Of “Course”

When we take a course, as we do while traveling or for getting an education, we expect to move along a linear path, with milestones along the way, to a certain goal of experience or learning. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a course, as someone pointed out while I was doing a presentation at the Consortium on Graduate Communication summer institute at George Mason University recently. I was presenting on a modularized and student-centered graduate writing course (the subject of this post), and a colleague said: “No, this is not a course! It is essentially an online writing lab!” I think the lack of structure, especially a linear structure and control by the teacher, prompted her to say so.

A course, as a path, or as a curricular/pedagogical framing, occupies space (physical in the case of travel and intellectual and social in the case of education). But, more significantly, the expectation of linearity, of following a certain order of actions or goals, makes temporality override the spatial dimension of a course. It is not going through/over certain points in any order that makes it a course: it is the particular sequence of the points, the linear design, the timed nature, that gives it structure and certainty. There are the scope/coverage and associated goals, but they are bound in time, and the instructor uses deadlines to help/force students to cover that scope, to achieve the goals that he or she has set for them.

Now, what happens if we take the linearity out of a course, or even temporality to the extent we can? What happens when we take structure and certainty out of it? What happens when as teachers we don’t require or ask students to follow us as we go over the course of action, as we have planned, from point A to B to C to the final destination? What if we ask students to decide where they want to start, what they want to include, and in what order they want to complete the selections they’ve made? What if it is okay to change their mind midway through the course and decide that they’re only going to practice a different set of skills than they originally planned, need our support on new/emerging challenges, get our support as and when they need it? What if, instead of deciding the content and activities and sequence and outcomes for them, we help them to do those things on their own—based on their backgrounds, their needs, and strengths?

Of course—and, I will get to this metaphorical phrase in a moment—I wouldn’t, without careful study and thoughtful piloting, turn traditional courses on their heads for all students (including undergraduate students) by letting them decide whether, what, and in what order they will learn what we try to teach. Instead, I am here thinking about more advanced undergraduate students who have figured out what the university is about and especially graduate students many of whom cannot afford to follow the set paths created by their professors. Even more specifically, as a writing instructor, I am thinking about teaching graduate students from across the university (rather than students in a graduate program in a home department).

Tracing Roots

Let me digress for a bit of etymology. The word “course,” comes from “cors” in Old French (12th century), meaning “run, running, or flow of water”; the French term is derived from Latin “curs,” which is a past participle of “currere,” or “to run.” In English, in the 1300s, the word signified “onward movement, motion forward, a running in a prescribed direction or over a prescribed distance; path or distance prescribed for a race, a race-course”; it also meant “order” or “sequence,” extending into “habitual or ordinary procedure” and into “in course of time” and “of course” (etymoline). Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines the modern English term, among others, as “accustomed procedure or normal action.” Another variation, also according Merriam-Webster’s is “an ordered process or succession” such as “a number of lectures or other matter dealing with a subject” (not to mention “a series of doses or medications administered over a designated period”). The term’s etymology further highlight the term’s semantic emphasis on order, especially prescribed order. The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia foregrounds this feature in its definition and etymology of the word:

a round or succession of prescribed acts or procedures intended to bring about a particular result; as, a course of medical treatment … a series or succession in a specified or systematized order; in schools or colleges, a prescribed order and succession of lectures or studies, or the lectures or studies themselves; curriculum: as, a course of lectures in chemistry, or of study in law. [e.g.,] A course of learning and ingenious studies. Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew, 1.1.

Like the “course” through which water is expected to flow, or other natural phenomena to occur, the word’s meaning in the context of education also assumes certainty. Some of the word’s meanings are applied to inevitable or naturally occurring processes (like the movement of the planets and the menstrual cycle), whereas others are applied to what humans have to do for the best outcome (like a regimen of medical treatment or the dose of medicine to be given)–with more meanings emphasizing inevitability, structure, and outcome rather than flexibility and openness.

The phrase “of course” most poignantly foregrounds the sense of certainty about order and occurrence. The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia shows the phrase as evolving from “by consequence, in regular or natural order” around the mid 1500s, and then as “something to be expected” in the mid 1700s:

Of course, by consequence; in regular or natural order; in the common manner of proceeding; without special or exceptional direction or provision, and hence, as was expected; naturally; in accordance with the natural determinate order of procedure or events; as, this effect will follow of course. [e.g.,] They both promis’d with many civil expressions and words of course upon such occasions. –Evelyn, Diary, Sept. 15, 1651.

Wiktionary adds that the adverbial phrase comes from “by course” in the 1300s; the modern “of course” (being a shortened from “of the ordinary course of events”) seems to only strengthen the logical link (with “of” suggesting naturally belonging to) between prescribed path and certainty. Even the modern “course” of meal, a unit or set served “at one time,” has an extended meaning, as a series of different meal items served. The server decides, and linearity is implied, with the linearity being only disrupted when the meal is turned into a buffet, a community event or guest-driven activity. Otherwise, “as a matter of course,” the course of the meal, education, or travel must run as expected or certain, predetermined or driven by someone with authority or responsibility to run whatever business it is. You can’t let a course just run its course, or let the actors/participants find their own course. See, the latter is not idiomatic.

The word “course” does imply space, as one meaning of it has evolved into, as in “golf course.” The spatiality of the term, even in its temporal applications, is an elephant in the room, for there is no “course” in time without a course in space. However, whether we think about a course of action, a treatment plan, a learning program, or generally a customary sequence of something, the notions of order (prescribed, preplanned, and supposed to be followed in a linear fashion) remain.

Coursing Education

Let us now put the meanings and evolutions of the word back to the context of graduate writing support. I wrote a book focusing on international graduate students recently, based on a study of support practices at 20 universities around the country (with additional data distantly collected from 15 more). I talked to faculty and staff members who work with graduate students (in this case international) and I tried my best to understand the perspectives and experiences of the students themselves. The book, Writing Support for International Graduate Students: Enhancing Transition and Support, takes an ecological perspective in its attempt to theorize the ways in which international graduate students said they “learned to write.” They explore broad, partially hidden ecologies of support, resources, programs, and networks far beyond formal/organized programs. They hacked existing support and resources in ways that their providers couldn’t think about or easily address when designing their programs. The students are simply too diverse in their educational and cultural backgrounds, their academic levels and needs for writing skills, their ability to use and the ways in which they use the support, and so on.

If we focus on international graduate students to illustrate the challenges of temporal, linear organization of curriculum, we could break down the challenges of conventional graduate writing support courses into three areas. The first is that these students are advanced writers who not only have highly specialized needs; they are also mature students with challenges and responsibilities in their personal/social lives that affect their ability to take conventional courses. They lack time and they need on-demand support which is hard for courses to provide.

Second, it is not easy benefit graduate students with writing courses because writing departments usually have to put students from many different departments into one class; they cannot possibly offer discipline-specific courses due to lack of resource and cannot possibly run them due to lack of students. Graduate writing course instructors also suffer from students’ mentors in their home departments making all kinds of demands (including some that I have found demeaning); these demands emanate from discipline-based ideologies about writing, language, and international students in particular.

Third, international graduate students have additional, or at least unique, challenges with their writing, and it is harder for generic writing courses to address them all—even when the instructor is informed about these students and willing to address their distinct challenges through the design of the course or additional/customized support. For one thing, international graduate students are brought in as “top talent,” which assumes that they are too good to need any help (beyond a good writing score in the tests). Closer engagement with these students will further show that there are many dimensions in the process of their “learning to write.” I have categorized them into five in my book, each with a key term starting with C: (1) competence in the language, (2) composition skills, (3) mastery of content knowledge that may be new or presented in the form of intellectual stances, (4) ability to situate writing in contexts beyond the disciplinary, and (5) confidence to use writing to enter the conversation. These additional realities about international graduate student writers make it challenging for conventional courses to meaningfully, substantively address their needs.

There are many other types of writing support, including boot camps, writing groups, one-off or series of workshops from which to choose, webinars that mimic workshops in the online space, writing center tutorial sessions. But none of them substitutes the affordances and advantages of offering writing courses, meaning if the courses are well designed. There are many advantages of getting a group of students to work together in a sustained manner with an expert instructor. Courses can require a certain amount of work to be done, that is, even when instructors do not determine all or most of the course’s content and learning goals. It is easier to offer credentials to courses. And courses are built upon sustainable institutional curricular structures related to registration, promotion, recruitment, funding, use of learning management systems, space allocation (in onsite courses), instructor assignment, and sense of community.

Changing Course

The design of graduate-level writing courses, however, seems to demand some fundamental updates. I believe that we must begin by unpacking some key assumptions about what a “course” is, abandoning major norms about it that are too ossified.

We must begin by replacing two key T words with two key S words. First, instead of designing graduate writing courses with a temporal focus, we need to do so by treating them as spatial entities. We should offer these courses as buffet dinner, with skills/learning units laid out for students to pick whatever they need and start and end wherever they like. Students should be able to create their own course of action, using their own schedules, seeking our support as and when they need it.

Second, instead of designing graduate writing courses as teacher-dominated, we need to make them student-driven. Courses can be student driven, not only when we allow students to choose what units they want to complete and in what order but also when we let them go as deep or far as they want to go—depending on how much time, need, etc, they can afford. This can be done by simply using pass/fail grading so students only have to satisfy minimal demands and can go higher up the ladder of quantity and quality of work. There is certainly some risk in this approach—as I learned firsthand when I piloted a modularized and student-centered writing course (MASLOW, more on this later) in the spring of 2019—but the tradeoffs of fostering student agency and letting them explore a course as they wish are likely to be usually positive. Modularizing is key to making the course non-linear and making is less controlled by the professor teaching it; the online platform and the way the course is designed complements to modularization; pedagogy has to complete the triangle.

Modules in a graduate writing course can be units of related skills, with practical exercises that are scaffolded with some rhetorical knowledge basis. For example, a module can be designed around the skills of academic “citation” by including exercise that lead to discussion (or readings that lead to exercises) on how to cite mechanically correctly, rhetorically effectively, and ethically responsibly. Similarly, a module (or two) can created to cover genres of writing that are usually expected in the academic job market. Or, a module can even focus on the need to complete a task such as a dissertation chapter, to foster accountability and habits of writing, or even to enhance confidence-building in student writers.

Centering students in this case is not simply a new spin on the conventional “student-centered” pedagogy; it is fundamentally rethinking teacher expertise, instructor positionality, curricular structure, and … It is not just rethinking the roles and relations of instructor and students, the use of curricular materials, and power relationship among the people and with content of the course. Especially when a modularized and student-driven course is conducted online, it also involves radical giving up of control over the structure and implementation of the course. The teacher doesn’t tell students what to do, when to do it, and how far to go. The teacher provides the resources, support, and expert advice and takes often extreme risks of the course falling apart when viewed from conventional perspectives (even in the domain of student-centered teaching).

Student agency is the catalyst that makes all the difference in the complex landscape of graduate-level writing that students face and writing instructors try to intervene with their courses, alongside writing programs and other academic units on campus that offer a variety of other support programs. Using online platforms and pedagogy can help the writing instructor to foster that agency, as I was able to do when I piloted the MASLOW (modular and student-centered learning of writing) project in spring 2019. My colleague Cynthia Davidson and I have done some writing about the affordances of the approach on the website of a grant project with the above name. While preparing to pilot the course last spring, I also wrote some notes about how students might be successful in a course like this (visualization is by Cynthia, with some contribution to the post as well). Basically,

Basically, MASLOW is a platform mainly with Blackboard learning management system which has modules that students can choose and complete in any order, instead of completing them (or a full course) by following the instructor’s schedule. Based on SUNY 2017 IITG (Innovative Instructional Technology Grant) support, this is a pedagogically sound fully online (asynchronous) course delivery system and resource. It was originally created for international graduate students who need help with their academic and professional writing and/or need help acclimating to U.S. graduate education, but we had to adapt the framework to accommodate domestic graduate students as well (because we didn’t have the resource to offer separate sets of modules for the two groups). The only limitation was that students could take two, four, or six modules by completing any two modules per month. The half-credit modules used quiz-integrated videos about US higher education and graduate-level writing, strategic reading and literature review exercises, practice sets for effective citation; reflective essays based on interviewing mentors and advanced students, demonstrations for TAs to help their students with writing, instructor feedback on their writing for publication, and resources and discussions for learning writing skills for the job market. There is an open-access (public-facing) website where students can learn a few things; we also created discussion threads for practicing some writing skills, but there is a lot more we would need to do to make this part appealing enough for students to engage in it. More of the materials and exercises from within the credit-bearing modules in Blackboard would need to be moved over to the public site to make the latter worth students’ time.

Let me wrap up this blog (which is getting long) by sharing a few of my experiences from the first implementation of the model at Stony Brook University.

Experiencing It 

I found that students liked the structure and approach of the modular course. Students benefited from the independence with which they could work and not just the choice of modules and flexibility offered by the online platform. As instructor, I was highly accessible to them, using gentle pressure and sending gentle reminders to work with me and seek my support. They were not required to meet with me, but most of them met regularly (with one or two more than I wished they did, though it didn’t go as far as me needing to tell them!). It was not just the asynchronicity of the online course but the option of doing as much as they wanted even within the modules they chose and could complete them at their own pace. They did need to complete two modules per semester, taking two, four, or six modules for one, two, or three credits respectively. The instruction of each activity had a point score next to it, and students had to earn 70% to pass the course; they could do more than the required activities, and many of them decided to complete such activities. Course evaluation of this course (WRT621-M) was as good if not better than that of the onsite counterpart WRT621, with a few suggestions to improve the course.

I must add that there is value in authority and structure, and I hope that an increasing number of instructors in the Program will gradually figure out effective ways to put that to work without undermining students’ agency and autonomy. I hope to harness the affordance of authority and structure as well, when I teach the course again. And I look forward to joining conversations about design, pedagogy, technology, and so on with colleagues.

One challenge that I found striking when I taught the course was that, largely because of the modular design of the course, it was hard to make students collaborate or even share feedback around modules. Students took advantage of both independence and instructor support but they also unwittingly turned the student-centered nature of the course into an individual-centered one, rather than a student-as-community centered format that I hope I could make.

Another significant challenge was that students tended to complete the required two-modules-per-month by working hard mostly toward the end of the month, rather than spreading them out throughout the month. I did try to prompt and prod and cajole them to spread out work, but unlike with the writing-process projects, many of them didn’t follow my demands and instead barely completed the modules toward the end of the month, often asking for extension. The survey data showed that they overwhelmingly blamed themselves for this. I blamed the design of the course, and when I teach next time, I plan to require one module every two weeks.

If we focus on international graduate students, a number of distinct issues will become salient and must be addressed accordingly, such as what academic writing education they’ve had in the past, which of the many writing and communication skills demanded by their graduate programs they’re most ready to learn, and so on. But because the course serves all graduate students, some of the challenges of international students have been masked; it is harder to pay the attention they deserve, while there may be certain benefits of mainstreaming them. That is to say nothing about the challenges of making the modules more adaptable to students from different disciplines, as well as students at different stages of their graduate programs.

Research Directions

The intersections of the different challenges above are issues to be addressed by future research at the intersections of writing support for graduate students, distinct challenges of international students at this level, writing in the disciplines, and online education. The framing of that intersecting investigation could be interface design, diversity of students and their needs, challenges and affordances of online pedagogy, and so on.

One thing that is clearer to me, especially after teaching a modularized and student-centered writing course online, is that especially at the graduate level, there is a need to rethink the very concept and practice/traditions of the “course.” Should we reinvent or substitute the course with something else for all students at all levels and in all kinds of courses? No, I am no MOOC-ophile looking for technomagicological solutions or willing to join any hopelessly purposeless “disruptions” for higher education. But should we venture into bold, even seemingly very risky experiments like the MASLOW?

Of course!

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