“Non-Stress Tests,” Assessment, and the Body

I am a good student; most of us who make a career in academia are. I have always known how to prepare for classroom assessment. Because I attended a strict, private school in England growing up, I knew how to draw up “revision timetables”and begin studying months in advance, color coding notes and setting up intermittent reward systems. When my sister and I played school as children, I always wanted to be the teacher, grading her work and putting stickers at the top. I still take pleasure in grading my student’s work. I remember laughing, reading a lively writer’s voice in bed one evening, when my husband looked over at me, a college instructor at the time as well, and asked, “Are you reading your students’ papers for fun?”

I was. At the time, I had faith that students, if they worked hard enough and made use of all of the resources available to them, would succeed in my class.

This belief changed after a high-risk pregnancy, when I was subjected to testing twice a week for much of my third trimester. These tests consisted of growth scans, in which a machine measured my baby’s body parts, as well as the “non-stress test,” a test that decides whether or not a baby is in distress by measuring their heart rate. The non-stress test gets its name from the more violent test it replaced, the stress test, one in which women were put under bodily stress—induced contractions—in order to measure the baby’s response. Eventually, physicians figured out these methods actually induced labor and replaced the stress test with the non-stress test. At the time, I was told by ultrasound technicians that growth scans estimating a baby’s weight could be off by two pounds, and after minimal research, I discovered that both tests are often inaccurate, if not totally ineffective, in indicating whether or not a baby is in distress. Despite the known failures of these assessment practices, pregnant people become subject to more expensive testing, more monitoring, and, in many cases, scheduled inductions and surgery, based on the results of these tests. I knew all this, but the stakes were high, and I was continually told these tests were necessary despite their failures, what was best for my baby and I, and that, as a responsible mom-to-be, I was required to show up and take them.

Why risk it?

So I dutifully showed up for my appointments, with blind faith in what the authority figures in my life were telling me, and when my baby’s heartbeat didn’t meet the required criteria after about an hour, the busy Brooklyn hospital admitted me to the labor and delivery unit at thirty-four weeks pregnant. I remember wondering if I was going to deliver, unable to reach my mom or husband. The woman who came in to double-check my insurance information seemed uncomfortable, to say the least. After all, I was paying for this experience. The nurses kept promising my doctors would show up; they never did. Eventually, a nurse put an IV in me, “to wake the baby up,” and my baby’s heart did what was required. Evelyn’s heart rate never indicated she was “in distress”—but it wasn’t meeting the criteria for release. When her and I were both finally allowed to leave, we were given a sheet with a “follow up recommendations” section left blank. This entire, cautionary hospital stay cost upwards of 2,000 dollars, before insurance payments.

Ever since, I cannot help but notice parallels in the ways students are assessed and accommodated (or not) at the university level. Academic testing, writing exams and papers, is a bodily experience, and we assume all bodies will be able to fit the criteria and standards we have set. When students give me accommodation paperwork (more often than not they apologize when doing so), I have always assured them—like the nurses, doctors, authority figures that surrounded me—that everything will be fine; that if they work hard enough to succeed, they will. But no matter how kind or supportive college instructors are, to use my husband’s words after Evelyn almost failed another “non-stress test,” two weeks later, “sometimes these tests are bullshit.” Sometimes, assessment practices fail students, no matter the amount of effort they are able to put in.

So, what can we, college instructors, do about it? How are we holding ourselves responsible for how assessment practices fail, let alone the physical and mental impact even the best testing has on our students? Like physicians, educators do work to revise the ways in which we assess students, on individual, departmental, and national levels. But, still, when I talk to my writing students about placement tests, the common core, the SAT, all of the standardized tests who judge who they are as students and writers, we quickly come to the conclusion that these tests fail to say much about their capabilities, abilities, voices, unique and individual skills as writers, for a variety of reasons. There is no way—just as those monitors that Evelyn kept kicking off my belly, and the criteria made up for “most babies” that she simply didn’t meet—standardized tests and criteria won’t leave some students behind.

The stakes are high for our students, just as they were for me and my baby. Assessment matters, to where our students end up academically and professionally; to their mental and emotional health; and to how they interpret and feel about their own capabilities.

I think a partial answer to how college instructors might address this huge issue is flexibility. Flexibility in revising and adapting assessment tools to student needs; in the timeframes we give students to complete work; and in how we think about, and talk to students about, what grades mean. In all cases, this flexibility comes in response to listening to our students. If there’s one thing I felt in all hospital assessment settings, it’s that I wasn’t being heard when I wanted to have a conversation about how these tests were inaccurate, or unfair, or stressful.

To start, college instructors can build flexibility into their assignments. I start each class-period with low-stakes reading quizzes, for example. The questions are open-ended, but they know they need to provide specific and concrete details from the readings to pass. I tell them, “Come in ready to write about the most memorable moments from the readings, offering specific details, choosing whichever questions you feel most comfortable answering.” The pedagogical goal of these quizzes is to see how well students know course material, but obviously students cannot demonstrate they know everything covered in the reading or course on one assignment—why not let them discuss what most interested or intrigued them?

Another way to offer flexibility and accommodate students has to do with time. I was not afforded this luxury by the hospital—Evelyn and I could stay hooked up to the monitor for an hour, maximum, before being admitted to triage. Had we be given more time, she would’ve eventually passed. In each of my college classrooms, I come in fifteen minutes before class starts and allow students to start their reading quizzes early if they wish. For me, the pedagogical goal of reading quizzes are to determine if the students are reading and how much they comprehend of the assigned reading, not how fast they can read and respond to quiz questions. I find that this extra time helps a wide range of students, including English language learners; students with test anxiety; and students who have learning disabilities that require more time to comprehend questions and formulate answers.

I understand not all college instructors agree with flexibility when it comes to assessment, for various reasons. For one, students might encounter trouble in later, less flexible, course assessment practices. In addition, departments are often demonized for grade inflation, English departments in particular. In College Writing, a course in which students are required to draft their work multiple times and spend time on their writing (a process that best mimics what professional writing actually looks like), grades often end up being higher. Despite this, one department handbook I was given, for example, warns instructors, “Even though adjunct or untenured faculty may feel pressure to inflate grades, it is important to avoid doing so. They are a disservice to students and an embarrassment to the English department when faculty from other departments see students with weak skills and high grades.” In a grading workshop I attended, the First Year Writing co-director running the workshop presented tables and charts that demonstrated grade inflation in College Writing as compared to later writing courses, and, while acknowledging that the nature of College Writing might have something to do with the higher grades assigned (built-in drafting processes, scaffolded assignments, and paper revisions), she urged instructors to be mindful to not assign inflated grades. One way to ensure this is to not grant paper extensions, she suggested.

I understand the many structural pressures that contribute to these unforgiving approaches to assessment, from non-stress tests to writing courses, but ultimately this lack of flexibility derails what assessment, at its best, is meant to do—offer an opportunity for students to demonstrate what they have learned so, as educators, we can then provide feedback about this learning. In order to avoid grade inflation, or missing a baby in distress, testing becomes more rigid and unforgiving, causing immeasurable stress on the bodies in question.

Most important to remember, consequently, when it comes to assessment is that when we assess people, we are in a position of power, and should be transparent about the purpose of the assessment, about our goals. I struggled, when pregnant with Evelyn, to get a doctor to have a transparent conversation with me about the tests I was forced to undergo. I now feel an even greater responsibility to do what I can to create assessment practices and spaces that are not only conducive to my students’ success, that take into account the many ways in which assessment tools fail—but that are crafted from a place of empathy. I know what it felt like in my body to fail ineffective tests that said little about my body or my baby. A little empathy and flexibility would’ve gone a long way for Evelyn and I. The same holds true for our students: keeping in mind what each assessment tool is meant to measure, and how any assignment might be adapted to measure this skill or area of knowledge more flexibly and empathetically for each student, would make material differences in the lives of our students and their experiences with the academy.

Back to Basics: WAC Philosophy and Course Design

In order to be engaged in the classroom, students at City Tech must have the basic skills required for college learning. As any student knows, being engaged takes constant work, practice, and motivation. The etymology of the word engaged is tied to risk-taking, to “have promised one’s presence,” “to undertake to perform,” to be entangled or ensnared. (“engaged, v.” OED Online). The exhaustion many of our City Tech students bring to the classroom (speaking from the experience of teaching Thursday evening and Saturday morning sections of College Writing) makes being engaged at all difficult enough. To ask our City Tech students to engage with us and with course material over and over again is asking a lot. How can we, as instructors, support them in this endeavor?

Without a space to practice the basic skills academic engagement requires, our students are swimming upstream. Alternatively, building time into each of our courses to review skills such as effective note taking, skillful / critical reading, and being a part of generative class discussions will help our students manage the task of being motivated and present in the classroom each day.

Writing Across the Curriculum just gave a student-workshop on notetaking and reading strategies (materials are available here), and will be giving this workshop again on March 29th at 4PM. By teaching students how to take good notes—notes in which they are processing information instead of simply storing it externally—instructors can nourish and inspire a consistent practice of in-class writing that promotes critical thinking and reflection from the get-go, changing how students understand what it means to engage with the information and concepts presented in their courses.

This workshop was given in collaboration with READ, as good reading skills are tied to note-taking. This is not self-evident to our students, who are often just trying to complete as much out-of-class reading as possible. In addition to reading difficult texts in class with my students, modeling how to write marginal comments and look up confusing words or references, I always have a discussion with them about how to skim readings effectively. If students believe that the only way to successfully read for college is to complete and understand every single assigned reading in its entirety, they will consistently feel like failures—and be more likely to give up on a reading a few pages in. In my classroom, students and I talk very seriously about discerning what the most important sections of a reading are; reading “the outline” of an article (the introduction, conclusion, and first and last sentences of each paragraph); and coming in with two, specific questions about readings, as well as pieces of information they find interesting. In reading selectively and purposefully, students begin to learn the shape academic writing takes, as well as how to manage heavy reading loads without giving up. When designing our courses as instructors at NYCCT, we should be mindful and realistic about how much out-of-class reading our students can complete, and how our in-class lessons might support them in this endeavor.

Finally, it’s not news that good class discussion helps students stay engaged, but most students have a simplistic view of classroom participation that is never challenged. In my experience, students believe that speaking as much as possible and showing instructors that they “know” the answer to a question counts as “good” participation, and staying silent is “bad” participation. Good classroom discussion often looks the exact opposite of this: students learn when they step back and listen to others speak; ask questions about the readings; articulate confusion and discontent—the list goes on. But we rarely, as instructors, take the time to talk about how to have, to practice, these kinds of generative discussions, or reflect on what a good class discussion looks like to start with.

An exercise I use in my classroom to “teach” students how to talk to one another in an academic context is called “Socratic Roles.” I divide the class into two sections (I tend to put the more talkative students in one and the less talkative students in the other). Then, I project some discussion questions on the board and tell one group to lead their own discussion while the other group takes notes based on these prompts. I do not speak or intervene in the students’ discussion for 5-10 minutes, taking notes on what my students say. After the allotted time, the groups switch, and the speakers become the note-takers while the note-takers pick up the discussion. Afterwards, we have a discussion about what makes a good class discussion, and students report back on their observations and tasks. In my experience, a large part of this debrief is the realization that a good discussion means actively making space for many different voices, and that different students have different relationships to class participation—some taking longer to formulate their thoughts, some preferring to listen, some who work out what they think out loud, etc.

The prompts in the handout can be adapted and changed based on what you, the instructor, would like students to pay attention to. My personal favorite is “list 2 important comments that are made” because when more than one student does this, the class realizes that different people learn from different pieces of information. I like doing this exercise in my classes, also, because if I organize the groups so the more introverted students have to talk, the extrovert students realize that they aren’t the only ones who can fill the silence / are doing the readings, which tends to be the assumption—and we talk about stepping back to allow for the presence of different voices in the classroom.

These skills—effective note taking, active reading, and being a part of generative class discussions—are skills that are tied to writing, to self-expression and communication. Our students too often assume that being a good student means parroting back information, giving the “right” answer, and powering through any given assignment. As instructors, we must actively fight these assumptions at the foundation of what it means to learn. Building time into a course so that students can practice these skills lets them know that you, the instructor, are serious about their engagement, and that college learning isn’t a one-way street. Student engagement begins with active efforts on the part of the instructor. Taking some time to go “back to basics” with your students doesn’t take time away from course content—it empowers them, lets them know you’re serious about their engagement, and creates a space in which they have the tools to truly learn.

“engage, v.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, January 2018, www.oed.com/view/Entry/62192. Accessed 20 February 2018.

“It’s in the Syllabus”: Best Practices for the First Day of Class

(image from Inside Higher Ed)

I recently had the pleasure of attending City Tech’s new faculty orientation, led by Professor Julia Jordan. At one point, she implored us, “Please, please do not spend the first class session reading your syllabus to your students. You know what’s in it.”

She moved on, but I didn’t, as that’s how I spend all my first class sessions. As professors, we know we have to convey how important this document is to students, that it’s a contract where students can find most, if not all, of the important course expectations, objectives, policies, and assignment due dates. We want to ensure that students have heard this information and leave with an understanding of what will be expected of them over the course of the semester.

We also know, as professors, that standing in front of a classroom reading from a document is poor pedagogy. Over the seven years I’ve been teaching at the college level, I have consistently heard colleagues complaining that students don’t read or refer to or know the syllabus. Most CUNY faculty I know also pride themselves on student-centered learning and how they work to engage and involve students in the classroom, but the first day of class sets the tone for the entire semester. If we stand up in front of our students and read the syllabus to them, are we really teaching them how to refer to important documents for information? That we expect them to do so? We know students don’t magically retain 100% of lecture material after any given class, so why do we expect them to know our syllabus after we review it once?

Instead, professors might begin to think through ways in which they can ensure students practice the skills required to read, refer to, and engage with professional documents over the course of the semester, instead of having students spend the first day of class checking their watches, hoping to get out early.

Here are a few of my own ideas on more generative ways to spend the first class session, that set the tone for a semester of engaged, collaborative learning:

  • Assign your syllabus as a reading assignment, and quiz students on it at the beginning of the next class session, as Rebecca Devers, a professor in the English department, does in her classes. After quizzing students on the syllabus individually, put them into groups and let them help each other answer the quiz questions, collaborating and learning how to seek information about the course from each other as well as their instructor. Make sure, too, that the quiz gets students writing, asking at least one short answer question as opposed to multiple choice or T/F questions.
  • Assigning your syllabus as required reading leaves room on the first day to focus, instead, on another activity that better reflects what class time will look like in the weeks ahead: an interactive lecture, a freewrite, or filling out a questionnaire that asks students to respond to questions in detailed, reflective ways (here’s my first day student questionnaire from the writing course I teach themed around dream interpretation).
  • A group activity. As a writing instructor, I’ve designed a group activity around learning the differences between an em dash, en dash, and hyphen. Students must use these quirky punctuation marks, correctly, in three sentences describing things they have in common as group members. This exercise allows them to get to know one another, but also to practice focused discussion; they must figure out which commonalities lend themselves to the drama of the em dash; the numbers that usually surround an en dash; and what compound modifiers they might share as a group in order to use a hyphen. They are also learning how to incorporate sophisticated punctuation marks into their writing.

Full disclosure: I hated group activities when I was an undergraduate. I wanted to sit in my seat, usually at the front of the classroom, and be a good student all on my own. The reality is, however, that learning is a collaborative process, and I wish that more professors had called me out on my superiority complex. I often tell my students—you have something to learn from each one of your peers, listen to one another.

  • At the very least, allow for five minutes at the end of class to have students write, on a cue card or piece of paper you collect, one question or concern they have about the course after reviewing the syllabus on the first day. I like to also ask students to articulate in writing what they are most excited about after the first day of class. This is a good practice, in general, after any class session, in order to find out what needs review and what students are taking away from your teaching. You’ll get a sense of your students as writers, as well—the more small, informal, in-class writing samples you can collect and read quickly, the more of a sense you’ll have of each writer’s voice. I always tell my students, because I read so much of their informal in-class writing, I’m able to spot plagiarism immediately. I recognize their voices on paper and miss them when they disappear in formal assignments. Let your students know from day one you listen, you hear them, and model the kind of reflective practice that allows for lifelong learning.

To that end, I’m grateful that Julia Jordan called me to reflect on how I might improve my teaching. If anyone reading is interested in a similar space for reflecting on pedagogical practice, please join WAC at our next faculty workshop, “Effective Assignment Design,” on Sept. 19th from 1-2:15 PM (location TBA).

Making the Most of Snow Days: Have Your Students Write!

As CUNY schools shut down across the city, many professors are left to re-organize “tentative” syllabi schedules. But instead of letting snow days wreak havoc on your reading schedule as well as the roads, use them to practice WAC principles, encouraging learning and understanding of the course material assigned for that day through low-stakes writing.

Here’s one of my favorite writing assignments to give on snow days that occur early in the semester:

Original Assignment:

  • reading due (quiz): J. Allan Hobson, from Dreaming, Chapter 7

Snow Day Assignment:

  • NO IN-CLASS MEETING: Professional e-mail assignment. By the end of our scheduled class period, send me a professional e-mail reflecting on one aspect of the reading for today, quoting with an in-text citation at least once (needs to be no more than 4-5 sentences).

Early in the semester, I explain to my students that professional emails include a thoughtful subject line, address to the recipient, organization, and sign offs. They are concise, to the point, and read over more than once. Professors often complain about student e-mails, so give students a chance to practice this crucial professional skill while also having them respond to course material in writing!

For those of you who don’t use online platforms in your classroom, a snow day might be a good day to require students to watch any video clips you planned to show in class, or even movie or film versions of a text you’re reading (depending on how long the class session runs—a good rule of thumb is to not give students more work than they could realistically complete during the class period). From the warmth and safety of their home, students can watch and respond to material that would otherwise take up valuable class time—or even read and respond to some material you had to cut in constructing your syllabus. Their written responses can be turned in and / or discussed during the next class, depending on how much time you want to take to read and respond to additional writing. Here’s an example from one of my literature classes that could be adapted for any relevant media:

Original Assignment:

  • reading due (quiz): Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus (to end) (on the reading quiz you will be asked what word you looked up in the OED and what denotations and connotations you discovered)

Snow Day Assignment:

  • CLASS HELD ONLINE: During class time, please watch the following clips from Julie Taymor’s Titus (Youtube links uploaded under “reading questions and responses”). Write a response to the film in which you discuss the OED word you looked up and one aspect of the film adaptation that is different from what you imagined (about two paragraphs).

Finally, in my classes, my favorite way to use snow days is to teach students how to respond to each other in writing. If you use a class blog or other online platform in a web-enhanced classroom, facilitating class discussion online becomes an opportunity for students to respond to one another in writing—practice for future writing groups, editing, and other forms of professional feedback in academia. Here is an example from my literature course, but, again, it can be adapted for any reading material across disciplines:

  • CLASS HELD ONLINE: read one story from Dubliners not assigned yesterday and write a “new post” (top right corner) about the kinds of violence represented in the story, as well as the stories assigned on Wednesday: how is paralysis represented in Dubliners and how do these representations depart from the more obvious violences we’ve encountered thus far? Make sure to quote specifically from story, as well as incorporate a close-reading using the OED in order to answer this question. Post and respond to at least two of your peers’ posts by 11:59PM.

When you first begin asking students to respond to each other in writing, it’s important to provide example responses to comments for students so they know that one or two lines isn’t sufficient. I try to pick example comments to show students that are written in simple language, as to not discourage writers who feel they don’t have strong skills. An example from one of my students:

  • I have to agree with what you said about Eveline justifying her father’s actions. She’s well aware that her father has had violent tendencies in the past, and as she’s gotten older, it has not improved. Yet, she mentions that there are times where perhaps he isn’t so bad, and weighs this rather heavily when deciding whether to leave with Frank or not. Many of the characters in Dubliners are creatures of habit, and when their habits are disturbed, paralysis sets in. Eveline has been no exception.

This comment is a gorgeous example of “Agreeing and Disagreeing,” a skill Gerald Graff encourages students to master in They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. In a short paragraph, the student agrees and disagrees with his peers’ post and draws larger conclusions about the text. Even if the grammar and mechanics were less polished, I would use this response as an “A+ example” of what I expect from students.

If you’re just beginning to try out online discussions, you might not have examples. Sometimes, I’ll respond to superb comments or posts to let students know I, too, am reading and engaging with their writing and that this snow day assignment isn’t just busy work. For example:

  • Prof. A says:
  • January 13, 2017 at 12:52 pm (Edit)
  • I really love how you chose to also focus on “how they handle” their paralysis–I think Lauren Berlant’s concept of “lateral agency” comes into play, but at the same time characters like Mr. Duffy and Eveline have been taught the “best” or “right” way to handle themselves, and it doesn’t always work out for them. “Handle” is also a great OED word because it suggests control and the ability to grasp–feelings / abilities Joyce doesn’t necessarily give his narrators. Well done!

Here, I incorporate key terms, databases, and how to quote from source material (it’s powerful for students to have their thoughts respected in this way—they often deserve this level of engagement, too!). Remember, though, it’s always more powerful when students see excellent examples of other students’ writing.

Finally, and I believe most importantly, I never grade my students’ participation in these assignments on low-order writing concerns such as grammar and mechanics. These assignments are a space to give introverts a chance to join the conversation, as well as students who struggle with writing a safe place to practice their skills. Emphasize to your students that their participation for the day is being graded on how well they engage with their peers’ ideas—do they ask questions, quote from the original post, make connections to other course materials, disagree respectfully? All these skills are far more important to good writing than grammar and mechanics and take practice, as well.

Hopefully this post inspires you to get your students writing tomorrow or on future snow days!

Stay warm,



The “Problem” of English Language Learners at City Tech: Strategies to Include All of Your Students in the Conversation

It is no secret that City Tech has a large population of students who are English Language Learners, as the questions and concerns from faculty members at WAC workshops and in meetings constantly remind us. Here are some strategies I’ve found help, as someone who has not been directly trained to work with this specific student population:

  1. Refrain from passing the ball; assuming others are somehow more trained or qualified to help than yourself; and giving insensitive recommendations. Often, and understandably, instructors feel powerless to help students struggling to learn the English language. It’s easy to refuse to grade a paper; recommend the writing center where, more often than not, tutors are just as unequipped to help these students as instructors are; or make recommendations based on harmful assumptions, for example: “start speaking to your friends in English to practice.” It’s incredibly hard to navigate worlds in which you do not speak the language fluently, and it’s often not a matter of working harder or only speaking the language you want to improve in—many students don’t have the luxury of only speaking English, as they are often translators for family members or in intimate relationships with people who don’t speak English. To ask students to suffer and isolate themselves in order to get a better grade on a formal assignment disrespects this experience and suggests that they aren’t working hard enough, when often they are working much harder than native speakers to succeed.
  1. Create a rubric from which you can grade their writing assignments honestly and fairly alongside their classmates, that gives them every opportunity to succeed. Holding English language learners to different standards than their classmates, in the long run, doesn’t help students strive to become better writers, nor does it improve their confidence. Instead, these allowances suggest English language learners are incapable of doing good work, which is not just a dangerous assumption to have—it’s simply untrue. These students are smart enough to know a pity grade when they see one and while receiving a B that should’ve been a low C might provide a temporary sense of relief, it does nothing to help students improve. Here is an example of a rubric I use for papers that incorporates grammatical and stylistic concerns, but does not warrant an F by these standards alone. If students are grasping content; articulating ideas that you can understand, despite patterns of error; and organizing these ideas in ways that make sense, then they should have their ideas responded to and engaged with, and allowed the opportunity to continue to practice their writing without fear of of failure.
  1. Assign a variety of writing assignments that allow students to be part of a conversation. It is not surprising that many students are not motivated to continue to practice joining academic conversations when they are perceived as a problem or burden as opposed to part of the conversation. In my classes, I make sure there are many low stakes writing assignments that are not graded on punctuation, grammar, or spelling, and that the ideas articulated in these assignments are taken and responded to seriously (here is a link to example syllabi descriptions for readings quizzes and blog posts). Whether it’s a brief reading quiz that asks students to articulate memorable moments, questions they had, or key concepts (here’s an example), or weekly blogs and responses to their peers’ blog posts that offer a space to have discussion about the course materials outside of class (some prompts), the more students feel comfortable conversing with each other and their instructor, the more their writing will improve.
  1. Remind students that many native speakers also struggle to get through reading and writing assignments. I remember one case in which a husband of a student of mine, who was a native speaker unlike his wife, e-mailed me concerned about the difficulty of the reading—suggesting that it had no place in an introductory level class because even he could not understand it with “multiple degrees.” (Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams). I did not respond, of course, but this incident is just one example of the general assumption that many English language learners have—that grasping course content is easy for native speakers. Keep in mind that many students who are learning English sit and read with dictionaries in hand, often unlike native speakers who encounter many words they don’t know but have the confidence to assume the reading is “too hard” or continue to skim until they get the gist. I make sure to articulate to all of my students, but especially to my English language learners, that they do not have to look up every word they don’t know, to wait until words repeat consistently or they are completely lost to go back and translate, and that it’s OK to read a summary before and to contextualize and then attempt to read through the text.
  1. Remind students that there are no quick fixes, and appreciate that assignments do often take them longer to complete with less return on their time and effort. Often high achieving students who have put intense time and effort into their work will come to me after receiving the grade on their first draft or paper in tears. I let them know that, while I ethically cannot grade them using different standards from their peers, I acknowledge and appreciate the hard work they put into the course and assignment and that the next draft and assignment will be better for it. I do not promise them that going to the writing center; working harder next time; or any other quick fix will guarantee an A on an assignment. I do design my courses, however, to allow them to succeed while practicing and, consequently, create the space for all of my students to be an integral part of the class and conversation. A C- on a formal assignment does not ruin their chances of an A in the course, should they complete all of the low stakes writing assignments—assignments built into the course that allow them—as any student—to converse without judgement. These kind of spaces, ultimately, are what allow for any writer to improve.

Dreaming, Blogging, and Inviting Students into the Academic Ballroom

As the semester begins, many instructors have already decided what role technology and low-stakes writing assignments will play in their classroom and course requirements. I used to be wary of technology, especially, and didn’t find it necessary to create the kind of classroom experience I wanted–and I know I was not alone in this sentiment.

But then I read Jason Tougaw’s “Dream Bloggers Invent the University” and everything changed. Dream-blogging (Tougaw had students blog about their dreams under pseudonyms) is an excellent example of a low-stakes writing assignment that allows students to make deep and broad connections about the course material, without the fears and insecurities that come with being asked to write formally within a discourse community they are unfamiliar with. Tougaw addresses these insecurities when he describes a student’s, “Drei’s,” un-authoritative language: “several things I guess,” “I think,” “I am also not sure,” etc. (256) while talking about his own dreams, as well as other students’ insecurities in feeling that they lack “the expertise and authority to comment on each other’s dreams” (258). For instructors who are not comfortable using blogs in their classroom, they might have heard similar comments from students during peer-review sessions or any kind of group work. In many ways blogging and other kinds of low stakes writing assignments are a kind of consistent, frequent type of peer-review. But peer-review only works when all students involved believe that they are capable of “reviewing” in constructive ways.

Tougaw argues later on in the article that students may benefit from “low-stakes writing, presumably because, like dreaming, such writing provokes students to avoid the “tightly woven” or “overlearned” regions of the mind’” (266). I think this is so important, because many freshmen come in with mindsets like “Drei,” and in order for them to push their way into what Gaipa calls “The Academic Ballroom”–to write in ways that change the conversation–we must, as educators, find a way around these ingrained beliefs of inadequacy, our students’ perceptions that they are not able to, or expected to, make important interventions through writing. I haven’t found another way to address and change this kind of mindset without low-stakes writing assignments as a foundation.

As a way to incorporate “low-stakes” writing into the classroom, Tougaw argues that blogs of any kind “are to formal essays as dreams are to waking thought…a process through which students internalize the lessons of a course sufficiently to produce their own cognitive blends and express the emergent ideas in their own voices” (266). In my own experience, indeed, blogs allow more introverted students to become a part of class conversation, and more extroverted students to realize that they aren’t the only ones in the classroom formulating these “emergent ideas.”

In this way, Tougaw’s article has a lot to do with why plagiarism happens (join us for the upcoming WAC workshop, “Avoiding Plagiarism” on October 18th!). Students, in my experience, have the capability to participate in what Bartholomae deems, “the real work of the academy” through their “academic writing” (qtd. in Tougaw 254). If we create spaces in which students begin as experts, in this case framing a course around their dreams, their subconscious, and their selves, and then provide an academic framework for this expertise—Freudian interpretative theory, for example—to build upon their “voices” and ideas, then we might find that plagiarism is not only easier to detect, but also happens less frequently in our classrooms. One of my marginal notes while reading Tougaw’s article was, “he takes his students seriously,” and I think this is of the utmost importance in not only bridging constructivist and expressivist composition theories, but also nurturing students in a way that inspires them to take pride in their own voices and writing assignments.

To conclude: but “what about students who don’t dream?” This is a loaded question I’m often asked about the syllabus I designed based off of Tougaw’s article. First, everyone dreams–the issue is whether or not the dreamer remembers these dreams. Tougaw addresses this question in a discussion of the “feedback loop” in both blogging and in the students’ cognitive processes:

“The blogs have provided a formal structure for the making and expression of meaning that is both cognitive and social, and because the class is linked in this enterprise, collectively the blogs create what might be called feedback loop, whereby each student’s blog has the potential to catalyze the cognition of her fellow bloggers and vice versa” (263).

Tougaw seems to make the argument, here, that by encouraging the students to learn about and focus on dreams, they begin to have and remember dreams, even certain types of dreams. In closing, I wonder if this phenomenon is not necessarily particular to Tougaw’s vision of low-stakes assignments, but to any kind of writing assignment that troubles the assumption that there are some students “who don’t dream,” so to speak–low stakes and high stakes writing assignments that take for granted each student has something important to say.


Tougaw, J. (2009). “Dream Bloggers Invent the University.” Computers and Composition 26, 251-268.

Gaipa, Mark. “Breaking into the Conversation: How Students Can Acquire Authority for Their Writing.” Pedagogy 4.3 (2004), 419-437.