Recently, Michigan State’s First-Year Writing Program (FYW) has embarked on the task of designing a custom handbook and reader for the 6,000+ students who complete this requirement every year. Nancy DeJoy, in collaboration with her peers Deb Carmichael, Joyce Meier, and Christie Daniels, chose the Little Brown Handbook by Longman/Pearson as the basis for their customized MSU handbook. They chose this one for a variety of reasons: it emphasizes culture and language issues throughout, which is an important quality when considering the FYW audience. The number of international students at MSU has been increasing each year, providing interesting opportunities for teaching about the transition to writing for academic purposes within a global context.
DeJoy noted that MSU’s FYW program is considered innovative in its approach, emphasizing inquiry, creative thinking, and decision-making: “We start by asking questions, rich open-ended questions. We aren’t searching for ‘right’ answers, but exploring the process of discovery by asking good questions and generating responses via reflection and research. . . . We start with the assumption that incoming students can participate and contribute.”
So although the Little Brown Handbook fit the program well, there was room for improvement. For instance, the handbook is now designed to complement The Curious Researcher by Bruce Ballenger, a text used in all Tier I Writing courses. In collaboration with librarian consultants Ben Oberdick and Sarah Miller, DeJoy and her team have added a guide to MSU’s library and its resources. Another useful addition to the handbook is the “Resources for Teachers” section, which contains information about how the program exists in relationship to the MSU mission statement and gives background for the order and purpose of the course assignments.
New additions have also been made to Reading and Writing Literacies, the reader that DeJoy and another team designed for the teachers and students of First-Year Writing at MSU. All instructors in the FYW Program were invited to suggest readings that they would like to see included in the new reader. Graduate students Bonnie Williams and Steven Lessner, R&W alum Dr. Collin Craig, and undergraduate Anna Kalkman helped select readings. These additions will have proven a worthy investment in the long term. Now that the content is hand-picked by faculty and students, the reader can be edited more easily to reflect the needs and interests of the teachers and students. New readings can be added each year via an e-portal that is accessed on the web, decreasing the cost of book manufacturing. And the best part is MSU will not be raising the prices of its handbook and reader for student purchase.
Throughout the customization process, the FYW Program has made an effort to involve the entire department. Prof. DeJoy even proposed that the publishers fund a contest for design elements in the custom books. A recent graduate of the Professional Writing Program, Ben Rubinstein, won the rights to the job. Ben noted that in his Professional Writing courses, the importance of audience was emphasized heavily, and he claims that he won because instead of showing off all his Photoshop skills, he kept a simple, academic look. Another valuable lesson was how to deal with the dilemma of the middleman, which designers often are: “You might hear that every project is going to take you twice as long as you think. That’s a lie. Every project is going to take you three times as long as you think. And that’s only a slight exaggeration.” DeJoy hopes this will be the first of many collaborations between and among FYW instructors and PW students.