January 24, 2024
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Something to Write About at Huntingdon College
Montgomery, Ala. –Be careful what you ask for if you ask writers for content for a feature story on writing resources. Huntingdon Assistant Professor of English Dr. Erin Chandler and Mr. Foster Dickson, a Learning Support Specialist and Academic Writing Advisor, are passionate about writing and helping Huntingdon students grow in confidence in their writing abilities. In this two-part feature, Dr. Chandler and Mr. Dickson journal the joys of their work and the ways they assist Huntingdon students in their writing pursuits.
Part 1: ‘Coach’ Chandler Channels Coach Saban’s Process
Dr. Erin Chandler is an English professor specializing in Rhetoric and Composition. She teaches primarily in first-year writing and upper-level writing classes, including Style and Editing and Professional and Public Writing. She serves unofficially as director of first-year composition, advisor to pre-law and English Language Arts students, sponsor for Sigma Tau Delta honor society, chair of the Faculty Success Committee, and faculty mentor to the women’s basketball team.
Q. You work with students with a widerange of writing abilities. What do you enjoy most about working with Huntingdon students?
Dr. Chandler: I enjoy building relationships with and amongst students in a setting that many of them have grown to dislike. I often hear students say “I hate writing” or “I can’t write.” Very few students LOVE writing and many have traumatic writing experiences. That’s ok. We work through that trauma. I tell every student who comes into my class that my goal is to help them leave the class with a different perspective on writing– “I might not like writing, but I’m confident that I can write.” That confidence doesn’t come to them by me teaching them where commas go or how to properly cite in MLA. They get confidence from our classroom conversations, from learning that I care about what they have to say, and from each other. I do my best to facilitate conversation between students because they sometimes learn best from each other. One of the best feelings is hearing them use the model of constructive feedback I’ve modeled for them and be sure of their ability to help each other. When they see their growth in writing, their overall confidence in learning grows. I remind each class that we aren’t looking for perfection; we are looking for improvement. No matter what skills they come with, they will leave with more if they put in the work.
Q. You utilize writing groups in your English 105 and 106 courses. How do these groups work and how do they positively enhance student growth in writing?
Dr. Chandler: After each writing project students complete, they come in groups of three or four to my office, where we sit around the table to discuss each group member’s project. Before they come, they share all of their projects on a single Google doc, read each other’s writing, and respond with a reaction chart that guides them through the review process of each paper. The reaction chart is tied to the grading rubric categories, so as they are completing the chart they are also helping their group member assess the grade they have earned. I guide the students through a conversation that asks them to comment positively on one area of writing in the writer’s paper and provide two writing goals that the writer can focus on the next time they write. This strategic instead of comprehensive focus allows the student to focus their energy and not become overwhelmed by extensive commentary. Because we all have the same document in front of us, I can show students not only that improvement can be made but also the exact ways they can make that improvement. And because each student gets two (or possibly three) goals, the students are ultimately taught up to 6 writing lessons in each group if each person in the group has different goals for the paper revision or next assignment. We work collaboratively in many instances to find where paragraphs might need to be split or how a conclusion could be made stronger. Finally, each student fills out a rubric for themselves that indicates the grade they believe they deserve. Many times they are their harshest critic. This process benefits students because it puts the ball in their court. The more they put into the writing group, the more they will get out of it. Ultimately the groups are training students to write to an audience, converse with each other, critically interrogate a text, provide constructive criticism, and collect writing strategies they can apply to any writing situation.
Q. You’ve adopted a ‘writing coach’ mentality in working with our students. When did you know this was your calling in life?
Dr. Chandler: The answer to that question is twofold because there’s the story of falling in love with texts and the story of how I found my methodology.
I went to Auburn and fell in love with my English classes. One of my most religious experiences was in American Literature class in Haley Center reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. I think it was the moment I understood empathy. The experience was the result of a professor who challenged me at my core. Via a piece of literature, he made me question my identity and made me want to change parts of it. From that moment, I wanted to be him. I wanted to help students understand themselves. Texts and writing about those texts gave me joy because texts are challenges, puzzles we can solve, games we can master.
When I was getting my Master’s and PhD, I got to witness the rise of Nick Saban at Alabama, which means I also got to teach a few of his players. They were some of my favorite students to teach because they were motivated to excel as much in the classroom as on the football field; their coach required this excellence. I adopted Saban’s retort–”trust the process”–because I could show students how the writing process was much like what I envision as parts of Coach Saban’s process–show up every day, set clear goals and ways to achieve them, be patient, adapt to changing circumstances, respect what everyone brings to the table, encourage others with your commitment, commit to being a continuous learner, and communicate with each other. The people who learn to master the games are the ones who have a good coach. They are the ones who continuously collect strategies to become better each time they play the game.
This methodology worked well when I came to Huntingdon because the majority of my students are athletes and have an athlete’s mentality. I do my best to meet each student where they are, and this is one place I can meet them. Learning to speak their language is an important pedagogical tool, and it helps me build community in my classroom.
Q. At the end of an introductory English course, what are the outcomes you hope each student takes with them into their subsequent courses and their life beyond Huntingdon?
Dr. Chandler: I want students to have a sense of intrinsic motivation and the desire to critically engage the world around them. I hope my students can eventually find pleasure in the process of writing and learning and identify their own areas of curiosity and growth. If they trust the process by completing their reading and writing exercises, they will develop the skills that make reading and writing less of a chore and more of a necessity for playing the game (i.e. living a thoughtful and engaged life).
Q. I’m a student writing a paper and I don’t even know where to start, or I have a draft of a paper and I’d like some feedback before I turn it in. Where do I go for help?
Dr. Chandler: The best place to start is always to ask a fellow student in the class, but if that fails, students can go to their professor’s office hours to get one-on-one attention. Students who take advantage of office hours never fail to comment on how they wish they would have taken advantage of office hours sooner in the semester. Huntingdon professors sincerely want to see students in their offices; they want to help. However, if students want help outside of office hours, Mr. Foster Dickson, in the Staton Center, has Writing Assistance sessions. He brings 19+ years of teaching experience with him, and he’s amazing at helping students at any stage of the writing process, from brainstorming to polishing any piece of writing. Particularly in the case of ENGL 105-106, he knows each of the assignments because he has taught them. I highly recommend using him as a resource. Students can look for his yellow flyers around campus, scan the QR code, and set up an appointment with him, or they can show up at his office on the second floor of the library any time during normal business hours.
Q. Anything else you’d like to say that might be a good addition to this feature?
Dr. Chandler: Writing is hard work. For those of us who write all the time, writing is still hard. I remind students that the hard part of writing is not often the grammar or syntax that they closely associate with traumatic writing experiences. The hardest part of writing is often getting started. It’s having the ideas to fill a scary blank page. Having those ideas comes from both reading and experience. Just like the performance during the game is dependent on your conditioning, the thoughts in your final essay are dependent on the texts you’ve read and the questions you have asked. The outcome is dependent on the preparation. Becoming a better writer means becoming a better thinker, and every Huntingdon professor is here to help students understand how to think judiciously.
Part 2: Regardless of Writing Talent, Foster Dickson Serves All Huntingdon Students
Speaking of Mr. Foster Dickson, he’s a man who wears many hats at Huntingdon. His roles at Huntingdon include Academic Writing Advisor (for the Writing Assistance Workshop), advisor for The Prelude, coach for the Presidential Scholars Academic Mentoring Team, centralized advisor for students in thirteen different majors (all areas of education, English, History, Religion, Communications, Music, and Criminal Justice), CALL instructor, and previously an English instructor. He is also working with Professor Eric Kidwell on the library’s oral history program.
Q. What is your background as a writing teacher before coming to Huntingdon?
Mr. Dickson: I have a varied background as a writing teacher. After beginning my career in book publishing at NewSouth Books, I was the creative writing teacher at Booker T. Washington Magnet High School from 2003 until 2022. I also taught 12th grade English for thirteen of those nineteen years. During that time, I wrote or edited six published books of my own, as well as shorter works, and taught as an adjunct composition instructor at Auburn University at Montgomery for three years, in the early 2010s. Apart from those longer-term experiences, I’ve taught short-term creative writing classes to incarcerated men with Auburn’s Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project and to middle-grade students in AUM’s Summer Youth College. Prior to advising The Prelude, I advised BTW Magnet’s literary magazine Graphophobia, which won state and national awards. My degrees are in English and Liberal Arts, and my teaching experience runs the gamut: students in high school, college, prison, summer camp, and continuing education courses covering creative writing, English, composition, and publishing. I also taught Sunday school to elementary-age children at our church for a couple of years.
Q. What type of support can students receive in the Writing Assistance Workshop?
Mr. Dickson: The Writing Assistance Workshop was created in early 2022, and it is meant to offer this assistance to any student in any class for any writing assignment. Though students may associate such a service with English classes, I can help with writing in any class or discipline. My background as a writer and editor of nonfiction works has equipped me to work with any style or requiring any bibliography. Students just need to give me the information that I need to point them in the right direction, mainly the assignment’s instructions and which style sheet is required. And the assignment does not have to be a “paper,” like an essay or research paper. It can be as small as a discussion post or as large as a capstone, anything. I will even help students with their own personal writing, like poems or stories.
Q. How can students request help from the Writing Assistance Workshop?
Mr. Dickson: There are two easy ways to make a request. One is a flier with a QR code that students can use to reach an appointment scheduler. If a student doesn’t see a flier around campus, the English department should have them, and there is one on my office door (Library 206). The other way is just to walk in. If I’m not busy with another student, I will put down what I’m doing and help them. If I am busy with another student, I will help them when I’m done, if they can wait.
One note about that flier: last semester, students in CALL 100 were given that flier, but the QR code on that one is now invalid. I have an updated one for this semester. The new one is on pale yellow, not white, paper
Q. What is The Prelude and what are the benefits to a student who contributes to it?
Mr. Dickson:The Prelude is the college’s literary and art magazine, which was founded in 1928. Of course, the publication has changed in style and format as the decades have passed. Currently, the staff and I are glad to read and consider written or artistic works by students, alumni, faculty, or staff. These can be works of creative writing, like poems or stories, or works of general nonfiction, like essays or reviews. For art, we are interested in things that students might already think about, like photography or paintings, but we can also find ways to include images of 3-D works, like sculpture. For nearly one-hundred years now, The Prelude has been a forum for the intellectual and creative work being done on campus. I know that students are doing a range of interesting work in their classes and in their personal lives, and The Prelude is a way to spread the good word around the campus and beyond.
What I really want to encourage everyone on our campus to consider, when they think about The Prelude, is this: be open-minded about what could be included in our magazine. Though most people would assume that it was only for traditional creative writing, which will always remain at the center of this project, there is also room for writing that people might not consider, like the sciences or athletics. Both science writing and sports writing can be well-crafted and enjoyable to read, even though some might not consider them “literary.” Likewise, some of America’s best art has had athletics as its subject: the paintings of Thomas Hart Benton, Norman Rockwell, or Leroy Nieman. Our college is a multifaceted institution, and I hope that students, faculty, and staff in all disciplines will feel like The Prelude is open to their best writing (and art), too.
Q. What do you enjoy most about working with Huntingdon students?
Mr. Dickson: I haven’t been at Huntingdon very long – only a year and a half now – and several aspects of working with Huntingdon students stand out to me. I taught for almost twenty years at an arts high school that served only Montgomery County and where the vast majority of students were female, so working with Huntingdon’s students has been a markedly different experience for me. I’ve been glad to teach a broad variety of students, to hear their stories, and know about their perspectives. That has been augmented by a marked shift in the courses that I teach here. I used to instruct students in highly focused courses within a program that they auditioned for, and I typically had those students for three to four years in a row. Here, I am working with more students in general education core classes, and that has given me the opportunity to open up and learn right alongside the students. Likewise, as a person whose family has lived in central Alabama for generations, meeting and working with students from all over the country, from varying backgrounds, and with different interests has been a blessing. Students don’t always believe this, but I genuinely enjoy hearing their ideas, whether they are similar to mine or not. Whether they realize it, Huntingdon’s students may well be giving me more than I’m giving them.
Huntingdon College, in accordance with Title IX and Section 106.8 of the 2020 Final Rule under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, other applicable federal and state law, and stated College policy, prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. Similarly, it prohibits discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived race, color, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, religion, age and/or national origin in its education program