Sunday, July 22, 2012

Writing for the Course

Professor Rabkin's comments on writing for the course get to the heart of what really intrigues me about the Coursera model and how it can help students share their thoughts and ideas with each other. Here is a quote from his remarks in the "Writing for the Course" video:
For now what we need to understand is that your audience and purpose is to enrich the reading. So, if you've been able to read for this course and come to a deeper understanding than someone else about your subject while someone else has come to a deeper understanding of some other subject, you are able to enrich that person's reading, that person is able to enrich your reading and by reading each other's work, you collectively get more and more out of the same material.
Apparently the way this will work is that each week we write a brief (very brief!) essay, while also having the chance to read the essays of four other students in the class. I am really looking forward to seeing how the courseware faciliates this process.

Student to student engagement and the purpose of writing is something that continually challenges me as an online instructor myself, and I am optimistic that the online environment really CAN make it possible for students to share and learn with each other far more intensively and effectively than in the traditional classroom.

Of course, the situation with this course is VERY different from the courses I teach. As I see it, Professor Rabkin is very lucky - the students taking this course are here by choice, and they are probably quite passionate about the subject matter. This is not the case with the classes I teach. Some students enroll in my classes out of a passion for the subject matter, but most of the students enroll because they need an upper-division Gen. Ed. Humanities course in order to graduate, and an online course is the easiest to schedule. Plus, my course has the reputation for being a lot of fun (although also a lot of work), so I get a lot of students who choose the course as the "lesser of two evils" as it were. Many students in my courses do not like to read (some will even openly state that they hate to read; they would never be able to keep up with the reading load Professor Rabkin has set for this class), and many of them lack basic writing skills, not to mention the kind of interpretive and analytical skills that Professor Rabkin clearly expects the students in this class to have mastered already.

As a result of their lack of skills and lack of cultural background, the students in my classes do not like writing analytical essays and they do not enjoy reading such essays written by their fellow students. So, I have instead focused my classes on storytelling and re-telling the stories we read for class in new and creative ways. This works very nicely! Students can use the storytelling skills they have acquired from other movies and television, even if they do not read a lot of books. They enjoy reading the stories written by other students, and learn a lot about storytelling from those other students. I also really enjoy reading their writing and get a strong sense of each student as an individual personality from this highly personalized style of writing. So, for my classes, where the students are not interested in analytical writing and are not well trained in those skills, the storytelling option has worked out great.

In Professor Rabkin's class, though, the situation is different - and I am looking forward to seeing what will result from this style of sharing. I also really appreciate his focus on short-form writing; that is something we definitely have in common! The writing assignments in my class also have strict upper-word limits in order to try to get the students to focus on sharing their best and most important ideas, rather than going on and on and on (as happens in so much academic writing). Of course, as an academic, I am prone to go on and on and on and on, so the 300-word limit is going to work very well for me, too, in terms of the material I share with the rest of the class.

So... much excitement in all kinds of ways. I have one more introductory video to watch (or, rather, transcript to read)... I feel like a little kid on the first day of school with all this. So much fun to embark on a new learning adventure! :-)


  1. Hi Laura. It's interesting how you improvise reading and writing to suit your group of students. I also encounter this same type of students in my teaching. I understand the challenge to get them interested instead of approaching the coursework like it's an enormous Mt. Everest climb.

    Your excitement is contagious.

    Christine Chan

  2. Thanks for your comment, Christine! I'll confess to having moved farther and farther away from analytical writing in my classes, but I am hoping that the Coursera course might reinvigorate my interest in the essay format. Maybe as I become more aware of my own process in writing these little essays, I will think of some good ways to help my students master this style of writing, esp. for those students who do want to work on their analytical writing. I really enjoy helping them develop their ficiton-writing techniques... but essays can be fun, too. I am looking forward to having this structured writing experience in such a great social setting! :-)

  3. I've been participating in collectivist moocs, which have been more about teaching and learning than subject specific. After reading about this wave, I'm taking this to see first hand how the platform and course design work, especially for writing and peer grading, with an eye to adaptation. Student mix and motivation make a big difference. I'm waiting to see how first round of peer responses turn out. The level of energy and enthusiasm is encouraging.

  4. Hi Vanessa, I'm definitely more of the constructivist persuasion myself, but since that still seems to be very much the minority approach (alas!), I wanted to try this out just to see what is possible. I sure am frustrated by the lack of any personal presence in the course - no profile pages for the participants, clunky discussion board, anonymous peer feedback... but the content is indeed fantastic and could promote some good energy and enthusiasm from the participants - enough, I hope, to overcome the impersonality of the platform itself. Fingers crossed! It is nice to meet you!



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