Putting it in Writing: Teaching Circles and Institutional Return on Investment

*** The following is an abstract submitted to the 2017 NeMLA convention in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania***


For the Fall 2017 semester, the SUNY Cortland composition program implemented “teaching circles” as a required, yet loosely-defined, obligation for all instructors teaching FYW in the program. Hoping to spur dialogue, conversation and communication among program stakeholders, the WPAs and other administrators hoped teaching circles would serve as an impetus toward collaborative pedagogy, assignment sharing and exchange of diverse experiences relevant at local and institutional levels.

Teaching circles involved 4-5 instructors of various ranks and experience levels meeting 3-4 times each semester to discuss their pedagogical plans. Discussions, goals and objectives were left intentionally vague, with the understanding that stakeholders would benefit most when allowed flexibility and freedom within supple, pliant and forgiving guidelines. Affordances opened by the initiative were bountiful. Assignments were shared, critiqued and commented on; student papers were distributed and evaluated collaboratively; instructors assessed patterns in student writing across various classrooms.

The teaching circles spurred vigorous debate among the program community members. For example, part-time instructors received no financial compensation for this addition to already-burdensome teaching loads while full-time teaching circle “leaders” received a small stipend. Secondly, many instructors resisted the idea of sharing teaching materials, assignments and ideas without compensation for their intellectual property. The teaching circles, which for some took place in online spaces, were ultimately deemed a success by the various participants, though many expressed concerns, criticisms and suggestions for how the initiative might be further improved in future incarnations.

The opportunities and problems associated with teaching circles provide ample ground for discussion of collaborative institutional efforts in composition programs. Some questions to be explored will include how to maximize returns on collaborative pedagogy, how a system such as the one developed at SUNY Cortland might be augmented and enhanced, and how we might treat teaching materials as intellectual property with ownership shared between programs and individual instructors.



Jacob Richter is an instructor in the English department at SUNY Cortland where he teaches first-year writing. His research examines writing as it occurs in the digital sphere, specifically examining the impact collaborative web 2.0 technologies have on relations between composition, rhetoric and the first-year writing experience.  A graduate of the University at Buffalo MA program, he has presented his work at NeMLA, SUNY COW and other venues and is an avid nonfiction blogger. He enjoys championing social justice causes in his native state of New York, where he has lived at some point or another in every major city and region.  

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