I have a unique opportunity this semester, teaching two distinct writing courses and using a combination of wikis and blogs in each. The first year students seem comparatively more open to the challenge of learning these technologies than the juniors; or perhaps the juniors are simply more vocal in resisting the labor involved. At any rate, both groups are proceeding well, albeit toward different tasks with varied pace. My optimism is high at the moment. The juniors just spent our first full class session in a computer lab and almost everyone completed a three-part “quiz” intended to increase their familiarity with the course wiki. We have been struggling, in general, to conceptualize the wiki space as an actual extension of the classroom. There were a few moments of tension (Did someone delete the Table of Contents?! No…but it took a few minutes before a student discovered we simply had to scroll far-to-the-right to find it), but overall the mood was engaged: perhaps not exactly fun, but definitely not boring. “I have to go do something else for awhile, my brain has been working too hard!” A handful of students murmured similar sentiments, while a few others celebrated, “Whoever would have thought I would actually get it all done!”

During and after last week’s Technology Fellows seminar, I thought it would be worthwhile to document the steps in curricular design that have brought the students in these two classes up to this point in the semester – poised (I hope!) for serious and productive engagement with readers known and unknown. An emphasis on audience was a major theme in the first-year students’ first Reflection Papers (see excerpts), with nearly every one describing positive effects on their writing by deliberately imagining an audience larger than the traditional one (the teacher).

Both groups of students were introduced to their respective CourseWiki during the first week of class and informed that much official material relevant to the class would be posted there. Because the first-year students meet in a computer lab, they have had the benefit of direct and consistent instruction in using the Wiki. Still, we have moved much more gradually than I have with previous classes, focusing on navigation (finding things) first, and just recently emphasizing various codes for contributing. The juniors breezed through homework assignments in relation to the CourseWiki, but it seems they have not (yet, most of them) been utilizing the Wiki as an active resource. Although I have emphasized many times (orally) that part of being a good writer is being a good reader (hence, able to decode written texts such as instructions on the Wiki), I have been speculating that the information they read in the CourseWiki has less material reality to them than words spoken in class. I am not sure why this might be, but I have a couple of ideas. One is basic dependency on teachers giving explicit, step-by-step directions. It makes sense that firstyear students might experience anxiety at the need to navigate their own way through situations, projects, and assignments which require initiative and the risks of making some independent decisions, but I was not prepared for juniors to react from uncertainty and lack of intellectual confidence. They are actually bright students; there is nothing wrong with their minds! My best guess is that the fear?/resistance?/resentment? is the effect of pedagogy at two levels: large lectures in which individual accountability is low and assessment has to be accomplished in cookie-cutter fashion; and curriculum design that trains students to deliver what they perceive teachers want.

Another idea is that the firstyear students are explicitly ready for the challenges of independence and the opportunities of growth promised by a university education. Juniors are less idealistic, already indoctrinated into systems where they must weigh competing demands of coursework, jobs, and who knows what other obligations. Adding layers of expectation for assertive, creative, and collaborative learning – where the burden of responsibility for learning is equally shared with the responsibility I have to actively teach – is not only unfamiliar (as several have indicated during class discussions), but may be downright overwhelming if folks are already stretched too thin.

I am confident the juniors are going to do well; we’ve just been going through a period of adjustment. I hope I can instill enough chutzpah in the firstyear students so that they do not arrive into their junior years numbed by the college experience, instead of invigorated by it.