By Samantha Timm and Chelsea Fesik
Have you ever wondered what it might be like to teach a class as an undergraduate? In this post, Samantha Timm and Chelsea Fesik will explore what it has been like to fall down the writerly rabbit hole and into the strange and wonderful world of peer mentoring and peer teaching. With one foot in the realm of the student, and the other in the realm of the teacher, we have had to think deeply about our positionality as peer writers, tutors, and instructors. How do these different identities shape the ways that we connect with our students? How have our academic backgrounds shaped our styles of teaching? This post will explore a myriad of questions, partially for your entertainment, dear reader, but also in order to make sense of what these experiences mean in our own lives. Buckle up, and enjoy the ride!
What we do:
So, what is it we do anyway? As undergraduate peer tutors, we are Writing Fellows who also teach the Rose Pathways Writing Project. In case you’re not familiar with the Writing Fellows Program, it extensively trains undergraduate student writers in peer mentoring. These peer mentors then work closely with a set of students over the semester from an assigned class to help them improve their writing. For more information on the program, you can visit http://www.writing.wisc.edu/writingfellows/index.html. As instructors, we use the skill set garnered from training and experience as Writing Fellows as a basis for our work in the the Rose Pathways Writing Project. This small writing workshop asks us to co-facilitate discussion and peer collaboration about writing and revision.
Teaching the Rose Pathways Writing Workshop has helped me consider my identity as a writer more deeply and realize the complex ways in which my experience with writing and visual analysis informs my identity and goals as an instructor in the teaching of writing. To demonstrate one of several formative experiences that have helped clarify my teaching philosophy, I will describe a tour I gave at the Chazen Museum of Art about two weeks ago. It is clear that the skills I’ve gathered from Rose Pathways have given me the ability to render my knowledge of Art History legible and comprehensible to the public.
First, I’ll attempt to narrate parts of the tour and how I crystallize my teaching philosophy each time I instruct a different audience. Then, I’ll proceed to describe how this might relate to writing studies and, by extension, the formation of my teaching philosophy. I received a tour request a few weeks ago for a highlights tour from Nathan Carpenter, an undergraduate senior and one of the board members of Alpha Epsilon Delta (AED). Alpha Epsilon Delta is a pre-medical student organization on campus. The highlights tour seemed “most appropriate” to Nathan, as he felt that “the tour is just to show some of our students that artistic side they might be missing.” When I asked him which kind of tour he would prefer, he answered, “I sometimes feel that we as pre-med students get caught up in the hustle and bustle of studying our chemistry or biology that we often don’t take enough time to appreciate the arts, one of the universal attributes of humanity.” I was very impressed by this insight and used it to organize and order my tour. “The highlights” differ for each docent, since what constitutes a highlight varies based on the tour guide as well as the audience’s learning abilities and (inter) disciplinary interests. In the case of AED, students seemed to have visited the museum infrequently or were about to embark upon their first visit. After asking the ten or to students present to provide their name, major, and experience in the Chazen Museum, I launched into an explanation of how I would run the tour and the kinds of questions I would consider throughout.
Before leaving the lobby, I told the group explicitly the following: that while there are several ways to look at art and interpret through an art historical lens, the best place to start if you are unfamiliar with the field or with museums on the whole is to figure out what you like. I found that, after providing the group with enough context to make them feel comfortable (such as the history of the 2011 building in which they were standing), in addition to praising the unique perspective on art that non-humanities brains offer, the group relaxed a bit and did not seem as timid as when they entered the museum. Moreover, during the tour, the group was engaged and highly interested in the artworks I narrated and provided context for. Students posed questions relating to the physical management of the artwork, such as, “how do you move and install these pieces?” and “how do you catalogue the artworks?” Other students made remarks about their curiosity about the formal aspects of a work. Many of these comments were visual, but directly tied to an evidence-based observation grounded in an eye trained in scientific close looking. I am wondering if this acuity is the combined result of my improvement as a museum educator – in asking more specific questions and incorporating group discussion more seamlessly into the tour – in addition to the pre-medical students’ training in visual and data-based comparisons.
It was in this nineteenth–century Impressionist Gallery (Gallery IV.) that the students started asking questions about the handling of the artworks and other aspects managing the collection that the public does not usually witness. At this point, I felt more confident in my evaluation of this group’s dynamics. I began to perceive how group members at first clustered around me as I spoke, and after asking for their visual commentary or about something that seemed interesting or odd to them, they dispersed and evaluated the works as individuals. Group members were discursive and willing to share their insights in this type of setting, and even came up to me with a question about a specific work of art, or commented on how a specific piece reminded them of their favorite artist. I find this relationship between movement and association fascinating. Though I have not quite worked out the ways in which the group dynamic in the gallery setting functions to facilitate discussion, it has a clear link to the formal and contextual work that the art is doing.
In association with the Rose Pathways Writing Project, both the pre-med students and the workshop students have demonstrated some degree of discomfort or hesitancy with unfamiliarity. I may have been reflecting this nervousness during the workshop in some ways, but did not in the case of the AED group. However, it is indeed useful to be able to relish a little in uncertainty and analyze what factors are at play within and without the classroom. In any case, it seems that my lack of “nervousness” when slipping into the role of peer museum educator with AED students came from the opportunity I had to frame many parts of the tour before commencing. I allowed time to identify the techniques I would use and exactly WHY I was consistently raising the question of formal elements, such as line and color, and how these techniques implied the context or content.
Most importantly, however, I kept the students engaged and maintained a positive tone of discussion by constantly praising them with phrases like, “That is a really good observation.” Thus, teaching and facilitating student interaction among each other and with art works in the museum indicates two transferable truths about writing groups. First, praise is essential and inspires the confidence students need to look and read uninhibited. Second, the extent to which instructors balance didactic lessons with student feedback and discussion determines their success.
Naturally, the exposure to different teaching philosophies while maintaining my role as writing tutor for a class of seven students has allowed me to understand how I might integrate art in the teaching of writing. I would like to reflect further upon the idea that a tutor can only accomplish so much by providing marginal comments and an endnote, something that one of our mentors, Anne Wheeler, mentioned to us. This forces writing tutors to set our expectations upon something specific, such as structure, or the prevalence and quality of analysis. While I’ve found this strategy to be extremely effective thus far, it is worth considering the outcome of pairing a writing workshop with the teaching of visual analysis. This combination of writing and close looking – at a painting, for instance – might allow tutors to address global concerns in a single piece of writing, in addition to empowering students with praise and acute observational analysis, might yield a more well-rounded approach to writing . While this has several implications in the field of composition and rhetoric as well as the visual pedagogy surrounding museum education and art history, its most immediate application is in the context of Rose Pathways.
Now, what does Chelsea have to say?
People say that the most profound experiences are the ones where disaster strikes. You know, the kinds of stories where the tornado gobbles up your living room while you’re watching from 50 feet away. Okay, so you might think I’m being dramatic here, but I had an experience in a Creative Writing class which felt like that. I was the bystander watching her story get literally sucked away by a tornado my classmates created. BUT it did provide me with a meaningful experience that shaped me as a writer and teacher.
Let me break this down for you. I love writing. Always have and probably always will. And while I have been given accolades for my writing throughout my life, I have always been very willing to hear critical feedback. I know that all writing needs to be constantly reworked and reshaped to stand on its own. That being said, I didn’t realize how much a plethora of negative feedback hurled at me all at once could decrease my desire to ever look at my story again. After this incident, I wanted to take my story, shred it, burn the remains, and feed the ashes to the sharks.
What happened, in a basic sense, was that I turned my story in, and rather than receiving almost any praise, what I got was a slew of unspecific complaints. The vagueness of most of the comments really bothered me because sure, I can take criticism, but only if it is specific and provides ways of thinking about remedies. And let’s face it. My draft was not perfect by any means. I did not think it was upon turning it in. But it was also not totally wretched either. Hearing some honest, specific praise about my piece would have helped me understand what I should keep in the story, and what techniques I was effectively using to convey emotion, character development, and voice.
As most Creative Writing teachers will tell you, a workshop can often take on a life of its own and stumble into a direction that is unhelpful for the writer. Unfortunately, because it is the readers that lead the workshop, the writer cannot respond to the points raised, even to ask questions of the group. Although there are valid reasons for this (i.e. writers might derail their own workshops with tons of questions, arguments with peers, etc.), it can have detrimental effects on a writer who cares about their story and wants to know why something didn’t work for the readers and what, in specific, could be changed so that it does.
I think what happened in my class is something that’s pretty common amongst people who are not formally trained in giving praise. What I noticed is that, after a certain point of only hearing criticism of my piece, I started to entirely shut down. Even if they had given me the best suggestions in the world, by the last fourth of the workshop, I was so emotionally drained from hearing so much negativity that I was flat out defeated. I admit that there could have been some wonderfully specific, nuanced, and respectfully phrased criticism by the end of the workshop that I just did not hear. The point I am trying to make here is not that my classmates are bad people, or that they were intentionally hurting my feelings. In fact, I’ve found some of my best friends in Creative Writing workshops because they are often very warm and inquisitive people. So, do I blame my classmates or teacher for this experience? Most definitely not. It’s clear that what they were lacking was three things: praise, empathy, and productive interruption. These are the rules I’ve taken from the experience…
Rule number 1: Tornadoes are not welcome in a Creative Writing Workshop. But PRAISE is! So, validate until you think your tongue and pen will bleed. Not the fluffy kind of praise we all roll our eyes at, but specific and honest validation that helps writers find confidence in their voices and ideas.
Rule number 2: Empathize. Empathize. Empathize. Writing is tricky business. Remind others that you did not pop out of the womb, pen in hand. In other words, it’s important to acknowledge that writing is a difficult process, and none of us were born with intrinsic writing skills — they were learned.
Rule number 3: Don’t be afraid to interrupt an unproductive peer workshop with a question. Distraction mentality can take over, hammering one point into the ground, while other significant ideas are left in the lurch, so ask away!
This episode helped me more clearly articulate many of the rules I have found myself following while teaching the Rose Pathways Writing Workshop. One lesson I’ve learned through this experience is that young writers, and really, all writers, need to hear that they are doing something right. Whether it is a simple sentence or a paragraph that feels honest, or a piece of evidence that has been supported well, writers just need to hear that they haven’t completely missed the mark. All of their ideas aren’t totally wrong. Because let’s face it. It is incredibly scary trying to translate the perfect image you have in your head onto a blank page. And it’s even harder when what is put onto that page is dictated by arbitrary prompts and professorial requirements. The difficulty can be overcome, however, by finding what’s good in someone’s writing.
I use praise in both my writing and in my teaching. In my writing, I have found praise is essential to cutting through writer’s block. While crafting a description or a moment of dialogue, my inner critic often sneaks into my thoughts, attempting to prevent me from accessing any truths I may have inside of me. However, I must combat this critic by finding something, anything, that I like about my piece. It could be a simple turn of phrase that sounds just right, or an image that feels emotionally salient, but I find one thing that I like about my piece. Doing this helps me to remember that I do have something to say, and that I must not listen to my inner critic when I am finding a way to say it. To me, praise is also an essential part of teaching because without it, we are left floundering in a sea of our own doubts, frustrations and cross outs. I’ve found that giving honest, specific praise to my students can transform their ability to fill up that horrifying blank page. And watching students build confidence in their skills as writers and thinkers is worth every moment of treasure hunting I do.
Building confidence in our writing is crucial, but so is being true to ourselves and the stories that we cherish. This is why academic writing can seem so pointless. Even I, English major nerd extraordinaire, have had the thought once or twice that academic writing can feel a bit unrelated to my life. How does writing a paper about the themes and arguments in Wuthering Heights actually relate to me and my values? As someone who is, frankly, obsessed with stories, I remind myself and my students that we should never forget that when we’re writing, no matter what it is, what we’re doing is telling a story. And that story is ultimately what matters. In the Rose Pathways Program, one thing I’ve tried to bring into the classroom is an understanding that writing, even academic writing, can be seen as a form of storytelling.
One way I have brought this Creative Writing perspective into the classroom was through an activity I planned to help students think about theses as narratives. I explained that rather than thinking about the concepts we are describing in our theses as abstract ideas, we can think of these concepts as characters in a story. For example, let’s pretend you are writing a paper about the ways that capitalism and competition are inextricably linked to each other. Capitalism and competition can be more easily understood as characters in a story, working with each other or against each other. And we can ask ourselves questions about these characters that we may not think about if we were imagining this was a regular old thesis. You can ask things like, what are these characters motivated by? Why do these characters act the way they do? How do these characters interact with each other, and why? Viewing a thesis through a narrative lens can not only make your argument more interesting, but it can also clarify what you want to say.
As a teacher of Rose Pathways, I want to help my students become engaged with assignments that they may not otherwise care about. While I cannot say that I have successfully done that because I am not, you know, inside my students’ heads, I can say that I am learning innovative ways to explain tired concepts. Learning how to talk about writing in ways that are relatable and interesting to students is one of the most profound lessons I’ve learned from my interaction with my Rose Pathways students. As a Writing Fellow in a more peer-oriented role, I do explain writing skills to my students, but not in the same lecture-esque style that I do in my Rose Pathways classroom. It’s been especially interesting to move from my very informal style of peer-mentoring to a more formal approach as a teacher. Although I catch myself not making as many jokes or incorporating SO much of my special brand of silliness into the conversation, what remains the same is that I explicitly use my own struggles with writing to inform the way that I teach. Like I said before, writing is difficult. And pretending it’s not is simply pretentious. You learn by struggling, so you must teach my acknowledging the struggle.
By incorporating empathy, praise, and my Creative Writing perspective into the classroom, I believe that I am learning how to help students look outside their typical frame of reference. And my advice to you, dear reader, is that whatever you are interested in, whether it’s birds, cars, rock climbing, you name it…there is a probably a way to translate that interest into a frame of reference that can help others understand the ideas you want to teach. Finding a way to bring my energy and passion to my positions as a writer, peer mentor, and teacher has been truly transformative.
Classroom and instructor-student dynamic: reflective roles. We have a good rapport between us and student sees this. We negotiate co-teaching in a way that both incorporates knowledge from our own discipline and allows each person to design and structure activities independently in a way that addresses areas of concern in writing. The elements of writing form the groundwork for facilitating Rose Pathways, and also act as the platform on which we navigate one another’s growing teaching philosophies. We tend to alternate who directs the writing exercise or shares one writing insight for the week. For instance, Sam led an exercise in which she asked students to write creatively in the round (by passing around a sheet of paper) about a late eighteenth–century Orientalist painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds. In a different class, Chelsea once presented the ways in which academic writing as a story to help students think about the narrative elements in writing across the disciplines. Both of these engage with creative writing and demonstrate our pedagogical interests working well together.
Student Success with Workshop Practices.
We have found clear parallels between building our students up as confident writers and adhering to our course goals, academics, and peers. As a result, they’ve become more interactive with each other and are more comfortable speaking up in discussion so that our workshop now truly resembles a dinner table conversation! Over the past couple months, we’ve noticed a gradual shift in the tenor of the class. During our first couple of workshops and classes, students often addressed questions and comments to us and looked at us for validation, and now they are directly engaging with and posing questions with each other.
We’ve both found that praise in student writing is one of the most important components of a workshop. To summarize how our thoughts have developed about the centrality of praise, it is essential to show the writer what they are doing well and indicate specific places in their draft where their writing is successful in structure, tone, analysis, or other elements. This kind of praise is useful and beneficial in two ways. First, it forces you to articulate what is going well in the draft and allows you to model improvements using the student’s own words! Second, it is useful to the student when interpreting feedback because they may learn that a component their essay lacks is present elsewhere. The solution is in their draft already!
Writing Fellow Identity: Fostering our relationship as teachers and colleagues enables us to collaborate effectively in the classroom and about writing pedagogy on the whole. Our work as Writing Fellows establishes a common ground and provides us with the proper vocabulary to traverse disciplinary boundaries and align the skill sets we’ve learned in the respective disciplines of Creative Writing and Art History. While we are both a part of the Writing Fellows community, Chelsea was Sam’s student when Sam Fellowed for an English class on “The Brontës” taught by Caroline Levine. When Sam and Chelsea first met…
Sam: I can imagine the class was engaging in itself, but I was captivated by Chelsea’s ideas and her clear investment in the text, visible both in the conference and on the page. Something that struck me specifically was how she operated during our conferences, asking openly for my advice and thoughts on the paper. Among other traits characteristic of another Writing Fellow, she also referenced her copy of the text repeatedly and spoke about her ideas about a particular passage. After asking her if any passages in particular further illustrated the insight she had just come to on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, she pointed me to one that seemed to be the lynchpin in her argument. Essentially, we were facilitating each other’s conversation.
Chelsea: When I first met with Sam, I had just become a Writing Fellow myself. I was just a tad concerned that getting tutored by another Fellow would be awkward, and worst of all, de-legitimizing. What if she thought that I actually didn’t know anything about writing, and reported me to our Writing Center directors?! Instead, Sam validated my ideas, and helped me talk through my argument and structure. Our conferences were so powerful because they consisted of a completely equal process of sharing in critical thinking. We asked each other questions, interrupted each other, and illuminated the significance in what the other said. In fact, our conferences contained so many squeals of excitement and loudly phrased insights that nearby patrons of the café we were working in would stare at us in wonder or disbelief, or both. What intrigued me the most about working with Sam was her ability to engage with me about my writing in a way that honored my voice and purpose as a writer. We truly viewed each other as co-creators in the process of gaining knowledge, and thankfully, we still do!
We would like to take a moment to thank our Rose Pathways Mentors Kim Moreland and Anne Wheeler, who have imparted their knowledge of teaching to us while also acting as our academic and writing mentors. It goes without saying that we will always appreciate the lessons we’ve learned from our students, the Rose Pathways Workshoppers! They are a group of enthusiastic and independent writers who have made this experience a pleasure for both of us.