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Spotlight on First-Year Composition: Robin Nicks and Julia McLeod

Robin Nicks and Julia McLeod, two of our experienced lecturers, speak about their successful teaching practices.

The Composition Office recently interviewed them to find out more about their experiences teaching poster design.Robin Nicks

Robin Nicks is a Distinguished Lecturer in the Department of English and previously served as Associate Director of Composition and Interim Director of Composition. She teaches first-year composition sequence courses including English 101, 198, 298, and assorted undergraduate courses in literature, rhetoric, and writing.

Julia McLeod

Julia P. McLeod earned her Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee, where she is currently a full-time lecturer, and she earned her M.A. from Western Carolina University. Her research focuses on the intersections of domestic fiction, economics, property ownership, and entrepreneurship in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American women’s writing. Julia’s publications include “Birdlime: Sticky Entrapments in Renaissance Drama,” published in Renaissance Papers 2011, and “John Stuart Mill’s Liberal Political Economy in Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s The Silent Partner,” in the forthcoming The Artful Representations of Capitalism. A Hodges Excellence in Teaching Award nominee and mentor to Graduate Teaching Associates, she teaches courses in American literature, gender studies, poetry, composition, research, and writing in the workplace.


Our interview follows:


You both assign a poster project in some of your courses. Can you tell us more about this assignment? At what point in the semester do you introduce it and how do you incorporate the poster assignment with the other papers/projects your students work on throughout the semester?

Robin: Right now, I’m doing a poster assignment in English 298, Chancellor’s Honors Writing II. Like all 298 classes, student posters are entered into the EURECA event and competition, so we talk about them from the very first day of class. The assignment is tied to students’ qualitative research articles, representing an overview of the most exciting and important elements of their project and process. They get the assignment sheet itself as they finish the qualitative project so that they can begin thinking about how to represent that information and data in a different form for a different audience. They must use the same IMRAD structure as in the article, but they also have to incorporate visuals and consider design more carefully.


Julia: I have used posters in both English 102 and English 254. In 102, the poster assignment is part of the final project of the semester, the secondary research project, with the goal of creating submissions for the FYC year-end poster contest.  This poster project provides an excellent opportunity to develop students’ skills in visual rhetoric based on the research that they complete for their papers. Since the course is based on an inquiry into food and culture, our readings for this unit investigate current debates such as food waste, industrial food production systems, genetically modified organisms, nutrition on college campuses, food additives, institutional systems of food control, ethical treatment of animals, and appropriation of cultural foods. Students then select debates based on their interests, and I encourage them, when possible, to explore topics related to their fields of study. Not only does this mean that students find topics that interest them (which makes the project more engaging) but the project then introduces them to specific databases and research information sources that they will use as they move into the coursework for their major. Our last day of class is dedicated to this poster exhibition day, in which I set up an “art gallery” of the posters around the room and provide snacks for the students to enjoy (it is a food class, after all) while they evaluate and comment on each poster using short forms that I provide. After the students have evaluated each of the posters, the class then votes on two posters to send to the FYC contest. The wide variety of topics that the students choose makes the final poster presentation gallery an interesting day of learning from each other’s research.

I also used a poster assignment in my English 254: Tennessee Women in Literature course last fall. The posters were a final step in their Text and Context research presentations on individual authors from the semester’s readings. Because one of my goals was to develop a display for Hodges Library, rather than the paper poster assignment that I use for 102, I designed a poster template in PowerPoint with specific colors and format that would assure a cohesive presentation. The students refined their online graphics skills as they completed their posters with research information including the author’s photograph, a short biographical information list, a significant/representative quote from the author’s text, and a 150-200-word assessment of the author’s significant contribution as a Tennessee writer. I then chose the twelve best posters to print and display in Hodges Library in January and February 2018. Not only did this display celebrate the work of my students, but it also introduced the students at UT to the literary heritage of women from the state, a heritage that deserves to be celebrated.

Pictured below: The English 254 Tennessee Women in Literature display at the Hodges Library.254


How do you teach proper poster design in your class? Do you have any lessons/activities/materials that you use to demonstrate proper design/presentation? 

Robin: The first thing we’ve done is look at the EURECA website guidelines and judging criteria. What are they looking for? What does the poster need to include? What are the rules about what goes where, about citation style, size, etc? Those are our basic starting points, and from there, we pull out the templates to start considering which will work best for what they want to show/represent.

I also spend a lot of class time with students examining sample posters and doing genre analysis. I bring in examples from EURECA since they’ll present their work there, but I also show examples from websites for academic conferences, writing centers, and universities to show a range of poster design.

Students first walk through a couple of the samples with me at the front of the class with a projector showing them. We go through formatting, font, structure and organization, content, image use (type, number, etc). In doing this, we start crafting our rubric.

Then, they pair or group up and look over some samples on their own. At this point, they spend as much time critiquing choices as they do making note of the characteristics. They almost create a list of “what not to do” alongside “what to do.”

The next thing is to have them create a design plan, based on the second and third chapters of Compose, Design, Advocate that explains their vision for the poster and how they will design and format it. They must include images they hope to use and explain whether they’re licensed appropriately if they’ve found them in research or online. (We spend a bit of time talking about plagiarism and copyright, so this is important to me that they’re abiding by the rules and laws we’ve covered).

From there, they draft their poster in PowerPoint, we put them up on the projection screen to make sure nothing looks blurry or out of place when blown up, and they review each other’s work.

Finally, students will do a 2-3 minute presentation of their research with their poster on the wall and critique one another’s work more fully.


Julia: In 102, an entire class period near the end of the semester is dedicated to strategies for developing posters with effective first impressions, clear layout and readability, logically presented research content, and MLA formatting accuracy. Our discussion includes a mini-lecture and PowerPoint introduction to basic visual design principles, including an emphasis on the Z-pattern, and best choices for effective layout, images, font, and color. To help the students apply these principles, they then spend time working in groups evaluating student posters that I have collected from previous semesters. (I make sure to remove any biographical information from the posters first). After completing the poster assessment worksheets, the groups present to the class their evaluation of the effective elements of the poster and make suggestions for improving its effectiveness. This in-class activity helps students understand the application of design principles to research arguments on posters, a skill that many will use as they advance in their studies, especially those who pursue research in STEM fields. Seeing other students’ work also provides them with concrete examples on which to base their projects.

The “art gallery” session of the final 102 class day is an enjoyable way to end the semester, but the session also provides reinforcement of the principles of visual rhetoric. With the biographical information of each poster’s creator listed on the back, the evaluation of their peers’ posters focuses on assessing the quality of the presentation rather than on personal feelings about the creator. Having the students complete an evaluation form for each poster provides an opportunity to solidify their understanding of effective visual rhetorical strategies, while also providing a measure of how well the poster appeals to its target audience. I use the feedback from these evaluation forms to assign grades to the posters. Finally, I give the feedback slips to the poster’s creator at exam time so that each student can understand the strengths and suggestions for the poster project.


What are some common mistakes students make on research posters, and how can teachers best guide students in avoiding those mistakes?

Robin: Students want things to “look good,” but often their idea of that leans more toward “Kindergarten Art Project” than it does to “Academic Research Poster.” Reining in those “creative” impulses is one challenge. Helping them consider what the audience wants and needs to hear/see is the other, though it’s certainly related.

Making use of the materials provided in the Rhetoric of Inquiry and those available on CourseSites helps instructors help students, but doing the genre analysis of samples is the best way I’ve found to help students fully understand expectations. Since I started doing this with posters—as well as with papers and other types of projects—students produce much better work.


Julia: Posters are challenging, especially for the students that feel like they are not artistically inclined. This is one reason that having them evaluate sample posters is useful–they can see what is possible and can garner ideas for effective strategies that they feel comfortable incorporating. Some students can create their own images and graphics, but many find this difficult and resort to using images that do not effectively present their argument. Since finding appropriate visual images can be time-consuming, during the research phase, I encourage students to look for images that support their argument and to save them along with the documentation they will need for the poster’s Works Cited page. Saving useful images during the research process provides a starting point for beginning their posters.

One of the biggest mistakes that students make is trying to include large blocks of text rather than summarizing key points of their argument in bullet-point form on the poster. During the writing process for the secondary research paper, I have students create a storyboard to help them organize the progression of their argument using phrases or keywords. Having them return to this storyboard as they create their posters helps them think again about the specific ideas that are the foundation of their argument and provides a focus for organizing the text of their posters.


Do you have any recommendations for instructors teaching poster design for the first time? Any tips on how to make the assignment challenging but fun?

Robin: It’s not a genre most of us are familiar with from our own practice and research, unfortunately, so top recommendation is to familiarize yourself. Find websites, use the materials provided, and spend some time understanding the genre and medium asked of creators/researchers, and talk with people who’ve been teaching it a long time and are doing it well. For instance, Samantha Murphy, a Senior Lecturer, has had students win at one or more levels of each of the poster contests her students have entered for years now. You really should talk with her. I created or adapted the poster materials in the Rhetoric of Inquiry, I’m happy to talk with people. Talk with the Comp Office.  Go to the poster contests and take pictures of the best of them.

It’s a pretty challenging assignment already, I think; it’s so different from what students are used to doing that they get a bit stressed about it. Giving them the chance to present to each other ups the ante a bit, and allowing them to vote on the best posters to be entered into the contests/events gives them more of a stake in things, as does the genre analysis and rubric creation. I also always set aside some class time for them to work on the poster while I’m there to answer questions—I do the same with drafting papers, and it’s been beneficial so that they can ask questions as they think of them.


Julia: As with any assignment, giving students clear guidelines is essential, and posters are no exception. My 102 poster assignment is based on the criteria used for judging the FYC poster contest so that each entry can possibly be chosen to represent our class. Once the specific requirements are established, encourage the students to be creative! I am always delighted by the talents of my students in this project, and I find that having class time devoted to celebrating their work is a rewarding way to end the semester.

For new teachers who do not have sample posters from past semesters, having students examine posters on campus or from movies is an effective way to analyze how arguments are constructed in a visual format. For those planning on teaching posters in future semesters, taking pictures of this year’s winners (the contest is on Reading Day in Hodges Library) can also provide examples of effectively constructed work to show students.

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