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Reflections on a Quarter with ESF

student selfie
Pictured above: Christine Alfano (far left) and several of her ESF students in their weekly post-Seminar photo in front of MemChu, titled by student "ESF 7A 4ever"

By Christine Alfano

If you had told me a year ago that I’d be settled in at the end of fall quarter 2019, reading RBAs about the concept of akrasia in Plato’s “Apology” and “Euthyphro” or the paradox of female identity in St. Augustine’s Confessions, I probably would have thought you had mistaken me for someone else.  I teach PWR classes focused on gaming and on digital culture – it would be quite a stretch for a student to successfully pitch a research project about Socrates in those classes.

However, those are exactly the essays I’m reading right now. I’m one of several PWR instructors who, this quarter, were teaching with the Education as Self-Fashioning program.  Along with nine of our colleagues -- Shay Brawn, Meg Formato, Shannon Hervey, Valerie Kinsey, Gabrielle Moyer, Sarah Pittock, Becky Richardson, Ruth Starkman, and Jennifer Stonaker – I spent the last 12 weeks working in collaboration with ESF faculty in an immersive teaching and learning experience that has been both exciting and challenging, stretching me as a writing instructor and rhetorician in new and unexpected ways.

For those of you not familiar with ESF, it’s not a new program. In fact, we wrote a newsletter article about it just about three years ago.  First launched in 2012, ESF offers students the unique opportunity of fulfilling both their Thinking Matters and their Writing 1 requirement  through the same course. That is, instead of taking one 4-unit Thinking Matters course and a separate 4-unit PWR course, students take a single 7-unit ESF course (as a side benefit, each ESF course also fulfills a WAYS general education for students as well).  This makes it both a very intellectually intriguing and efficient curricular option for incoming students.

Students (and writing instructors) attend four separate class meetings a week: one 80-minute meeting of a small faculty-led seminar, two 110-minute meetings of their writing section, and a 90-minute plenary lecture.  This fall, there were nine ESF classes (with 18 writing sections attached to them), enrolling roughly 250 students; themes range from “The Discovery of the Mind” to “Curiosity,” “The Challenge of Choice,” “The Democratic Citizen,” and “Unintended Consequences.” ESF is only offered during fall quarter at this point, and it’s a good fit for incoming first-year students who are particularly interested in a reflective introduction to college.  With its emphasis on education as self-fashioning, the ESF program invites these new Stanford undergraduates to reflect on their goals for their undergraduate experience and on the meaning of a liberal education.

So while ESF itself isn’t new, the scale of PWR’s involvement in it is.  Since its beginning, PWR has been involved in training the non-PWR ESF writing instructors to prepare them for teaching their sections.  What has changed is that the writing sections are now taught almost exclusively by PWR lecturers, meaning that about one-quarter of our PWR instructors were involved in ESF this fall.  And that’s an arrangement that is very likely to continue into the future.

Course content and assignments

As a PWR-ESF instructor, you’re assigned to lead a writing section (or sections) associated with an ESF course designed by a faculty member.  In other words, while in PWR you can choose your own theme, in ESF, your theme and course content is determined before you even enter the course.  That’s how I ended up reading essays on Socrates and St. Augustine; the course I’m affiliated with is “Transformations of Self,” taught by Professor Andrea Nightingale from Classics.  She has taught the seminar component for several years, which dictates the majority of the reading assignments for students as well as the focus of the writing assignments. Since I don’t have a background in Classics, this topical focus presented a learning experience for me, to say the very least.

Since the seminar component tends to emphasize a more content-driven approach, some of that spills over into the writing sections.  Students are often eager to continue conversations in section that began in seminar, and there’s some true necessity to that since many times they’ll be writing on those very texts for their assignments.  When I asked Becky Richardson about her ESF experience, she observed that the writing sections become “a place to sort of coalesce the moving pieces of ESF,” noting that “this can make lesson planning tricky.” Like many ESF writing instructors, she found this somewhat challenging: “I end up with awkward transitions on days when we're discussing thoughts on the plenary lecture, then moving into the week's reading, and then bridging into writing exercises to support the assignment we're working on.”  This is a different sort of challenge than you would find in a PWR 1 class, and one that puts a particular type of burden on the role of the writing section in relation to the rest of the course.

Sarah Pittock, who taught “College and the Good Life” with Dan Edelstein and Shay Brawn, had an innovative approach to merging the writing section with the seminar content .  She reflects, “[T]eaching in ESF really asks us to teach reading explicitly along with writing because the texts we and the faculty leaders are teaching can be challenging (from classical philosophy to New Yorker essays). We've added some new assignments in collaboration with our faculty partner to make the most of the Wednesday seminars that he leads about most of the readings, including required weekly discussion questions and a commonplace book. And instead of teaching a TiC, we teach a comparative essay, which asks students to compare and contrast two of the assigned readings. Students find that crafting an accurate and meaningful comparison requires careful re-reading of the philosophies, which I think is great preparation for the kinds of reckoning they'll need to do with difficult texts throughout their undergraduate careers.” Sarah shared her new commonplace book assignment at this year’s PWR September Sessions, and it was adopted by many of the reading-heavy ESF courses this fall.

Adapting and modifying the standard expectations for a PWR 1 writing section is pretty typical.  Since it fulfills the WR-1 requirement, the ESF writing assignments follow a similar trajectory as a PWR class: single-text analysis, multiple-text analysis, research essay.  However, depending on the class, the assignments might look very different. Ruth Starkman’s ESF course represents an extreme example, where students take oral exams on the course content in addition to their writing assignment.  Many ESF courses – like Sarah’s -- transform the TiC into a comparative analysis of two texts; the research-based essay is often less ambitious than a PWR 1 RBA, in large part because ESF students choose their topic in weeks 7 or 8 of the quarter.  For some ESF classes, such as mine, the RBA content has to be very closely tied to the readings for the class, limiting the options for student research. As a novice ESF writing instructor, I found this moment in the quarter particularly challenging; the compressed timeline and limitations in student topics put added pressure on an already stressful part of the quarter. 

Opportunities for Collaboration

One of the unique aspects of ESF is, as Sarah noted above, the opportunity for collaboration – both with professors from departments across campus and with other PWR-ESF writing instructors.  In a way, being a PWR-ESF writing instructor is almost like being a short-term writing specialist; you’re working in close collaboration with a faculty member to help students become stronger writers and critical thinkers.  Becky also commented on this aspect of the ESF experience, noting that the collaboration with faculty “opens up a wider cross-section of the University, it gets me thinking about writing across disciplines, and it challenges me to find new ways to teach the same learning goals around writing and revision.”  

Just as exciting is the opportunity to collaborate with PWR colleagues.  I was joking all quarter that if you put three PWR-ESF writing instructors at opposite ends of the Sweet Hall third floor, within five minutes you would find them clustered together, as if by magnetic pull, sharing ideas, experiences, and advice.  There’s a rich opportunity here for intense pedagogical collaboration that I haven’t felt as strongly since the very earliest days of PWR, when there were only 18 lecturers in total in the program, all trying to adapt to teaching a required assignment sequence for the first time.  While some of the PWR-ESF collaborations are informal, many are more structured: three of the ESF classes had “teaching teams” for the writing sections, with different PWR lecturers each teaching one writing section for the same ESF seminar course. So for instance, Jenne Stonaker and Meg Formato taught the writing sections for “Unintended Consequences,” Sarah Pittock and Shay Brawn did the same for “College and the Good Life‘” and, I had the good fortune to teach with Becky Richardson for “Transformations of Self.”  

Many of the PWR-ESF instructors note this close collaboration as one of the real benefits of teaching for the program. Shay underscores it as one of the most valuable aspects of being a PWR-ESF instructor: “The best part of this experience has been the opportunity to collaborate very closely with Sarah on designing and managing our part of the course . . . . Sarah and I have been able to do a pretty deep dive in comparing how we approach different parts of our curriculum in designing class activities, assignments, etc., and I have benefited enormously from that exchange.”  Jenne also spoke to how her collaboration with Meg enriched her teaching this quarter: “We wanted our two writing sections to have a unified experience, and so we met weekly to plan out our classes and assignments. Through our collaboration, I was able to get feedback on some of my existing activities, and I now have some new activities to take back to my PWR1 class. That was a real benefit that I wasn’t expecting when I signed up to teach in ESF.”

The Students

But what has probably made the strongest impression on me about ESF are the students. 

Anyone who knows me well (or has sat through New Instructor Sessions with me) knows that I love teaching fall first-year students.  However, in all the years I’ve been teaching, I’ve not ever before had a classroom experience quite like this one.   

ESF students represent a cross-section of the incoming class. I had anticipated that most ESF students would be leaning toward a Humanities major, but I found there were just as many STEM-oriented students sitting in my classroom, reading Plato, as well.  In addition, just as in a PWR classroom, the students brought with them many different levels of preparation – from private prep school to less-resourced public high schools. However, it wasn’t the demographics of students themselves – their backgrounds, their preparation – that struck me. It was the way they approached the class and the strength of the community that they formed together.

In part, this might be because students select into ESF and so come in already invested in the course and their choice to be there.  Becky, who has taught with ESF for several years, commented to me on the “energy and dedication” of ESF students. As she points out, “These students have opted into an intensive class experience and they tend to be incredibly committed to their learning. I've had some of the most amazing students, and every year it seems like another level of engagement.”  Perhaps correspondingly, many ESF students readily take advantage of the different resources provided to them. Here’s an example of one particularly exemplary student from Becky’s class: “[T]his quarter I have a student who, with every essay, has carefully taken in all my feedback, gone to Hume at least once, and sought out the advice of our faculty leader, Professor Andrea Nightingale, across multiple drafts. By the time this student turns in an essay, her reflection on the process is pages long because she has so many steps to recount! It's been incredible to see what progress she's made in her writing, and how her revision strategies have gone from sort of small tweaks to entire overhauls.”  Becky’s guidance in terms of the value of drafting, working with feedback, revision, and reflection (all PWR 1 Learning Objectives!) clearly helped this student develop a writing process that will benefit her throughout her Stanford career.

What made the strongest impression on me, personally, this quarter was the intense sense of community that developed in my ESF class -- and, in talking to other ESF writing instructors, I found that I’m not alone in this observation.   Each of my colleagues had their own anecdotes to contribute along these lines: students insisting on class photos at the end of the quarter; wanting class t-shirts or sweatshirts; attending each other’s events outside of class; talking up their classmates’ accomplishments; praising each other in class.  Jenne shared with me how much her students supported each other throughout the course, mentioning, “I heard from a few of the students that they met in the last week of classes to just sit together and work on their RBAs.”  In my case, students composed joint video reflections, biked together to and from class, took weekly photos after seminar in front of Memorial Church, kept an active backchat going (complete with writing process memes), and even arranged their own “ESF 7A” dinner after the last day of class.  We hear such stories about our PWR 1 classes, too.  What’s amazing is the consistency of these stories across ESF sections.

In part, this strong sense of community is built into the structure of ESF -- it’s because they meet so often, with each other and with their writing instructors.  As Ruth Starkman pointed out to me, “It’s somewhat akin to teaching a foreign language course, seeing everyone 4 days a week and struggling together.”  Valerie Kinsey, who has taught ESF for many years and serves as the ESF Course Coordinator, underscores the correlation between this structure and the student community: “I appreciate the intellectual community we are able to build in ESF by virtue of the number of course meetings and shared readings. I see my students 4 times a week in multiple contexts: in a faculty-led seminar, large lecture, and, of course, writing section. We are able to converse about morally ambiguous and challenging texts in different situations and think deeply together about their implications.”  Layer onto that our additional contact hours with students through our one-to-one conferences and office hours, and you have an immersive – and intense -- teaching and learning experience for all involved.

Final thoughts

Yet, despite the rewarding moments of teaching with ESF, there are clear challenges as well, especially for an instructor coming from a program like PWR.  As originally conceived, the structure of ESF imagines the writing section on the model of a TA-led discussion section. This has implications on the level of course infrastructure, whether in relation to the creation (or ownership) of Canvas sites, to scheduling section meeting times, feedback processes on University course evaluations, and grade submission.   It also lends to ongoing pedagogical negotiation with our faculty collaborators: Who is responsible for the syllabus? For determining course content? For designing assignments? For assessing student work and performance? What exactly does it mean to be a “teaching team” in ESF?

The workload for an ESF writing instructor is also worthy of note.  With required attendance at faculty seminars and Friday plenaries and the increased prep time of becoming comfortable with perhaps unfamiliar disciplinary-based course material, many PWR-ESF instructors find it to be even more labor-intensive than our already rigorous PWR schedules.

For my part, I experienced all of the above: I wrestled with ambiguity about my “status” in relation to the class, and I spent the whole quarter in triage mode, just moving from one ESF commitment to another as I navigated the new course material and schedule.  However, now with my stack of essays sitting beside me, waiting to be graded, I feel excited to read them and hopeful about PWR’s role in ESF moving forward. Working with ESF students and faculty was difficult at times, but it offered me the opportunity to step outside PWR for a moment, reflect in a slightly different way on our goals in teaching the writing requirement and how those goals could be delivered in an alternate context.  It has provided me with a new perspective to incorporate into and enrich my writing pedagogy, no matter which sort of classroom -- PWR or ESF -- I step into next.

[Images, in order of appearance: One ESF 8 student's rendition of their ESF faculty member, the late Professor Ken Taylor, at a table with all of the writers they read during quarter, left to right, JS Mill, Simone de Beauvoir, Hermann Hesse, Taylor as Epictetus, WEB Du Bois, Tolstoy, and Epictetus as himself; ESF 13 students visiting special collections; Some of the 2019 ESF writing instructors at a Friday Plenary lecture- Artemis Brod, Shay Brawn, Meg Formato, Becky Richardson, Sarah Pittock, and Jennifer Stonaker; ESF 7A students biking together to a class event.]