To structure or not to structure?

From my grading-addled mind, I bring you a post about structure versus a more freeform approach to teaching reading and writing.

When I first started teaching R&C, I assumed I would work towards being one of those cool, off-the-cuff instructors, the ones who could just sort of toss their hair back and spin out a class discussion that leaves everyone feeling epiphany-ed. Although I’d never actually experienced one of those discussions as a student, I indulged in the fantasy that such an instructor existed. Yet upon reflecting over the course of my past few years of teaching, I’ve come to realize that, in my classes, many of the best student comments and engagements with texts have come out of pretty rigorously structured activities and prompts.

For example, here’s one I asked my students to do, for an at-home bcourses discussion post:

Pick one single sentence that really stands out to you in Carmen Maria Machado’s “Real Women Have Bodies,” and quote it, along with the page number. Then, write a short paragraph (~150-250 words) that analyzes both the content and the form of that sentence. What is being said, and how is it being said? What formal details do you notice, and what effects do they have? As you write, try to put forth at least two possibilities for interpreting the sentence. 

And reader, the results were quite magical! (I would include them here, but I didn’t get to ask my students for permission). What most impressed me was the way students engaged with the details of the—very ambiguous—text to unfold interpretations, rather than gunning straight for an argument. I’ve done similar types of activities in class, with similar results.

I’ve been reflecting a bit that maybe asking students to work within structures allows them to take the freedom and even risks where I think it’s most valuable: in working through their own complex interpretations. There seems to be a paradox in which constraints actually open up space for student writers. I would compare it to—erm—a sonnet, but that seems too pretentious. At times, though, I worry that although this approach can help writers make strides and show off their critical thinking capabilities, it may still feel limiting to some of them, which is why I try not to do this type of thing at every class meeting. And while I’m airing my anxieties, I wonder if this type of planning is a way to avoid some of things that most worry me in classroom settings: feeling unprepared! bored students! general chaos and confusion!

I’d like to close with some questions: what are your experiences in using structured activities and prompts versus going with a more freeform discussion? Does this change depending where you’re at in the semester? Are there activities or prompts you’ve found particularly productive or unproductive? Have you tried the same activity with two different groups and been met with drastically different outcomes? Would this be different if it were an upper-division course? Is there something about reading and composition that lends itself particularly well to structured- or unstructured-ness?

On talking about apples

In my course on Music and Media, students are required to lead one in-class discussion during the semester. I decided to assign this for a couple of reasons. One, of course, is that I get tired of listening to the sound of my own voice; but I also believe that leading and contributing to discussions is a skill, one that can be improved through practice. During these discussions, my class sits in a circle. The discussion leader (or leaders) sit in two desks at the front of the room, while I try to choose a desk near the back of the room. I do my best to stay out of the discussion, since the whole point of the exercise is to get the students talking to each other, not to me. Since I’ve always been the student who can’t stand awkward silences and has to jump in with the answers (think Hermione in Harry Potter, complete with the frizzy hair) this is excellent practice for me, too, in letting others speak. 

I was nervous when the time came for the first of these in-class discussions. The two women who signed up to lead discussion had participated in earlier discussions, but (at least in these initial class meetings) seemed somewhat shy and quiet. I hoped that this assignment wouldn’t prove too burdensome for them, and told them they could have anywhere from half an hour to the full hour and a half for discussion of their assigned text—we could just see how the conversation went. I was also a bit nervous about the text I had assigned, Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message,” which can be opaque even to someone who’s well acquainted with literature on media and technology. I worried that undergraduates, who had probably never encountered any work of McLuhan’s before, would find the text overly demanding, and that their peers would find it intimidating to join in the discussion. 

My concerns turned out to be completely unjustified. Our classroom leaders came armed with questions, just as I had asked—and not only questions, but insightful and pointed comments that drew out the discussion far longer than the half hour I had assigned. One of the class leader’s comments struck me as an utterly brilliant extension of McLuhan’s arguments; she said, “If I have an apple, and I tell you I have an apple, then it’s like you and I have agreed on the set of characteristics that the word “apple” means.” I haven’t been able to forget this comment since—because, as she went on to explain, it reinforces the concept that language is a medium at the same time as it draws attention to the way social forces define our interactions, both with and through media. Her comment sparked an intense discussion about “what we mean when we say things,” which touched on contemporary politics, social media, and how we come to understand the difference between right and wrong. We did eventually come back to McLuhan, but this turn in the conversation had changed everything, because all of a sudden we were talking about something with real-life significance—how a medium, whether it’s television, or radio, or language, shapes the way we understand and interact with each other. 

Seminar, Fri, 5/24

A Brief Composition Timeline 


1874          Harvard College institutes a written entrance exam

1897          University of California institutes Subject A in writing

1944          GI Bill

1949          Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) founded, CCC  begins publication

1966          Dartmouth Seminar on the Teaching of English

Dartmouth Seminar 1966

1969          Open Admissions founded at CUNY

1971          Janet Emig publishes The Composing Processes of Twelfth Graders

1974          CCCC endorses The Students’ Right to Their Own Language

1974          Bay Area Writing Project founded. Becomes the National Writing Project in 1976

1977          Mina Shaughnessy publishes Errors and Expectations

1987          Wyoming Conference Resolution Opposing Unfair Salaries and Working   Conditions for Teachers of Postsecondary Writing

1995           Elbow and Bartholomae debate personal and academic writing

1996          The New London Group publishes “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies”


2011       NCTE, NWP, and WPA publish Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing

2015       Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle publish Naming What We Know]

For more . . .

Continuing On

Reflections on This Seminar

We hope to continue to offer this seminar in the coming years, and so would appreciate your help as we refine and move forward with this project. I’d thus like to ask you to do some reflective writing in which you respond to any or all of the following questions:

  • What should we make sure to continue to do?
  • What might we do more of?
  • What could we perhaps do differently?

We may draw on your your comments as part of a report to the Mellon Foundation, so please don’t put your name on them. Instead use Guerilla Mail to email your reflection anonymously to Rebecca Egger. Thanks!


Have your laptop open with your course site displayed. Turn your screen to the middle of the room. Walk around, see what people are doing, and talk to them about it.

Some Closing Thoughts (For Now) From Me

I’ve had the good luck now to have worked with four extraordinary groups of teacher/scholars at Berkeley  I’m excited by the courses you are designing, and I think Berkeley is lucky to have you! Please don’t hesitate to contact me in the coming weeks and months. I’m eager to keep in touch.

Thanks for your work!

Seminar, Thurs, 5/23


Assessment and Social Justice

Led by Mya Poe, Associate Professor of English, Northeastern University

  • What is assessment?
  • Types of assessment
  • Social justice in writing assessment
  • Course evaluations


Responding Toward Revision

Practice: “Rough Draft (on June Jordan)”, Berkeley, R1A, Spring 2019

Please use the method I’ve just sketched out to write a response toward revision to this student writer. Compare your responses with a partner. What similarities or differences do you notice, both in terms of the advice you have to offer and the stance you take toward the student?

Evaluating Final Pieces

Practice: “Revealing the true identity: June Jordan’s ‘Poem About My Rights'”, Berkeley, Spring 2019, R1A, Final Draft

Use my template to arrive at a grade for this essay. Write some (very brief) comments to the author as well. In groups of five, compare grades and responses.

  • Bonus Example: Leonid Elyon, “On Space and Sappho”, Winner of the 2019 Art of Rewriting Award

Responding to a Portfolio

Reading Across Drafts

For Tomorrow

Complete as much of your course website as you can. If you are having trouble figuring out how to post or format certain pages, posts, or widgets, save the content in Word or on paper. But try to have a  demo-version of your course to show and talk about as part of our arcade tomorrow.

Please email me the URL for your site before 10:00 tomorrow. That will allow me to post a list of links to your courses to this site.

Seminar, Wed, 5/22


Concerns so Far

  • Grades/Standards
  • Pacing/Scaffolding of Assignments
  • Workload: Students and Teachers, “obsessive editing”
  • “Balancing” Close Reading/Content/Composition
  • Structure and Responsiveness

Working With Student Writing (From Yesterday)

Workshop: Writing Projects

In addition to the three standard workshop questions (what is the writer’s project?, what works best? what should the writer work on next?), please consider the following:

  • How would you describe the stance the author/teacher takes towards readers/students?
  • What terms of value appear in the text? What is said or suggested about how this writing will be evaluated?

Scaffolding and Scheduling



Working on


Begin to sketch out the working schedule for your course, or to lay out the structure of your course website

Conversation With Returning Koshland Fellows

  • Insights from the seminar that continue to inform your teaching; and/or
  • New discoveries about teaching writing since then, ways in which you’ve revised and developed your teaching.

Writing for Tomorrow

Sketch out a working schedule for your R&C course. Bring three copies with you to class.

Seminar, Tues, 5/21


Course Overviews

Fast Write: Briefly describe the focus of the R&C course you are designing. Highlight some of the newest, most ambitious, or most interesting uses you hope to make of writing.

Groups: Trade overviews with two colleagues. Try to read their documents from the point of view of a first-year student on the first day of class. What else might you ask this teacher to tell you about:

  • The kinds of writing you’ll do in this course?
  • The reasons for doing this writing? ( That is, how does this work promise to be interesting or useful?)
  • The pace and workload of the semester?

Writing Assignments

Examples: Responding and Remixing

Working with Student Writing in Class


Curtis Hanson, dir., Wonder Boys, 2000


Fast Write: What’s the most pressing question on your mind right now about planning and designing your R&C course?


12:30pm – 1:45pm: Lunch

1:45pm – 2:30pm: Studio time

2:30pm – 4pm: Guest Speaker, Ryan Sloan, Lecturer, UC Berkeley College Writing Programs, “Digital Pedagogy”

4pm – 4:30pm: Q & A

Writing for Tomorrow

Draft one or two of the writing projects for your course. Please bring four print copies with you to seminar. We will workshop them.

Seminar, Mon, 5/20



Fast Write: You are an accomplished academic writer. (Otherwise you wouldn’t be in this room.) Please write a brief story about a moment when you learned something useful about academic writing. Try to create as compelling a story as you can. Let your points emerge through how you describe the characters, setting, and action of your narrative. I’ll ask you to introduce yourself to the seminar through reading this story aloud.

Read Alouds: Please take some notes as you listen to your colleagues’ stories. What similarities do you notice in how they describe learning to write as academics? What differences?


  • About
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Designing a Writing Course



Fast Write: What’s the most pressing question on your mind right now about how to design your R&C course?



Begin drafting your course overview.


Working With Multilingual Writers, led by Michelle Baptiste, College Writing Programs

Best Practices

Writing For Tomorrow

Please draft the overview for your R&C course. You’ll have some time to review some examples of other overviews and to begin writing this afternoon. Please bring two print copies of this piece to seminar tomorrow morning.