Composition Theory and Practice

      English 481 / University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign / spring 2014
      Mondays and Wednesdays / 12:30 pm - 1:45 pm / EB 127
      instructor: Spencer Schaffner, Associate Professor of English
      office hours, MW 11:30 am — 12:30 pm and by appointment
      course website: click on "teach" @

Course Description

Teaching writing is one of the harder and most rewarding aspects of being a language arts teacher. In this course, we will explore how different theories of written composition lead to various approaches to teaching students both how to write and about writing. Throughout this class, we will explore critical perspectives on many things you'll do as a writing teacher: designing assignments, responding to student writing, creating group writing assignments, and supporting multimodal writing. The overarching goal for the class is for students to develop a repertoire of critical skills to use when teaching writing.


William Ayers, Ryan Alexander-Tanner. (2010). To Teach: The Journey, in Comics

Nanda Van Gestel et al. (2008). The Unschooling Unmanual

Additional readings available online (links embedded in the course calendar).

Students are responsible for bringing copies (printed versions are preferred) of all readings to class on the day each reading is discussed.

Projects and Grades

→ class participation (20%)
→ reading response projects and papers (20%)
→ project on writing, shame, and punishment (20%)
→ mid-term cheating exam, cheat sheets, and reflective response (20%)
→ final project (20%)

Course Policies


To obtain disability-related academic adjustments and/or auxiliary aids, students with disabilities must contact the course instructor and the Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES) as soon as possible. To contact DRES you may visit 1207 S. Oak St., Champaign, call 333-4603 (V/TTY), or e-mail a message to


Respect for diversity of all kinds — race, ethnicity, age, sex and gender, sexual orientation, ability/disability, political and ideological belief, and so on — is vital to creating a productive intellectual environment. Exploring these diversities and differences can be our most valuable resource as a class. Please respect the other members of the class at all times. Disagreement is welcomed; disrespect is not. If you feel you are being discriminated against and/or harassed in this class, please contact the instructor immediately.

class participation

Students are responsible for active and respectful in-class and online participation. By "active" I do not mean that you must verbally participate in every class session to get a good grade. Instead, I simply insist that you be attentive, engaged, and thoughtful in the classroom.

In-class participation includes attendance, arriving on time, thoughtful comments in class that demonstrate your knowledge of the course readings, active and productive participation in group work, and completion of all informal assignments.

late and missed work

Un-arranged and un-excused late work will not be accepted. For information on excused absences, see the student code:

technology in the classroom

Using a smart phone, iTouch, laptop, or similar technology for viewing readings or doing research during class is encouraged. Texting, emailing, FaceBooking, Instagrammatical activity, or using other messaging software during class will be treated as an unexcused absence (in terms of your participation grade).

academic integrity

For a clear description of what constitutes plagiarism at the University of Illinois, see UIUC's student code:

Students found to have committed blatant academic infractions (such as plagiarism) in this class will fail the course and have a written notice of warning with documenting evidence sent to the college in which the student is enrolled and to the Senate Committee on Student Discipline.

writer's workshop visits

I encourage you to take advantage of the writer's workshop. If you visit the university's writer's workshop for help with work in this class, please let me know so I can factor that visit into my assessment of your work.


In calculating your grades, I use these university-specified grade values:

A = 4.0
A- = 3.67
B+ = 3.33
B = 3.0
B- = 2.67
C+ = 2.33
C = 2.0
C- = 1.67
D+ = 1.33
D = 1.0
D- = 0.67
F = 0.0

Only LAS Student Academic Affairs may grant an I (incomplete) grade in undergraduate courses. An I automatically becomes an F unless replaced by a passing grade by the middle of the next semester, if the student is re-enrolled. If the student does not re-enroll and the incomplete grade is not replaced, it becomes an F after one calendar year.

Course Calendar

(subject to change)

Week 1

Wednesday, January 22
• introductions
• discussion: how and why we teach writing in schools
• overview of the class

Week 2: Writing, Shame, and Punishment

Monday, January 27
• VIEW FOR TODAY: click the image to watch a video essay on "Why Johnny Can't Write"
• Read around online for 30 minutes or so, exploring reactions to "Why Johnny Can't Write"
• discussion
• in-class activity: theories of composition

Wednesday, January 29
• discussion of forms and purposes of punishment writing
• READ FOR TODAY: NCTE Resolution on the Use of Writing as Punishment (PDF in the DropBox folder)
• READ FOR TODAY: R.owling chapter from Ha.rry and the Or.der of the Pho.enix (DropBox folder)
• PROJECT ASSIGNED on writing, shame, and punishment

Week 3: Writing, Shame, and Punishment

Monday, February 3
• READ FOR TODAY: Franz Kafka's "In the Penal Colony"
• READ FOR TODAY: news story on "Ill. man ordered to write lynching essay"
• READ FOR TODAY: deReign's "An English Teacher's Lament on What's Wrong With Writing as Punishment" (DropBox folder)

Wednesday, February 5
• VIEW FOR TODAY: view results of a Google image search for "passed out Sharpie"
• READ FOR TODAY: Burleigh's Rolling Stone article about the role of writing in the Audrie Pott case (PDF of article in DropBox folder)
• discussion of writing and shame (vernacular practices)
• note: draft of writing, shame, and punishment project due next Monday

Week 4: Writing Process(es)

Monday, February 10
• DUE: writing, shame, and punishment project draft
• peer-review workshop: small-group model
• discussion: what is "the writing process"?
  => illustrated writing process:
  => Seinfeld on writing a joke:

Wednesday, February 12
• READ FOR TODAY: Joseph Williams "The Phenomenology of Error" (DropBox folder)
• discussion of Williams
• activity: the relationship between process and responding to student writing
    1. distributed activity
    2. minimal response
    3. response at the point of need

Week 5: Error and Correctness

Monday, February 17
• DUE TODAY: group project on writing, shame, and punishment
• discussion of social-change writing pedagogy

Wednesday, February 19
• in class activity: responding to student writing
• class time for group projects

Week 6: the Five-Paragraph Essay and Formulaic Writing

Monday, February 24
• activity: defining "the" five-paragraph essay
• the Jane Schaffer paragraph (TS, CD, CM, CM, CS)
• READ FOR TODAY: Mark Wiley "The Popularity of Formulaic Writing (And Why We Need to Resist)" (DropBox folder)
• READ FOR TODAY: Kimberly Wesley "The Ill Effects of the Five Paragraph Theme" (DropBox folder)

Wednesday, February 26
• Flex Day; Activities To Be Announced

Week 7: the Five-Paragraph Essay and Formulaic Writing

Monday, March 3
• discussion continued • READ FOR TODAY: Smith "In Defense of the Five-Paragraph Essay" (DropBox folder)
• READ FOR TODAY: Novick article (DropBox folder)
• in class reading and discussion: Lenora Smith poem (DropBox folder)
• discussion of home schooling and unschooling

Wednesday, March 5
• READ FOR TODAY: through p. 39 The Unschooling Unmanual
• discussion and activities; come prepared to discuss what you've read

Week 8: Unschooling

Monday, March 10
• READ FOR TODAY: finish reading The Unschooling Unmanual
• discussion and activities; come prepared to discuss what you've read

Wednesday, March 12
• discussion of cheat sheets and other literate forms of cheating
• READ FOR TODAY: Engestrom article with a focus on pp. 18-22 (DropBox folder)

Week 9: Cheating as Literate Activity

Monday, March 17
• discussion of cheating as literate activity continued
• preview of mid-term cheating exam
• read here and here about the case of Laura K. Krishna
• avoiding and responding to plagiarism in writing classes

Wednesday, March 19
Cheating Midterm Exam™
• short reflective essay assigned


    S P R I N G     B R E A K    


Week 10: Discussion Questions: Literacy and Technology

Monday, March 31
• discussion of cheating midterm
• final project assigned

Wednesday, April 2
• Writing Teacher Boot Camp! (in-class action)
• DUE: short reflective essay (2-3 pages of your critical reflections) about the Cheating Midterm Exam™

Week 11: Teaching Literature and Other Complex Texts

Monday, April 7
• READ FOR TODAY: to p. 46 in To Teach: The Journey, in Comics
• discussion of the readings and handout: teaching students to write about literature

Wednesday, April 9
• READ FOR TODAY: finish reading To Teach: The Journey, in Comics
• discussion about the book
• in-class activity and discussion about remix, layered texts, looping, kinetic typography, and sampling
• response paper in your voice assigned

=> Reggie Watts using a loop sampler
=> Andrew Bird using a loop sampler
=> Kinetic typography
=> Layered texts such as this one (search for "layered text")
=> Sampling and remix (Young Guru 1 and Young Guru 2)

Week 12: Personal Writing and Voice

Monday, April 14
• discussion question #1

Wednesday, April 16
• discussion question #2

Week 13: "So, How Do We Teach Writing?"

Monday, April 21
• READ FOR TODAY: Miller "Fault Lines in the Contact Zone" (DropBox folder)

Wednesday, April 23
• READ FOR TODAY: NCTE Beliefs About the Teaching of Writing (available online; PDF version in DropBox folder)
• READ FOR TODAY: Peg Tyre's "The Writing Revolution" (available online; PDF version in the shared DropBox folder)
• group work: defining and justifying core practices

Week 14: "So, How Do We Teach Writing?"

Monday, April 28
• READ FOR TODAY: policy documents relating to writing and the Common Core (focus on grades 7-12)
• VIEW FOR TODAY: CPS Common Core materials
• group work: discussion of standards that do not change from grade-to-grade
• group work: develop a philosophical statement about the new HypterTech Writing educational writing app

Wednesday, April 30
• VIEW FOR TODAY: YouTube videos tagged "angry teacher"
• comic response paper assigned

Week 15: Teaching Graphic Narratives

Monday, May 5
• READ FOR TODAY: Gene Yang "Graphic Novels in the Classroom" (shared DropBox folder)
• DUE: comic response
• activity: making mini-comics
• course evaluations

Wednesday, May 7: Last Day of Class
• DUE: final project due
• wrap-up discussion

site online January 21, 2014