Kevin Waltman: Composition Writing Fair

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Kevin Waltman is an Instructor of English at The University of Alabama. He lives in Coker with his wife, Jessica. They have a daughter named Calla, and a dog named Henry. He is the author of several young adult novels, most recently Next in 2013, with its sequel Slump due to appear in late 2014. He has published short fiction with The Emerson Review and others. He heads the writing fair every year, with the help of the English 102 students. The fair is an event that brings together students to display visual arguments. Students in groups of three or four create arguments, and the arguments address issues that the class has been wrestling with and researching throughout the course of the semester. The fair itself is a chance for students to present their own work and examine the work of their peers

What is the purpose of the fair and why do 102 students participate in it?

It’s been attached to EN 102 because of that course’s connection to formal argumentation. But the key, for me, is that it makes a real audience for the students. It’s one thing to designate “the academic community” as the audience for a student paper, but to make that real—to put them in front of their peers, other instructors, administrators, etc.—is to make them think consciously about what it means to be a participant in the academic community.

Is there a particular part of the fair that interests you the most? Has the format generally been consistent, or has there been more trial and error?

Again, for me the fair is interesting because of what the students get out of it. I build a requirement into the assignment that each student must write responses to other projects, so that makes it necessary for them to take critical looks at their peers’ work. And there has been a bit of “trial and error,” though namely in terms of how to best craft an assignment for a group project. It’s important to encourage them to take chances—do more than just a “science fair” poster—without guiding them to the point of making important choices for them, and just as important to build in safeguards so a student can’t slack and get credit for the work of others.

What do you believe is the most beneficial part of the fair, and why should students participate?

I think putting your work on public display nearly always improves the work. There are exceptions, of course, but I think that idea of a real, live audience makes students put more care and thought into their decisions. They should be doing this in papers, of course, and stressing to them that writing is a process is something we’re continually doing as instructors, but it’s just not the same in terms of audience. At first, displaying your work can create anxiety—the fear of failure in front of other people—but when you work through the process of the assignment, the anxiety turns into pride.

What do you believe the limitations are, if any, for someone with an English degree?

Very few. There are those professions for which you likely have to make academic choices early on—being an English major won’t help you on your way to becoming a neuroscientist. But the ability to write effectively is valued in a variety of professions. Before I landed here, I worked in politics and public relations, jobs for which I had no specific academic grooming, and yet I was able to flourish because what I was spending most of my time doing was writing.

What inspired you to become an Instructor of English?

Entering the MFA program, teaching was secondary. I understood it as something I’d have to do—endure, perhaps—in order to pursue my writing. Once I got the hang of it, though, I discovered I loved the classroom. Like any job it has its challenges, but there are those days when you see some spark of recognition in a student, some sudden understanding—and if you’re teaching writing or literature, that recognition is often simultaneously one of the material and of self. That’s immensely rewarding and hard to find elsewhere. Writing fiction is rewarding in its own way, but it’s such a solitary pursuit that teaching and working with others makes for a fine balance.

Obviously, there are benefits for a student who participates or attends the fair, but what would be the most important in your opinion?

Speaking of that spark of recognition: that happens at the fair. Not for everyone, but there are students who’ve wrestled seriously with their topic and then they see others who’ve done similar work. They might land on a different thesis, but they’ll see how that disagreement can lead to discourse—and that’s not something easy to come by.

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