On Thursday, November 29, I found myself in ENG 319: Composition Methods at CMU, reviewing a set of responses my students had just written as feedback for what I’ll call momentarily and generically a text–a common occurrence that semester, thanks to the bolstered clinical experiences recently approved for English majors at CMU earning teaching credentials 7-12. In truth, however, the so-called text was decidedly not just any text; it was an urgent message and call to action from President Robert O. Davies that was distributed to the entire university community the morning after a hate crime had taken place on campus. (Read the message from President Davies embedded below or click here to open the message in a new tab.)
Assessing my students’ work, I was immediately inspired to share their feedback with President Davies and then invite him to our final exam session to discuss his message; however, I first asked my students for their approval. As it turned out, reactions were mixed:
“That would be amazing!”
“Do you think he would really visit our class?
“Probably not. He’s way too busy to spend time with a bunch of undergraduates.”
“OMG. How cool would that be if he actually visited?
“Let’s do it!”
With my students’ approval and mindful of university protocol, I didn’t write directly to President Davies. Instead, I sent an invitation to his executive assistant the following morning, waited barely three hours, and received an answer: He said yes!
In preparation for the visit, the president received a packet, including a class list, my students’ feedback, and a copy of his message. In addition, he received a cover letter for me to explain what we hoped to accomplish during his visit, as well as a description of the National Writing Project’s PQP Protocol (Praise, Question, Polish) that we used to respond to the message. Significantly, this cover letter required three drafts on my part, and I shared each one with my students, explaining my rationale and thought process for the revisions, so I could model “writing as a process” habits of mind. Two revisions are noteworthy enough to mention here. First, the introduction:
On behalf of the Fall 2018 section of ENG 319, I’m writing to thank you for accepting the invitation to the final exam session on Thursday, December 13 at 2:00 PM in AN 252. Attached, you’ll find the class list and ENG 319 students’ feedback to your November 8 message. We look forward to discussing the feedback with you and, equally important, hearing your comments regarding the choices and challenges you faced in writing under such pressing and complex circumstances.
With some variations, this introduction was originally the conclusion of the letter. As I explained to my students, I “wrote my way” to the purpose of the text and found it in the conclusion–a common occurrence among novice and experienced writers alike. Leading with purpose, though, is a key principle of professional communication, so I easily made the organizational change to ensure that President Davies understood from the very first paragraph our goals and aims in inviting him.
The second major revision was a fuller description of the PQP protocol:
The ENG 319 version of the PQP begins with the pre-service English teacher thanking the writer and then, significantly, restating the overarching purpose or project. Sometimes this restatement takes the shape of a paraphrase; other times, it’s a direct quote of a thesis statement. Either way, this crucial first step trains pre-service English teachers to read a text respectfully from start to finish (whether it was written by a 6th grader or a university president!), understand AND NAME its overarching purpose, and then prioritize the writer’s needs. This approach prevents pre-service teachers from mistakenly “marking everything,” as the saying goes, during the first perusal of a text, and it also honors writers by ensuring their intentions are understood. Also significant, the PQP provides responding categories with tremendous elasticity, enough to address virtually any rhetorical element (from global to sentence-level considerations), depending on a writer’s needs, selected genre, and drafting phase. For example, one might QUESTION to what extent a writer (a) has connected evidence to claims, (b) might consider crafting a more resonating conclusion, or (c) understands conventions associated with semi-colons, apostrophe use, or Oxford commas (items to be added to a personal proofreading list). Alternatively, one might propose POLISHING a paper by (a) adding a naysayer or counter argument (which might require an additional source or two) or (b) revising the paper title to better entice the reader. When it comes to the PRAISE category, however, I encourage my students to take the same approach: identify THE text section or element they believe is the strongest and explain why in glowing terms. And If my students can’t decide between two elements or sections, we intentionally break protocol and identify them both!
I admitted to my students that this revised explanation was rather long; however, I wanted President Davies to fully understand the PQP protocol and how it has the power to address both global and sentence-/word-level considerations. Equally important, I wanted him to understand our thoughtful PQP adaptation, especially the importance of initially naming the writer’s purpose–a rhetorical move that provides credibility to the responder and respect to the writer. In addition, the move ensures that the responder’s very first comment is a global consideration that takes into consideration the entire text.
I hand delivered the packet to the Office of the President, where I found the president chatting informally and cordially with his staff. He accepted the packet and indicated he was looking forward to the class visit.
Fast Forward Three Days.
At the appointed time on December 13, Claire Tucker–an ENG 319 student from Chelsea with a double major in English/History–greeted President Davies at the main entrance of Anspach Hall, took a quick selfie with him (at the request of both her parents and her professor!), and then ushered our guest to Anspach 252. There, twenty-five pre-service English teachers were eagerly awaiting what promised to be a most memorable final exam session…
Stay Tuned until February for Part II of “He Said, “Yes.”
Elizabeth Brockman is a founding co-director of the Chippewa River Writing Project. A former middle and high school English teacher, Elizabeth is currently a professor in the English Department at CMU, where she teaches composition and composition methods courses.
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