Thursday, September 28, 2017

What's in a name?

So what's in a name?

Well, in an OWC, potentially a lot.

Your students' representations of themselves in many LMSs still, especially early in the term, will be that simple sequence of two (or three) words: First name, (middle name), last name. While in some cases they can associate a photo or icon with their identity, names are often how others in the class will initially know who they are.

As a teacher, you should encourage students to use names in constructive ways. This may sound obvious and straightforward, and indeed it is not complex, but you should have strategies to help them do this.

For one, you should encourage them, in any communications they write to you or others, to sign off with the name they would like to be known by in the class. Often, the LMS name is not the name the student goes by. This is easy to address onsite, and students take care of it in first-day introductions. However, students report to me that their LMS names are linked to a school's registrar software, so students' LSM presence is locked in to that identifier. They also tell me that it can be quite an ordeal if they want to change the way their names appear.

They should thus be clear, by signing off, what name they want to be called every time. Because of texting interfaces, they may not be in the habit of signing their names, but you can make it clear that signing off is part of their communications, especially when coupled with a complementary close.

In any dialogic class exchange, you should also encourage/require students to address directly by name whoever they are talking to, be it you or other students.

In fact, I strongly encourage that all posts and communications be identified by sender and recipient. These brief moments of identity reflection also can help them think rhetorically. The communicative narcissism that electronic communication might breed -- the nameless text that implicitly says, "Don't you KNOW who I am?" -- can be disrupted by a teaching-learning environment in which you have to think for a moment not just who you are but with whom you are talking.

They can reinforce their identity in an early term icebreaker, a brief exercise/assignment that might include identifying what they want to be called, and perhaps why. 

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Sunday, July 30, 2017

Digital tools for WPA work

I returned last week from the Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA) conference in Knoxville. During that typically friendly gathering, Colleagues Traci Gardner and Patti Poblete and I (we're all members of the Digital WPA Committee) facilitated a session about digital tools for WPAs.
Based on the number of attendees and their conversational energy, we have a lot of interesting paths to explore in thinking about how WPAs might use educational technology in their work.
Indeed, much of the dialogue about technologies for writing instructional work, even in this blog, is focused on classroom teaching. Of course, that’s appropriate: We do want to focus on how digital tools can help us in our core classroom mission of working with students.
But during our session, when I asked the assembled group about tools for administering programs, they had a lot to say: How might we, the WPAs, the writing experts on campus, use tools to manage our programs and to help in our work, writing across the curriculum (WAC) style, with other faculty?
It strikes me that writing centers are one way of thinking about this, and centers do have a range of tools they use to 1) manage the workflow of writing center work and 2) facilitate online tutoring sessions. The ongoing conversations on the Wcenter listerv show this.
But in other kinds of WPA work, such as our management of programs and, particularly, WAC-type work we do, we might investigate and talk more about tools and the approaches that accompany them.
In Knoxville, one topic we discussed was that similar to how we use the many, many available tools in our teaching (the list that was generated in our session was somewhat staggering [we're still processing the notes]), could we generate more practice and scholarship with tools that come to the forefront in our work with other faculty?
Sure, there are always-present concerns that accompany such cross-campus work. For instance, we could position ourselves well as tech experts in a WAC/WID sense, but then we could see our roles as WPAs morph into instructional designers or tech support people. 
I think if you get into faculty development, it's not a negative to have some instructional design flavor to your work (much like the best instructional designers I've encountered have teacher "blood" in them).
But how many of us have a good mastery of digital tools that we can recommend specific ones to colleagues to help them improve their use of writing in their courses? How many of us even have enough fluency in our own local LMS systems to the degree that we can help faculty use these sometimes-cantankerous-writing-wise systems to teach writing more effectively?
These are all good questions about how WPAs might work, as my colleague Jessie Borgman puts it, as OWPAs, or Online WPAs (1). It appears there is a thread of conversation here that many people are eager to take part in, and we might do more to cultivate it.
1) See "The Online Writing Program Administrator (OWPA): Maintaining a Brand in the Age of MOOCs." Writing and Composing in the Age of MOOCs. Edited by Elizabeth Monske and Kris Blair, 2017.

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Friday, May 26, 2017

Building a prompt III: Some examples

Last time, I wrote about prompt characteristics. Last last time, I wrote about prompt types.
So now that you can really put an eye on it, here are some example prompts to demonstrate how these types and characteristics might manifest themselves. I don't provide a detailed anatomy of the prompts, but I hope they illustrate what I described in my past two posts. 
First, here’s a prompt designed to get students talking about a reading and then exploring how that reading applies to their own work (1):
Allen, frustrations and connections
Hi all,
Allen, in her article, talks about frustration with writing. She talks about myths. She talks about imitation. She talks about connecting with others.
Did any of her advice particularly resonate with you? What myths about writing have you held in your life? Do you believe in “the Inspired Writer” or something like it? Have your struggles with writing changed, even in the course of this year?
Looking forward to reading these,
Prof. Warnock
Here is another prompt focused on a reading. This was a challenging reading, so I provided students with increasing layers of complexity, ending with an invitation for them to think more broadly about the topics raised in that piece:
Activity Theory
Dear students,
Yes, this is the most challenging reading of the term so far, but it’s interesting for our purposes, so I hope you engage with it. The first posters here can answer these questions: What does Russell want to do with this article – what’s his purpose? What is Activity Theory?
Later posters can answer this. What does Russell mean by “But writing does not exist apart from its uses, for it is a tool for accomplishing object(ive)s beyond itself” (8). How can Activity Theory help people re-think general writing courses? Why might that be important for you?
Looking forward to your thoughts,
Prof. Warnock
Work Cited
Russell, David. “Activity Theory and Its Implications for Writing Instruction.” Preprint version. In Reconceiving Writing, Rethinking Writing Instruction. Ed. Joseph Petraglia. (Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum,1995): 51-78. Web.
OWI, as I said two posts ago, allows you to "also use prompts to have them work on/explore specific aspects of writing"; such prompts also allow them to make good use of course writing texts, in this case The Norton Field Guide to Writing:
Analyzing your own argument
Dear students,
I’d like you to choose a post you wrote from earlier in the term in which you made an argument. Please cut-and-paste that post here and then provide an analysis of the argument you made using any of the tools and terminology (see the Norton and our other readings) we have discussed this term. How do you develop the "key features" of arguments (p. 169)? Did you argue logically (p. 356)? How do you connect with your audience?
This is a 15-point assignment that is separate from your other Discussion work this week. Put a little extra oomph into it, and make your analysis clear.
I’m looking forward to seeing your analysis of your own arguments and methods,
Prof. Warnock
Here is a straightforward prompt to help students generate ideas about projects:
Talk about Project 2
Hi everyone,
We have been discussing how Project 2 is unconventional and challenging. Let’s use this thread to have some conversation about it during the course of the week as you work on your drafts. We have done a number of readings, including Townsend this week, that can help you think about the many ways to look at how things influence you, how you learn things, and, well, transfer.
Looking forward to your questions and comments,
Prof. Warnock
Finally, I also use prompts, especially in courses framed around argument, to encourage persuasive writing. However, I don’t think they have to battle it out over sensitive argument topics:
Argument statement: Writing technologies
Dear students,
Some weeks, I’ll ask you to post what we will call “Argument Statements.” Basically, I’m asking each of you to write a short argument here on the Discussions. I hope you use these Arguments Statements to take risks and try something new. See the syllabus for a little more information.
This week, I asked you to read a couple of brief pieces about writing online or writing with digital tools/apps. Please write your Argument Statement about how technology – and you can define this any way you like – affects your writing.
I hope these Argument Statements are good practice in writing arguments and that you find them, well, fun.
Feel free to respond to someone’s Argument Statement as a secondary post.
Professor Warnock
I think people are drawn to teaching because of the creativity it engenders. For me, I found a whole new area of creativity when I started designing these asynchronous writing prompts. And I've got a 100+-page Word file full of them to prove it.

1) From Sarah Allen's Writing Spaces piece, "The Inspired Writer vs. the Real Writer." Writing Spaces is a great resource.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Building a prompt: Characteristics of prompts

Last time, I wrote about types of prompts that can help you be successful in starting asynchronous conversations.

As promised, in this post I want to describe several characteristics of good prompts:
  1. A clear, succinct subject line. Also, if your discussion/messaging software allows it, encourage students to change the subject when appropriate, i.e., when the conversation has gone in a different direction.
  2. Clear, direct language. Think about OWI Principle 3 Effective Practice 3.1: “When text is the primary medium, OWI teachers should use written language that is readable and comprehensible” (12).
  3. Salutation/greeting. The salutation/greeting is valuable territory: Don’t waste it. You have a chance to use your voice. Sometimes you may be formal. Sometimes you may be welcoming, friendly, or even playful. Plus, you want students being clear about who the audience of their posts are: Often, they reply to a particular person but don't indicate this in their salutation/greeting. You should model this: “Dear students” or something similar is fine.
  4. Goal or objective. With a few words,  you can make the goal of the prompt clear.
  5. Specific instruction. What are students to do in this thread? Sometimes “just write” is good enough. Sometimes it’s not.
  6. Context. Make it clear how the thread the prompt begins will fit into what is happening in the course.
  7. Minimal number of questions and scaffolding. This is a key area in which teachers get into trouble, I find: they overdo it with prompt complexity and length, forgetting that both they and the students will build the conversation as it goes; you don’t need to front-load everything.
  8. Further anchoring of prompt to material/texts in the course. Many first-year programs in particular have required, program-wide texts, and I have seen teachers struggle to find ways to use these texts in their courses. You can almost always anchor your prompts to some lesson or aspect of the writing book you are using in your course – look for ways to do that. By the way, I find this type of connecting works better in online writing courses than in onsite courses.
  9. Possible broadening of topic. Students’ main goal may be analyzing an argument, but at the end of a prompt, you can also ask their stances on the argument’s subject matter. I find these subtopics get picked up at the end of the week.
  10. Complimentary closing. Like the salutation/greeting, this is valuable space that is often squandered. You can overtly invite questions and comments. You can also get a lot of voice/personality mileage out of a few words: “Interested in what you have to say” can be an encouraging close to a prompt.
  11. Sign off. If you're going to be "Prof. Warnock" to your class, write that. You may be "Dr. Warnock." You may be "Scott."
  12. Works cited. If appropriate, do it. I ask students to cite in their posts, and I think I should model that practice.
Of course, not every characteristic will be included in every prompt. But if you consider this 11-item list as being a basis for constructing prompts, I think you’ll end up with good ways to spur your students’ writing.

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Friday, January 27, 2017

Building a prompt: Types of prompts

I was excited to see that a new journal has gone live, Prompt: A Journal of Academic Writing Assignments. The writing assignment, the prompt, lies at the base of much of the work we do as writing instructors -- and the success of that work.

I think that how you get students started in the conversations they have online, that is, the prompts, is crucial (although, as I'll discuss in my next post, less is often more). Here are several types of prompts that I rely on in OWI.

A primary type is not complicated: It's a prompt designed to help students have a conversation about assigned texts/media. Having such conversations might sound familiar, and it should, because it's what many teachers do in the majority of their onsite courses. You might find in a FYW OWC that many of your prompts are simply designed to help students get talking about a reading.

You can also use writing-to-learn prompts that spur students not only to discuss but learn specific content.

Particularly in persuasive writing-type courses, you can introduce prompts that inspire debate or argument about a topic. These can be straightforward, and the written environment of discussion boards, I think, is particularly well-suited to such student debates.

You can also use prompts to have them work on/explore specific aspects of writing. For instance, they could analyze, using their own texts, all the verbs “to be," and try to replace them (they often find this devilishly difficult) .They can extend this kind of "metawriting" prompt to also discuss texts created by other students

Of course, prompts are often essentially reflective. If you're feeling brave, you can extend this reflection to the course itself -- and maybe even to you, the course's instructor.

You can also use prompts to have students generate ideas for larger project topics in a course. This is a favorite kind of thread of mine, and it builds on the course practice of having them talk about such topics in class: They brainstorm and then propose topics.

Prompts such as icebreakers can develop course community, helping students meet one another and learn about one another's interests and predilections.

Finally (in this hardly exhaustive list), you can use prompts to encourage students to understand/work through course logistics. They can sign up for conferences with you, etc., right through a discussion thread.

These categories have very blurry edges. For instance, many prompts are based in a course text, which then can lead to a dialogue that may focus on metawriting or even debate.

Next time I'm going to offer some specific characteristics of prompts that I think are helpful.

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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Is OWI fun?

I am sometimes invited to visit -- mostly virtually -- graduate classes focusing on OWI pedagogy. The students ask me questions about teaching OWCs, questions that often only people just embarking on teaching careers can think to ask.

One question I get is a form of this: "Is OWI fun?" It’s a great question. I think teaching itself should be gratifying. How can you dedicate decades of your life to working with students if you're not intrinsically engaged and satisfied?

“Fun” is a special word, though, isn't it? I was hooked on teaching from my first substitute gigs at Eastern High School in the early 90s. When I began teaching composition as a TA at Rutgers Camden in 1993 (after severe initial nervousness), I realized teaching writing was for me, and that feeling strengthened at Temple during my PhD work in the late 90s and early aughts through Penn State Lehigh Valley and now at Drexel.

I think, though, it wasn't until I taught online that I began to understand why.

I always liked the conversations, debates, and dialogues that made up the core of my classes, and I enjoyed coaching student writers and loved seeing their writing evolve. When I first encountered online writing tools, at Temple, I discovered, unaware at the time of course, that those two things I liked so much, the dialogues and writing process, converged brilliantly with ed tech.

Modality of course altered the nature of the dialogue (the technology always changes things), but it was just that: Different, not better or worse. And in OWI, it was all writing. I discovered that cracking open a discussion board was, well, fun for me.

I tell inquisitive graduate students, though, that I do have the benefit of favorable material conditions. For one, reading on a screen is no problem for me, access or otherwise. Also, I type pretty fast. I just took a one-minute typing test at and while I’m not a “pro,” I’m the next category, "fast." Enjoying screen reading and typing fast together mean that the experience interface-wise isn’t onerous for me.

So, having a positive material experience combined with really loving the intellectual journey might equal fun. I tell in-training teachers that it may well be that they only find onsite courses enjoyable. I get it. If you only like being in the room with the students, regardless of the reasons why, then OWI may not appeal to you.

And you should figure that out for yourself. I think a profession like teaching should have not just an element of  satisfaction but play and fun too. Teaching writing is difficult, and it won’t all be giggles. But following students' thinking trajectory across written discussions through bigger written projects? Sounds like fun to me.

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Friday, September 30, 2016

GSOLE: Can we think about it all as literacy?

So I’m posting two consecutive “organizational” posts, but there’s a lot going on in the world of OWI, and I want to get it out there.

It’s not every day that you get to be part of a new organization/society/ association. This past April at the CCCC meeting in Houston, I was honored to take part in the launching of GSOLE, the Global Society for Online Literacy Educators.

GSOLE is the brainchild of my good friend Beth Hewett, and she is our first president. She has developed this idea that OWI should be broadened beyond writing to literacy, including reading and digital composition. From her letter on the homepage (

We are an international organization of teachers, tutors, and researchers dedicated to diversity, inclusivity, and access in literacy-based online education. We share an understanding that the key component linking all of online education is literacy. Although online education tends to remove the immediacy and intimacy of face-to-face instruction, we suggest that successful teaching and learning in online settings are more deeply connected to literacy-based concerns than to physical presence or lack thereof. Three of the core literacies of the 21st century are reading, writing, and digital composition. However, these literacies largely have been studied and taught separately, and the resulting discussions about them have occurred in discrete sub-disciplines where their connections have not been fully explored or acknowledged.
Reading. It gets left out of so many higher ed conversations about learning. We assume students can/should be able to do it or don’t have the expertise to teach it or are too embarrassed to admit we don’t do it well & etc. I am this term again teaching The Peer Reader in Context, the Drexel course that prepares undergraduates to tutor in our writing center. I love our text, Bartholomae & Petrosky's Ways of Reading, which, in its introduction, asks students to focus on their practices and assumptions about reading. Textbooks, they write in that introduction, "are good examples of books that ask little of readers outside of note-taking and memorization" (5). (1) Reading in college is often simply transparent.

Digital composition. While those in the field of comp/rhet have written and investigated multimodality and digital composition for some time, you could argue that alphabetic writing still dominates, not only in pedagogical practice but in what we think of as composition or writing instruction.

The idea behind GSOLE is to bring together writing and reading instruction with digital composition under one inclusive, virtual tent. As I suppose with any new thing, we spent a heck of a lot of time developing the name. We are still developing the organization's structure. We know we will have Webinars and a certification sequence for OWTs. We will have a journal. We will also, through our site, provide an opportunity for developing a community of those interested in online literacy education. We have, in my estimation, the right people involved to get it all done.

GSOLE is exciting because what we’re hoping is the idea of literacy can move to the forefront of OWI conversations. It's not so much that OWI will become OLI by nomenclature, but that our pedagogical and research agendas will reflect this broader concept of literacy. We think this is the future, and we hope you will join us.

1) I still like the 9th edition of this text.

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