Interview with Melanie Smith
1. Could you tell us about the theme of the CCCC this year?
The national Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) is an opportunity for writing teachers at all levels to meet and share knowledge, practice and research. This year’s conference was held in Indianapolis from March 18 – 22 and the theme was Open Source(s), Access and Futures.
2. What was the topic of your panel and paper?
I was one of four instructors on the panel, “Fail Better, Write Better: Making Use of Failure in the Composition Classroom.” Steve Himmer, a professor at Emerson College and member of BRAWN (Boston Rhetoric and Writers Network), asked me to participate after I shared the “Inner Critic” paper that I assign WR 100 students at midterm. Steve was looking for exercises or practices that help students frame failure as an opportunity to become better writers.
The Inner Critic exercise invites students to express the critical voice that distorts their shortcomings as writers and typically gets loudest the night before a paper is due. Students invite the critic to sound off, then respond, using reasons and evidence to make the case for their own progress. Students love the creative aspect of this assignment, and I like not having to read another academic paper!
In the panel I talked not only about the assignment, but also about themes that consistently emerge in student essays. The “Inner Critic” seems at first pass to be disparaging, but on closer look one finds it is often protective. He or she worries about losing scholarship money, not getting into graduate school, and disappointing parents. ESL worries include limited vocabulary and fear of sounding “stupid.” These kinds of concerns dampen creativity, encourage students to “play it safe,” and often generate disabling writer’s block.
Something about “talking back” to the Inner Critic helps students correct distorted thinking and put grades in their proper perspective. This isn’t to say that grades are unimportant, but rather to underscore the message that grades are about what you do, not who you are. And you can always improve what you do.
The perfectionists are able to ease up because they see that they can deploy the critic in service of their goals; the anxious students can laugh at their dragons; the ESL students gain an ally in the teacher. And all students are – after the exercise – better positioned to tackle the last and most challenging essay.
The other presenters on my panel talked about deliberately inducing failure to reframe the revision process as an integral part of writing; writing about the topic of failure; and being willing, as instructors, to model a healthy response to failure by talking openly with students about something we planned that didn’t go quite right.
3. What were some interesting panels you attended while at the CCCC?
I attended two panels of note, one on BEAM by our own Joe Bizup and another on “plagiarism in an increasingly open-source world.” Joe’s panel talked about creative ways to use the BEAM (background-exhibit-argument-model) taxonomy not only in straightforward writing classes, but writing in the disciplines (e.g., in chemistry papers, business memos, etc.).
The plagiarism panel framed poor attribution as a problem associated not with a student’s willingness to cheat, but rather a lack of knowledge about how to appropriately use sources. I like attending an event that gives me stuff I can take when I leave – I was scribbling away at a list of ideas about how to use what I had learned. And of course I had the chance to meet a lot of interesting teachers, who gave me an even greater appreciation of our own WP.
4. What was the highlight of your experience?
The highlight of my experience was the five-minute spot immediately following my panel when I was able to pause, mentally, and let it sink in that I had just given my first conference presentation and to reflect on what it means to work in Boston University’s Writing Program, with its excellent faculty and generous leadership. I realized that a good mentor is someone who knows when to prod a mentee, to get them to take a step to the next level – to undertake work that the mentee might not do otherwise. The Writing Program offers many opportunities and role models for this kind of development, including the handful of faculty who listened to a dry run of my presentation and suggested ways to make it better, and Joe Bizup, who sat in on my panel and asked me some great probing questions.
5. What will you do with the feedback?
The Inner Critic exercise will likely be the focus of an action research project in the WP. A faculty group has been meeting informally to discuss better meeting the needs of ESL students. We are thinking about asking students to describe the way they learn in their first writing assignment of the semester, a self-assessment that gets at their perceived strengths and weaknesses as writers. We are thinking about how to use the self-assessment, together with the Inner Critic exercise at mid-semester, to gauge not only what students are learning, but how they are learning. This project may offer a new way into understanding ESL student needs, stepping back from sentence-level mechanics, which are the dominant focus, to a broader view of students as unique learners. The goal is, of course, to become more effective teachers.