My teaching is fundamentally concerned with ways writing can serve the public good, and below I separate the public good into three overlapping areas: first, writing pedagogies on the ground-floor that stress students’ professional and civic development; second, innovative practices aimed at addressing local needs of our communities; and third, stressing leadership and feedback in assessment and course design.
Pedagogical Strategies: Real Audiences
One of my roles as a writing teacher is to equip students with the rhetorical knowledge to determine what counts as good writing in whatever professional situation they enter after college. In my technical and business writing courses, this involves studying not just how to compose in professional genres, but also the common moves writers make in professional situations. I de-emphasize readymade templates and instead prioritize rhetorical moves like writing that guides actions, writing to propose, and writing to build relationships. In this way, students don’t just learn writing in a paint-by-numbers sort of way, but rather, how to rhetorically analyze writing situations and build their own strategies for determining the needs of an audience and how to meet them through writing. In a similar way, I work in my Writing Theory course to push students to move beyond rote memorization of citation styles and simplistic ways of writing research papers. While it is important to understand common research genres like the abstract, proposal, and research paper, in my Writing Theory class, I assign an empirical research project, where students have free reign to choose an issue related to writing that matters to them, and to develop their own methodologies for answering their research questions, using current writing theory to guide them. At the end of the semester, I hold a “Showcase” where students share their research results to the rest of the class to celebrate their work. In this way, I give students a real audience to whom their writing is addressed, which helps students see that communicating research is just as much about understanding to whom your research communicates and what conversations your research enters, as it is the style, coherence, and technical issues of the prose itself. Other assignments in this course prioritize cultivating an individual desire to learn, such as presenting on a research article that they think other students in the class might find useful for their projects. In this way, I want students to connect writing and research with a real audience that has the potential to be moved, persuaded, or impacted by research results. This expands writing beyond a simple set of skills to be mastered and instead as a complex ecology of symbolic actions that fundamentally involve human beings.
Another important part of my teaching involves understanding how writing serves the local needs of our communities. In my technical and business writing courses, I ask students to do research on what real professional writing looks like in the world. For example, I ask my technical writing students to find examples of technical writing and do a report on “What is Technical Writing.” In spring of 2018, I asked my business writing students to collaborate on a “Workplace Writing Report” that interviewed real people who had jobs that involved writing, and then produce a long report analyzing the role of writing in 21st century workplaces. This helped students develop strategies for writing long-reports and analyzing data, but it also helped students see the real impact writing has in the world, which involves ethical choices, rhetorical negotiations, and emotional intelligence. At first, this can be frustrating for students, especially when they learn that writing takes so many different forms depending on the workplace or the task at hand, and it’s actually much harder to distill professional writing into a tidy list of skills to be mastered. However, by emphasizing that writing is situational, that genres, expectations, styles, and needs differ depending on the local rhetorical situation—I am asking students to do something a little more complex than follow a template, which is to develop literacy skills that allow them to adapt to the needs of a range rhetorical situations. This involves knowing not just how to write, but how to ask the right questions to meet the needs of changing audiences. Topics students studied via this approach ranged from common genres of automotive engineers, key words and experience levels in engineering job advertisements, the rhetoric of patient-care in hospitals, the number of audiences in workplace writing, the role of mentorship in business communication, or ethical decisions in customer service communication, just to name a few. In my Writing Theory courses, serving local needs of the community is the cornerstone of the major project because it asks not what is writing so much as what does good writing look like in specific communities? Whether students studied online discussion boards for how arguments are won and lost in a fantasy football league, to surveying international students on campus about their English courses, to the impact of the common core on students with disabilities, to the role of instructor feedback on student motivation at the college level, to the role of mental health advocacy in first year composition courses —students in Writing Theory learn that writing is fundamentally situational and that by understanding how communities make use of and create meaning through discourse, we can go a long way to empathize and also potentially intervene effectively in issues that matter to us.
For decades, one of the most central components of writing pedagogy involved peer review, or rather, having students evaluate each other’s drafts according to criteria outlined by the instructor. Recently, more and more research is showing that collaborative peer review and response might actually have a negative impact on struggling student writers who do not have the vocabulary to effectively evaluate other students’ writing. For example, some studies show that when teachers create mixed-ability writing groups for peer review, weaker writers often tend only to follow feedback from other weak writers because strong writers are giving feedback weaker writers aren’t yet prepared to take. To address this problem, I received a grant from the University Teaching Office to incorporate peer review into the very fabric of the classroom. Instead of just doing peer review 2 or 3 times in the semester, I redesigned the course and had students write all of their assignments in small “chunks,” using a collaborative writing software called Eli Review, and then work in groups to peer review every chunk together. Students could rank the helpfulness of the feedback they received, as well as rank the quality of the submissions they read. Moreover, every classroom activity, from low-stakes writing to major projects were opportunities for peer review and a chance for me to collect data on student abilities, time and effort, and reciprocity between giving good feedback and contributing good writing. I then created groups as I saw fit, using data generated by the program to determine which students needed to be grouped together for certain projects. Research in the field shows that better writers give better feedback. So with my course redesign, I wanted to stress that giving feedback is the fundamental way we get better at writing. Being a good writer can help you get the job, I told my business writing students, but giving good feedback will help you get the promotion. In a final reflection, one student whose first language was not English, told me that they appreciated this approach and the time I spent reinforcing how feedback is a critical human skill
Of course, peer reviews have been a fundamental factor in my learning process because I think there is nothing better than getting feedback from people who actually know the language and are familiarized with it. In the last unit of this course I worked with a group of students that have helped me to overcome some writing difficulties by giving me very good advice on how to improve my writing. Working on the final project has been an interesting experience because I got to discuss and interact with my groupmates in a way that I’ve never done before…[my groupmates] were always fully committed to this project right off the bat. But what really made this experience so different was the fact that I worked with people from a different country than mine and they never doubted of my capability of accomplishing any task.
The course redesign was incredibly fruitful. For one, my role in the classroom fundamentally shifted from content expert to feedback curator. My job was now to debrief students on their latest peer reviews, using the software to showcase the highest rated papers, the highest rated commenters, which percentage of the class were meeting the criteria, and using their own work and feedback to one another to guide instruction. I was also able to use the engagement data of students using this software to better understand, predict, and intervene on behalf of struggling student writers. I plan on using this software again in subsequent sections of Business Writing.
I am also influenced by leaders in the field of writing assessment like Bob Broad who advocate against writing rubrics, and Asao Inuoe, who has published on grading contracts in his writing classes. In my courses, I use a labor-based approach to writing that assesses student labor rather than quality. Students receive grades in my courses based on time, energy, and initiative rather than through subjective measures of writing ability. This frees me up to give better feedback on student writing, and frees up student writers to revise based on that feedback (and while, yes, students still obsess about grades, this method gives students a little more freedom and transparency about how grades are determined). Asao Inuoe’s work was incredibly helpful for my development on this issue. In one of his essays, he writes that “students find reasons to learn and grow as writers when their labor is truly honored, and they listen more carefully to feedback when grades are out of the way, perhaps especially because their writing labor is being acknowledged and quality is assumed to be a consequence of that hard labor.” I modeled many of my course documents after Inoue’s suggestions. I also find that students respond positively to labor-based contracts. As you’ll see in my course syllabi, the grade of B means that students met the expectations of the course, completed all required work, revised according to their peers, and showed up on time. The grade of A went to students who conscientiously decided to take a leadership role in the course and contribute to the collaborative ecology of the classroom. In other words, “A” grades go to students who did extra work, not just for the sake of doing the work, but for the sake of teaching the class something new or helpful for their projects.
Students seemed to appreciate this approach as well. One student in my technical writing course wrote that grading contracts “relieved some of the stress” and “allowed me to learn from my mistakes.” Another student in the course wrote that contracts helped them see more clearly my role as an instructor: “He [Branson] was more involved with us learning period rather than hounding us on a few spelling errors. I learned more with this because I wasn’t constantly worried about if my grade was going to be hurt by one little thing in my paper my teacher didn’t like.” And in my Writing Theory course, a student wrote that this model of assessment was “liberating.”
Overall, it was liberating as a student to not have everything I turned in graded with a letter. Alleviating the pressure that comes with always wanting an A on every assignment allowed me to enjoy your class on a level that may not have been possible with a traditional system in place. I learned to look forward to my peers’ insights and your comments rather than a grade, it was really nice.
Another student wrote in my fall 2018 writing theory course:
I think Professor Branson did a nice job giving his students an adequate amount of autonomy in their learning throughout the semester. I think this had a lot to do with the grading contract…I am a student very comfortable with receiving a grade for my work, even when that work is considered poor. That was absent in this course, but I think its absence was a good thing for myself and for the rest of the class too. I often hear about teachers, college professors especially, voicing complaints with grade-obsessed students. The education system often nurtures an environment where the grade is valued but learning is not. With a grading contract, students are able to know they did the work needed to complete certain requirements and then place their focus on the content of the course.
I am always experimenting with peer feedback and learning contracts, and I hope to collect more data about student experiences with these practices.
Overviews of Courses Taught
ENGL 2950: Technical Writing
In addition to the ideas listed above, my technical writing course is primarily interested in exposing students the ways writing solves problems in the professional and technical worlds around us. Many of the students in this class are first- or second-year students with little to no prior experience in writing. So my assignments are designed to introduce them to the field of technical writing and to the kinds of real life situations in which technical writing is used to solve problems. The first unit is designed to get students familiar with what technical writing looks like. The second unit asks them to analyze job advertisements in their chosen field and compose job materials tailored to that ad. The third and fourth units ask students to design a set of instructions for a difficult task and then design a “usability test” that assessed how well students at the University of Toledo could accomplish tasks using only those written instructions. In this way, I encouraged students to work on practical documents useful to their own careers, but also to consider how their writing impacts real audiences in their communities.
ENGL 2960: Business Writing
While technical writing is concerned with understanding how writing is used by professionals to solve problems, my business writing course is situated as an introduction to the professional discourses students will enter after they leave UT. Rather than focusing on readymade templates, my business writing course asks mostly first- and second- year students to understand professional writing as a set of “moves” that professional communicators make in response to changing dynamics: building relationships, sustaining relationships, and repairing relationships. In class we practice these moves by responding to prompts: networking with a respected professional, setting up a partnership, responding to a customer complaint, making a public apology, applying to jobs, or crafting a resume—which all culminates in a collaborative research project where students interview professionals about the role writing plays in their life and then write a long-report detailing their findings to the class.
ENGL 4090/5090: Writing Theory
In Writing Theory, I introduce students to the field of Writing Studies, an academic discipline that situates writing as a subject of study as well as an activity. Students in this course range from beginning writers, to English and education majors interested in becoming elementary and secondary writing instructors, to graduate students in English. First, I ask students to read current writing theorists like Deborah Brandt and her new work The Rise of Writing, in addition to Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle’s Naming What we Know, in order to familiarize themselves with what research in Writing Studies looks like and how “threshold concepts” are transforming the way we think about Writing Studies. I also asked students to present and lead discussions on these topics. Specifically, I ask students to select a range of required and optional readings to present to the class both as a way to engage in-depth with the readings but also as a way to select outside research that they think other people in the class will find useful. Their main project throughout the semester was to conduct primary research project on the writing habits of a discourse community of their choosing. Using current writing theories, methods, and concepts, I work with students closely through several “benchmarks,” such as data collection progress reports and literature review presentations. The final “conference presentations” at the end of the course is designed as a celebration of research. Two of my graduate students even had their papers accepted by national and international conferences.
Below you’ll find a list of all the courses I’ve taught. Please feel free to contact me for a succinct teaching philosophy, in-depth assignment sheets, or syllabi.
University of Toledo
- Technical Writing
- Business Writing
- Writing Theory (cross-listed at the graduate level)
University of California, Santa Barbara
- Writing for Business and Administration
- Introduction to Academic Writing
- Writing for Public Discourse
- Writing for the Teaching Professions
Texas Christian University
- Intermediate Composition: Rhetoric, Identity and Knowledge in the Public Sphere
- Intermediate Composition: Writing as Argument
- Introductory Composition: Writing as Inquiry
- Engaged Global Citizenship
University of Kansas
- Introduction to American Studies
- American Identities