The “X” factor

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By Sarah Madsen Hardy and Gwen Kordonowy

This month, as the end of the spring semester approached, faculty teaching experimental “WRX” sections attended one of two coffee hours to share ideas and experiences. Enthusiasm ran high. As one attendee commented as she headed out the door, “I think that is the happiest bunch of writing teachers I have ever seen.”

Since teaching WRX sections gives instructors leeway to break away from the typical assignment sequence and pilot some of their own ideas, you might think that there would be little overlap in experiments and experiences. And it’s true: the diversity of innovations—from asking students to write from the perspective of a species that they’ve researched (Holly Schaaf’s “Imagining Animal Minds”) to having them develop a single independent research project over the course of a term (Sam Meyers’ “Burning Questions”)—is striking. Yet, time and again, instructors were excited to see connections between their experiences and the larger goals of their curricular experiments.

One similarity across nearly all of the WRX150 sections is the integration of an assignment that asks students to translate their research into another genre. Just some of the alternative genres being explored by students in WRX classes this semester include websites (Prentice/Gomez), online tours of local architectural sites (Robbins), literature reviews (Bennett-Zendzian/Goss), public intellectual essays (Madsen Hardy/Kordonowy), reports and posters (Breen). In conversations during these coffee hours, faculty emphasized the ways in which their students seem to be developing a better sense of audience and occasion as they tackle these assignments.

Another common thread in these discussions had to do with the place and parameters of research in the assignment sequence. In many WRX classes, breaking away from the three-paper rhythm is allowing for a greater emphasis on student-driven inquiries. This greater freedom has led to some moments of panic for students and instructors alike. But as Dora Goss put it, “Panic is good!”⎯when it is brought on by allowing students to pursue ideas with passion. Instructors ranged from merely excited to positively ecstatic about the level of work their students are producing.

What is making our WRX instructors so happy? Since, as everyone knows, so many instructors in our program take innovative approaches in their standard courses, and since students learn in inspiring and transferable ways across the Writing Program’s classes, maybe the most unique thing that the WRX initiative is offering its instructors is a way to collaborate, to share their innovations, and to learn from each other.

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