By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–It’s 8 a.m. It’s ENG 131. Reading, Writing and Inquiry I.
It’s hard enough to be human at this hour, to say nothing of trying to focus on the subjunctive mood.
Susan Popham understands this. As associate professor of English (composition) and writing concentration coordinator teaching this foundational course, she knows that writing is tougher for some than others, that the English language doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, that required courses are perceived—and too often experienced—as onerous and perverse, and all the rest.
But she also knows that this course is vitally important to subsequent success in college and even life. So before she can even think of delving into the material, she has to find a way to get her students to perk up, and open up, to the writers within themselves.
Like an academic McGyver, she fashions a variety of tools to ignite her students’ curiosity in pursuit of that quasi-magical phenomenon, engagement.
Breaking down barriers
Among the tools that Popham employs is a teaching and learning platform called Top Hat.
While Top Hat is designed as a comprehensive engagement tool, it is often used for student polling and quizzes, according to Popham. She saw the possibility of applying it in different ways.
“I really appreciated the way that it encouraged greater student participation, in ways that did not publicly humiliate them for a wrong answer, or a not-so-great answer,” Popham said.
It does this by letting students answer questions from a different formats—multiple choice, long answer, etc.—and anonymously post their answers to the app, which Popham projects on the white board at the front of the class.
The anonymity helps to allay the students’ anxiety around speaking up.
Their reticence overcome, the students become less hung up about right versus wrong answers, and more willing to risk expressing themselves in writing.
When Top Hat prompts them to write an introductory paragraph about topic A, their efforts can be shared and discussed without embarrassment for something short of perfection.
“It lets them see that there are many effective ways to begin an essay, and that writing well can be a very creative activity—less about being right or wrong and more about being able to imagine various applications.”
That’s pretty liberating. And it leads to being able to participate more fully in the class generally, from sessions devoted to nitty-gritty details of grammar all the way up to higher-order reflections on the validity of differing points of view.
“This tool was really instrumental in helping students see and appreciate various sentence formulations, paragraph organizational patterns, share sample sources, and fix writing errors in a variety of ways,” Popham said. “Using Top Hat let them see how their ideas about putting words together can be perceived by others and helped them to discuss the benefits of their perceptions.”
In Popham’s hands, the tool can turn the most dreaded pedagogical doldrums into fun.
For example, Popham, like every other writing instructor on Earth, finds punctuation a tough sell in the classroom. Alongside the usual tactics, she has tried witty frames, such as an in-class exercise entitled, “Commas: A Matter of Life and Death,” but even these failed to spur discussion. But when Popham uses Top Hat to show how moving a comma can completely change the meaning of a sentence, and to elicit anonymous student feedback, it’s a different story.
“My students sit-up and want to know how many classmates liked their response or why their response is or is not the best one,” Popham said.
A social solution for the social generation?
Perhaps. But not intentionally so. Popham is the ultimate pragmatist. She tries many things, and those that work get a call-back.
“When students participate and pay attention to what other students have to say and to what I have to say, they learn more and are more jazzed about doing so,” Popham said.
The enthusiasm is reflected in student performance.
Though conceding the difficulty of quantifying something as complex as success in writing, Popham has evidence that Top Hat is helping students achieve better results. Classes taught using Top Hat outperform those that didn’t: The number of students earning at least a 70 percent in in-class participation increased by 60 percent. Students also appear more involved.
“More students sat up in class, more students raised their hands to ask questions or to volunteer a response, and more students wanted to see how their classmates responded to their ideas,” Popham said.
Writing beyond the classroom
Top Hat is just one of the many tools that Popham uses to get students engaged in the craft of writing, and keep them engaged.
Some, like lecture videos, Voice Thread, bespoke online classes, hybrid Zoom prep classes, and class Wikis, are tech based.
Others are what you might call “artisan”: calligraphy pens, a manual typewriter, semaphore flags, Jeopardy-style exam review sessions, a field trip to the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, clay and stylus…
Whether digital or analog, the means serve the same end: student engagement.
“For me, innovation is less about technology, and more about finding how a new strategy can benefit my students,” Popham said.
She also hammers home the importance of writing beyond the classroom.
“While writing can be a really difficult subject to teach—mostly because so many students don’t want to come to class—I try to show students how writing can make a difference in their lives and livelihoods,” Popham said.
Popham’s own journey provides an illustration.
Captivated by a graduate school course in the rhetoric of science, Popham went on to write her Master’s thesis on this topic. She was particularly intrigued by the ways that rhetoric shapes experienced and shared reality. An illness in the family during her PhD program brought new priorities, and with them a new academic focus, from the rhetoric of science to the rhetoric of medicine, an area she explored in her dissertation on The Intersection of Medicine and Business: A Case Study of Writing in Medical Practices. There followed peer-reviewed publications on many aspects of this terrain. But this experience also found its way into the classroom. Popham has developed several courses around topics of medical and science communications including one that looked at medicine and narrative.
What began as an interest became a career with a unique perspective via personal experience.
Making such connections between lived experience and written expression—however serendipitous they may have been in her case—somehow visible to students, such that they become aware of the possibilities within and around themselves, this is at the core of Popham’s brief.
It takes more than circus acts involving software and old typewriters to earn attentiveness, and then to transform it into expression.
It takes empathy and patience.
No surprise that Popham brings both to class.
Her own experiences resonating, she is understanding of students who may be trying to balance the demands of work, life, school and family. Knowing what it’s like to wrestle with writer’s block and organization has helped her help others.
“I developed a deep sense of empathy for my students who struggle to identify and resolve their own struggles with writing,” Popham said. “I share with my students as many of my tips and strategies for improved writing practices as I can.”
Writing as caring
Ultimately, writing well is a matter of writing from a place of caring: about the grammar and structure, about the subject matter, about the process that makes every sentence a statement of one’s individual experience.
Getting and keeping a student’s attention is just the first step.
Lose at that, and it’s the student who loses.
For those who get it, new frontiers open up.
“So many of my students have come back to tell me that based on what they learned in my class they got a promotion or earned a raise or landed a new job,” Popham said. “Those are the moments that gladden the heart of any instructor, me included.”