Dr. Karen Gardiner: Themed English 102

Karen Gardiner by the Eiffel Tower
Dr. Karen Hollingsworth Gardiner

Three years ago, Dr. Karen Hollingsworth Gardiner, the Director of The First-Year Writing Program at UA, created themed 102 English classes. Dr. Gardiner has contributed much of her time to UA’s First Year Writing Program and to creating enjoyable and enriching experience for freshmen. Her efforts earned her The University of Alabama’s Outstanding Professional Award in May of 2012.

How did you come up with the idea of themed 102 English Classes?

The College of Arts and Sciences had developed a healthy Freshman Learning Community program, based on the concept that students who can self-select into areas of interest, who can form communities with like-minded fellow students, and who can work more closely with a faculty member are more likely to stay at UA to complete their degrees. The First-Year Writing Program had participated in the FLCs since their inception, since EN 101 was the one course that was a common component in all of the FLCs. At the time, the FLC EN 101s were themed according to the FLC to which they were connected, but we were very aware that the EN 102 experience for former FLC students was hit-or-miss in terms of lucking into a course that allowed students to continue reading and writing about the area of interest that drew them into an FLC. At the same time, we also wanted a way to help our least experienced teachers to focus their courses. So we were thinking about ways to improve our EN 102 program in those areas.

The FWP staff attended a regional WPA workshop, and we heard about a new concept for themed courses that Auburn was beginning to implement, so we scheduled a two-day visit to talk with their composition and FLC program personnel. We met with lots of folks there during those two days, and we even sat in on several classes and talked with students. The Auburn program was themed around college majors, in conjunction with their Writing Across the Curriculum QEP. We liked the concept of themes and the possibilities for involving the university libraries to enhance student research skills, but we didn’t think theming around majors would work at UA. So we brainstormed and researched to find what we thought would enhance our EN 102 classes at UA, and we decided to try “problem-solving” themes that would better fit with our Active and Collaborative Learning QEP. We settled on five very broad themes that might appeal to students across our own curriculum but that would be flexible and supportive for our teachers as well.

We were also thinking a lot about textbook cost, and a lot about student learning. We wanted a system that might use the library databases or the free College Readership Program newspapers as “textbooks,” allowing students to immerse themselves in archival research or in database research to find appropriate readings for their courses or to engage in archival research in newspaper archives or follow a theme-related topic in the news. If one of the learning outcomes for the course is that students will develop research skills, then this themed approach could afford opportunities for them to do that while researching a topic in which they were personally interested.

What were you hoping the students would gain from these different themed classes over the previous English 102 classes?

We were hoping to improve student engagement with the crucial foundational skills of analysis, research, and academic argumentation that are the rhetorical focus of EN 102. We know that students write better when they are personally interested—personally invested—in their research and writing topics, and we wanted to develop a themed 102 program that would allow them to self-select into the theme of their choice. We thought that students who could self-select into a themed course might find the research and writing more interesting and might become more engaged with the learning. We hope it helps the learning become more real.

We also knew that teachers might be uncomfortable with teaching a themed course—especially if they didn’t like the theme or felt they didn’t know much about it. But we felt that this was a move that could enhance a student-centered approach to learning. Our teachers are the experts on writing instruction, and we wanted to give students the agency to develop the expertise in the subject matter of the course.

What are the different themes for each of the classes?

Advancing Mind and Body

Sustaining Planet Earth

Enterprising America and the World

Engaging Southern Culture and Diversity

Imagining the 22nd Century

Each of the themes includes a verb that implies some kind of problem-solving approach, so that students might become engaged in their research and writing. We hoped it might have the appeal of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” approach.

Which theme is your favorite and why?

I don’t really have a favorite. What I like is the flexibility the themed approaches give our teachers and students. For instance, if a teacher were particularly interested in food culture, they might approach course development from that angle, no matter what theme they were assigned. Food culture would certainly be an appropriate angle for Advancing Mind and Body and for Sustaining Planet Earth because both of those might easily include a focus on healthy food or local food or the slow food movement. But the business of food and how food is produced and marketed or how to feed the world might also be an angle for the Enterprising America and the World theme. Likewise, food culture in the South or in various Southern regions or the foodways of diverse populations in the South would work in the Engaging Southern Culture and Diversity theme, as would an exploration of the future of food culture or foodways in the Imagining the 22nd Century theme. So, someone who liked to teach a certain subtheme would still be able to do that.

But the themed approach would also give teachers who wanted to select a reader the freedom to do that, and the freedom of choice to a teacher who wanted to allow her students to choose how they would approach the course theme. I loved the idea that a teacher might say to a class, “Our theme is Sustaining Planet Earth. Let’s brainstorm about ways that affects you personally. Why did you select this theme? What about it interests you?” I like to imagine a class where engineering majors might select to research and write about sustainable building practices or sustainable building materials or city planning, where biology majors might select to research and write about ecology or climate issues, where an education major might want to look at science education practices—so that the theme would become their own and they would enjoy doing the research and writing, so that each person’s work in the same EN 102 class would be personally meaningful for them.

How have your graduate degrees informed your work as the program director?

I’m not sure any graduate degree prepares you to direct a program as large and diverse as a first-year writing program at a large university. But my graduate studies did sharpen my own research and writing skills, and my coursework in rhetoric and composition gave me a good foundation for making choices about how to maintain and improve the program. Two other things also inform my work: 1) collaboration and 2) experience. I learned to collaborate with my peers as a graduate student. Several of us would talk about our classes and share ideas for improving our teaching, and that practice has continued to this day. I have a wonderful staff of very creative teachers who all contribute to the shape of the First-year Writing Program. We also work with the CRES faculty. Collaboration is important in keeping the program fresh and the pedagogy solid. I also taught high school for several years before and after I did my PhD work, so I have a good understanding of that transition from high school writing to college writing. That, too, shapes the way I think about first-year writing and first-year writing students.

Do you teach any other courses at the university? If so, which ones?

Last year, I consciously set out to learn more about online teaching. I attended a 10-workshop series on online teaching offered by CCS and have actually now earned a certificate of online instruction. I also taught EN 101 and EN 102 online last year so that I can better understand the particular issues with online course delivery. It is important that our online courses deliver the same educational value as our on-campus courses, that they be as similar as possible to our on-campus courses—in learning outcomes and writing instruction coverage—while also using best practices for online delivery.

This year, I developed and am teaching an FLC compass course as part of an innovative pilot program called “Perspectives” within the College’s FLC program. We are approaching the theme of “Water” from the perspectives of several different disciplines, and the students from each discipline’s FLC have the chance to meet together and talk about what they are learning from the perspective of their FLC.

This spring I will be teaching EN 532, Approaches to Teaching Composition. It’s been fun to put together the syllabus, drawing on my experience as Director of First-year Writing and as a classroom teacher, but also revisiting important readings in the field and thinking about how theory impacts pedagogy.

After that, I have a few ideas for courses I’d like to teach down the road—possibly an EN 103, as part of our FWP Alabama in Cuba project; possibly a special topics in writing course related to the rhetoric of the depression-era South.

What is your favorite aspect about working at The University of Alabama?

I love the opportunity to touch so many students’ lives in a positive way. Teaching teachers is an awesome responsibility. And, I mean “awesome” in several senses of the word. It’s rewarding and valuable work, but it’s also wrought with awe each day. It’s a serious mission—and important. It’s a stone cast into a pond, with ripples that touch many unknown shores.

What do you like to do for fun when you are not working or teaching?

I have a three-year-old grandson, Jackson, who keeps me busy. It’s pretty awesome to watch his personality—and his language—develop. Children really do dwell in possibility, and it’s fun to be there to watch how that works.

I have also developed a real interest in photography in the past several years. I actually own four cameras now and am in the market for another in the next year or so. And I continue to have an interest in writing—particularly related to family lore and front-porch stories, so I’ve been testing those waters, as well, exploring how best to tell the stories I want to tell: poetry, fiction, nonfiction. I think the photography plays into that impulse, as well, because I think the visual is another way to tell a story.