselves and others in society, how society situates them and others, and the complicated relationship between the two.


How do you arrange your research units in English 102, and why do you organize them this way?

Myles: I taught the Secondary Source paper first, the Archival research paper second, and the Qualitative research unit last. This arrangement allowed me to frame the students’ work over the course of the semester in terms of expanding scholarly responsibility. In the first unit, students were simply entering an already robust academic conversation—they were citing from and commenting upon established secondary sources. In the Archival unit, the students had the added goal of working with primary sources. Finally, in the Qualitative research unit, the students had to design and implement a research project in order to generate the raw data necessary to produce their papers.


Erin: I chose to begin with the Qualitative unit, followed by the Archival unit, and end with the Secondary Source unit. I chose this arrangement for a number of reasons. First, it moves students from the genre that they are likely least familiar with to the genre they are most familiar with. I find that this reinforces the importance of understanding genre—a theme I focus on in both English 101 and English 102. Second, I think that it is beneficial for students to examine the way others feel about the course topic before moving into their own research. I feel that this allows them to take different viewpoints and attitudes into consideration before beginning their Archival and Secondary Source research. Finally, I believe that after encountering different forms of research in the Qualitative unit and the Archival unit, students produce better quality Secondary Source research papers. Instead of writing the same kind of research paper they wrote in English 101, they are more prepared to diversify their research and think about it more critically.


Brooke: I did the Archival unit first, followed by the Qualitative unit, and then finally the Secondary Source unit. I organized them in this manner because I thought giving students historical contexts concerning gender and sexuality would be an effective way to begin the course. For the Qualitative unit, students took their Archival unit’s research question and reframed it for the present context and a particular group of interviewees. Transitioning from the Qualitative unit to the Secondary Source unit, their Qualitative research question is restructured to fit an academic context. The logic behind the organization is to see what the past actually tells us about gender and sexuality and then how this new knowledge informs public and academic notions of gender and sexuality. This arrangement also provided clear links and differences among archival, qualitative, and scholarly secondary source research. Overall, I think the organization of the course fit well with the course objectives and subject matter.


What do you feel is the most impactful unit in English 102, and what class activities do you use to help teach this unit?

Myles: The Qualitative research unit is likely the most alien to incoming students, most of whom have at least some exposure to the kind of writing necessary for the Secondary Source paper, and some of whom have experience doing Archival research. I take a much more “hands-on” approach to this unit than to the others, having students perform exercises which prepare them for eventual field work. Last semester, during a lesson about the Qualitative research technique of observation, I pulled up YouTube videos of two tai chi classes, one slow-paced and calm, the other fast and high-impact. I had the students take observation notes on the two videos in order to draw conclusions about what goals the different classes might have had, i.e. to promote health vs. to prepare for combat.


Erin: I feel that the Qualitative unit is the most impactful unit in English 102. It shows students that research is not only about regurgitating what others have said on the topic and shows them that they can be researchers themselves. I spend the longest amount of time on this unit, and because of that, we do a lot of in-class activities—especially because much of the work they do for this unit is outside of class. I scaffold their activities to match where they should be in their own research. My students start off by evaluating research questions, then formulating their own. Next, they conduct mock interviews—with questions I have provided—to see what kind of questions are effective in interview settings. After they have conducted their own interviews, I give them sample interviews and teach them to code in groups. I then ask them to read and “grade” sample student papers to give them an idea of the format and content I’m looking for as I grade. Of course, that’s just an overview, and there are many smaller assignments and activities as they work their way to a final draft.


Brooke: I felt that the introduction to the course and Archival unit was the most impactful, mostly because of the topic itself and students realizing that gender and sexuality is not only an incredibly complicated, engaging course of study but even a course of study at all. One of the most beneficial class activities was having my students write down one thing they saw as a positive thing about their gender role along with a negative aspect of it. I compiled them on a PowerPoint slide and just put the categories of “positive” and “negative” rather than gendered categories. Next class, we looked at the slide, and I asked them to figure out which gender coincides with which trait. Students couldn’t definitively discern which trait went to which gender. This exercise helped illustrate that gender roles and their expectations aren’t absolute, concrete ideas but are fluid and affect everyone in positive and negative ways depending on the situation. We discussed the implications of this afterwards and what this means for gender roles and people’s experience of them. This is one of the activities that stuck out to me as an instructor because it dissects complex concepts, which can be intimidating at first, into a visual representation that most can easily grasp.


 Are there any other things you would like to share about your English 102 course? Any lessons/readings/activities that you feel worked well when you taught the course? 

Myles: My lessons which incorporated multimedia elements were among the most successful—even a very brief video or audio file played somewhere in the first half of the class period tended to help students focus throughout the rest of the day. I felt that the video observation activity described above worked so well that I repeated it under a different context later in the semester (using clips of Jedi training from Star Wars to surmise differences in Yoda’s outlook between the prequels and the original trilogy).


Erin: I’m a big believer in reflection. I know it’s not unique to my course, but I feel as if it’s one of the activities I emphasize the most. I typically have them reflect on something (an activity they did in class, their homework, a bigger assignment they’ve just completed) every class meeting. I feel as if just giving them five or ten minutes to stop and think about an activity or assignment, and how it relates to their growth as a writer (and person), is incredibly beneficial to their understanding of the course.


Brooke: At the end of the first day of class, I passed out notecards and had students write down one thing that excites them about the course, one thing that worries them about the course, and if my office hours worked for them. I read them and made a list of concerns for me to address the following class. With the topic in mind, I knew it may be difficult to generate discussion as it is a not only a new but also a potentially sensitive topic. On their notecards, several students noted their anxieties about writing and research. Many students mentioned they wanted to ask questions but did not want offend others, while others were apprehensive about the subject matter and if their interests could be incorporated into the class. The next day, I discussed all their concerns in the most direct and honest way I could. I believe openly addressing and sharing their concerns helped generate engaging, difficult questions and discussions throughout the entire semester.


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