Teaching Basic Writing in the 21st Century: A Multiliteracies Approach

LYNN REID & NICOLE HANCOCK

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ABSTRACT

This chapter examines how use of the DALN can potentially disrupt traditional conceptions of Basic Writing pedagogy through two authors’ distinct experiences. Both authors have used the DALN in attempts to address two concerns—the role of multiliteracies in the Basic Writing classroom and the potential drawbacks of utilizing primarily professionally-composed models with students enrolled in Basic Writing courses. Rather than focusing on the politics of language and literacy that literacy narrative assignments typically emphasize, the authors offer alternative directions that allow instructors to explore 21st-century literacies with their students, using the DALN as a resource and a tool.

Appendix

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Introduction

This chapter is written from the perspective of two teacher-scholars who have each been working with students in Basic Writing courses for more than ten years. In that time, both of us have been troubled by several observations that we have come to realize are not unique to our own institutional contexts. First, despite a vast array of scholarship that argues for a multi-genre, multiliteracies, and/or rhetorically grounded approach, skills-based current-traditional approaches that favor what Street (2014) terms an “autonomous model” of literacy are still widely adopted in Basic Writing courses and programs across the country (Carter, 2008). We have also observed that popular and custom textbooks that target Basic Writing foster such approaches through an emphasis on composing via discreet rhetorical modes, sentence-to-paragraph-to-essay models, and decontexualized skill-and-drill grammar exercises (Ross, 2003). Finally, we have had countless conversations with colleagues at professional conferences who describe institutional expectations for Basic Writing pedagogies that will “‘fix’ those writers they understand to be ‘appallingly underprepared’” (Carter, 2008, p. 8) that directly contradict what we know to be best practices in our field (DelPrincipe, 2004). In short, we see a tension between what we know to be effective teaching, particularly insofar as digital literacies are concerned, and what is often expected or made possible in Basic Writing contexts.

As Carter (2008) notes, current-traditional approaches to literacy education still have significant influence on Basic Writing instruction. Despite Shaughnessy’s (1977) efforts to rename the field in order to remove the stigmas associated with terms such as “remedial” and “developmental,” the notion that Basic Writing still represents a “bonehead” (Otte & Mlynarczyk, 2010) version of writing remains common. Many teacher-scholars working in Basic Writing contexts, then, are often expected to inoculate students who are placed into these courses, to cure their inability to craft grammatical sentences or to compose a logical written argument (Harris, 1995; Otte & Mlynarczyk, 2010; Carter, 2008). Because these perceptions of the function of Basic Writing courses are perpetuated in the popular press (Adler-Kassner & Harrington, 2002; Troyka, 2000), those of us who teach these courses report to deans, colleagues, department chairs, and even students who expect that we will provide instruction in “basic skills” (Greenberg, 1993). Research and theory in Basic Writing, on the other hand, emphasizes a New Literacies Studies approach, which centers its work around understanding literacy as socially situated and contextualized, rather than as simply a discrete set of skills to be acquired (Street, 2003). Thus, the tension between “basic skills” and a more complex and socially situated conception of literacy is an ever-present component of teaching Basic Writing.

Although we subscribe to Carter’s (2008) model of “rhetorical dexterity,” which she describes as “a pedagogical approach that develops in students the ability to effectively read, understand, manipulate, and negotiate the cultural and linguistic codes of a new community of practice based on a relatively accurate assessment of another, more familiar [to the student] one” (p. 14), we also recognize that the “cultural and linguistic codes” of higher education are increasingly shaped by the various technologies that influence students’ experiences with academic literacy. Unfortunately, there has been little scholarship in recent years that critically examines the role of digital or cyber literacy in Basic Writing contexts. This lack of focus on digital literacies in Basic Writing is particularly troubling given that, as Klages and Clark (2009) note, Basic Writers are rarely “able to code-switch between informal cyber-situations and the more formal academic and professional expectations of cyber-literacy” (p. 33). Further, as Jonaitis (2012) points out, the role of computers in a Basic Writing curriculum is often as an “add on” to what is often perceived as the more fundamentally necessary pedagogical goals of developing fluency with print-based academic discourse. Yet, in our own teaching experiences, we have observed that students who struggle with the acquisition of skills necessary to draft an academic essay also often struggle with other literacy skills, including the digital and information literacies that are necessary for success in college.

As we attempt to meet the ever-changing instructional needs of our students, along with the more static expectations of our institutions, the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN) has proved to be a powerful resource in our Basic Writing courses. The DALN allows us to draw from established best practices in Basic Writing pedagogy by encouraging metacognitive reflection on language and literacy practices beyond the classroom in a way that is accessible to novice readers and writers. At the same time, the “digital” nature of this archive allows for instruction in a range of digital and information literacy skills that are often unacknowledged in Basic Writing curricula. This chapter provides an overview of the ways both authors have attempted to address these concerns—the role of multiliteracies in the Basic Writing classroom and what we perceive as the potential drawbacks of utilizing primarily professionally-composed models with students enrolled in Basic Writing courses. To our minds, these are not unrelated concerns, as both speak to the ways that our pedagogies can address what are often hidden potentials for composing in Basic Writing contexts. By combining a print-based literacy narrative with the digital resources that the DALN provides, we are able to build on extant Basic Writing research and theories in order to develop pedagogies that are more suited to a 21st-century classroom. 

Literacy Narratives and Basic Writing: An Overview

Encouraging students to analyze their own literacy practices and the discourse communities to which they belong has long been respected as a pedagogical approach in Composition broadly and in Basic Writing in particular. Most frequently, this work takes the form of a literacy narrative or literacy autobiography and is framed for students through the use of professionally-written selections that have become “canonical” works in literacy narrative pedagogy and scholarship (Inayatulla, 2013). While literacy narratives can take a number of forms, they generally are described as accounts that document experiences with literacy and/or the personal, political, and educational values that shape those experiences (Bryson, 2012). In recent years, literacy narratives have become increasingly visible in the scholarly and pedagogical work of Composition Studies. The DALN and its associated resources have certainly contributed to this trend, as has added coverage of literacy narratives in textbooks from popular publishing companies, such as the Norton Field Guide to Writing, which devotes an entire unit to literacy narratives. Scholarly publications like Stories that Speak to Us (Ulman, DeWitt, and Selfe, 2013), New Literacy Narratives from an Urban University (Chandler, 2013), and a special issue of Computers and Composition (2012) devoted to literacy narratives have also reinforced the value of teaching and learning with this genre. 

In Basic Writing circles, literacy narratives have a well established history. Often, Basic Writing programs are tasked with teaching students to “invent the university” (Bartholomae, 1986) and transition from the discourse communities of home to those of a college or university setting. In these contexts, literacy narratives help students to bridge the transition to collegiate literacies (Soliday, 1994). The value of this approach, according to Corkery (2005) is for students to bypass concerns that “their familiar use of language will not be valued by college professors” while at the same time encouraging pedagogies that allow students to “see how their difference fits into the course work” (p. 48). Soliday (1994) suggests that “in focusing upon those moments when the self is on the threshold of possible intellectual, social, and emotional development, literacy narratives become sites of self-translation where writers can articulate the meanings and consequences of their passages between language worlds” (p. 511). The value of carefully examining these moments of transition from home to academic literacies can make cultural and ideological assumptions about literacy visible to students as they learn to negotiate the unfamiliar discourses of the academy (Sharma, 2015).

Yet, as Hall and Millix (2012) caution, there are “potential traps in romanticizing a literacy narrative as a way of easing at-risk students into college” (p. 62). Despite fostering potential insights into students’ language and literacy identities, literacy narratives also have the potential to lead students to familiar tropes that reflect their perceptions of instructor expectations rather than their own lived experiences with language and literacy (Alexander, 2011). As Corkery  (2005) cautions, “literacy narratives treat the acquisition of school literacy as a goal, if not a triumph” (p. 60). In a recent article from Journal of Basic Writing, Inayatulla (2013) further problematizes the ways in which literacy narratives—particularly in Basic Writing—tend to reflect a scenario “wherein the ‘subject’ (storyteller/practitioner) is positioned to teach the ‘master’ (reader/pedagogue) about the challenges of underrepresentation and marginalization” (p. 7). Though there is pedagogical value for both students and instructors when students share their experiences of non-school literacies, there is also a very real possibility of further marginalizing students who place into Basic Writing by emphasizing how their “sponsors of literacy” (Brandt, 1998) may have differed from students who were not required to complete a remedial writing course. Students may feel the need to shape their narratives to fit a particular structure or construction that is common in culturally accepted grand narratives of literacy (Alexander, 2011). Additionally, students may resent having to detail their experiences of literacy for someone who is an outsider to their worlds, foreseeing a possibility where the sponsor may not understand their worlds or worse, correct their narratives to reflect a view that was not experienced by the student.

As much as we are careful to honor students’ diversity without calling too much attention to the differences they bring to our classrooms, those differences in race, culture, language, age, socioeconomic status, and ability/disability often have very real impacts on the material and intellectual resources that have shaped their experiences with literacy. In order to address issues of access—sometimes explicitly, sometimes tacitly—we adopt Powell’s (2007) view that access should be viewed as a practice. Focusing on “access as practice,” she argues, shifts attention from what students have/don’t have and instead emphasizes the accumulative nature of literacy (Brandt, 1995), as students are invited to build on the knowledge and skills that they already bring to the classroom (Powell, 2007). As we will demonstrate below, literacy narratives in general, and the DALN more specifically, are powerful pedagogical tools for weaving the practice of access into Basic Writing curricula.

Basic Writing in Context

Lynn Quitman Troyka (1987) has famously argued that Basic Writing is most accurately defined based on local institutional constructions of what constitutes “basic.”  This perspective acknowledges that Basic Writing is best understood in comparison to credit-bearing first-year composition courses, rather than by a distinct set of criteria that defines Basic Writing in its own right (Armstrong, 1988; Otte & Mlynarczyk, 2010), a point that is of particular salience for the two of us who work at two very different types of institutions. As we will detail further below, the ways that “basic” is defined in each of our local contexts is quite different: for Lynn at a small, private liberal arts university in the Northeast, Basic Writing is understood in relation to requirements for Written Communication that are intended to prepare students to complete BA degrees. For Nicole at an Open Admissions college, on the other hand, students’ instruction in “basic” skills often begins at a more fundamental level with introduction to the writing process and college expectations for work completed outside of class.

Before emphasizing those differences and their impact on our pedagogical approaches to working with the DALN, however, we feel it is important to first acknowledge some of the significant similarities that exist between our two programs. Though we agree, as Troyka (1987) suggests, that Basic Writing is heavily influenced by the particulars of local context, we believe that these shared commonalities reveal facets of Basic Writing instruction that are relatively common across a wide range of institutions and may transfer across contexts:

  • Our students are likely to represent marginalized communities.
  • Our students are likely to struggle economically and might not have access to material resources that facilitate learning, including access to and experience with common digital tools.
  • Our students are likely to be burdened with home and work responsibilities that interfere with their ability to complete coursework.
  • Our students are likely to be inexperienced learners, who struggle to organize, synthesize, and process information without explicit instruction and careful scaffolding of tasks.

Simply put, students who place into Basic Writing at our respective institutions are likely to have experienced limited access to the social, economic, linguistic, and cultural resources that are necessary for success in college-level writing courses. For both of us, this work with students in Basic Writing courses remains intimately tied to the social justice mission that, in many ways, sets the field of Basic Writing apart from other strands of Composition Studies. With its roots in Open Admissions policies and post-Civil Rights-era efforts to provide equitable educational opportunities for everyone regardless of race, language, income, or background (Shaughnessy, 1979; Otte & Mlynarczyk, 2010), the field of Basic Writing has labored to provide a secure point of entry for students whose access to academic literacy may have been limited by circumstances beyond their control. As Soliday (2001) has suggested, rather than serving a primarily gatekeeping function, Basic Writing can—and should—serve as a much-needed pathway to higher education.

While the broad visions for our respective courses are shaped by challenges and values that are widely recognized within the field of Basic Writing, because we teach at very different types of institutions, the pathways our students will ultimately follow are very different. The differences between teaching Basic Writing at a community college versus a private university are visible not in terms of the challenges our students face, but rather in terms of the specific types of literacy skills and genres of writing that our respective programs expect to be covered in a “basic”-level composition course. At Nicole’s community college, the emphasis in the lower-level Basic Writing course is on building students’ confidence in their ability to commit text to screen and creating a commitment to process-writing. The beginning of the semester focuses on prewriting, drafting, and feedback; later in the semester, correctness and clarity are addressed. The overall mission of this course is to allow students to see themselves as writers and for them to adopt writerly habits that will see them through other courses. Though the students in Lynn’s Basic Writing courses experience similar struggles with confidence and recognizing themselves as writers, in order to prepare students for writing assignments they will encounter elsewhere in the General Education curriculum, these courses emphasize academic discourse and source-based arguments and analyses. Thus, although student voice, agency, and confidence-building are important hallmarks of these Basic Writing courses, they alone are not sufficient to prepare students for the academic literacy demands of subsequent courses. The particulars of our institutions and the goals of the FYC classes the students will take shape some of the decisions we have had to make about both the course content and the extent and uses of technology we expose students to within the semester.

Local Context: Midwest Community College: Issues of Access

Nicole’s community college, located in a metro area in the Midwest, serves rural, urban, and suburban communities across three campuses. Enrollment is just under 10,000 students, with a little over half enrolled part-time. 64% of students identify as white/Caucasian and 21% identify as African-American. Many of these students have returned after a gap in their education or after taking classes at a different college or university; only 14% are enrolled as first-time college students.

Nicole’s college offers two levels of Basic Writing (ENG 95 and ENG 96) and two levels of First Year Composition (101 and 102). Many students who place into either level of Basic Writing are also required to enroll in a Developmental Reading course (ENG 91 or ENG 92). Although students in ENG 95 have the opportunity to bypass ENG 96 on the merits of an especially strong end-of-semester portfolio, students who begin in the first Developmental Reading course are required to complete the second course in that sequence, regardless of their performance in ENG 91.

Students in all levels of composition write whole essays throughout the semester rather than adhering to sentence-to-paragraph and paragraph-to-essay models that are unfortunately common in Basic Writing instruction. All composition courses have their objectives grounded in the traditional canons of rhetoric. In the ENG 95 course, invention and presentation receive primary attention, though some minor goals under arrangement and style may also be addressed. As students progress through the English sequence, instructors continue to focus on invention and presentation as primary goals, but additional emphasis is placed on style, selecting appropriate sources for evidence, including anecdotes and narratives from students’ own personal experience, developing research skills, and sentence-level grammar (see Appendix).

As is typical at a community college, many of the students have either a part time or full time job in addition to their academic pursuits. It is not uncommon for students’ academic progress to be impeded by obstacles such as employment, family responsibilities, health-care concerns, and registered or non-registered disabilities or disorders, thus undermining the likelihood that they will be retained beyond their first semester of college (Tinberg & Nadeau, 2010). Pedagogies for Basic and First-Year Writing, then, must actively address factors that contribute to attrition for students with complicated personal lives and limited experience navigating academic contexts. For students who struggle to acclimate to the expectations of college life, low self confidence can easily interfere with academic performance. Often, their goals are short term: to make it through the first assignment, then the first paper, then the whole semester.  As Ostman (2013) argues, however, “For developmental writing students, community college courses offer more than writing instruction; they can bolster students’ confidence, and, in astute, intelligent hands, they can utilize the competencies and literacies the students bring to the classroom” (p. 51). In order to help build students’ sense of self-efficacy, it is crucial that the instructor becomes a guide rather than an authoritarian figure as a means to retain students through those crucial first weeks of class.

The description of ENG 95, the course that Nicole will describe in detail below, addresses these goals directly:

Course Description

ENG 95 is designed to help students to see themselves as writers, to be aware of their own writing processes, and to honestly self ­evaluate their own writing. This class focuses on fluency: the use of pre­writing and drafting techniques that enable students to overcome writer’s block and create large amounts of non­redundant text, full of meaningful examples, reasons, details, descriptions, anecdotes, and evidence.

Although instructors have autonomy in their syllabus and assignment design, most use the first part of the semester in this lowest level Basic Writing class to focus entirely on invention. This pedagogical approach assumes that students are more likely to see themselves as writers after having written, but if they begin by writing whole essays without first engaging with revision at the idea stage, then they’ll be more likely to be dissatisfied with what they produce. Students generate ideas for their texts through freewriting, discussion, and other brainstorming techniques before beginning essays that will undergo multiple drafts, refining each essay’s purpose, support, and structure before selecting which two essays represent their best work for the end-of-semester portfolio.   

An emphasis on invention and revision is made particularly possible because all writing classes on all campuses at this community college are taught in a computer lab. Students are taught the benefit of refining the work they have started by accessing previous drafts and adding to them rather than rewriting whole papers. This is especially helpful in ENG 95, where students are often the most likely to have difficulties obtaining textbooks, notebooks, access to computers outside of the college, trouble-free transportation to the college, and other material resources that, while not entirely prohibitive to success, do contribute to the issues of literacy that will be addressed in this chapter.

Many of the characteristics that have been mentioned about community college students and their access and abilities, particularly at this level, have been negative, in part to illustrate the large gap between the starting level of students at an open enrollment institution and those that attend more selective universities. The issues of access at a community college are often compounded and concentrated, and they cannot be parceled out and ignored until a convenient time.  A pedagogical choice I have made to address some of the many issues listed above (reading ability, lack of confidence, various issues of access to materials) is to integrate video samples alongside the more traditional print reading assignments. This is not a panacea, but students are more confident about their ability to view and understand a video, and that allows me to engage them with further rhetorical discussion. It also sends a message at the beginning of the semester that students are expected to be familiar with the material that is assigned outside of class, and they will need to use a computer or mobile device to do so as part of their college-level experience. 

Collapsing Hierarchies: Struggling Readers and the DALN

Using the DALN as a pedagogical resource allows me to address a significant pedagogical obstacle I face in my Basic Writing classes: limited reading proficiency. Students who have placed into both the lowest level of Basic Writing and the lowest level of Developmental Reading have a reading level that is estimated to be at the fifth to eighth grade level based on their Compass Placement scores. In general, the students in the lower level writing class are more likely to do their writing homework than they are to do their reading assignments, whether they are to read writing samples or a textbook assignment, so my curricular choices need to address literacy practices that meet students at their current level of practice while also encouraging them to engage at a higher level. Hassel and Giordano (2010) found that students at this level typically struggle with analytical reading tasks when reading on their own, but they were “fairly successful” when analyzing a shared class reading (p. 36). When the students in the ENG 95 class do read the assignments out of class, they often recognize the literal meanings but neglect to notice any patterns or subtext unless these elements are discussed in the classroom or as part of an online discussion board activity. Because many narratives in the DALN are available in audio or video formats, my students are able to engage in deeper analyses of these selections than might be possible with written texts.

In past semesters, when students were given professional samples to read, they failed to engage with the material, in part because of a false belief that they could not criticize work that was accomplished and finished when they felt so unpolished in their work. Students who did engage with the professional samples tended to mimic them in structure and content instead of composing from their own ideas. This created a dichotomy in the classroom where some of the students abandoned the reading assignments as irrelevant or overly difficult while other students felt the need to alter their lives to fit the narrative structure that was provided for them in the samples. Because the narratives in the DALN are, as stated on the DALN front page, from people “of all ages, races, communities, backgrounds, and interests,” the composing level in the narratives is varied, and some of the levels happen to approximate the reading and writing level of the students in Basic Writing as well as some of their life experiences.

Collapsing Hierarchies: Non-professional and Video Samples as Confidence Boosters

My choice to use the democratic archive as a source of models and prompts is similar to Amy Devitt’s (2014) choices in “Genre Pedagogies”: “To avoid prescription and formula, we included samples from student papers rather than ideal models; began with the academic cultural context rather than the features; interpreted all textual features for their rhetorical meaning; and used those features to reveal and question academic values and assumptions” (p. 148-149). The narrators in the archive have to craft their own reasons for their storytelling, just as students in a writing class must create purposes for their writing in the course; each story and narrator has potential. When my students read professional samples, they seek for the “right answer” about what the author intends, and the students feel distanced from the ability-level represented in the sample. When students are presented with work from the DALN, they often feel kinship with the creators of the narratives, and they are more likely to feel capable of doing similar work.

Indeed, the work in the DALN is not unlike the work that I expect from my students in the first level of Basic Writing. The goal, after all, is for students to share their thoughts and opinions in writing, without purposeless repetition or irrelevant information, and with enough detail for a reader to understand the overall purpose. “Literacy myths” that “label them as ‘weak’ or ‘strong’” (DeRosa, 2002, p. 1) are very familiar to students who place into Basic Writing, resulting in a feeling of disconnect from the academy (Mutnick, 1995) or a sense that their out-of-school literacy practices are somehow inherently less valid or valuable than what they are expected to produce in school (Keller, 2014). Literacy narratives, according to Corkery (2005) and Soliday (1994) can provide opportunities for confidence-building by allowing students to draw on their familiar cultural experiences in a meaningful way for an academic purpose. While I have taught literacy narratives many times over the years, I have become increasingly troubled by the ways in which Composition scholarship has emphasized the use of professionally-written texts as models for students new to this genre. Selections from Villanueva’s Bootstraps, Rodriguez’s The Achievement of Desire, Rose’s Lives on the Boundary, Tan’s “Mother Tongue”, and Malcolm X’s “Literacy Behind Bars,” are all widely anthologized and often referenced in scholarship describing literacy narrative pedagogies. As Lynn Bloom (1999) argues in regard to this canon, “Teachability is, however, not replicability” (p. 418). Though these are engaging and useful texts, the “high-profile” authors (Hall and Millix, 2013, p. 64), often promoted and celebrated in the textbook apparatus that accompanies the narratives, can be intimidating for students who already lack confidence in their writing. Sweeney and McBride (2015) found Basic Writing students especially struggled with reading connections when the “moves done by the published writer are foreclosed upon in the composition class” (p. 592).

Though using student work as models is one viable solution to the problem of student/author disconnect (Harris, Miles, & Paine, 2010), I would argue that working with selections from the DALN can also serve to collapse the hierarchy between expert and novice that more canonical literacy narratives might create. Similar to an approach Doug Downs (2014) advocates, I choose samples that are not the most polished pieces I can find but rather sample texts that can be improved upon, in order to model rhetorical thinking by asking the class what they would improve and why. As Hall and Millix (2013) note, the DALN provides a space where literacy narratives composed by “a varied group of students, citizens, and intellectuals” (p. 64) are not simply available, but thanks to the DALN’s institutional sponsorship, they are also considered worthy of attention.

Additionally, I intentionally include more video narratives than written narratives because the spontaneous thoughts in many of the videos echo the types of free-written first drafts I expect from students. In the videos, there may be false starts or vocal pauses. Even the edited videos and written works may have minor flaws. The presence of these mistakes is liberating for students who have become accustomed to being assigned professional samples and then lectured about the rhetorical moves made by the author, tested on vocabulary, or told they do not understand the writer’s purpose. As Carter (2008) suggests, “Treating activities not commonly associated with the academy as intellectually rigorous and rhetorically sophisticated may seem counterintuitive to our students…” ( p. 67), but students who are simultaneously enrolled in a Developmental Reading class also appreciate the opportunity to experiment in the classroom with a genre that is completely divorced from any negative self-perceptions they may have of themselves as readers. Although students are asked to rhetorically analyze the purpose and structure of both the print and video narratives, watching and listening to the video narrative removes the reading component and gives them greater confidence in their analytic abilities. Fargo Ahern (2013) notes, “Teaching students to question and understand texts with unfamiliar design and composing choices expands students’ notions of what it means to compose and design their own texts” (p. 83). While most students are familiar with narratives, the juxtaposition of traditional narratives and video narratives allows them to interrogate the difference between off-the-cuff responses and revised composition, in facilitated classroom discussion and in short homework assignments.

In my class, the narratives are being used both as material for rhetorical discussion and as prompts for topic brainstorming. The first unit was inspired by a featured DALN video, “Everyone Has a Gift,” by Yusef.

Video 1. Yusuf, “Everyone Has  a Gift” [Transcript]

The readings and DALN selections for Unit One all focus on the idea that everyone has something worthy of development, worthy of expertise. This focus on the positive is intentional; the unit is about establishing a safe zone for students’ writing and an expectation that their thoughts are worthwhile and valid. In a study of basic writers, Sweeney and McBride found that “[s]tudents want to see the threads between their learning, and they will impose expectations of connections if teachers do not provide explicit explanations for how readings function within course contexts” (2015, p. 611). The topic, the sample narratives, and the low-stakes focus on invention all cohere to convince the students that, however they feel about being placed in ENG 95, they will learn to improve their writing if they do the work of the class. All of the assignments are broken into manageable chunks, and the readings are integrated with journal assignments that are a crucial part of invention work in the class. The journal prompts ask students to make connections between the narratives and their own initial topic exploration.

Scaffolding Online Composition with Novice Writers

This low-stakes journal is also an important part of the multiliteracies learning in the class. As Laskey and Hetzel (2011) explain, students who place into remedial courses “may also lack soft skills needed to be successful (i.e., attending class, maintaining concentration, using effective study strategies and using social skills necessary to ask questions)” (p. 32), and, perhaps most visibly, keeping track of assignments and drafts of earlier work. Requiring students to post their journals to Blackboard, then, serves the dual purpose of getting students acquainted with the college’s learning management system and also ensures that their work will not be lost over the course of the semester. Saving even their low-stakes writing to the cloud allows students to retrieve their work at the end of the semester for a point of comparison and allows for metacognitive reflection as the course progresses (Warnock, 2010, p. 106).

Screenshot of Blackboard's Journal Entry tool.
Figure 1. Screenshot of Blackboard’s Journal Entry tool

Composing in the online journal space forces students to practice simple online tasks, such as copying and pasting and accessing past work. Work in the journal is done both in and outside of class-time with the out-of-class work scaffolded by practice or smaller steps in class. The first time any assignment or strategy is used, it is completed in the classroom, so students can ask questions and practice with assistance. All of the online tasks are modeled the first time students are asked to do them. Instructional handouts are posted in the content area of the course management system for any students who were absent during the instruction time. Students who do not have easy access to computers at home are encouraged to download the course management system application to their mobile devices as a pathway to access. In fact, some students prefer to access the app from their phones because they are more confident using a phone’s texting keyboard than a desktop machine. Students who initially hand-write their drafts or invention work are encouraged to upload pictures of their work in case the one copy is misplaced. The result of all of this scaffolded practice with storing their work in the cloud is that students have been able to continue to revise over time without losing or saving over earlier drafts of their papers for comparison before reflecting on their work for the cover letter of the portfolio. 

Figure 2. DALN Browsing options.
Figure 2. DALN Browsing options.

All of the skills learned and used in the private journal are foundational to work that will be completed in the public discussion board in the second unit of the semester. In the second unit, rather than curate narratives from the DALN for student consumption, I give students the agency to post narratives of their choice, focusing on traditional academic literacies this time. In preparation for the discussion board activity, students review the “What is a Literacy Narrative?” handout on the DALN website and are encouraged to browse the collections or identify search terms of their own that would help them to locate “uncollected collections.”1 Searching the archive is not intuitive, and students may need individual assistance in locating search terms they would like to use. Once they have located narratives they think others in the class might appreciate, the students post the links in a public discussion board forum. Again, explicit instruction is needed on how to copy and paste a url into the post, which url is most appropriate to copy/paste for this activity, and general features of a discussion board, like creating a post title and supplying information in the post that will be helpful to the reader. This activity serves as the first of many small transitions to considering an audience beyond the self. A follow-up journal assignment is given to the students to reflect on which narratives they clicked on to explore further, which they skipped over quickly, and why.

Some of the literacy narratives selected and shared in the discussion board:

By drawing on the DALN, I am able to engage students with texts that reflect who they are as writers, enabling them to proceed with more confidence and with less rote dedication to models as formulas, as students also gain practice using 21st-century literacy skills they might not be exposed to in other classes but will be expected to use in First-Year Composition. All of the digital tasks in the class are designed to support students’ use of the writing process. Asking students to compose responses to the digital literacy narratives from the DALN and post those responses in an online space allows for a Basic Writing pedagogy that is interested in building not only students’ literacy awareness but also their multiliteracy awareness. The DALN as a classroom resource both meets students where they are and challenges them to join a larger academic community, one that values their contributions and connects meaningfully to the work they have been assigned in the course.

Local Context: A Small Private Liberal Arts University

Lynn teaches at a small, private liberal arts university in the Northeast, on the smaller of the university’s two campuses in the state. Whereas the larger of the university’s two campuses leans slightly more towards professional degree programs, the smaller suburban campus where Lynn teaches continues to adhere to a more traditional liberal arts model. This campus houses roughly 2500 undergraduate students, the majority of whom study full time, and approximately 800 graduate students. The majority of undergraduates identify as White, but the combined totals for students who identify as Black or Hispanic accounts for about a third of the total undergraduate population. Between 2010 and 2015, half of the incoming freshmen class each year placed into one of two levels of Basic Writing. Further, a 2014 survey of students enrolled in Writing Program courses revealed that 33% of respondents across all levels were exposed to a language other than English at home.

In order to fulfill the Written Communication requirement for graduation, most students in Lynn’s program are required to complete a two-semester sequence of courses: a traditional FYC course and a traditional research-writing course. For the roughly 50% of students who are placed into Basic Writing, additional courses are required. The first level, ENGW 0198, is three-credit remedial class that students take in tandem with a one-credit Reading course. Although these courses count toward students’ standing as full-time students for the purposes of registration and eligibility for financial aid, these credits do not count toward graduation. The second level of Basic Writing, ENGW 1100, is a three-credit course that carries elective credits that students can apply toward graduation, though it still does not fulfill any part of the university’s requirement for writing. It is common for students enrolled in either level of Basic Writing to be expected to produce essays and research papers for other courses, particularly in the social and behavioral sciences. Additionally, outside of the Writing Program, students on our campus are required to complete a two-course sequence of “CORE” courses. These courses, which emphasize politics, literature, and culture, are reading and writing intensive and demand that students are able to critically analyze texts in order to draw connections among broader cultural contexts, course themes, and a variety of different readings.

For these reasons, the learning outcomes and departmental rubric for our Basic Writing courses favors a traditional approach to academic literacy, as is evident by the course description from 2011:

Course Description

ENGW1100 Writing Skills Workshop (3 credits, counted towards graduation, but NOT towards the Written Communication Req.)

Writing Skills Workshop gives students with acceptable writing skills an opportunity to strengthen critical reading and essay writing skills before entering ENGW1101. Students in Writing Skills Workshop write 5-6 revised essays each semester. Usually these essays are 4 pages in length. ENGW1100 students write at least 20 pages of revised writing and 3 in class timed essays in preparation for the final exam. This course earns 3 credits toward graduation.

Students in ENGW1100 take a common final exam on the first scheduled day of the exam period. Students who pass the course will be placed in ENGW1101 the following semester.

Instructors were, until recently, encouraged to assign primarily thesis-driven, argumentative essays that required students to draw from assigned readings to support their assertions. Almost paradoxically, however, instructors were also discouraged from integrating any research requirement into Basic Writing courses (see Appendix), for fear that students would rely on sources to fill the pages of their essays rather than developing their own claims and reasoning. While this was intended to avoid a legitimate instructional problem, it also meant that students who placed into Basic Writing would not be introduced to research skills until the end of their second or third semester at the university, though they would likely need these skills in courses outside of English courses much earlier in their academic careers. Because, as Giordano and Hassel (2016) argue, there is often little support for students with weak academic literacy skills once they leave Basic Writing and introductory-level courses, Basic Writing courses can best serve their students by introducing more advanced reading, research, and writing skills as often as possible. Though not immediately obvious, the DALN provides innumerable opportunities to engage students with these important skills, all while continuing to call students’ attention to their own language and literacy practices.

Teaching a Print-Based Literacy Narrative with the DALN

Developing a pedagogy that utilized the resources available through the DALN, while also meeting my department’s expectations for print-centric argumentative essays and students’ needs for exposure to a range of academic literacy practices, posed a number of challenges. Though in previous institutions I had incorporated multimodal composing into my composition courses (Reid, 2015), the print-centric focus of my department’s (now, thankfully, retired) high-stakes exit portfolio made me reluctant to spend a significant amount of class time on a project that would not “count” for students at the end of the semester. Further, because I was working primarily with students who were already struggling to meet the department’s benchmarks for an academic essay, I also shared a concern articulated by Ellis (2013) that “an abrupt shift from writing conventional academic discourse to creating ambitious multimodal discourse can threaten to disorient students and overburden them with the need to learn, simultaneously, not only new technologies and a new rhetorical situation but also a new genre (or combination of genres)” (p. 39). For these reasons, although I believe strongly in the value of multimodal composing to fulfill a range of learning objectives that are relevant to a Basic Writing course, I felt that students would benefit more from low-stakes opportunities to engage with technology.

Rather than emphasize digital composing with these activities, I elected instead to capitalize on the resources of the DALN in order to engage my students (most of whom would not have access to our university’s research writing course until the start of their sophomore year) with some of the habits and practices associated with research and information literacy. During the 2011-2012 academic year, I developed a literacy narrative prompt that would allow students to compose a thesis-driven essay that drew on an assigned reading in order to meet our departmental guidelines for the Exit Folder, while simultaneously encouraging them to reflect on their own experiences with language and literacy practices. The central question for the prompt (see Appendix)—How does a literacy or communication activity impact your relationship to a particular community?—is, for many students in my Basic Writing courses, uncomfortably abstract, as it requires that they define a literacy or communication activity, a particular community, and a particular impact on a relationship. Despite class time spent reading published works which address this question indirectly and brainstorming examples, it is common for students to experience a significant bout of writer’s block as they initially approach this assignment.

Digital Literacy: Brainstorming

Banks (2006) frames his discussion of digital literacy practices with a nuanced series of definitions of access, including material, functional, experiential, and critical access (p. 41-42). Material access, according to Banks, is based solely on what tools and resources are physically available. Beyond that, functional access extends beyond the physical presence of tools, but also includes the knowledge and abilities that are required in order to make use of those tools. The first activity for my literacy narrative assignment was structured in order to call students’ attention to both their material and functional access to technology.

In an effort to move students past their initial discomfort with an open-ended, abstract prompt, I devoted about 15 minutes of class time to an additional digital brainstorming activity intended to provide them with a concrete sense of audience and purpose. After introducing the essay prompt in class and brainstorming examples of literacy or communication activities (e.g. reading, Facebooking, designing tattoos, playing video games, telling stories, speaking Spanish, performing as a dancer, etc.) and specific communities (religious, familial, geographic, linguistic, cultural, discursive, etc.), students worked in pairs to record one- to three-minute responses to the assignment question as either audio or video files, using their cell phones or laptops as resources. Though nearly every student had a smartphone or a laptop that supported audio or video recording, few students were aware that these features existed on the equipment they had and fewer still knew how to comfortably use these applications. Many students with MacBooks were surprised to learn that iMovie and Garage Band were standard on their machines, and many working with iPhones or Android phones were, in 2011, unaware that these phones had audio or video recording capabilities. In addition to providing what technical support I could while students learned to navigate a new tool, I also prompted many of them to conduct Google searches to find directions and tips for working with whatever device and/or application they had selected for this activity.

Once each student identified the tool that would best suit their purpose, I sent them into the hallway to complete their recordings. After everyone was back in the classroom, we returned to the initial assignment question to brainstorm as a group. Each student had been able to produce a response to the assignment question, and in our discussion of those responses, we brainstormed a number of examples of “literacy or communication activities” and “communities” in order to make the abstract assignment question more concrete. Though many students changed their topics after this initial brainstorming session, that initial act of recording their thoughts seemed to make the notion of audience tangible in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. The fluidity with which many of the students were able to respond to the prompt orally is evident in the following example: