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Simpson Center for the Humanities

The MLA Summer Institute on Reading and Writing Pedagogy

This summer, the University of Washington was one of two schools, along with the University of Massachusetts, to host the pilot program of the Mellon Foundation-funded MLA Teaching Institute, aimed at strengthening the teaching of English at access-oriented institutions through collaboration. For one week in June, thirty-two participants—a mix of faculty members from access-oriented institutions and doctoral students at regional universities—met to discuss and develop pedagogical research projects that they’d conduct for the rest of summer and then present at the 2020 MLA Conference in Seattle. 

This week, they’ll do just that when they present the findings of their research on the MLA panel, “Research Projects from the MLA Reading-Writing Institute.” The panel will be held from 1:45 to 3 pm on Saturday, January 11 in Room 4C-2 of the Washington State Convention Center, where folks can also learn more about the Institute and how to apply to be part of next year’s cohort.

As the panelists prepare their presentations, we asked University of Washington-affiliated doctoral students to reflect on being part of the first MLA Teaching Institute cohort—both what they learned and what they’ll be sharing during the conference. Here’s what they said:  

Leah Rubinsky (Comparative Literature):

We talk, quite a bit, in my department and across campus about collaboration and interdisciplinarity, but rarely do we practice these things. Participating in the MLA Summer Teaching Institute in June gave me the wonderful opportunity to be part of a diverse and collaborative learning community made up of PhDs, graduate students, creative writers, professors and instructors, some working at community colleges, some working at four year institutions, all brought together to learn about and share strategies for teaching academic writing and reading. And this was, perhaps, the most memorable and refreshing part of the experience: the invitation to be part of a professional community of teachers talking about how we show up in classrooms, what we grapple with at access oriented institutions or four year colleges and how we define and teach critical college-level reading and writing skills. Along with this, it was also valuable to do the hands-on, experiential work that we did, including sharing and peer-reviewing our writing assignments, prompts and syllabi, and actually doing, in our group, some of the discussion-based assignments and activities that we have our own students do.

As I reflect on the Institute, I am so grateful to have been able to take part in it. Not only did it rekindle my love of writing, reading and the teaching of both, it also gave me a glimpse of how academia can be done differently. What possibilities open up if we look beyond ideas of hierarchy, gate-keeping, lecturing and academia, and instead, focus more on access, teaching, collaborating and experiential learning? What opportunities emerge when we, at four-year institutions, collaborate with and learn from the teaching, pedagogy and research that is happening at community colleges and other access oriented institutions? What I encountered at the Institute was a kind of re-imagining of academia based on horizontal collaboration, genuine encouragement and cross-disciplinary communication, and I am excited to see what ideas and projects proceed from this experience.

Nanya Jhingran (English):

The MLA Institute on Reading and Writing Pedagogy was an incredible experience, most of all because of the space it provided for cross-institutional collaboration between teachers in the humanities. The Institute teachers, Dr. Stacey Donohue and Dr. Nicole Wallack, fostered a collaborative learning environment which combined critical pedagogy with deep learning to enable crucial insights into both the status and potential of reading and writing across various learning situations and institutional settings. 

In particular, our discussions around the affordances of teaching reading in the writing classroom raised important questions about the assumptions that teachers of composition make about their students’ relationship with reading. Dr. Wallack led us through a fantastic reading activity on a short essay by bell hooks which involved each of us reading out one moment that pulled us in and one moment that pushed us out of the text. Listening to each person read parts of the text aloud immediately revealed the different ways we read the text, and how our reading affected our response. In the next part of this activity, we pulled out a couple lines from the text and copied them at the center of a large sheet of paper. Then, we wrote a short reflection on our response to that section, ended our reflection with a question, and passed the sheet to our left. For the rest of the activity, we responded to other folks’ selections and questions, thus entering an existent conversation on the page, dialoguing with others’ responses to the text, and connecting across the various thoughts on the page. This activity had us encounter reading in myriad forms—alone, out loud, in community, in collaboration, and through writing. We were struck by how writing can be done in the service of reading, and how both reading and writing require us to listen critically and ethically across difference. 

The institute closed with us developing and sharing our research projects to be presented at the 2020 MLA, many of which were collaboratively imagined. In our collaborative project, provisionally titled “Practices and Pedagogies of Listening,” which includes instructors from both 2-year and 4-year colleges, we hope to engender and model expansive forms of deep listening that think critically about access and difference in the writing classroom. We plan to first mobilize listening to aid collaborative curricular design across our various capacities, goals, positionalities and institutional locations. In the longer term, we hope to maintain a sustained community of practice and research around listening as a crucial capacity for student learning and instructor collaboration. 

Yan Wang (English):

In my project, “Empowering Multilingual Writers' Identity and Genre Awareness,” I will introduce and discuss one classroom activity I conducted in my Expository Writing class at UW. With the aim to empower multilingual students’ linguistic and race identity, this practice highlights that the self-validation and understanding of one’s multilingual and multicultural identity is beneficial to students in respect of emotion and investment in the writing class. While issues of race and culture have been addressed more in the field of TESOL, they have also been an emerging concern in the Expository Writing classroom. In a class survey I conducted, most of the students admitted that they feel their bi/multicultural and linguistic resources misrecognized or mistreated. That motivated me to design this classroom activity, “Colorful Languages,” in which the students were asked to select a multimodal material (e.g., a poetry, an essay, a recipe, a song, a video/audio clip, etc.) in a language other than English that is connected to their lives and translate it into English, and then present it to the whole class in a creative way with their critical reflection. For monolingual students, there is an option to translate a piece of text of a certain genre into others. Using the activity as an example, I will explore how the multilingual and multimodal classroom practice based on learners’ identity would change the classroom dynamics and allow the students access to identity positions of expertise, and therefore increase their investment, engagement and learning in composition class.