Skip to content

Spotlight on First-Year Composition: Staci Conner, Marisa Stickel, and John Nichols

Staci Conner, Marisa Stickel, and John Nichols, some of our experienced graduate teaching associates, speak about their successful teaching practices.

The Composition Office recently interviewed them to find out more about their experiences teaching Unit 4 of English 101 and how they introduce multimodel projects to their students.


Staci Conner

Staci Poston Conner is a Ph.D. candidate and graduate teaching associate in the English Department. Her dissertation focuses on confinement and liminality in Gothic literature of the nineteenth century. She is currently the editorial assistant for Victorians Institute Journal. She is the recipient of the 2018-2019 Thomas Fellowship and Oscar Roy Ashley Fellowship from the Graduate School. She earned her M.A. from the University of Tennessee in 2014 and her B.A. from Francis Marion University in 2012.


Marisa Stickel

Marisa Stickel is a second-year Ph.D. student, specializing in 20th Century American Literature with interests in feminist studies, spatial theory, cognitive science, and embodiment. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English and French from Fairmont State University, and a Master of Arts in English and Women’s and Gender Studies from The University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Before teaching at UTK, Marisa held various positions in Student Affairs and Campus Life, and her experiences in these roles have cultivated her student-centered pedagogy.


John Nichols

John 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.


Our interview follows:

 Could you tell us a bit about your English 101 class and what you assign as the Unit 4 project? Does this project hinge on the course topic (and preceding assignments) or is it something that is completely new/separate? How do you introduce this unit to your students?

Staci: My English 101 class is based around a space theme. We talk about current debates ranging from humans becoming a multi-planetary species to Elon Musk’s controversial launch of his Tesla Roadster into space this past February. For the Unit 4 project, which is about creating an effective argument for a public audience, my students make survival guide webpages. This is somewhat linked to our course topic with the idea of “surviving.” This project, however, offers students the opportunity to explore something new if they are tired of reading and writing about space at this point in the semester.

For this assignment, the students have three topic options: How to Survive English 101, How to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse, or “choose your own adventure.” One of the major goals of this unit is audience analysis, so the students must determine which specific public audience they will be targeting. For example, an English 101 survival guide could address future UTK English 101 students or narrow it down specifically to incoming freshmen taking the course with me as the instructor. Similarly, students who choose to create a zombie apocalypse survival guide must make decisions about who to address—UTK students, East Tennesseans, residents of a certain dorm on campus—because specific public audiences are key to this assignment. The “choose your own adventure” option gets chosen quite a lot, as students tend to be excited to branch out and share their personal expertise by this point in the semester—the options here are pretty much limitless, but this one does require pre-approval. I’ve seen projects ranging from “How to Survive a Wisconsin Winter” to “How to Survive Bonnaroo” to “How to Survive Your First Tennessee Football Game.” It’s really amazing to see what they come up with and how much they know about these topics.


Marisa: Having a Student Affairs mindset, my pedagogy encourages students to value their experiences and backgrounds. I think students can learn the transfer process better if it begins from a personal place. Toward the end of the semester, I knew that I wanted to allow my students to choose their own genres so that my students could feel confident learning the material, while also having a sense of agency in their education.

Because we had been discussing social media for the majority of the semester, transitioning to Unit 4 was fairly simple. For Unit 4, students were instructed to transfer their position paper into a genre intended for public consumption.

After having previously taught genre conventions and working with the concept of “transfer,” I thought that Unit 4 felt the most natural for my students. They felt confident working with the conventions of their chosen genre, and I received projects in a variety of formats: Twitter, Podcasts, Instagram, Facebook, Reddit, Video PSAs, Spoken Word Poetry, and Letters to Government officials.


John: Unit 4 in my 101 course is usually an extension of the Unit 3 position paper for an academic audience. Doing so allows me to prioritize teaching genre constraints and transfer of skills across genres. I usually assign a hybrid project that involves both writing and speaking to further emphasize genre knowledge and transfer of skills. The hybrid project consists of a written document appropriate for a WordPress blog and a spoken portion appropriate for a podcast themed on the course topic or related issues. I introduce this unit to my students by having them read blog posts and listen to podcasts that cover the same topic, and I have students conduct a genre analysis of each as they read/listen.


With this genre likely being new to your students, how do you settle their fears in trying something new? Do you give them examples to follow or how do you guide them in writing this assignment?

Staci: Examples are key for this assignment. I tell them that the best way to figure out how to make their survival guide is to look at examples of others. I think this actually appears twice on the assignment sheet! We spend a day in class where I provide examples of survival guides and we complete a genre analysis worksheet. Then the students must find their own examples. We continuously discuss the common features of this new genre—what distinguishing characteristics appear again and again? These reappearing characteristics guide them in knowing what to include—or not include—in their own projects.

When I first introduce the assignment and say the word “webpage,” the students are usually a little worried. So far, their papers have been written using some word processing software and then printed out, so we’re moving pretty far away from what we’ve been doing all semester. They’re uncertain about creating this thing, about making it public (rather than just writing a paper only the teacher will read), and submitting a URL for such a large grade rather than handing me a physical paper. To deal with these concerns, we spend a lot of time working on this project in class. I have step-by-step guides for using for creating their survival guide, and we do in-class troubleshooting for problems ranging from logging in the first time to hyperlinking to outside sources.


Marisa: Because most of my students are frequent social media users and very familiar with other multimodal genres, this unit requires very little instruction from me. I think this is my favorite part. Not that I am intentionally leaving them to their own devices, or letting them flounder, but it allows me the option to give them space and provide guidance as necessary. I often use a flipped-classroom model, and I think this final unit works well with my own teaching practices. I am encouraging a student-centered classroom and letting them work through own interests, yet still being available to offer guidance and direction throughout the process.

Although students are generally comfortable using multimodal genres, there is some uncertainty about transferring from an academic audience to a public audience. By discussing their own public genre usage and asking them to find examples on their own, we talk through the conventions of specific genres and what it means to be a user in that particular mode.


John: I have found that students tend to be fairly comfortable with learning to use new-to-them technologies. Though they may not know exactly how to use WordPress or the voice recording software native to their computers or phones, I find that after showing them how to use the technology (by creating my own blog post and recording) they take to it rather quickly. I do assure them, though, that I won’t be sharing their voice recordings and that I will be the only one to listen to them. They do seem hesitant and timid to engage in speech. We, of course, do a genre analysis of examples that I find and bring to class, and I have them do some analysis of examples they find on their own, starting with simple questions like “What did you enjoy about the style of this piece?” and “What makes this genre attractive to you?”


How do your students respond to this assignment? What are some particular challenges/successes students may experience when working with a new genre such as the one(s) in this assignment?

Staci: The students’ first reaction to this assignment tends to be worry. The initial response is something along the lines of, “I have no idea how to create a webpage from scratch. What did I get myself into? This lady must be crazy.” There is always an interesting moment, though, where they move from skeptical to excited. When they realize they can cater this project to their own knowledge and talk about something they are already experts about, the ideas start forming and they get excited. This usually happens somewhere around going over the topic possibilities on the assignment sheet and doing the genre analysis worksheet. This stage requires a bit of reassuring, as I get questions such as, “I can really make a listicle like this website example?” and “I can really write about surviving football training camp and include pictures I took this summer?”

Students tend to be worried about the technological aspects of creating a webpage, but that challenge is usually minimal—it’s easier than it seems. The big challenge with this assignment is learning the new genre. I chose survival guide webpages because they are fairly straightforward in purpose, most people will have encountered this genre before, and the necessity of determining a specific audience is very clear. However, I think that because this looks and feels so different than the previous papers, students are a bit trepid about the genre as a whole at first.

One success that tends to arise with this assignment is student excitement the first time they preview or publish the webpage. When they move from the editing page to seeing what the product looks like “live,” there is a sense of pride. And because this assignment is in a genre somewhat familiar to others, the students tend to want to share their work—they get excited about the number of page views and ask if they can do things like share it with their friends on Twitter.


Marisa: The best part of this assignment is the fact that students have the freedom to work with a genre they are familiar with. Students feel a sense of agency in completing a project that is linked to a cultural issue they’re invested in. Based on student reflections and discussion, the biggest hardship they face is learning to modify their academic language to the conventions of their chosen genre.


John: Students have generally responded well to this assignment, and I have found that the biggest challenge for students has been making sure they 1) turn the separate pieces in and 2) they use the technology correctly. I have obviated these concerns by having students embed the audio files onto their blog post pages—though they sometimes forget to do so. Additionally, one issue students have is being able to articulate how the writing they’re doing compares to the speech they are producing. One thing that has helped to get past this difficulty has been having them study their own speech and writing patterns to help them see how writing is different than speaking—that, typically, we don’t speak the way we write.


Do you have any suggestions for teachers who want to try using a multimedia assignment for this unit?

Staci: Do reserve class time for work. This is a project that requires help along the way, and what exactly that help is varies from person to person depending on their technological skill. Some students can figure out using Blogger all by themselves (some even opt to build their webpages on other platforms such as WordPress or Wix), while others need more guidance on aspects like formatting text, inserting hyperlinks, and captioning graphics. It is much easier to provide this guidance in class where you can both look at the same computer screen rather than trying to do it over email.

With that in mind, do familiarize yourself with what you want the students to use. I chose Blogger because they can log in with their UTK credentials and its interface is fairly straightforward, and I feel comfortable offering basic tech support for Blogger-related questions.

And do be clear about grading. I provide a detailed rubric for my students (and myself!) so that expectations are clear. This is especially important with this assignment because aspects like source use and tone are so different from the first three papers. For example, with this genre, writers tend to hyperlink sources rather than provide a formal MLA Works Cited page, and they often use a less-than-academic tone. The rubric reinforces these ideas, reminding students that this project is supposed to look and sound different than previous papers.


Marisa: Many students expressed uncertainty about how to make their project resemble their intended genre. For example, several of my students wanted to create a Twitter feed, but they were hesitant to actually post their tweets, so it took some time for them to figure out how to create a mock Twitter feed for submission. Overall, though, by allowing Unit 4 to be more open-ended, students find working with an area of familiarity helpful and useful. It also reiterates the significance of transfer and what it means to adapt to genre conventions.


John: The best advice I can give for teachers wanting to try out multimedia projects is the advice that I was given: experiment and play. Don’t be afraid to try something new out or to have your students try it out. Yes, you’ll have to learn the tech/genre constraints/etc., but you’ll have added a new tool to your teaching kit. Part of that experimentation led me to use Adobe Spark in my class this semester, at the recommendation of Dr. Ringer—so if you’re interested in doing a multimedia project, I’d also recommend using Spark because you will be able to have students include everything from text to audio to video to images all on a single webpage.

The flagship campus of the University of Tennessee System and partner in the Tennessee Transfer Pathway.