Changing Course: A New Form of First-Year Writing

by Alexander Mika, ’21 (CLAS)

Recently, the University of Connecticut’s First-Year Writing program redesigned course curriculum and is in the process of implementing those changes at the regional campuses. The new course, ENGL 1007 (Seminar in Academic Writing and Multimodal Composition), features a Writing Across Technology curriculum that encourages students to engage with and develop academic inquiry in a variety of modes. In this interview with Alex Gatten, visiting assistant professor and associate director of First-Year Writing, he examines the past, present, and future for FYW at UConn. 


Time for a Change

The redesign process began a few years ago when Professor and Aetna Chair of Writing Brenda Brueggemann became the director of First-Year Writing at Storrs. As Gatten explains, “There was an idea to develop and move the program forward and start incorporating what’s referred to as multimodal writing, which is an approach that acknowledges that writing isn’t just linguistic: it also has spatial, gestural, visual, and aural components.” Lisa Blansett, an associate professor in residence and the recently-appointed director of the First-Year Writing Program, notes that the curricular revision continues the program’s tradition of asking students to develop meaningful inquiries as they engage with challenging ideas and complex texts. Ultimately, according to Blansett, “the course helps students rethink their own composing practices as they experiment with new ways of making meaning.” 

One aspect of the redesign project involved re-examining writing-as-process that had framed for decades as linear and discrete, when “we understand that writing and composing are themselves messy, recursive practices,” says Blansett. “We have these assumptions ingrained in us about writing,” Gatten points out, “Where we’re trying to get that perfect finished product. And even though we usually recognize that we can’t ever get there, traditional process-oriented pedagogies persist in being very product-focused. We wanted to return to being a program that was more attuned to multiple processes of writing.” In line with this philosophy, Blansett and Brueggemann and their team designed a set of “course moves”  which are meant to serve as “a flexible methodology that makes visible composing activities of experienced writers, while also encouraging students to make contributions to knowledge,” according to Blansett. Team members also wanted students to develop writing practices and strategies that would take them beyond the classroom in a range of disciplines. 

The initial plans for the redesign were taking shape around the same time that Gatten began working as a graduate assistant director and contributing to the curriculum redesign, which also coincided with a state and University budget shortfall. “We wanted to make sure that it remained an appropriately challenging foundational course and that we held onto the core principles of the curriculum and multimodality,” Gatten recalls, “But we also needed to address the financial pressures.” The team worked hard to secure multiple grants from campus partners and external sources so they could continue to develop the new curriculum while also sharing the burden of budget cuts with the English Department. 


The Current State

The new course, ENGL 1007, was developed from a set of five “course moves:” collecting and curating, engaging, contextualizing, theorizing, and circulating. Students who are working with “contextualizing,” for example, might research where an idea comes from, read other texts that engage with similar questions, dig into archives for gaps in records. While working on “engaging,” students work putting other works to use responsibly, and to expand their own repertoires of “use” beyond quoting a few words from a text to serve a limited role as validation or foil. “Students tend to see other works as something they are only supposed to agree or disagree with, but there are so many other ways we can engage with others’ work beyond restating their arguments and adopting them as our own” suggests Blansett, “so we ask students to spend time examining and experimenting with ways to engage other authors. Ultimately, we want students to interact with texts as experienced writers do, in more nuanced ways.” 

“The class is structured to highlight each of these moves of writing in a sustained way,” Gatten explains, through major assignments or an activity or something that’s associated with each of those course moves at some point during the semester.” While the goals of each assignment are concrete, the assessment opportunities are designed to allow for original forms of presentation and organization: “Our goal was to have assignment prompts that had more specific and direct writing goals without also then siloing students into ending up creating hundreds of the same type of project.” 

Collaboration is a crucial element of this new course. In ENGL 1007, instructors are encouraged to create spaces for collaborative projects, and it was in a collaborative environment that these assignments were created. 

“Our instructors have really been important to us and to the process,” Gatten notes, “I want to give some credit here. When we were piloting the course last year, the graduate students who were teaching the pilot met with us and worked with us on their materials. We got a lot of our recommendations and ideas from them.”

Not only are the students in 1007 working together on certain projects and providing each other feedback, but they are engaging with students from other sections of the class, as well. “There’s research that shows that when first year writing students are able to work with and interact with students in different classes that it helps them pedagogically,” Gatten explains. “Allowing students from different sections to come together allows them to see how the practices of collecting and curating, for example, work in different contexts.” In a further effort to learn more about what students do in the classes, Gatten and Blansett began hosting “Meet the Directors” chats with undergraduates. Blansett recalls that they’ve “had such a great time learning about students’ individual projects,” including in several conversations learning that
an early assignment helped them reconsider what they had thought were isolated, but once they had collected and curated interviews about other people’s experiences in education, they saw some interesting questions emerge that they then became very invested in pursuing.” The directors also saw how much the new course moves helped students envision composition as more than “filling a template or cycling through to produce a draft, revise a draft.”  “Students have really grasped the transferability of these course moves; they say things like ‘finally, I know what I can do to write.’” 


Looking Forward

A collaborative environment is difficult to maintain in an online learning scenario, according to Gatten. Nevertheless, the program learned from undergraduates during the first semester during this pandemic that they missed deep interaction with each other about their projects. Blansett and Gatten worked with the Storrs Registrar to implement more opportunities for synchronous sessions. They also worked with the team to develop more activities and assignments that provided opportunities for students to work more closely together in a time of limited social interaction. When in-person instruction resumes, ENGL 1007 courses will once again be able to take advantage of the new Studio in the Storrs-campus Austin building, a space that was designed and furnished through a grant won from the Steelcase Corporation. The Studio space makes the pedagogy of active learning a spatial imperative with its flexible seating arrangements (including tables, chairs, couches, and “bouys”). The space itself welcomes students to make themselves more comfortable. The room also houses tools for making that range from low-tech paper and pencils to ipads, audio and video equipment. “We wanted anyone who takes the course to have equal access to technology, and we’re grateful that we were able to collaborate with the English Department, the College of Letters Arts and Sciences (CLAS), and the Information Technologies folks to make that happen,” says Blansett.

In addition to creating a space that provides equitable access to tools, the new curriculum also allows for change towards more equitable instruction. “We’re also excited about the fact that this allows for a push for anti racist instruction,” Gatten remarks. “We wanted to design a curriculum that allows students who are from diverse backgrounds to contribute and develop projects that aren’t hemmed in by limitations placed upon them.” 

As the new course is phased in across all campuses, the regional writing coordinators and liaison will play an integral role in adapting the curriculum for the individual needs and resources at each campus. The FYW program team members look forward to learning more about how students at regional campuses engage with the new curriculum.