The Iowa Narratives Project: A Life Beyond the Classroom

The Iowa Narratives Project: A Life Beyond the Classroom

Matt Gilchrist, Rhetoric Instructor

The Iowa Narratives Project: A Life Beyond the Classroom


Rhetoric instructor Matt Gilchrist describes his journey to enhance student writing, speaking, and critical thinking through assignments that have enduring relevancy. He also describes an opportunity for other instructors to learn from his journey at the March Assignment Innovation Institute.


Today, when you walk into one of Matt Gilchrist’s rhetoric classes, you’re likely to find a number of features that do not resemble your traditional classroom. Foremost of these, you’d be in a TILE room, which Gilchrist hopes he never has to leave. His students would be huddled around laptops and sitting in circles, working diligently on cataloging and documenting the narratives of local people, using the composition skills they have learned to weave these into a tapestry of human experience structured around space. Some would be working in Google Earth to map the origins of their collected narratives. All of them would be engaged in building a public-facing repository of organic knowledge.

Life in Gilchrist’s rhetoric class wasn’t always this way. Most instructors have experienced some variation on the following scenario. After giving a composition assignment and working through the groans, the already-answered questions, and the various attempts to avoid deadlines, students finally concede defeat and complete the task. Though a few students, eager to please, write great papers reflecting at least some conviction, the majority submit work that, though mechanically sound, lacks passion, let alone perspective. Gilchrist relays colleague Bonnie Sunstein’s phrase “author evacuated text” to describe this phenomena, and for Gilchrist, it was the driving force behind a two-year curricular transformation that incubated in TILE and now impacts even his traditional classrooms.

Gilchrist has worked with students on collegiate composition for over a decade.  When he began teaching, his approach mimicked that of the one outlined above, with students responding to prompts, then using composition not as a means to a communicative end, but only for the sake of practicing composition. The results almost always fell short of the dream. “Once graded,” Gilchrist explains, “students almost never looked back at the essays they had written, and the products of their weeks of effort sat forgotten on their hard drives.”

Though the drive to break this familiar cycle vexed Gilchrist for some time, it was when he took a position as Assistant Director of the Writing Center that the answer became clear. Working with hundreds of students from various composition classes, Gilchrist concluded, “Student essays were better when assignments were well-written, and it was further clear that assignments were well written when they included a clearly articulated purpose connected to a life outside the classroom.“

Armed with this new conviction, Gilchrist returned to the classroom with a position as Lecturer in the Rhetoric Department - part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences - and began working with colleague Tom Keegan to develop innovations in their classrooms that began with assignment design. They began by applying principles acquired through student observation as well as the pedagogical and technological tools acquired from TILE training. From this, the Iowa Narratives Project was born.

In Iowa Narratives, students collect discourse occurring in, around, or concerning a particular public space, seeking to understand those narratives and then uncovering identities that have been ignored or underemphasized. To provide narrative coherence, the students apply writing skills to the collection. To provide spatial coherence, they map the narratives in Google Earth. In the end, all of this work has a public humanities dimension, allowing students to engage in the documentation and preservation of something real to them.

Students in both Keegan and Gilchrist’s composition classrooms now work only on assignments that have broader relevance, one of the key tenets of Gilchrist’s approach. Gilchrist has found that by putting relevance at the core of his assignments, the love for writing follows naturally. “The alternative,” he notes “is to assume that by simply going through the process of writing mechanically, somehow a motivation for writing will result. It’s not the case.”

Gilchrist acknowledges that faculty wishing to try changes to the curriculum might have reservations about implementation, and he notes that he had his own problems along the way. “One freely available web service we used was removed from the internet, but in the end we found a more stable piece of software. It helped to have the support of [Student Instructional Technology Assistants].” Gilchrist also attributes his successful transformation to his collaboration with colleague Tom Keegan, with whom he worked to discuss pedagogical intent and to clarify curricular goals. “We were ready to answer student concerns and we had clear teaching and learning objectives, so when that discussion emerged, we were able to sell it to the students.” In these ways, by making small changes each semester, Gilchrist has worked towards a more perfect curricular scope and sequence. “We build on previous semesters’ experience, and the students build on the students before them. Projects have shown continual improvement.”

Interestingly, in the same way that Gilchrist emphasizes relevance beyond the classroom in lessons he prepares for his students, Gilchrist has found his own relevance beyond the TILE classroom trainings his has attended, as well as in transferring his learning from the Iowa Narratives Project to other courses.

In his graduate course on teaching multimodal composition,Gilchrist and co-teacher Will Jennings have adapted the principle of relevancy to create assignments that result in real lesson plans graduate students can deploy in their future courses day one. He has also honed a love for and appreciation of blogging as a teaching tool, and uses it whether or not he is teaching in a TILE classroom. All of this, in his mind, supports a vision of student-centered active learning as a sustainable model for teaching and learning in higher education.

Gilchrist is now working to bring his transformational teaching practices to other instructors and disciplines, confident that his successful methods are easily ported across the curriculum and hoping to add new disciplinary approaches to the Iowa Narratives Project, putting these approaches into conversation with one another.

Gilchrist invites all instructors to attend his Assignment Innovation Institute on March 9th in Trowbridge Hall’s TILE classroom. The institute is part of his and Keegan’s recently funded Student Success Initiative entitled IDEAL (Iowa Digital Engagement and Learning), which seeks to make a lasting impact on teaching and learning through instructor training, public engagement, and expanded TILE opportunities.  E-mail for information.