English 400 students create guide to writing during quarantine

Final project changed to adapt to online learning and real-life application

Frandsen Humanities Building with a pink tree out front during the spring

Frandsen Humanities building pictured during the spring time

English 400 students create guide to writing during quarantine

Final project changed to adapt to online learning and real-life application

Frandsen Humanities building pictured during the spring time

Frandsen Humanities Building with a pink tree out front during the spring

Frandsen Humanities building pictured during the spring time

English students at the University of Nevada, Reno have created a guide for writing while having limited public interaction, based on their critical review of increased writing and their own writing habits during the coronavirus pandemic. The guide provides takes on several primary writing purposes and assesses selected tools for writing to those purposes.   

At the beginning of the Spring 2020 semester, Kelsey Barker, Sarah Franklin, Elliot Bailey, Randy Schacherl and Abby Denny were among the students in Professor William Macauley’s English 400A: Topics in Writing when the pandemic hit. They wanted to apply their learning about writing assessment to real life situations, and the class agreed that the pandemic had pushed people to write more. Professor Macauley heard his students’ requests and after classes moved online, he proposed a change of plans that would include a final project based on what was currently occurring in the world.

Students were asked to evaluate how and for what purposes they were writing while they sheltered in place. They compiled and negotiated the purposes for which they were writing, and they refined their purposes to three: writing for relationships, writing for education, and writing for personal maintenance. 

“I think the project was a really good idea on our professor, Bill Macauley's, part,” Bailey said. “He came up with the final project idea to replace the previous final project. I think the new project was fun and interesting and I was glad to be a part of it.”

Most of the students in this course were unfamiliar with writing assessment when they began the semester, so Professor Macauley redirected the learning process of the class to better help his students understand the topics they were learning, and how it could be useful outside the classroom.

“I had to retool the class so it would include less exclusively historical and theoretical scholarship about writing assessment and more about applying writing assessment,” Macauley said. “We were all interested in how students could use their new skills and knowledge, they’re being asked to do when they’re being asked to write in school and out.”

For two weeks the students recorded data on their writing purposes what tools they used, and the frequency with which they wrote for their specified purposes. This data helped them evaluate what and how each student was writing and then create the three purpose categories. Once the categories were defined, students assessed the tools they used and created a final guide.

 “What we can give to people is this critical view of what these tools are and what their affordances and limitations are, so they don’t have to do all the same research the students have done,” Professor Macauley said. “The public can benefit by receiving informed, data-driven guidance on what tools are going to work best for specified writing purposes.”

For example, text messages are a great writing tool for personal relationships in comparison to other social media, which can be more public and less personal. However, Snapchat was commonly used for personal relationships between friends because it is a platform where users can communicate with pictures as well as text. When writing for personal maintenance, journaling and creating personal lists were the most useful tools.

Students responded to the change in course with enthusiasm. They liked the idea of creating something practical where they could apply their knowledge and create something that would go out into the world to help others. The final project also helped give students a way to act on what was happening to them and create something purposeful during their isolation.  

“I think this project will help others discover the ways there are to communicate with each other,” Franklin said. “It highlights not only what is most used, which can show how to easily connect with many people, but also what has been the easiest to use. Communication is so important, and it is especially important during these trying times.”

 Students let their professor know how much they enjoyed the modified final project, telling him that they feel as though they created something meaningful and important. They reported feeling like they did something good and worthwhile despite their remote learning context.

“I hope that this project can inspire others to evaluate just how well writing does or doesn’t work for them during this pandemic,” Denny said. “It has helped me figure out new forms of communication with friends and family, and I have definitely seen an increase in quality of my writing overall. I think others would be curious to see if their writing and quality has increased as well.”

 To access the students’ writing guide, contact Professor William Macauley at wmacauleyjr@unr.edu.

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