The Pilot Course, Part 4

I started to offer some additional detail in my last post about how the technology- and writing-intensive version of our plebe composition course that I led and co-piloted last semester supported the “habits of mind” detailed in the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing document developed and produced by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Writing Project, and the National Council of Teachers of English.

Here’s the short version: the adaptability across multiple information systems that the pedagogy we developed in our eight sections and the regular, rigorous, and reflective practice and instruction in writing that we gave our students (1) aligns well with nationally accepted pedagogies and outcomes and (2) produced a positive and statistically significant correlation between how much students wrote and how well they performed on blind-graded end-of-semester writing assessment measures.

In other words, what we did worked. Here’s how we tried to develop the other four (out of the total of eight) habits of mind that I started to describe last time.

Persistence – the ability to sustain interest in and attention to short- and long-term projects. (As Clancy pointed out, this is the habit of mind in which our students have perhaps the most significant advantage: at the nation’s premier and highest-ranked military academy, where our students compete for Rhodes and Marshall scholarships with students at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, we don’t lack for high-initiative self-starters. Our students are trained and temperamentally inclined to do what they’re asked. The plebes come straight out of the military basic-training rigors of “Beast Barracks” into our classrooms, and many of them have express their adherence to the maxim, “Fake it ’til you make it”: the notion that even if you can’t yet do it, keep trying and going through the motions until you can. That attitude is a remarkable asset in the classroom, especially when they’re also consistently urged to take advantage of every resource possibly available to them, including instructor advice. If I encourage them to do something, and model it convincingly, they’ll do it, and give me reports long after they’ve departed my course about how well they’ve done. I kind of love that.)

Responsibility – the ability to take ownership of one’s actions and understand the consequences of those actions for oneself and others. (Perhaps more than anything else, this is what sets Academy students apart from others. The demand for persistence and initiative, coupled to the forthrightness necessitated by the cadet-run honor system and its implementation of the Cadet Honor Code, and the command structure set up in the Corps of Cadets in which cadets take on increasing responsibility for the actions of cadets in classes below them as they advance through the ranks from plebe through yearling and cow to firstie, all lead to a system in which personal responsibility is foremost. Cadets eagerly give credit to those who have helped them out, and seek recognition for their actions. When they fail, they’re almost always the first to acknowledge it, and typically follow up that acknowledgement with a request for advice on how to improve. They own their actions, and they give full credit — good and bad — to the actions of others, as well.)

Flexibility – the ability to adapt to situations, expectations, or demands. (This is another advantage I’d argue Academy students tend to possess over others. Before they get to our FYC classroom, they’ve gone through Beast Barracks. The Army’s developed plenty of ways to help them learn to “Improvise, adapt, and overcome.” And their instructors run the range from cuddly civilian nice-guys to officers cycling into West Point fresh out of command of a Ranger or Special Forces unit. We demand that cadets excel in all three domains — athletic, military, and academic — rather than just one. And their strengths in the athletic or military domains can contribute to their performance in the academic classroom in surprising ways. They tend to understand the idiosyncrasies of the rhetorical situation in ways that some instructors at more conventional institutions might not anticipate.)

Metacognition – the ability to reflect on one’s own thinking as well as on the individual and cultural processes used to structure knowledge. (I’ve tried to actively promote reflection-as-metacognition in the service of knowledge transfer since I arrived at West Point, but I worry that I’ve been largely unsuccessful, in part because the Army’s institutional structures and discourses have to a degree co-opted research on reflection and metacognition: it’s become an often contentless buzzword here. The Army does After-Action Reviews and thinks of it as metacognition, rather than paying attention to the constraints and processes that led to a given outcome, and that leads in turn to the ways many of my students don’t want to think about constraints and processes, but only about actions and outcomes. Method and motivation seem sometimes not to matter, even as we pay them lip service in the interest of reflection. The best thing I might do, I think, would be to keep a dual-column index of my end-of-paper comments and their end-of-paper reflections for all their assignments, and maybe even to make it a triple-entry notebook, with their reactions to the intersections between the first two columns in the third column.)

So: the pedagogy in the pilot course I’ve led has promoted, I think, significant advantage on the part of students here in many of the habits of mind that lead to success in postsecondary writing, and I’ve got a ways to go in some other areas. I’ll talk next time about how I work in terms of the five approaches the Framework recommends in order to promote those habits of mind.

The Pilot Course, Part 4

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