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Communication Guidelines for English 413

Part 1: Guidelines for Engaging in Discussions
Our English 413 Discussions are designed for us to probe what we read and experience as writers more deeply and to collaborate in that learning through conversation, much of which will be exploratory in nature. In general, if a reading has been assigned, you should come to class expecting to discuss it. Our discussions will occur in whole-class and small group forums. Discussions can prepare you – as writers – to articulate original ideas supported by careful study/research of texts and from your own experiences and observations. They can also help you feel part of a community of writers and teachers-to-be. Worthwhile discussions present new ideas generated through curious, collaborative, respectful exploration. Worthwhile discussions are greater than the sum of their parts. Most discussions will be face-to-face, although some may be set up on-line. Whether whole class, small group, or face to face, guidelines for participation are similar.

1. What we want to learn/practice through discussions:
  • to practice honesty and courage;
  • to gain as much insight as possible into the practice of writing and the teaching of writing;
  • to absorb, question, and reflect upon real-world applications of what we read and experience as writers;
  • to hone a range of skills that will enhance our practices as writers and educators, including self-evaluation, effective communication, and active listening; and
  • to work with others to forge an ambitious, active, inclusive, respectful and responsible learning community.

2. Participant responsibilities:
  • Bring hard copies of books and other texts under discussion to class.
  • Identify pronouns you prefer to have used when addressing you;.
  • Listen carefully to each other and respond to each other with respect. Talk with each other about the topics and readings at hand. Be present and attentive during discussions. Make decisions around use of electronic devices that allow you to listen and contribute.
  • Agree not to blame ourselves or others for misinformation we have learned, but accept responsibility for not repeating this information after we have learned otherwise.
  • Assume that people are always doing their best, want to be treated with respect, and want to learn.
  • Actively try to get to know each other and ourselves.
  • Share information about the social and cultural groups we belong to with other members of the class as it relates to writing, the topic of our course.
  • Never demean, devalue, or in any way "put down" people for their experiences.
  • Agree to actively combat the myths and stereotypes about our own groups and other groups so that we can break down the walls that prohibit group cooperation and group gain.
  • Agree to elevate civic and civil discourse in our work together inside and outside of class. If an offensive comment is made, say “time-out! Let’s talk about why that is offensive and let’s rephrase together.”
  • Be patient as people try to integrate what they’re learning—it may take several tries to learn new ways, habits of thought, and routines.
  • Create a respectfully challenging atmosphere for open discussion. All expression will be peaceful and orderly, conducted in a manner consistent with the Student Code of Conduct and University policies, and in such a way that University business and respectful academic discourse are not unduly disrupted.
  • Practice kindness.
  • Have I missed any responsibilities we’d like to expect from one another?

3. General guidelines
  • Use respectfuland professional language. Please avoid acronyms or technical terms that may be unfamiliar to your classmates, without providing background explanation (e.g., LD for learning disabilities or referencing a philosophical idea classmates have not encountered). Please maintain the highest standards of professional ethics, for example by not revealing names of individuals or places where you are working in schools.

  • To prepare for discussions, a good way to start is to review the reading(s) we will discuss, for example underlines or highlights or any notes you have made. Jot down 1-3 talking points or questions in preparation for each discussion. You will not be able to share everything, but you do want to come prepared to raise questions about what you read and to share what struck you in the readings. Perhaps you’ll share what resonated with you in the readings, what disturbed you, or parts you found particularly compelling. Be sure to share connections or tensions between the readings or between the readings and your own experiences.

  • I care very much about your learning in this course, and your comments in discussions are a principal way I know you are completing and engaging with the course reading. If you choose not to participate or if your comments in class discussion lack specificity, I will assume you have not completed the reading or activity under discussion. Your discussion participation should both encourage your classmates to dig deeper into course topics and convince me that you are completing the readings and activities.

  • Responses to others should extend the dialogue. Strive for your responses to do so in a substantive manner. Address a specific part of another colleague’s contribution, perhaps by direct quotation, and offer new ideas and/or integrate course material. Responses can also extend the conversation with a new question.

  • One important forum for discussion in this course will be peer review groups with colleagues in English 413. In these groups, the readings under discussion are pieces you or your colleagues have written. While the nature of these conversations may be different, because the goal is to revise and improve writing, the same general communicative guidelines and responsibilities apply.

  • Evaluate your own discussion behavior frequently. Do you tend to speak up frequently? Rarely? Not at all? Do you overwhelm your classmates with your frequent contributions? Are classmates responding to your points? This evaluation can help you modify your behavior so that your voice is heard and valued within the learning community.

As we move through the semester, different discussion forums may ask you to take on certain participant roles. While different strategies will be highlighted in different forums, it is useful for you to consider the following strategies in all discussion-based communication.

(The work of my colleagues Anne Heintz, Janine Certo, & Ellen Cushman has contributed significantly to the development of these guidelines.)


Communicating well in a classroom setting is not a natural talent--it must be learned and practiced. Sometimes discussions seem to stagnate or conclude naturally after a few comments and students feel like there is nothing else to add. The following table contains strategies for speaking and responding to one another and building deeper discussions.

|| || Strategy
Working Definition
Extending a previous comment or question by adding further detail.
Increasing clarity by making distinctions
Making visible a convergence in thinking or agreement with another's thoughts
Using a question or statement to suggest an alternative view or position
Suggesting tentative explanations or possible outcomes, most frequently prefaced with "Maybe..." Trying out a line of reasoning.
Requesting Clarification
Seeking clarity about another's statement or question.
Admitting Difficulty
Acknowledging one's own lack of understanding to the rest of the group.
Instituting a new direction in the learning conversation.
Expressing another's thought in slightly different language with the intention of clarifying.
Listing main points, general ideas by way of review.
Offering a definition to a word used by another, or supplying a term to fit a definition or description used by another.
Noting Relationship Among Tasks & Texts
Making explicit connections between previous conversations, texts and/or learning activities and the ideas of the present conversation.
Activating Background Knowledge
Making explicit connections with prior knowledge and/or experiences outside of the classroom.


Part 2: Tools for Interacting in English 413

The purpose of this section is to explain the different tools we will use for communicating in English 413. Please let me know if you have any questions.

Face-to-face, Phone, or Skype
I encourage you to talk with me about your writing, about questions, or about other matters on your mind relevant to the course. While I do not hold regular office hours, I encourage you to make an appointment with me to talk face-to-face, by phone, or by skype/facetime/zoom. I will also schedule writing conferences at different points throughout the semester. I will try to reserve time directly before and after class, as I suspect these may be convenient times for you to talk with me. I only discuss grade questions or complaints in face-to-face meetings.

Email is another communication tool for you to use, although I find it is too often used when a face-to-face or telephone conversation would be more effective. Before emailing me, then, please ask yourself the following questions:
  • Is this a question for the MSU Libraries Distance Learning ServicesorEducation Technical Interns in Education (TIES)?
  • Is this a question for a librarian?
  • Is this a question for one of the Writing Centers?
  • Is this a question one of my classmates could answer for me?
  • Is this a question that would be more appropriately or easily discussed in a face-to-face, telephone, or skype conversation?
If the answer to all of these questions is “no,” please feel free to email me. Be sure to use “English 413” as the subject line in all course-related emails.

Google Docs
We will use google docs to turn in, and respond to, one another’s writing. You should familiarize yourself with this app, if you are not already familiar with it (See the Screencast in the “Course Resources” folder for more information about using google docs).

Part 3: General Notes on Communication

It is imperative that you contribute in a timely manner for all class activities. Your willingness to share your ideas and thoughts is central to the growth of all students in the class, just as other students’ responses will help you better define your own ideas.

While I will not reply to each comment you make in class or to everything you write, I will read your writing and I will listen carefully to your contributions. I will often use your speaking and writing to formulate topics for future classes, to observe trends in your thinking, and to clarify instruction.

I also want to comment on one other important thing about communication to English 413: please remember to be professional and respectful. In order for us to grow in our thinking, we need to be able to both agree and disagree thoughtfully with each other. Additionally, while the members of our class will be the primary readers of any work posted on D2L, please remember that our D2L site is operated through Michigan State University. As such, it may be monitored or referred back to by faculty members who supervise the courses, beyond the immediate instructor. So you should keep the institutional set-up of D2L in mind when you participate in any online forum, actually. It can be easy to think of online posts, chats, etc. as similar to oral discussion. A big difference, however, is that once you post a comment in an online forum, you do not have a way of knowing if someone else saves, prints, or passes along that comment to others. So it is always wise to be sure that you are representing yourself in a professional manner.

Please consider your tone not only in classroom discussion forums, but in all e-mail and google docs communication with your colleagues and your instructor. Review email communication to ensure that the tone is professional, respectful, and courteous. Because email is a mode of communication we all use frequently and we do so in a of registers (friendly, joking, intimate, professional) it is important to number review email communication to determine that it is the kind of communication you would use in a classroom setting.