Test post page

The page would have a fancy title, like “Writing at Bates’ Fancily Titled Blog!!!”


This is a page to see if I understand how pages and posts interact.

Tools for Better, Faster Grading

By Dan Sanford on March 12, 2019

Commenting on and grading papers can be one of the most time-consuming parts of faculty life. Changing your approach by using a few research-based principles and tools can not only reduce the amount of time you spend grading, it can also make you a better teacher of writing.

Writing for Critical Thinking

By Dan Sanford on November 1, 2018

We all know good critical thinking when we see it, but what is it— and how can we use writing to encourage it?

Writing @ Bates on the Road – Getting There and Setting Up

By Eric Dyer on May 2, 2018

We’re doing something a little different here.  Eric Dyer, who works full time as the Administrative Coordinator for Writing @ Bates, is also serving as a Course Coordinator for The Buddhist Himalaya, a Short Term course taking place off campus, in Ladakh, a Himalayan region of India.  In this role, while Professor Melnick teaches about Buddhism as it exists in Ladakh, Eric will be ensuring that the class is able to get where they need to be, that they are fed, housed and comfortable, and that they experience an appropriate minimum of sunburn, culture shock and gastric distress.  He will also be writing about the class’ experience doing academic work outside the physical confines of the academy.  In order to meaningfully organize the presentation, we’ll break this up into three updates, tentatively titled “Getting There and Setting Up,” “Starting to do the Work,” and “Putting it all together.”

Whew.  Big travel the last few days, with lots to remember.  So much time spent talking through logistics, housekeeping and general travel anxieties, getting ready for it all to happen, and then, all of a sudden, it happens!  I tend to think of our students as supernaturally adept creatures, and it’s humbling to work where we’ll be going well beyond their comfort zones, and to facilitate their successful navigation of these waters.

We started off with a full day of pre-trip meetings, last minute supply runs, and mentally preparing to embark.  So far, in the morning, everything felt like business as usual.  Just meeting with some students about the requirements for a somewhat unconventional course. In the afternoon, checking that everyone has the bare necessities, double-checking everyone’s passport and visa (funny story about why we do that), and speaking to cultural best practices and high-altitude acclimatization, it starts to feel a bit more like we’re about to do something a little bit crazy.  A combination of excitement and wonder that we’re about to make this strange journey, and anxiety that this venture will prove to be entirely foolhardy, wondering who in the world approved, or even proposed, this reckless venture?!?

Then, Tuesday.  A morning of quick procedural meetings with campus administration, a couple of hours to tie up loose ends and say our goodbyes, and we’re off!  Shuttle van picks us up on campus at 2PM, and the next day and a half are a blur.  Boston, 8 hours to Munich, 8 hours to Delhi, a 4-hour rest in the airport hotel, 2-hour flight to Leh.  Somehow, it’s Thursday morning, we just experienced the most breathtaking sunrise flight over the Himalayan range, we’re on both the other side of the world and the verge of collapse, the air is crisp and thin, the sunlight dazzling, and there is a van waiting to take us and (almost) all our luggage to our accommodations for upcoming week.

18 hours in flight and 10 hours of jet lag takes the pep out of anybody’s step; Thursday was entirely devoted to sleep and food.  Friday was still a light day, but with a little more structure.  We were introduced to our classroom, a borrowed traditional Ladakhi kitchen/dining room, had a discussion of fundamental Buddhist philosophy with a high-ranking monk, explored centuries-old Leh Palace, sitting above the city, the nearby fort, Namgyal Tsemo, and then toured Leh’s primary marketplace.  It seems as though we are becoming used to our surroundings.

In this time, I’ve seen students starting to get a handle on the course material, but a combination of the excitement of travel, sleep deprivation, and distance from Commons, Ladd and Pettengill has made that slow going.  In that same time, I’ve attempted to uphold my brash assurance that I would keep on top of my full-time duties while away, but a combination of the excitement of travel, sleep deprivation, and distance from my office and associated accoutrements has made that an imperfect process as well.  Hmmm.  I intended this space to discuss my observations of our students’ experiences doing academic work while remote from campus, but perhaps it would be more honest to include my own experiences as well.  More on that to come.

Nevertheless, here we are.  We have our classroom and some notion of what we’ll be studying.  We’re housed and fed, and know how to find a thing or two in town.  We are here.  More soon.

Implicit Bias and the Teaching of Writing

By Dan Sanford on March 12, 2018

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Yes, You have Implicit Biases, Too), David Gooblar challenges us to become aware of those latent prejudices that have inevitably developed within ourselves as we’ve been exposed, over the course of our lives, to harmful stereotypes. Gooblar highlights the work of psychologist Patricia Devine, who argues that stereotypes emerge as we form associations over our experiences. These stereotypes then become a lens that we bring to interacting with the world, as we act in unconscious ways to uphold the stereotype.

Writing is a particularly pernicious area for implicit biases to play out in. Multiple choice tests, quizzes, and other means of assessing student learning each bring their own possibilities for bias, but at least scoring of them is relatively straightforward. Writing is incredibly subjective. Scholars in different disciplines have wildly divergent ideas of what constitutes “good” writing, at every level from constructing sentences to constructing arguments. Moreover, each of us has our own, highly idiosyncratic list of pet peeves and things to reward.

Even error itself is more subjective than we tend to think of it. Compositionist John Bean writes in Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom:

Students’ prose contains fewer mistakes than teachers sometimes perceive… Almost every essay contains more grammatically correct sentences than incorrect ones. Instructors, however, tend to remember the error-filled sentences more clearly. Furthermore, research has shown that different readers will notice different errors and that some “grammatical errors”—like wordiness or passive voice—are really stylistic choices.

It can be challenging to describe in concrete terms what we value in writing. We tend to all agree that we like ‘clear prose’ and ‘well-organized ideas’, but as a list of operational criteria that someone unfamiliar with those terms might use to measure a piece of writing, what do those things actually look like? Writing is, in a word, mushy. Much of our reaction to a particular piece of writing (the way it makes us feel, the impression we form of the author) is at an unconscious level, and is therefore particularly prone to bias.

Yet more challenging is the fact that writing is mediated through language. Language is a minefield for a group of unconscious biases that sociolinguists refer to as language attitudes: ideas that purport to be about language, but are in fact reflections of individual and social ideas about groups of people. The coffee be cold and I might could do that are sentences that would be considered by many to be objectively wrong, but neither violates any logical principle of language. The first reflects a highly regular, rule-based aspect distinction (that the coldness of the coffee is an on-going state rather than a one-time occurrence, as in the coffee cold). The second, which has two modal auxiliaries, is a sentence the gloss of which would be considered acceptable in many other languages, including Dutch, German, and Chinese. Their so-called incorrectness isn’t a function of any inherent linguistic issue, but of bias: the former construction is associated with African-American Vernacular English, the latter with Appalachian English, speech varieties that have been (and continue to be) disparaged in the United States because of societal attitudes towards their speakers.

All of us have implicit biases, writing is a particularly fraught area for them, and language tends to amplify them. How, given all of this, can we hope to minimize the effect of implicit bias on our own work with students and their writing? There are no easy answers here, and we have a long way to go in higher education in resolving this issue—but we have two very powerful leads. To minimize the effect of implicit bias in your own work with student writers:

Be explicit about what you value in writing. When our ideas about writing are nebulous and implicit, it’s easy for them to become fertile ground for implicit biases to play out. When they are concrete and explicit, not only do we reduce the potential field in which prejudice can operate, we also make it easier for students to meet our expectations. Grading rubrics (particularly rubrics that you co-develop with your students) are one very powerful way to make your standards for assessing writing as objective, fair, and accessible as possible.

Know your own biases. All of us have implicit biases; they’re the inevitable result of coming of age within imperfect human societies. Only by becoming aware of our own biases, Devine and Gooblar argue, can we take positive action to counteract them in our work with students.

Interested in exploring your own biases, so that you can take positive action to correct for them? Project Implicit at Harvard University offers a free online tool that you can use to learn more about your own biases.


How to grade less, grade faster, and be a better teacher of writing.

By Dan Sanford on November 3, 2017

Ask any group of faculty what they find most taxing, frustrating, and draining about teaching, and late nights of grading large stacks of student papers reliably appears near the top of the list. Responding to student writers is one of the joys of teaching, but the raw volume of it— combined with doubts about whether the time we spend carefully writing out comments will translate to better student writing— can make it feel more like a chore than an opportunity to engage students as thinkers. Many faculty think of long hours spent grading student papers as the only way to honor the effort that students put into their writing, and to help their students to grow as writers. A growing body of research challenges this assumption.

Time spent grading can detract from other aspects of teaching.

There are only so many hours in a day, and the time that faculty spend grading is time that isn’t spent on other aspects of teaching. Moreover, fear of grading may actually inhibit faculty from trying new things with respect to writing. As Schinske & Tanner report in the 2014 essay Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently):

The time and energy spent on grading has been often pinpointed as a key barrier to instructors becoming more innovative in their teaching. In some cases, the demands of grading require so much instructor attention, little time remains for reflection on the structure of a course or for aspirations of pedagogical improvement. Additionally, some instructors are hesitant to develop active-learning activities—as either in-class activities or homework assignments—for fear of the onslaught of grading resulting from these new activities.

Students tend not to spend time with comments when they are attached to a final grade.

A common ritual of academic life is the midterm or final paper, dutifully graded over many late nights as students are on break, handed back with a letter grade and the faculty member’s long, thoughtful comments and feedback. Underwood & Tregidgo, in Improving Student Writing through Feedback: Best Practices and Recommendations (2006), seem to confirm our worst fears that this time is not well spent:

It has been shown that when overall grades are presented, students focus on comparing their scores to their peers’ scores, and do not focus on feedback that is included for purposes of improvement. That is, when a grade is given, the impetus to revise is gone. Teachers should consider not presenting an overall grade along with feedback.

Feedback is far more effective earlier in the writing process, when students are drafting and revising. Furthermore, if the goal is to create a class of better writers, learners, and critical thinkers, the instructor serving as the only source of feedback for student writing may deprive students of an important chance for growth.

Students grow as writers by serving as editors, coaches, and even evaluators of the work created by their peers.

Sadler & Good write, in The Impact of Self- and Peer- Grading on Student Learning (2006), that:

Judging the correctness of answers is an additional opportunity for students to deepen their understanding about a topic. Reading another’s answers or simply spending time pondering another’s view may be enough for students to change their ideas or further develop their skills (Bloom & Krathwohl, 1956; Boud, 1989). Embedding grading as a part of a student’s learning experience can have benefits that go beyond learning specific subject-matter content (Brown, 1987)… Students become more aware of their own strengths, progress, and gaps (Alexander, Schallert, & Hare, 1991; Black & Atkin, 1996). Pupils develop a capacity to take initiative in evaluating their own work (Darling-Hammond, Ancess, & Faulk, 1995) and use higher order thinking skills to make judgments about others’ work (Bloom, 1971; Zoller, 1993; Zoller, Tsaparlis, Fastow, & Lubezky, 1997).

This is certainly not to suggest that faculty, as experienced teachers of writing and as expert writers and thinkers within their fields, aren’t an important audience and source of feedback for the writing that their students create. But an important question to ask for any particular assignment is whether the goals of the course are better served by faculty feedback, student feedback, or some combination of the two.

Mentoring Students as Writers

If long hours of providing intensive feedback on student writing doesn’t help our students to grow as authors within the areas of inquiry to which we are inviting them, what does? Anderson, Anson, Gonyea & Paine report in The Contributions of Writing to Learning and Development: results from a Large-Scale Multi-Institutional Study (2014), a large study that analyzes a host of data from the National Survey on Student Engagement, point to 3 factors that have a well-attested impact on student outcomes: interactive writing processes, meaning-making writing tasks, and clear writing expectations (more on those below). The study also has one more important implication for the time we spend grading.

Longer papers ≠ better writing

Anderson, Anson, Gonyea & Paine write that:

Effective writing practices are associated much more strongly than the amount of writing with greater student learning and development… There are undoubtedly instances where there is no student writing or so little that more would be salutary. However, the important lesson from our study is that quality matters— that in many situations it would be better to place more emphasis on the design and use of the assignments than on the number or size of them.

Shorter writing assignments that take less time to grade (for example, microthemes) can be just as effective (if not more so, if designed in a way that honors the three principles above) as longer ones, and take much less time to grade.

What do I do now?

Interested in following Anderson, Anson, Gonyea & Paine’s data-informed advice on helping your students to grow as writers? There are a host of easily implementable tools that both follow principles of effective writing pedagogy, and reduce time spent grading. To engage your students in interactive writing processes, try conferencing with students early in the writing process, sending them to the Writing Center before final drafts are due, or implementing a peer review cycle. To have students grow as writers through meaning-making writing tasks, invest the time you’d usually spend grading on assignment design instead: create prompts that ask your students to think critically about problems that matter to them, and to write for an audience (even if an imagined one) with a stake in their ideas. To supply your students with clear writing expectations, create grading rubrics that both make clear to your students the complex, often discipline-specific criteria that are being used to assess their writing, and make grading a much faster, less painful process for you.

Often, we teach writing based on our own experiences as students, and a sense that if we’re not doing things in the way that our professors did, we’re not doing the things that we’re supposed to do as teachers of writing. Recent research on how student learn to write points to ways that we can do better. It’s a happy surprise that many of these strategies can mean less time grading, and more time innovating (or, as is often even more important for ourselves and for our students: sleeping).

Writing to Win vs. Writing to Evolve

By Bridget Fullerton on October 5, 2017

In the face of outright racism, sexism and “alternative facts,” an imperative and fundamental skill we teach students is how to find sources that support a particular claim and then to use those sources in forming a well-reasoned argument that persuades others; in other words, we teach students how to use research to take a firm stance against dangerous and ill-conceived rhetoric. We teach them to win an argument. It is helpful to know, however, that other discursive strategies exist for argumentation and that these strategies may test our students in ways that are uncomfortable and awkward, but that are also (and importantly), generative and healthy–like growing pains.

In my teaching of argumentative writing, I have been guided by Sonja K. Foss and Cindy L. Griffin and their offering of invitational rhetoric as an alternative to what they call a “patriarchal bias” in the field of composition and in college writing classrooms towards a “rhetoric of persuasion,” or what the late Wayne Booth called “Win-Rhetoric” many moons ago. Foss and Griffin have taught me that when I give writing prompts that ask students to engage in a rhetoric of “conquest, conversion, and advice,” my students can only win when they “change the behavior and perspectives of others” and if they don’t do that, they fail (rhetorically and, perhaps, they fail the assignment as well).

In this model, however, too much power resides in beating others, in winning; that’s a lot of pressure! And I’m not convinced such an approach is conducive to critical thinking and the cognitive dissonance1 such thinking requires. Foss and Griffin invite teachers of writing, instead, to move towards a more mutually empowering view of argument–one that is invitational, one that “assumes the form of an offering, an opening, or an availability, and not an insistence.”

Barry Kroll similarly suggests teaching argument not with a closed-fist approach (ready to punch, pound, and win), but with an open-handed approach which he gets from his training in Aikido, a Japanese martial art that means “the way of harmonious spirit.” When students are taught to argue with an open hand, Kroll posits, argument becomes both “a gesture of peaceful intent” and “a way to establish a connection with an adversary in order to receive aggressive energy and redirect it.” Kroll writes that the open hand “is neither belligerent nor passive, neither confrontational nor submissive, yet it has within its reach elements of both assertiveness and receptivity.”

I have come to believe that effective argumentative writing can include these seemingly paradoxical notions and that our writing assignments can ask students to be responsible and responsive to not only their own stances, complimented by research, but also to the perspectives of all other stakeholders in a complex issue, including those outside the field or academy. This takes a willingness to hear the perspectives of those who feel differently from us, who may be “less educated” or from discourse communities we have little experience with.

It also requires writing assignments that move students away from Win-Rhetoric and towards outcomes that honor the sovereign spirit of each human being affected by an issue–no matter which “side” each being is on. Booth calls this Listening-Rhetoric, where “both sides join in a trusting dispute, determined to listen to the opponent’s arguments, while persuading the opponent to listen in exchange.” The object, according to Booth, is “not just victory but a new reality, a new agreement about what is real.”

Argumentative writing assignments from this perspective, then, require students to practice humility and compassion and to feel comfortable–or at least okay–with discomfort as they seek to accept the possibility that they may not win, that they may be wrong (or at least not fully right), and that even the best sources may not help them make the most convincing argument, particularly if the audiences they reach out to simply don’t trust those “best sources.” The point, then, is not made in a student’s argument so much as in the affective and evolutionary outcomes of his argument–on all stakeholders involved, himself included.

With these alternative rhetorical approaches to argument in mind, then, I wonder (with you):

  • In what ways do our writing assignments ask students to win, to be right, and/or to use sources only to persuade others to accept a particular view, and to what effect(s)?
  • How might our writing assignments encourage students to invite various and even dissenting stakeholders to the table, honoring the perspectives of those both inside and outside our fields and the academy?
  • How can writing assignments require a balance of students’ assertiveness and receptivity, compassion, humility and conviction?
  • Where in our writing assignments might we give students opportunities to listen, compose, and deliver new realities, offer new agreements about what is (or could be) real? To change (or evolve) their own thinking about an issue?
  • How, in other words, can we encourage students to openly wonder (in writing) about possibilities and not just confirm what is already thought im/possible?


1 – Thank you, former W@Bates staff member, for this great read I came across on our FYS Instructors Lyceum page. Want access? Please request from writing@bates.edu.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Student Writing

By Stephanie Wade on September 18, 2017


I still remember snippets of comments my professors wrote on my papers when I was an undergraduate thirty years ago:  “”Next time think before you write;” “This is a tour-de-force;” “These are gentle and sane views…”  Back in the late 80s and early 90s, I did not know that the field of composition studies existed. I did not know that researchers study professors’ comment on students’ work and the impact of these comments on the students. I just knew that my professors comments mattered to me.


Now, I know more.


I know the feeling of being an adjunct instructor, a graduate teaching assistant, a lecturer, a professor; of juggling professional work with pregnancy, childrearing, eldercare. I know what it’s like to carry around folders bulging with papers to read, to comment on, to grade. I know what it’s like to log onto Canvas or Blackboard where my list of papers to read runs off the computer screen. I know what it’s like to be overwhelmed by all of this.


Now, thanks to the work of composition research, I also know that I have options.


Peter Elbow taught me to distinguish ranking, evaluating, and liking, so I read my students’ work in different ways at different points in the term.


Nancy Sommers taught me to first comment on my students’ thinking, to avoid marking every error, and to see my comments as an opportunity to engage in a dialogue with my students.


Maja Wilson taught me to think critically about rubrics so that I encourage students to take ownership of their work.


Jill Dahlman taught me  to use my comments as a springboard for discussion, so often I take only make brief notes while I read students’ work and then I meet with them individually. During these meetings, I ask lots of questions and I have students write up their own comments based on our discussion.


I hope to make four main points here: 1) Comments on students’ work matter; 2) They take time; 3) There’s good research about how to write effective comments; and 4) There are many good ways to apply this research.


My goal is to entice you to see me or Bridget Fullerton so we can talk about what we talk about when we comment on students’ writing and so we help you see your options, make good use of your time, and craft comments that encourage your students to grow.


A Somewhat Belated Introduction

By Eric Dyer on April 7, 2017

I’ve been the Administrative Coordinator for Writing at Bates for roughly half a year, and I think this post is as good a venue as any to introduce myself to the community at large.  I grew up in southeast Michigan, and attended a small, academically rigorous high school there, which emphasized building core writing competency across strong humanities, social science and natural science programs.  Many of my classmates went on to enroll in colleges much like Bates.  I did not.  For reasons that made a lot of sense at age 17, and to memorably pursed lips of my guidance counselor, I elected to attend the University of Michigan instead.

I arrived on Michigan’s campus notably over-prepared for the freshman experience there.  One of the clearest memories I have of my first semester was in the first week of my freshman writing seminar, when the professor ended the first class with a 2-3 page written assignment for the following session. This didn’t strike me as being notably rigorous, and with characteristic freshman eagerness, I instantly jotted the prompt in shorthand and took a minute to rough in the basics of an outline while everything was fresh.  I looked up to see nearly the entire rest of my class staring at either me or the blackboard in bewilderment and horror.  While it took me several years to find a challenge I was sufficiently passionate about to inspire the effort necessary to complete my undergraduate education, I eventually graduated with a major in philosophy, spending much of my final year focusing on the philosophy of language and cognition.

Since finishing at Michigan, I have worn several hats: cobbler for Birkenstock, management at a small brewery, each for a few years, and then nearly 10 years working for Whole Foods Market in a variety of team leadership positions, including work as a fishmonger, cicerone, cheesemonger, grocer and leading cash operations.  While these jobs seem disparate on the surface, they have all been consistent with some of my most deeply held values – namely community building, sustainability and human potential via empowerment.  In all the work I have chosen to do, and in some of the most unexpected ways, my ability to write has proven to be an asset; in fact, having some degree of writing ability has frequently enabled me to create opportunities for both myself and others, and the act of writing itself has been a constant companion through these years.  Written communications to vendors or customers which clarify concerns in ways that point to solutions for seemingly irreconcilable disagreements.  A painstakingly crafted email that caught the right person’s attention, inspiring them to dismantle unnecessary institutional barriers, allowing a quarter million dollars to be given directly to microloan programs in some of the poorest communities in Asia.  Journal entries I wrote for myself alone, that revealed simple solutions to seemingly insurmountable difficulties.  I am convinced that these are highlight-reel moments in my life, made possible not through any particular feat in reasoning, but rather through the application of my own training in writing. Strong writing education has been deeply empowering, on both psychological and interpersonal levels, and I am convinced that an education cannot be considered complete without enabling the student to express their ability through the written word.

With this in mind, I am thrilled to join Writing at Bates, and to have an opportunity to pay it forward, supporting the program in enabling Bates’ students to express themselves clearly and strongly through the written word.  It can only serve to help them go further, and do more good work in the world.  The campus community has been entirely welcoming in receiving me into this role, and gracious in providing guidance as I adapt to the unique aspects of the college campus as a workplace.  I am truly glad to be here.

Working with English Language Learners by embracing the challenges they face

By Daniel Sanford on March 10, 2017

One of the most common points of confusion and anxiety that I come across across in working with faculty is the question of how to assess and support English language learners. How does one engage with writing that can present as overwhelmingly loaded with surface errors? Can someone who doesn’t have formal TESOL training productively work with with ESL students? In giving feedback on ELL writing, what will actually be helpful? How do one’s usual standards for responding to student writing apply when the writing contains a number of disfluencies? At the root of all these questions is a tension between devotion to teaching on the one hand, and uncertainty of how to help on the other.

Languages are bewilderingly complex things. Every language variety is its own lovely, idiosyncratic, and largely illogical collections of structures, conventions, and ways of thinking about the world. Learning a language (or progressing in fluency) as an adult is a tremendous challenge; navigating an institution of higher education in a non-native language is a profound undertaking, worthy of the deepest respect. Alongside their journey towards full fluency and mastery of American discourse conventions, English language learners face the same challenge that any college writer faces— learning to navigate the complex thoughts, ideas, habits of mind, and styles of argumentation that exist within the academy and within academic disciplines—but do so without the benefit of being able to draw on the unconscious ease of communication we all enjoy in our native language.


English language learners, like all writers, are on a journey. TESOL specialists have an especially important role to play in helping ELLs along in this journey. But every one of us who uses and teaches writing in our courses stands to offer important assistance to ELL writers. We can do this by posing the questions to ourselves, for every course and for every assignment: where is this student in their progress as a writer and learner of English, and how can I best focus my energy to help them—not to full fluency, not to mastery of academic writing, but to the next stage in their journey? What feedback can I offer in service of this specific, targeted goal? How can my assessment of this student reflect my personal goal to help them along this path?


The most important assistance, however, that we can offer to English language learners is in respecting them as thinkers and writers, even (and especially) when disfluencies in writing make the underlying thought and argumentation hard to see. Most of the ways we can do this are good pedagogy for working with any student writer, regardless of language background: making sure to comment on argumentation and ideas, not just surface issues. Avoiding line-by-line commentary, highlighting patterns rather than isolated issues. Pointing out what’s being done well, in addition to what needs works. Providing, minimally, an early drafting phase to explore ideas without having to worry about surface polish. Creating a grading rubric that clearly identifies the percentage of grade based on grammar and word choice, and sticking to it. Above all, what we as teachers of writing can provide depends on our ability to see the student behind the writing, and to engage with ELL students as sophisticated thinkers and creators of ideas, even as they work towards mastery of English.

Using Portfolios to Teach Reflective Writing & Narratives of Learning

By Misty Beck on February 17, 2017

Whether you’re teaching a “W” course or not, in a twelve-week semester, fitting in the core aims of writing pedagogy is challenging. You have to offer multiple opportunities for writing in different forms, with varying stakes and audiences (and levels of feedback); to offer practice in substantive revision and thoughtful reflection; to help cement learning by creating a holistic account or thick narrative about that learning, to cultivate meaningful connections (or “assignments with legs“); to help students connect authentically to their learning and to connect that learning to broader communities; and to do as much of this with playful and earnest and timely attention, to boot.

It’s truly an art of juggling, a balancing act — one where often as not I drop at least one plate. To help provide a net for learning, I’ve turned to the portfolio model. Portfolios typically are a small edition of polished works, introduced by a reflective essay, often followed by a selection of works to illustrate process, and usually including an archive of relevant learning materials. There is rich literature in the field on the benefits of using portfolios to help students reflect on what they are doing, to develop meta-narratives of course learning in conversation with others, and to provide a richer context for revising and polishing their work. Portfolios also can help students bridge their learning as writers across our curriculum. Like any other strategy, they are not the be-all and end-all of accomplishing our aims in teaching writing, but they can help create a place where students can synthesize what they are learning about content and process.

Despite differences in what’s possible in paper vs online platforms, portfolios can build on key principles from writing transfer theory to help students develop awareness of their learning (metacognition), forge authentic connections to their purpose and audiences, and create a thick story of learning of both content and process. Students leave the class with a stronger sense of accomplishment and the relevance of their work to their education and their purposes in the broader world.

Here are slides from a recent presentation as a member of a panel on Using Portfolios in Classes, sponsored by the Faculty Commons. It draws on a handful of key threshold concepts for writing from Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle’s important anthology, Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies (2015). It also includes links to a few sample student portfolios, available to the Bates community.

My students’ portfolios are not perfect works. The early ones I assigned in my FYS “Reading the Wild” functioned more as an archive for course writing than as vehicle for reflection, synthesis and learning. There may still have been benefit to that process, as students had to engage in another level of revision, to select examples from earlier drafts and informal pieces, and thereby to create a fuller story of their education as writers.

In ENVR 450 “Environmental Writing in the Public Sphere,” senior ES majors designed portfolios to highlight a single larger work (or series of connected works) on a self-selected topic in their concentration, written for a public audience in a recognizable genre like the long form essay or referenced blog posts. Smaller pieces in different genres helped students experiment with different points of view and see their topic with fresh eyes. A substantive reflection on the process of writing and learning introduced the whole thing. Students were also free to use a platform of their own choosing.  For these seniors, as for most writers, it was a juggling act, as they shared what they learned as scholars with intended audiences who are not, all the while trying out new forms and media.

And for me, that process of learning, where we’re throwing plates in the air and hoping for lovely patterns but finding, inevitably, fragments on the floor — well (syntax be hanged), it is that process that helps us through to find and to create lasting meaning through our words, and impacts that go beyond our classroom doors.

Portfolios and Learning Transfer