The Merits of Freewriting in a Virtual Classroom

In his book Writing without Teachers (1973), Peter Elbow focuses much attention on the merits of freewriting, particularly for beginning writers. Indeed, this sort of focus is not new for Elbow, and he has been known as an advocate for freewriting for decades. Further, Elbow is not alone in his adoration of freewriting, and it has long been a tenet of composition and creative writing instruction for decades.

However, the application of freewriting in virtual classrooms is a less discussed idea. I bring up this idea because Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers was one of the required texts for the course around which this blog is built: ENG 704 Teaching Writing Online.

Over the semester, I’ve thought about the concept of freewriting and its application to a virtual classroom. In my instruction of English Composition, in which I administer a seated, more traditional class, I utilize freewriting periodically, but I had not applied the technique to my online course: ENG 203 Introduction to Poetry. Although the two courses are different, there is some overlap, in places, and I think freewriting crosses many overlaps between various types of more specialized writing.

For me, one of the more important things about freewriting, other than the fact that if forces one to write, hopefully, free of self-imposed critical restraint, is that freewriting contains a time component. There is a bit of a sense of urgency to effective freewriting, I think, and this sense of immediacy, of needing to get as much information down as possible in the allotted time period, wherein lies a difficulty, I thought, with a virtual classroom. How do you replicate this sense of immediacy, which, ideally, frees the writer from the self-imposed restraint, in a virtual classroom?

I think a way that freewriting could be done effectively is to create an ‘assignment’ and structure it in the CMS, in our case Blackboard, as a “quiz” or “assessment,” each of which can be constructed with a time limit, after which the module no longer accepts new information. Although I haven’t set one of these up yet, I plan on constructing a trial run over the summer. In my head, at least, I could see this sort of setup working, an open “assessment,” guided by a prompt question or two, and featuring a dialog box where students can enter their freewriting. By setting a modest word limit, and detailing the ideas behind freewriting, most importantly the jettisoning of critical restraint, I think such a virtual exercise could be a decent proxy for freewriting in a seated class.

Nothing fancy, but perhaps decent food for thought. Elbow made a big footprint with Writing Without Teachers and it’s likely the freewriting techniques of which he was such a big advocate are not as difficult to implement virtually as I might have thought.


Brandon Henry

Reflecting on ENG 704: “Teaching Writing Online”

The next week is largely one of reflections around academia, not only for myself, as a graduate student finishing the Spring 2017 semester, but also for my own students. Both my Composition I (ENG 110) and Introduction to Poetry Writing (ENG 203) classes will be writing their Reflective Introductions soon, and this final assignment serves as a sort of metacognitive elaboration on what they’ve learned over the semester, what difficulties they experienced, and the approaches they took toward the writing and revision process. Many of my poetry students came into ENG 203 with no prior exposure to poetry writing, and only a handful had any substantive experience in reading poetry, contemporary or otherwise. Similarly, many of my composition students had never written a substantive research paper, engaged in argument analysis, or examined academic writing from a rhetorical perspective, prior to taking ENG 110. Thus, there are two groups of twenty students undergoing some reflection over the next week, and much of their reflections will likely entail the experience of treading new paths over the last four months.

On my end, I’ll stride alongside these students, in reflecting on my experience in a course whose material and subject matter was largely new to me – Teaching Writing Online (ENG 704). If you asked me four months ago what “social presence” meant in a pedagogical sense, I’d have fumbled, probably cobbling something together that touched on the meaning, but I wouldn’t have been genuine in my comprehension. Today, I can recall that social presence is comprised of three components: co-presence, intimacy, and immediacy. Further, social presence is an important construct from the perspective of Social Cognitive Theory, and a fundamental determinant of success in knowledge acquisition (i.e. ‘transfer’). But so much for the formality. Essentially, social presence is the emotional sense of belonging, of being a part of a group of peers, wherein one’s contributions are important, and the relational simultaneity and immediacy of communication is relatable to one’s own life experience. Social presence in an online classroom involves not only the co-presence, intimacy, and immediacy inherent in the communication of the student peers, a distinct discourse group, but also the degree to which these three factors apply to the instructor and his-or-her interaction with students. This is a bit of a paraphrasal hatchet job, as the concept of social presence is difficult to sum up succinctly.

Regardless of definitional semantics, I bring up the concept of social presence because, perhaps more than anything I’ve learned over the semester in ENG 704, it touches the spine of the virtual classroom. To succeed in online instruction, we need to create virtual environments where student voices are heard amongst each other, and where valuable contributions are acknowledged and rewarded. We need to be present in our courses, and not just a looming avatar or a critic long after the fact. We must build credibility with our students anew with each section of an online course, and there is sweat equity in this process. There is a mechanism of having to earn this, and I think online instructors too often take credibility for granted. Students need to know who we are; they need to feel a co-presence with us and other students in the virtual classroom. Likewise, activities in the virtual classroom need to be dynamic and value-added. I ask myself, when evaluating the merits of a student activity, whether it adds value and whether I would implement the same activity in a seated class. Students need to recognize the value in activities and foresee the application of these activities toward learned concepts.

I bring up social presence also because it touches a research component of ENG 704. Specifically, social presence was the subject of my favorite academic article of the semester: “A Model for Social Presence in Online Classrooms” from the June 2012 issue of Educational Technology Research and Development. I thought this article, and the underlying experimental data involved, was not only fascinating, but completely transferable to the construction of a quality virtual classroom. Of the legion of academic articles I read this semester, I found this one touched closest, perhaps, to the core of teaching writing online.

In reflecting on a course in which many concepts were new to me, there is a lot of potential ground that could be covered. I hope that, going forward, we all continue to explore the pedagogy of teaching writing online, and I know some of us will be (or already are) getting their feet wet in gaining real-world experience. Hopefully, the discussion of teaching writing online will continue, in other circles beyond ENG 704. For now, though, adios amigos. I hope to see  you further down the path in the months and years to come.


Works Cited

Chun-Wang, Wei; Nian-Shing, Chen; and Kinshuk. “A Model for Social Presence in  Online  Classrooms. Educational Technology Research and Development, vol. 60, no. 3 (June 2012), pp. 529-545.

Highlights from the 2017 Blackboard Black Belt Conference (April 13th, 2017)

This Thursday, I attended the 2017 Blackboard Black Belt Summit at Missouri State University. The invitees were faculty and graduate students who hold a competency certification over the university’s Learning Management System (Blackboard®). The conference has been held each year since 2012 and is intended to showcase new technology and pedagogy concerns for teaching online and utilizing the university LMS, as well as other technology, and serves as a continuing education vehicle for designations like the Certified Distance Educator. I was happy to see the English Department have a strong presence at the conference, with graduate student Taylor Shaw-Hamp and faculty Tracy Dalton attending. (Tracy gave a presentation about style templates in Microsoft Word, as well as some higher-level functionality embedded in the program, such as indexing for the Table of Contents feature).  

I thought this year’s event was very informative and well-planned, with speakers showcasing a number of new technologies, not only new functionalities within the Blackboard system, but also outside technology, and there was a presentation about Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which concerns course construction and pedagogy concerns for teaching students with various disabilities. The discussion about UDL brought up some nuanced ideas that I had not considered in online course construction, such as design specifics for compatibility with screen-reader technology. Specifically, we were shown how screen-reader technology does not recognize otherwise intuitive methods of visual stress, such as bolding text or highlighting. Also, in UDL, instructors are encouraged to have a separate document for lesson plans that contains key terms and points for each lesson. This construction best practice enables the visually-impaired to better navigate course content outside of visual cues that we might take for granted. The presenters from the Disability Resource Center were very friendly and knowledgeable, and encouraged everyone at the conference to reach out to them when designing course content. You can access their department here: Disability Resource Center.


In the middle of the conference, there was a presentation about the technology available from the Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning (FCTL), which offers, amongst other things, the capability for studio-level recording and editing of course content for virtual classrooms. They have an impressive array of capability in the FCTL and are very eager to help faculty with the creation of video content. We were shown polished examples of work from a range of different departments and the videos all were professional filmed and edited. (One professor from the History Department has recorded over 100 videos in the FCTL). I encourage everyone to check out the FCTL and the resources they have available for online instructors. You can access their department here: Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning.  

A big part of the conference involved the Blackboard LMS, including a showcase of new features and tools, as well as best practices for maximizing instructional content and functionality. In particular, I thought the discussion of a new “Collaborate Ultra” functionality within Blackboard was helpful and intriguing.

The Collaborate Ultra® feature is new to Blackboard this year, and I think it is a significant improvement over the previous functionality. The new Blackboard Collaborate Ultra® functionality is a tool within the LMS that allows for real-time video conferencing. Within Collaborate Ultra®, users can share files and applications in a media-rich environment that allows for voice and screen-capture, as well as a virtual whiteboard. The functionality can be embedded into an existing Blackboard course site, and opens right in the user browser, so there is no need to install additional software to join a session. (Google’s Chrome browser is recommended for best functionality). In particular, this new video conferencing feature seems more stable and intuitive than its predecessor and allows for the creation of multiple “rooms” wherein students can collaborate with each other and/or their instructor. The presenter highlighted the use of Collaborate Ultra® for virtual office hours, something I intend on implementing in my course instruction next semester. Lastly, the new Collaborate Ultra® tool allows for guest access, wherein people who otherwise would not have access to the Blackboard site can join and even act in the role of presenter.

I encourage everyone to explore this new function within Blackboard. To make the tool available within Blackboard, click on “Customization” in the main menu on the left-hand side, then “Tool Availability”, which will open a screen that looks like this:

Screenshot 1
Figure 1: Tool Availability Checklist in BlackBoard

From here, scroll down until you see “Collaborate Ultra®”. Once the feature is enabled on your course site, you can add it as a tool link:


Screenshot 2
Figure 2: Adding Collaborate Ultra as a Tool Link in Blackboard


The tool link can be named as best suits your needs. In my case, for example, I added Collaborate Ultra® as a tool link on my development site and named it “Virtual Office Hours: TR – 11:00 – 1:30”.  Once added to your course site, you can launch Collaborate Ultra® and begin creating new sessions.  Here is a screenshot of the utility’s main screen:


Screenshot 3
Figure 3: Collaborate Ultra


 From this main screen, you can set a start and end time/date, as well as create an open session or one that repeats. Under “Session Settings”, you can choose whether participants can share audio and/or video, post IM, draw on the whiteboard, and even access the session via telephone. There is a lot of functionality with this new tool and I encourage everyone to check it out. You can learn more about it visiting here: Blackboard Collaborate Ultra Help or reach out to MSU Computer Services. I think this new Collaborate Ultra® tool is a powerful new functionality available to us as online instructors, and definitely worth exploring.

In closing, the 2017 Blackboard Black Belt Conference was a great experience. The presenters showcased a broad array of useful content, much of it nuanced and the technology showcased was mostly new and cutting edge. If you would like to learn more about maximizing your impact as an online instructor at MSU, I think working toward the Blackbord Black Belt certification is a great door to pass through, and it enables participation in future conferences and special events, as well as the Certified Distance Educator Award. Hopefully, I will see some of you next year!


Brandon Henry

Incorporating Screen Capture Digital Video for Student Feedback

I recently encountered a compelling study from 2012 that investigated the viability of screen capture technology as a method of providing student feedback. The study was from vol. 64 of Higher Education, and involved 119 MBA and undergraduate students. The study provided students with feedback created using a screen-capture technology, coupled with microphone audio, and students were asked to respond to their interpretations of the system as a viable option for instructor feedback. The results were overwhelmingly positive and the technology seems to offer online instructors a compelling new avenue for providing feedback to students, and the method has rich-media capabilities. Specifically, the researchers in the study found that: “(a) this medium has advantages over traditional methods of communicating feedback, (b) that students enjoy this new form of feedback, and (c) that this encourages them to engage with and learn from the tutor assessment of answers, rather than concentrating only on obtaining marks” (Jones et al. 593).


            Specifically, the students in the study were broken into two groups: undergraduates (n=75) and MBA students (n=119). Each student was provided with a short, screen-captured video of the tutor’s evaluation of their assignment, overlaid with audio comments and mouse action. The videos were dynamic, with tutor’s highlighting sections of the student assignment and indicating where corrections were necessary, where additional work was needed, etc. The students were then given a questionnaire pertaining to their interpretation of the viability of the feedback, its richness, and a series of audio-taped, open-ended discussions were conducted, wherein the students were asked questions concerning, among other things, what their idea of good feedback entailed, what characterized good feedback, what types of feedback they had received in the past, and how the screen-capture video feedback fit into their experience and expectations (Jones et al. 598). The students were also asked what they normally do after written feedback and what they had done with the video file since receiving it (Jones et al. 598).

            The responses were compelling. Within both groups, the students were unanimous in their answer of “strongly agree” to the question: “I know what I have to do in order to improve with the information given in the feedback” (Jones et al. 600). Similarly, high agreements were seen for questions pertaining to the helpfulness and clarity of the feedback, as well as its accuracy and relevance to their work (Jones et al. 600). The taped interview sessions elicited dialog indicating that personalization was important to the students (Jones et al. 601). Consider the following comments:

“Either in audio or video format I find it easier to understand than written”; “Video you can actually see your work in front of you, listen to your tutor and go through it together as if you were sitting in the same room”; it shows you your own problems as opposed to just general”; “The video feels a bit more, well more personal; it’s usually more or less tailored”; “Actually pointing the cursor saying that is wrong, like you say, it’s a fresh pair of eyes”; “I could stand there and look at it for an hour and still  not be able to see the problem, whereas although you’re not telling me the answer you’re saying listen this is the area you need to concentrate on” (Jones et al. 601)


Screen-shot test from PDF

         Figure 1: Screenshot of Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) and Steps in the Feedback Process

            The platform used for the video capture was Microsoft Media Player 9 Video Codec, a free software built around Direct X and compatible with Windows 7 and XP. The file sizes for the videos averaged about 6 MB for a 6-min video, and the largest file was 9 MB (Jones et al 605). Comparatively, an equivalent DVD file would be 240 MB, hinting at the efficiency of the Windows Media Player 9 Video Codec. In an appendix to the study, when commenting on this efficiency, the researchers stated: “It is about 50-100 times more efficient than the commonly-used run length codecs (as used in other similar programs) or MPEG-2 video as delivered on DVD” (Jones et al. 606).


            The idea of digital screen-capture video is not a new one, and has been used by gamers and software-developers since the late 1990’s. The last two iterations of the Microsoft XBOX had a screen-capture utility built into its operating system, which allowed users to capture in-game footage and share it with the others. Indeed, YouTube is replete with such game footage, often edited quite professionally and overlaid with audio commentary. While the realm of the online classroom is, in most respects, a far cry from the realm of online gaming, they both exist in a virtual sphere, and they both aim to pursue technology in opportunity cost, although to somewhat different ends. Likewise, they both involve a virtual connection between people within a community of discourse. Perhaps the two realms are not so different, after all. Maybe online instructors can learn something from online gamers, and incorporate screen-capture digital video into their virtual classrooms. If the results of Jones et al.’s 2012 study are any indicator, our students are eager for feedback in this more cutting-edge way, and they find it more helpful than old ways of connecting.


Works Cited

Bures, Eva Mary, et al. “Student Motivation to Learn via Computer Conferencing.” Research in

      Higher Education, vol. 41, no. 5, 2000, pp. 593–621.,

Jones, Nigel, et al. “Student Feedback via Screen Capture Digital Video: Stimulating Student’s

     Modified Action.” Higher Education, vol. 64, no. 5, 2012, pp. 593-607–

Kim, Loel. “Online Technologies for Teaching Writing: Students React to Teacher Response in

     Voice and Written Modalities.” Research in the Teaching of English, vol. 38, no. 3, 2004, pp. 304-     337.,


Student Perceptions of Audio Versus Written Feedback – Thoughts from the Online Composition Classroom

This week, I came across an interesting study about student perceptions of, and preferences for, written and audio feedback in an online composition class. (The study comes from Volume 38 of Research in the Teaching of English and was titled “Online Technologies for Teaching Writing: Students React to Teacher Response in Voice and Written Modalities”). Although the study was from 2004, I found the results from the study to be practical and worth considering. The study involved a set of four teachers, each of whom had taught college-level English for a minimum of six years, and a pool of thirty-nine students participating in online composition courses. In the study, the four teachers were presented with examples of student writing from each of the thirty-nine participants, and composed both written feedback and recorded audio feedback about the student writing. The students were then asked to evaluate the instructor commentary and indicate their perception of its merits and preferences for either the written or the audio feedback. Particularly, the students were asked to evaluate what feedback was the most helpful and why, as well as what aspects of the feedback they found unhelpful.

Audio commentary

Perhaps surprisingly, students did not show a statistically significant preference for one mode of feedback overall, with 46.2% preferring voice modality and 41% preferring written feedback (Kim 316). However, when the results were evaluated across the four teachers, the results showed a stronger preference for audio feedback for certain instructors, and written for others (Kim 322-324). This deviance was explained by Kim as indicative of the ability of each instructor to provide effective audio commentary and is related to their skill as an oral communicator. Kim explains, when discussing the differences in student opinion regarding the merits of the audio feedback of the four instructor participants:

“This finding suggests a couple of things: First, it dramatically points out that not all         teachers may benefit from commenting in a ‘media-rich’ modality. An increased capacity to convey cues that are more revealing of a person’s attitudes may actually prove a disadvantage for people who are less skillful oral communicators – that is, they simply may not be able to mask their less-than-positive feelings from their students” (328).

Kim later explains that teachers have good days and bad days, and something as simple as instructor mood can come across more in rich-media formats, such as audio (326). Considering this, Kim indicates that teachers “even those who are good and enthusiastic – may not benefit from the media-rich modality all the time” (326).

Within the study, students commented on the different modes of feedback across a range of metrics, one of which was the merits of the feedback in terms of its helpfulness and clarity. The study found that positive feedback was overwhelmingly preferred to negative feedback, which is not surprising, and that constructive criticism was deemed less intimidating in audio feedback than written (Kim 320, 322, 326). Students were found to infer much from more intangible aspects of audio feedback, such as speaker tone, hesitation, and they drew conclusions from these subtle audio cues. In particular, the students in the survey indicated that commentary where a level of care and sincerity were the most valued, and the level of these qualities was often ascertained by subtle cues.

The overall perception of online feedback was rated highly for students, not only in this study, but in similar others (see Clark-Ibanez, Scott, 2008; and Bender, 2003). In fact, in one study, students indicated that they learned more in an online class than in a more traditional classroom, and that feedback and improved one-on-one communication between instructor and student was a major factor for improved learning (Bender). Concerning this need for, and appreciation of, online feedback, a student from Kim’s study provided the following insight:

“I think it’s really useful because sometimes you kind of forget what they write and can you can go back to it and see it over and over again and hear it over and over again. I think it’s a good way for doing it. (S25)” (Kim 326).

abstract sincerity key drawn with chalk on blackboard

Although the overall preferences for one modality over another in Kim’s study were surprising, the basic findings were rather intuitive. Specifically, what students value regarding feedback in a virtual classroom is the same thing they value in a traditional classroom. Namely, sincerity. Whether online or face-to-face, showing students that we care is a rather infallible best-practice.

Works Cited

Bender, Tisha. 2003. Discussion-based Online Teachine to Enhance Student Learning: The Theory, Practice, and Assessment. Sterling, VA.

Clark-Ibáñez, Marisol, and Linda Scott. “Learning to Teach Online.” Teaching Sociology, vol.36, no. 1, 2008, pp. 34–41.,

Kim, Loel. “Online Technologies for Teaching Writing: Students React to Teacher Response in Voice and Written Modalities.” Research in the Teaching of English, vol. 38, no. 3, 2004, pp. 304–337.,

Rendahl, Merry A. “It’s Not The Matrix: Thinking about Online Writing Instruction.” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, vol. 42, no. 1, 2009, pp. 133–150.,

On balancing collaborative learning with instructor feedback in an online poetry workshop.

When I began planning my online course site for ENG 203, one of the first obstacles that I saw involved the effective workshopping of student writing. In particular, I was concerned about finding the correct balance between the student/peer feedback relationship, and the instructor/student feedback relationship. In a seated class, workshopping of poems is typically done as a collective group, with several days set aside for the feedback process. In each session, the entire class is given a copy of the poems for discussion, and is asked to have read them prior to the workshop and to have comments and feedback for the author.  During these sessions, the students are asked for their opinions as to “what is working” in the poem, as well as their thoughts generally and interpretations. The discussion then typically turns to areas where revision is needed, during which students offer their suggestions to the author. The discussion on each poem typically ends with some short suggestions from the instructor. Written feedback from instructors is typically discouraged, I’ve found, as it risks perhaps more the possibility of appropriating the student’s poem.


The workshop process in a seated section of ENG 203 is much in line with the ‘collaborative learning’ principle detailed by Ken Bruffee in his influential essay “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind’” from vol. 46 of College English. Essentially, in this essay, Bruffee details the results of his research into collaborative learning in the composition classroom, a function he advocates as a sort of ‘best practice’ in the teaching of writing (637-640). Bruffee argues that the creation of an effective discourse community of student peers can be an invaluable learning tool in the teaching of writing, and that information learned through collaboration with peers tends to be associated with high cognitive transfer (640-641). The trick to success in collaborative learning is to ensure that students consider their classmates as “knowledgeable peers” (640). During poetry workshop, care needs to be taken to allow all students to voice their opinions and interpretations of the writing of their peers, and all students should feel comfortable and confident in this process. On this same axiom, there needs to be a balance struck between student feedback and instructor feedback. The instructor is not a ‘peer’ of the students in an introductory poetry class, and as such, his-or-her comments need to be presented in such a way that they do not overshadow or negate the comments of the students peers.


I struggled with this paradigm in creating my online class. How could a group of 20 students provide feedback on 20 poems? This is easily done in a seated class, wherein communication is verbal and synchronous. But in a virtual class, where all communication is typically in written form, asking students to comment on 20 poems is simply unreasonable. Also, how could I avoid the possibility of appropriating student work when providing comments? Ultimately, again, in a virtual classroom, communication is typically written.

I ultimately settled on a model in which students would workshop their poems in small groups, which will be assigned randomly on Blackboard. Within these small groups, I set up a discussion board, on which each student would create a new thread for his-or-her poem. In each thread, the students were asked to provide commentary on the poems, and to offer suggestions for revision, as well as praise elements in the poem they felt were working. While I observed the workshop, I did not participate. I felt the creation of an effective discourse community would have been impeded if I was commenting simultaneous to the students, and I did not want to stifle the exchange of ideas between students. Instead, I decided to record audio feedback for each student individually. I recorded between 5 and 10 minutes of feedback for each student, during which I discussed not only their poem, but also poetry generally and certain best practices. I emailed these audio tracks to each student. I feel this model, of randomly assigned small groups, combined with a separate instructor feedback in the form of audio comments, best replicates the environment of a seated class. I think the process is going well and I intend on sticking with this method for future online classes. So far, the feedback has been positive.


Works Cited

Bruffee, Kenneth A. “Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind.’”     College English, vol. 46, no. 7, 1984, pp. 635–652.

Bruffee, Ken. “Reply to Peter Elbow.” College English, vol. 34, no. 3, 1972, pp. 467–468.,

Elbow, Peter. “Comment on Ken Bruffee.” College English, vol. 34, no. 3, 1972, pp. 466–466.,


Readings Reflection: Peter Elbow’s Writing without Teachers

In his 1973 book Writing without Teachers, Peter Elbow espoused a range of then radical ideas, which have since come into the fold of composition pedagogy in an online setting. Particularly, (and as Elbow espoused his dislike of the title “Expressivist,” when referring to his pedagogical style in this 2007 address to the CCCC), the famous instructor did advocate for a looser approach to the teaching of composition (“Coming to see Myself” 520), which included tenets commonly attributed to Expressivism. Specifically, Elbow detailed the importance of free-writing and collaborative activities, as well as a distancing from the emphasis on surface-level errors. As he details in chapter 3 of Writing without Teachers, Elbow was a proponent of what he termed a “cooking” process, wherein ideas are to be written regardless of merit, and later developed through the process of revision (48-73). In his 2007 address to the CCCC, Elbow details the cooking process as follows: “Think of writing as an organic, developmental process in which you start writing at the very beginning – before you know your meaning at all – and encourage your words gradually to change and evolve” (“Coming to see Myself”15).


Figure 1: Peter Elbow in 2007

Free-writing is a technique easily incorporated into an online composition pedagogy. Through the use of prompts, students can participate in a structured free-writing session, perhaps designed to elicit brainstorming ideas for an upcoming paper. I teach a section of Creative Writing: Poetry I (ENG 203) and I utilize weekly brainstorming exercises roughly analogous to free-writing, in which students are asked to brainstorm on a certain prompt, the form of which is often open to interpretation, and write their ideas for a self-imposed 10-minutes. Later, students are asked to comment on this process, to provide angles of how the content they’ve generated could be used inside one of their own poems. Based on the feedback I’ve seen on the course discussion board, these weekly exercises have been helpful in the generation of ideas, as well requiring students to somewhat commit to the writing process early, and not put it off. In the organization of my course, I think one could classify the writing prompts and brainstorming activities as beginning the cooking process Elbow describes in Chapter 3 of Writing without Teachers.

Another tenet proposed by Elbow was the value of collaborative activities and peer feedback (78-106). Through interaction with each other in a workshop environment, groups of writers could engage with the text of one another and speak in their own vernacular, much the way we commonly conduct peer review sessions. In an online medium, workshops can be facilitated by the use of a discussion board, or even a collaborative blog. In keeping with Elbow’s model of a teacher-less classroom, an online instructor could, if he or she so chose, to simply observe the student interactions in such a workshop, effectively emulating the initial model Elbow envisioned. When describing this initial vision for the teacher-less classroom, Elbow offered the following in his 2007 address to the CCCC:

My vision was for writers to meet outside of institutions for learning. (Like most of us, I didn’t know of the powerful tradition of women’s writing and reading groups that Ann Gere explored). I was trying to set up open rhetorical spaces where writers and readers could meet. It seemed to me that what we need as writers is not standards and principles and authoritative judgement about what’s good or bad in writing. What we need is a naked empiricism: careful accounts of what written words make happen inside reader’s heads (Coming to See Myself 521).

The flexibility afforded online instructors is increasing with new technology. Particularly, interactive (and social) media are allowing for rich, personalized sharing of information, and the future will only hearken an increasingly blended line between the real and the virtual. Perhaps, even soon, online instructors will be able to realize the “open rhetorical spaces” Elbow proposed back in 1973.

Works Cited

Boyd, Richard. “Writing Without Teachers, Writing Against The Past?.” Writing with Elbow. 7-20. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 2002. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 9 Feb. 2017

Elbow, Peter. “Coming to See Myself as a Vernacular Intellectual: Remarks at the 2007 CCCC General Session on Receiving the Exemplar Award.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 59, no. 3, 2008, pp. 519–524.

Graham, Katherine, Bevely Hayden, and Matthew Swineheart. “Writing Without Teachers,Writing With Tutors.” WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship 18.7 (1994): 8. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 9 Feb. 2017

Griffin, June, and Deborah Minter. “The Rise of the Online Writing Classroom: Reflecting onthe Material Conditions of College Composition Teaching.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 65, no. 1, 2013, pp. 140–161.

Kienholz, Kevin B., and Gregory Shafer. “Teacher to Teacher: What Recent or Remembered Book or Article Has Been Most Influential on Your Teaching?” The English Journal, vol. 93, no. 2, 2003, pp. 23–24.

Reflective introduction – thoughts on ENG 704: Teaching Writing Online

I found out in December, 2017 that I would be teaching an online section of ENG 203 Creative Writing: Poetry I. (Initially, I was slated to teach a seated section of this course). Having never taught an online course, or even taken a university-level course online, I was somewhat nervous.

Then I found ENG 704 (Seminar: Teaching Writing Online) in the course list for Spring 2017. I was excited to learn more about teaching writing online, mostly in an effort to ease my personal anxiety about it. So much so, that I read all three of the assigned course books. I was, and still am, hoping to learn techniques and best practices for teaching writing online and I hope to utilize lessons from this course in my online section of ENG 203.

One of the hardest things for me, in the beginning of creating my own course site, was conceptualizing how an online course should be structured. I knew the expectations for the seated section of ENG 203 and I was prepared to teach a seated course. However, transferring the course objectives and classroom activities into an online medium was something I struggled with. After about ten days of brainstorming, constructing course materials, and imaging a range of written texts, I was able to put together what I felt like was a functional and informative site. However, the management of the site, daily activities (such as assignments, workshops, and the like), as well as the creation and upkeep of my instructor presence, was a process completely in the inchoate for me.

I was able to transfer some of the best practices mentioned by Warnock in his book Teaching Writing Online and this was a big help for me. Particularly, one area that Warnock mentioned was the importance of establishing an online presence early, such as responding to all student’s initial posts on the discussion board. I had everyone in my class post their own introductions, much the same as we’ve done in ENG 704, and I went through and responded to my student’s introductory posts. I felt like this was a helpful tip and one I maybe would have overlooked otherwise. Another best practice reiterated by Warnock was the importance of “not being the bottleneck” and I’ve taken some measure to ensure that the grading of posts and student exercises is not something I’ll do in a manner that impedes the natural flow of student work and creativity.

One thing stressed in the Online Writing Conference textbook was the value of synchronous communication and feedback, such as that inherent in IM clients. I see the value in IM and it is something I’ve also seen shine in other instances, so I was glad to be encouraged to incorporate IM into my course’s BlackBoard site. In this vein, I plan on incorporating a sort of “virtual office hours” into my ENG 203 course, where students can IM me with questions and elicit discussion.

I’m hoping to learn more about the pedagogy of teaching writing online, particularly in regards to best practices for work shopping student material and the creation and maintenance of an online instructor presence. I’m also hoping to learn more about the implementation of multi-media content into my own online course, as well as how to leverage new technologies. Lastly, I would like to learn more about the process of leveraging social media in an online course. Hopefully, through the readings and exercises in ENG 704, I can transform from someone with apprehension about teaching online into an instructor confident in his abilities in this growing medium. I’m looking forward to it!

As an aside, I’m also looking forward to meeting those of you I don’t already know, and working with everyone in the discussion board and on our own personal blogs. There is a lot to cover, certainly, but I know we will all grow from this.


Brandon Henry