This fall, I’m fortunate to be teaching one of my favorite classes again: our junior-level composition course. I taught it for the first time last fall (2013) and it was a genuinely excellent growing experience for me. My first time not teaching first-years, my first time having students who were my age or significantly older than me, my first time being able to really craft an overall course and assignment sequence the way I wanted. What freedom!

It went very well last year, so I’ve mostly been reusing the materials and the same schedule. But this year, I made one crucial change based on feedback from students last fall, and I’m not sure how it’s working. It doesn’t seem like much, but I feel like it’s making a significant impact on student learning this semester.

I sped up the readings for our first project, assigning students two articles on discourse/discourse communities per class meeting, rather than just one. I also added another set of readings specifically on discourse analysis.

In my first iteration of this class, students said in the course evals that the class moved a little slow for them, and even in class discussions in the fall it had seemed like we were spending more time than we needed to cover the important concepts of a given reading.

For reference, these are the readings we did last fall (in the order we read them):

  • Swales, John. “The Concept of Discourse Community.” Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. Boston: Cambridge UP, 1990. 21-32. Print.
  • Gee, James Paul. “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction.” Journal of Education 171.1 (1989): 5-17. Print.
  • Johns, Ann M. “Discourse Communities and Communities of Practice: Membership, Conflict, and Diversity.” Text, Role, and Context: Developing Academic Literacies. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 51-70. Print.
  • Wardle, Elizabeth. “Identity, Authority, and Learning to Write in a New Workplace.”  Enculturation 5.2 (2004): n.pag. Web.

What I personally didn’t like about this sequence is that we discussed our last reading the day they had an outline of their own drafts due, so Wardle kind of got the shaft, even though I think this was the most helpful reading in terms of what I was expecting my students to do.

So this fall, I sped things up a bit, adding a new reading in the middle:

  • Swales, John. “The Concept of Discourse Community.” Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. Boston: Cambridge UP, 1990. 21-32. Print.
  • Gee, James Paul. “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction.” Journal of Education 171.1 (1989): 5-17. Print.
  • —. “Building Tasks.” An Introduction to Discourse Analysis: Theory and Method. 2nd Ed. London & New York: Routledge, 2005. 10-19. Web
  • —. “Tools of Inquiry and Discourses.” An Introduction to Discourse Analysis: Theory and Method. 2nd Ed. London & New York: Routledge, 2005.; 20-34. Web.
  • Johns, Ann M. “Discourse Communities and Communities of Practice: Membership, Conflict, and Diversity.” Text, Role, and Context: Developing Academic Literacies. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 51-70. Print.
  • Wardle, Elizabeth. “Identity, Authority, and Learning to Write in a New Workplace.”  Enculturation 5.2 (2004): n.pag. Web.

A number of new issues happened: we didn’t get through all of the material to cover every day (50 minute classes!), and there was no time for us to go from discussing the important points of the readings to putting these ideas into practice. I remember a lot more full-class discussion happening last year than this year.

I also think students weren’t grasping the material as well, and these issues were exacerbated each class meeting. Of course, I didn’t realize this was a problem until I started reading projects and it was too late to do anything about it. My various check-in procedures led me to believe students were understanding the concepts more than I think they actually were.

For example, regardless of how many times we discussed that communication is the defining feature of a discourse community, many of them seemed to miss that. In their analyses of their own discourse communities, several failed to discuss how the group communicates at all, and some of them who did talk about this feature did so shallowly or in a way that showed they didn’t quite understanding the reading material they were references (specifically, Swales’s schema for deciding if something is, in fact, a discourse community).

I think the next time I teach this, I will remove Gee’s readings on discourse analysis. I really don’t feel like it helped students in these classes any, and I would rather not overload them with dense theoretical readings if they aren’t able to apply the key points of the more straightforward ones. I may also go back to discussing each reading individually (especially if it’s a 50-minute class) rather than pairing them.

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