Dr. Carol Cummings has taught Multicultural Psychology for three semesters. Cummings uses writing to apply the theories covered in the readings to her students’ lives. Her dedication and success in applying writing to such worthy goals make Dr. Cummings an exemplary WR teacher.
Cummings incorporates writing into her classroom via weekly three-page reaction papers. These papers are graded on a scale of one to five, with five being the highest. Two points are given for content, two for integration, and one for analysis. To help students understand her writing expectations, she hands out anonymous examples of good papers. “I hand back several different examples because all the students develop different styles, so there’s really no style that’s the best . . . it’s the way they handle the information.”
Papers must react to all the readings that week and find a common theme that binds them together. Then students must apply the readings to a personal experience. Searching for and communicating a connection between readings promotes students’ critical and creative thinking. Putting the theory in context of their own experiences promotes their growth and understanding of the material on a visceral, not just an intellectual, level.
Cummings actually prefers to have students resubmit unacceptable work than to give a very low grade. She does not give failing grades on reaction papers because “it sends too negative an image.” Nevertheless, despite her efforts to avoid negative comments, students still tend to create a negative evaluation. For example, some students respond, “Well, you flunked me!” to which she firmly replies, “No, I didn’t flunk you, I asked you to do it again.” Even after grades are recorded, revision options give students a chance to improve. They are required to revise two papers, but they can redo as many papers as they wish.
Her students' struggle to synthesize information through writing appears to pay off. “As much flak as I get from students, by mid-semester people are writing. I mean, they’re really writing." She continues, "Even if it weren’t a requirement they’d still do writing in this course.” Indeed, the lessons learned in her course persist beyond the immediate semester. “I’ve met a few students after a course is over who say, ‘I think about that class all the time,’ or people who call me and they’re in grad school and they say, ‘What’s that article we read? I have to show my professor,’ so I’ve got a little bit of feedback that says, okay, it works for somebody.”
As in many writing courses, group discussions and instructor-student conferences supplement and serve writing. The former provide ways for students to explore their ideas with others prior to writing their reaction papers. The latter, held after students turn in their reaction papers, enable Cummings to discuss student writing in ways that supplement written comments.
One area of tension between Cummings
and her students concerns the correction of papers written in dialect.
Students become “really angry about having that corrected.” They can feel
punished when she urges them to write papers using a standard dialect of
English which, she points out, “has a wider currency.” Yet Cummings, who
feels she speaks “at least two English dialects” also interprets such versatility
as “riches” and “options.” Recognizing the tension, Cummings nevertheless
believes that “having to take what you know and make it make sense so that
anybody could understand it is growth.” In addition, she is concerned about
her students' ability to function in the marketplace.
Though a successful teacher, Cummings feels the WR Program and its workshops could help her learn to respond more effectively to students who write in nonstandard English. And like many teachers, she feels she can benefit from some training in the best way to grade writing. Another important issue that she hopes workshops will address is time management. Cummings reports that it can take her up to twenty minutes to respond to a student paper and would like to learn ways to hasten that process.
But most importantly, she would like to see WR teachers receive recognition for their extra work. One possibility, she suggests, would be to allow WR courses to count extra for scholarship of teaching. She urges, “If this article doesn’t do anything but convey” that WR teachers don’t get enough support, “that would be a good thing.”
As can be seen from Dr. Cumming’s exemplary teaching, WR provides great potential for student growth. Dedicated teachers like Dr. Cummings invest a lot of time in their teaching, and adding a writing component to a course does make more work. But the potential that writing offers in a class like Multicultural Psychology—indeed, in any disciplinary course—outweighs the disadvantages.
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