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"I learned more than I intended to" Reacting and Audience Awareness in the Writing Classroom

July 26, 2021 8:34 AM | Anonymous

By: Dr. Kasee Clifton Laster
Lecturer in English
University of North Georgia 

The quote which forms part of my title comes from a student paper, but it applies equally well to myself as an instructor. In the fall of 2019, I made my first tentative foray into Reacting to the Past in the first-year writing classroom, and in the spring of 2020, I went “all in,” offering three sections of English 1102 all focused around Patriots, Loyalists, and Revolution in New York City, 1775-1776.

To offer a bit of spoiler: Reacting to the Past turned out to be an even better fit with composition instruction than I expected going in.

First, the institutional context: I teach at the University of North Georgia. Each of our five campuses has a slightly different mission, and although I have since moved to the Oconee campus, during the semester described, I taught at the Gainesville campus. The Gainesville campus has open admissions (99%), a large number of first-generation college students and first-generation Americans, and an average incoming ACT of 17 to 23.

My initial interest in offering Reacting in composition had less to do with writing pedagogy itself than with some of the many other responsibilities that composition classes are often expected – explicitly or implicitly – to shoulder. Because composition comes early in the college career, I was looking to Reacting to encourage engagement, active learning, and agency; because my students range widely from undocumented individuals to immigration hardliners, and from seasoned veterans to 15-year-old homeschooled dual enrollees, I was also looking for a way to improve empathy and communication.

Of course, I knew that the Reacting to the Past pedagogy requires the kind of close reading of dense texts and intentional and careful selection and use of sources that students should practice in first-year writing. However, to my surprise, I found that where Reacting particularly excels in the first-year writing classroom is in building audience awareness.

Composition teachers are constantly looking for ways to move student writers past what is often termed “writerly” prose, essentially, talking to oneself on paper: self-conscious, self-absorbed, and at the very most, acknowledging an audience of one – the instructor. As students revise, ideally they are working towards “readerly” prose, which considers what readers want and need to know about a topic and seeks primarily to serve the reader rather than oneself.

Reacting to the Past turns out to be the best method for encouraging readerly prose that I have yet encountered in nearly three decades of teaching. Feedback from classmates is neither forced (“how many people do we have to peer review?”) nor delayed (“I still haven’t heard back from anyone”) but rather instant and high-impact: quite simply, a proposal passes or it doesn’t, usually with some noise. Students’ own accounts indicate that this kind of feedback makes a big impression.

During spring of 2020, I offered one game (the same for each section), and with extensive scaffolding and faction meetings, used nearly half the term to play it. I added additional writing to the two speeches/papers required by the game, including a role request; students were not given any more information about the roles than can be found in the gamebook, but based on that limited information and their interests, life experiences, etc., constructed an argument for their top three choices. I also added a post-game personal learning reflection and a post-game “faction-interaction” reflection.

The second half of the course turned to a more traditional “how-to”/process model, in which students wrote a researched argument on a contemporary topic that paralleled issues in the game. Students chose topics one might expect considering the Patriots and Loyalists game, such as gun control, but also ranged further afield to student loan forgiveness, civil forfeiture, and the War Powers Act (given the turn of events spring semester 2020, I also opened up the option for students to write about the pandemic, but the great majority stuck to issues directly suggested by the game).

By sheer luck, every class completed the game the week before we went entirely online.

As I’m sure is the case with anyone who has taught using Reacting, I could go on for pages listing positive student feedback, but I will restrict myself here to comments specifically related to writing and rhetoric:

  • “The Reacting to the Past game. . . makes it easier to write. . . I was more diligent about it because I knew if I didn’t write good papers, it would affect both my faction and me.”

  • “I. . . learned how to write better in a formal fashion. I do not remember having much experience in high school with writing specifically for a crowd and a target audience to read the paper to them. The excitement that the game brought made it easier to write and express myself.”

  • “I was really pleased about the petition that I wrote, [because] I was fighting for the rights of slaves during the game. I loved my petition since it got straight to the point, showed how much of a hard worker I was, and got in a few jokes during my petition to make them laugh a little.”

  • “On many occasions during the game I was compelled to argue a point with another character and often called them out on certain topics when I felt as though they had contradicted themselves or their own faction.”

  • “Since I was a moderate, I had to ask several questions, meaning I had to analyze and break down the arguments. Questioning the durability of my classmate’s arguments helped me see what I want to include when I argue, and what I want to avoid.”

  • “I feel that this game has . . . . taught me to how to extract more information from government writings and historical writings. It has guided me to look beyond just what is written and to see the underlying factors, the effect it has on a populous, the influence it has on people’s thoughts, and how ideas can impact and shape the world.”

  • “The game has taught me to delve further and inspect historical documents with more accuracy.”

Some comments that were particularly gratifying to me – as I ultimately see the mission in first-year writing courses as preparing students to function as citizens in a democracy and to rise above the current state of public discourse – are these:

  • “I. . . developed active listening because before I really did not pay attention to what people had to say, but after this game I listen to what people actually have to say.”

  • “Today, lots of people tend to just argue without listening and with this game it had to put everyone in a mindset of ‘oh I must argue my side but I don’t have to be yelling my opinion over what they are saying.’ Everyone was able to get their word in and argue their side civilly and we were even able to talk more after class about the game.”

I’ll give the last word to my excellent 11:00 section Robert Murray, who picked up (long before I did) that a proposal to free slaves if they joined the British Army left him no choice but to abstain; as a Quaker, he could vote in favor of neither slavery nor militarism.

For all his depth of understanding, however, he does seem to have confused Quaker Oats and Cap’n Crunch.

A poster with a cartoon character (that looks like the Captain Crunch mascot) on it, and the words "We want YOU to join the Quaker Alliance"
Actual game artifact

About the Author
Dr. Kasee Clifton Laster is a Lecturer in English at the University of North Georgia, Oconee Campus. Dr. Laster has previously served as the chair of the Humanities Department at Shorter College as well as the Director of Education Abroad at the University of Georgia. She teaches a variety of courses but especially enjoys all periods of British literature. Her dissertation concerned Clara Reeve, an eighteenth-century novelist, critic, and antiquarian, and examined Reeve's use of Arthurian materials and insular romances to forge tales of British national identity during the first Gothic novel craze.

Blog Author Questionnaire
One word to describe faculty: Caring
Two words to describe your school: Public, Complicated
Three words to describe students: Hard-working, First-generation, Stretched
Four words to describe favorite games: Fast twists and turns
Five words to describe Reacting: Most fun teaching experience ever

Writing, composition, first generation students,

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