The First-Year Writing Program works with freshman to help them develop their skills as college and academic writers. At the head of this program is Professor Luke Niiler. Professor Niiler has been at the University of Alabama since 2007. Along with being the Director of the First-Year Writing Program, he also teaches English Composition 101 and 102. I had the pleasure to sit down with Professor Niiler and learn more about who he is and what he has in store for the First-Year Writing Program.
How long have you been the director of the First-Year Writing Program and what did you do before becoming director?
I’ve been FYW Program Director since August. Previously, I ran the Writing Center since my arrival at UA in 2007. I like to joke that I was on the back of the plane that brought Nick Saban to campus. Before that, I was in the University of Texas system and before that I was in the Missouri system.
How are you enjoying your new position? Do you see many differences from other positions that you’ve held?
I like my work here very much. It’s interesting; it’s exciting; it’s very, very busy. There’s never a dull moment. It requires a lot of hyperkinetic energy, which I have in abundance. My new job allows me to challenge and support our faculty as they work with our students and help them become better writers. What’s not to like about that?
Can you describe a typical day in the office?
On any given day, I have dozens of conversations. Sometimes I am working with a teacher to develop a lesson plan, or I’m helping a teacher discover where a lesson plan went wrong and how to make it better. I might be talking to a student who has a question about a course, professor, or attendance. Teaching, however, is my first love. I’ve always understood myself professionally as a teacher. In this job, I am constantly teaching people, whether I am in a classroom, in this office, or listening to people talk about their teaching. I also meet with my own students. A big part of this job, and a part that I really like right now, is I’m on a year long listening tour where I’m talking to everyone who is involved in teaching this program.
Would you mind elaborating on your listening tour?
My tour involves speaking to dozens of GTAs and instructors. I meet with them, and they tell me what they like about teaching and what they don’t like about it. They give me suggestions about how this office can better support them. I really enjoy those conversations. I am in a department that is very fortunate to have so many committed, dedicated professionals who all want to do the right thing by the students. We are all on the same page, and we all want our students to succeed.
What is your English 101 class like?
I think that it’s really important that I teach 101 because I get to see first-hand how the various ideas I have for this program work or don’t work. I get to speak with teachers, not just from a theoretical or an administrative perspective, but also from a teaching perspective. I can speak with them teacher to teacher about what their students are facing because my students are facing the same challenges. The classroom is really my first love. Sure, I publish and I work with graduate students whom I adore, I think they’re wonderful, and I have wonderful colleagues here, too. But I love the 17-21 year old crowd. They’re happy and not cynical yet. They are hopeful about their education and their future. When I go to my 101 section, I see all these hopeful people around me, but sometimes, they look tired. Sometimes, they look bored, and sometimes, they look scared. But I know, that if I work hard as their teacher, their hope comes alive, and it becomes an extraordinary experience for all of us.
What do you find most challenging about teaching writing?
Conversations about writing are really tough to build. They takes a long time to create at the 101 level. It takes a long time to create a classroom environment in which students can have honest and informed exchanges about writing. I am now at the point where I can put a student’s paper on the document camera, and we can talk about that paper for the whole period. Actually, the comments are strong and the students can actually address each other better than I can address them. Their classmates are peers who they can trust to critique their work honestly without hurting them personally in the process. I recognize how daunting responding to someone’s writing is and how strong and vulnerable you have to be to display your own work. Building that level of trust takes time.
Are there any projects that you are working on within the First-Year Writing Program?
We are currently working with UA Press to create an anthology of the best 100-level student writing. It will come out every year, and I want it to be the default text. Students can have their work nominated by their teachers to be in the anthology. I think that’s going to really motivate students to improve their writing.
Also, in spring, we are going to do our first ever portfolio assessment. We are going to read portfolios of student writing and assess where the program is in terms of what we are teaching. We have also started a teaching idea exchange on Friday afternoons to talk about the challenges and successes that instructors have had in their teaching that week.
That all sounds amazing. What is the one thing that you think about most when you are teaching?
The word that I first said when I started teaching, and when I started supervising teachers was believe. Believe in yourself and believe in your students. That’s what I hope my students come out with: belief. Belief in their ability to write, in their ability to function as writers, to put into practice the habits of good writers, such as persistence, endurance, patience, tenacity, creativity, craft, analysis.
Where do you get your inspiration?
My morning run.