Resilient Teaching, Creative Adaptations: Sweetland Faculty and Students Learn and Write Together in Remote Environments

T Hetzel’s Minor in Writing Capstone Class

Beginning in mid-March 2020, when the growing COVID-19 pandemic caused schools and colleges to close, faculty and students around the country entered into “emergency remote teaching” mode as they quickly shifted their in-person, often hands-on, pedagogical strategies to a distance-learning format. Many faculty had never taught in online settings before, and we all scrambled to get up to speed on the affordances of Zoom for online class meetings, of video tools like Kaltura for recording video lessons, and the possibilities of social annotation tools like Perusall and for fostering robust remote discussions of readings. Despite the stress and the real hardships faced by many students and faculty as they transitioned to this “new normal,” silver linings were also discovered as GSIs and faculty created new communities of online practice to share what they were learning about remote teaching and to support each other in making the transition to “resilient” online teaching

Sweetland faculty and student staff made this transition in a variety of ways, and we have gathered here some of their reflections. Shelley Manis and Shuwen Li discuss creative adaptations they made in their teaching plans and student responses to them; Louis Cicciarelli shares the experience of moving the spring Dissertation Writing Institute online; Larissa Sano and Ginger Shultz highlight the innovations made by Sweetland MWrite undergraduate Writing Fellows in their support of students in STEM classes; undergraduate Peer Writing Consultants Jordyn Houle and Julia Van Goor reflect on moving the Sweetland Peer Writing Center online; and April Conway offers appreciations for her students’ resilience and energy in meeting the challenges of this new learning environment.

Naomi Silver
Associate Director, Sweetland Center for Writing

What Worked in Remote Teaching

In Fall 2020, I did two things that made all the difference in terms of student buy-in to courses, their ability to participate in a course community, and their intellectual curiosity:

  1. I gave students as much control over the course content/scope/policies as possible, starting with having them annotate the syllabus & grading contract in a Google Doc, which remained “live” for the whole term. 
  2. Students and I used a running Google Doc of “Collaborative Session Notes.” 

The first was meant to be as inclusive as possible but also turned out to help students internalize and take ownership of the syllabus and grading structure. I made my syllabus in a Google Doc and gave students editorial access, asking them to comment on it as well as offer suggestions (in “suggesting” mode): What excited them about the course (and why) as well as what worried or confused/troubled them (and why). I will never go back. They had long conversations with each other in the margins, answered many of each other’s questions, and made some wonderful suggestions that enriched the course. 

The collaborative session notes became a lively record of our class discussions, full of relevant hyperlinks and a site where I could also offer formative assessment via commenting on their breakout room discussions and notes and/or offering general feedback based on what I’ve been seeing in class and in their offline work. These notes also allowed me to gauge how their breakout room discussions were going: I could watch them populate their room’s ideas and questions. Almost every single student told me they loved the breakout room time, and the vibrancy of their discussions attests to that.

Shelley Manis
Lecturer, Sweetland Center for Writing

A Technical Communication Project during COVID-19

In March 2020, the outbreak of COVID-19 disrupted our life; however, my students and I found a precious opportunity of practicing tactical technical communication in Writing 200, Writing with Digital and Social Media: Technical Writing

Coined by the technical communication scholar Miles Kimball (2006, 2017), tactical technical communication refers to unpacking complex information and radically sharing it in extra-institutional settings. For example, a YouTuber or a blogger can teach you how to fix your dishwasher. Different from the traditional technical communication, tactical technical communication allows ordinary consumers of information to act as experts and use their (sometimes cunning) wisdom to discover, shape, and disseminate information that could benefit their target audience. Such a way of “massaging” (in McLuhan’s terms) information became particularly important in the early stage of the pandemic when people were anxiously trying to understand how they should act. 

To find peace in ourselves and help others surrounding us, we quickly executed a tactical technical project in the last few days in Writing 200. Students actively proposed problems they would like to solve (e.g., offering instructions for wearing masks and completing grocery shopping online), identified their target audience (e.g., low-income people and seniors), located the platforms for disseminating their works (e.g., a blog or a vlog), and efficiently gathered the most needed information for their target audience. Their final projects include blog articles, vlogs, flyers, and infographics. 

by Eman Azrak
by Courtney Fortin
by Andrea Wegner and Shanley Corvite

To help those struggling financially, in the form of a blog article, Sarah Pyykkonen instructed people about how to file for unemployment, while Andrea Wegner and Shanley Corvite explained what a “stimulus check” is and who is eligible for it. Caring for another vulnerable group, Courtney Fortin designed an infographic displaying some simple steps for mental care, and Jordyn Staff compiled a flyer offering comprehensive resources for mental health. From a more practical perspective, Eman Azrak taught people how to create proper homemade masks in her Tumblr page, and Elizabeth Grass shared in her vlog what she did to find everyday joy while “staying at home.” Furthermore, some students took a forward-thinking approach. For example, while we were still in the early stage of the pandemic, Miranda Shilling explained the procedure of anti-body tests in order to help people safely return to their workplaces. Even more radically, Matthew Lesha wrote a blog article, demanding Melania Trump educate the country about safe and responsible grocery shopping, following the campaigns launched by Nancy Reagan and Michelle Obama. 

Even though the unexpected natural crisis did not allow those students to polish their works, we could clearly see how they discovered, shaped, and disseminated information in two typical technical communication genres—technical description and technical instructions. Most importantly, their goodwill as technical communicators shone. 

In Chinese the word “crisis” carries two dimensions: risk and opportunity. Despite the extreme stress imposed on us in this unusual year, I witnessed new opportunities in teaching technical writing and communication. From here, I hope more students could see technical writing and communication as a skill that everyone needs for themselves and for people they care about. 

Shuwen Li
Lecturer, Sweetland Center for Writing

A Shout Out to Writing 100 Students

Despite the challenges of remote instruction, students in my Writing 100 class have done very well to engage in their learning by working with each other and reading and writing in meaningful ways. What follows is shout out to my students and their ongoing, insightful, and differently demonstrated participation throughout the term. 

This is a shout out to students like Gail and Maya whose willingness to voice questions, offer answers, and venture guesses during class created momentum for our learning. There are also those students who looked out for each other, or looked to each other, for their learning, like Mary and Jack. This also a shout out to students like Lesley, Bradley, and Emily who attended office hours or sent emails to advocate for their own learning.

By the end of an exhausting and unsettling semester, it was difficult for students to feel connected to the class, so those who attempted connections, like Ari, who has a pit bull, and Clayton, the only student with a country music submission to our course playlist (see below), made things feel more personable. Kim was the only student who kept her camera on during class meetings. Though I don’t require students to appear onscreen, it was still a little sad to see so many black squares, so Kim made remote teaching feel more connective. 

This is also a shout out to students like Rebecca and Shaila who wrote such thoughtful annotations in the shared readings that they elevated coursework marginalia to a craft. 

This is also for those students whose writing and research really stood out: from Doane’s laugh-out-loud literacy narrative, to Rushil’s exceptional analysis; from Nick’s unique subject for his research paper, to Olivia’s innovative take on the clapback as a rhetorical device; from Rylie’s nuanced analysis of social media, Christian values, and the presidential election, to Max’s clear practice of establishing positionality in academic writing. 

In sum, we had a successful semester.

April Conway
Lecturer, Sweetland Center for Writing

MWrite Goes Remote: In Praise of the Fellows

It goes without saying that this has been a semester like no other. From the transition to remote learning to strikes on campus to the outbreaks and impacts of COVID-19, U-M students have contended with a lot.  

Given all of these challenges, we at Sweetland are grateful for what we can view as successes of the semester, including our ability to help faculty implement writing-to-learn assignments in their MWrite courses. The MWrite program focuses on deepening student learning by using content-based writing assignments as well as a writing process of drafting, peer reviewing, and revising.

Over four years we have been running MWrite, we have learned a lot about how writing-to-learn pedagogies can help with student learning in a range of courses and disciplines. Our research indicates that these assignments can support conceptual learning and disciplinary thinking, while also helping students identify that what they are learning is relevant beyond an academic context (see Finkenstaedt-Quinn et al. JCE 2017; Halim et al. CBE 2018; Watts et al. CERP 2020). With the pandemic, we have learned something new: these assignments translate well to remote learning and provide an important opportunity for students to engage with each other by giving and receiving peer feedback

None of our success this semester would have been possible without our undergraduate Writing Fellows. Writing Fellows are the heart of the MWrite Program and work throughout the semester to help students in their courses.  The work that Writing Fellows do is complex, as it requires not only a solid understanding of assignment content but also ideas for how to explain the material to other students. Although Writing Fellows receive a stipend for their efforts, they often say their favorite part of the experience is the chance to help other students. Fellows are incredibly committed to helping the students in their courses and have noted how much they gain from being a Fellow, especially an appreciation for all of the different ways that students approach their assignment and useful skills in giving feedback and working as part of an instructional team. This semester, Sweetland supported 63 Writing Fellows in 8 different courses, including high enrollment courses such as Stats 250 (Introduction to Statistics) and Math 216 (Differential Equations). We were also able to expand our efforts to the School of Nursing, by working with Professor Megan Eagle on using MWrite in Nursing 420 (Introduction to Global Health). 

CH 216 fellows meeting the afternoon of the Wednesday U-M officially went remote.
Photo credit: Ginger Shultz

Despite the challenges of the semester, the Writing Fellows more than rose to the occasion by investing additional time and energy into their efforts. The Writing Fellows not only did more to hold their remote office hours by learning the ins and outs of Zoom, but also spent more time attending weekly meetings to coordinate our efforts. Writing Fellows were there to help answer student’s questions via email and Piazza and were more than willing to make accommodations when students had emergencies. 

Even more remarkable, the Writing Fellows did all of this while contending with their own challenges related to online learning, COVID outbreaks, and working from different parts of the country and even the world. Our experience this semester just confirmed what we already knew about our Writing Fellows—they represent the best of us and make us proud to Go Blue every day. We are wowed by their perseverance, their compassion, and their work ethic and are so grateful to have the opportunity to work with such a fine group of students.

Through this trying time, we can say this for certain: we have never been more proud of U-M students, for showing up and giving it their all. And we are especially grateful for the work of our Writing Fellows, who not only persevered under such trying circumstances but excelled. We thank each and every one of them for their help in making this semester a success.  

Works Cited

Finkenstaedt-Quinn, S. A., Halim, A. S., Chambers, T. G., Moon, A., Goldman, R. S., Gere, A. R., & Shultz, G. V. (2017).  Investigation of the influence of a writing-to-learn assignment on student understanding of polymer properties. Journal of Chemical Education, 94(11), 1610-1617.

Halim, A. S., Finkenstaedt-Quinn, S. A., Olsen, L. J., Gere, A. R., & Shultz, G. V. (2018).  Identifying and remediating student misconceptions in introductory biology via writing-to-learn assignments and peer review. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 17(2), ar28.

Watts, F. M., Schmidt-McCormack, J. A., Wilhelm, C. A., Karlin, A., Sattar, A., Thompson, B. C., … & Shultz, G. V. (2020).  What students write about when students write about mechanisms: analysis of features present in students’ written descriptions of an organic reaction mechanism. Chemistry Education Research and Practice, 21(4), 1148-1172.

Larissa Sano
Lecturer, Sweetland Center for Writing
Faculty Director – Writing in STEM

Ginger Shultz
Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry
MWrite Co-Principal Investigator

WRITING 405: Contemporary Topics and Multidisciplinary Writing

Sweetland’s newest course, Writing 405, began as a conversation about how to develop further one of Sweetland’s areas of strength: understanding writing in and across academic disciplines. While there are many courses that offer the opportunity to focus on one discipline at a time, there were no courses that gave students the chance to place different forms of academic writing in conversation with one another. How can our understanding of disciplinary writing reveal how academic disciplines think, pose questions, and build knowledge? A working group comprised of Sweetland faculty members Anne Gere, Shuwen Li, Raymond McDaniel, Dana Nichols, and Carol Tell formed in summer 2017 to address this gap in our curriculum.

Writing 405 uses a different approach than other writing in the disciplines courses. Rather than situating the class in a particular academic department, this course is housed in Sweetland to focus on the connections between writing and developing academic knowledge. The class focuses on one contemporary topic, and examines that topic across the genres, conventions, and styles of different academic disciplines. Students build a subtle understanding of how those disciplines create knowledge through their approach to the topic, the questions they pose, and the constraints of what discrete disciplines can learn on their own.

Raymond McDaniel debuted the course in winter 2019 using the theme “Climate, Crisis, and Interdisciplinarity.” The class drew students from across LSA, including many from STEM disciplines, who were invested in the issue and eager for the opportunity to explore climate change from an interdisciplinary perspective. Dana Nichols is offering Writing 405 for the second time in winter 2020 with the theme “’White Trash’ and Rural America,” which examines how disciplines have imagined and constructed this American group as an economic, political, public health, and social problem. Writing 405 has been a welcome addition to Sweetland’s slate of courses, and we look forward to future offerings that encourage students to conceptualize the complexities and nuances of some of our thorniest contemporary problems.

LHSP 228: Telling Stories

Students of the Lloyd Hall Scholars Program (LHSP) have a new course option in winter ’17. In line with the mission of LHSP to provide an inclusive and creative living-learning community for students interested in writing and the arts, interim director Paul Barron, and director-on-leave Carol Tell, secured a CRLT Faculty Development Fund grant to research and design a writing course to fulfill the Race & Ethnicity requirement.

The working group, joined by Stamps School of Art and Design writing coordinator (and former Sweetland faculty) Jennifer Metsker, and LHSP art director Mark Tucker, researched similar first-year writing courses and drilled down into best practices for teaching race and writing. One such practice is showing students historical examples of the ways in which racism is produced and acted out, disconnecting the mechanisms of racism from the identities of victimized groups. Historical examples also provide shared perspectives by which to view contemporary racism—helping students to learn from the “there and then” to understand the “here and now.”

Students will employ this grounding to examine the “stories” told in a variety of texts, from political speeches, to novels, poems, and films, to better assess the veracity of these stories, and to discover the affordances of different genres to reveal, conceal, or resist narratives about race and ethnicity. We look forward to interesting and productive discussions.