Faculty Stories: Nicholas Nownes

Teaching Practice

Describe what you are trying to accomplish with the specific project or teaching practice featured here. How does this project or practice influence student learning?

Well, what I wanted to do was not have students spend $180 on a textbook we use maybe 50% of. I just was not happy with the texts that were out there. Honestly that’s what motivated this initially. The texts could have done the job; publishers just wanted $150 for material that felt to me like it could have been used in a PhD program in professional writing. It seemed extravagant. It seems silly, and it seemed like a big ask for students to do that sort of thing. That’s what initiated this.

I figured out very early was that all of the writing I was asking students to do was readily available on the web from writing professionals. And so they were responsible for putting the text together themselves; locating writing that was relevant to the task at hand and for their own professional goals – finding it, analyzing it, and sort of distilling from the specific particular examples the conventions of professional writing and then creating their own writing, which is, of course, how professionals do it.

As a professional writer one thing you do is locate professional writing, sort out the conventions, figure out issues like audience and all that other stuff. In other words, your goals as a professional writer are heavily research-based: primary research, original research, locating examples all of that other good stuff – stuff that doesn’t really come from a textbook so much as your experience with the actual text.

This class worked out very nicely for this. It’s not something you can reproduce across the curriculum, but I think in writing classes it’s something that you can do. I had a lot of success with it. I asked students about their professional goals. If they were in the nursing program or were striving to get into the nursing program, I asked them to write a professional report which was the sort of a capstone project. Students had to go and track down professional research reports that hospitals produced. A very specific example here: after the George Floyd killing, a lot of hospitals became concerned with equity issues. I asked students to track down professional writing that our hospitals were doing to deal with equity issues. Students researched that and produced their own writing along those lines.

To create the open educational resource (OER), I used discussion rooms where students would post the writing they found and we created a nice library of professional writing during the course of the semester that students could refer to consistently in a variety of different disciplines. It really works nicely for this class and I’m replicating it in my composition class. There are all sorts of good topics in a variety of different contexts, so I like this idea of students locating relevant useful articles from the first day of class. We are putting together a sources library that is a resource available to everybody in the classroom and I encourage students to dip in and out of what other people have found, especially if they have related interests.

Academic Technology

What technology/tools are you using in this project or teaching practice? What is the role of the technology in this project or teaching practice?

That’s a good question. I didn’t use anything heroic. I use the tools that are available, as well as you know, professional writing now takes place online. All of this stuff is online, so I don’t think there was special technology that I needed.

Our students are pretty sophisticated using the web, obviously, but they’re not necessarily sophisticated at going into individual companies and locating good reports. That was something they sort of had to figure out. And this is something that is going on in all of my writing classes. At this point where learning to access and evaluate information has become, I think in all of our writing classes, sort of a key task it does make sense that it’s something students have to learn very early. The act of locating relevant texts is completely entangled in the act of producing the text itself.

Students’ Perspective

What comments have you received from students about this project or practice relative to their learning? Do you have a direct quote from a student or students that addresses this?

I don’t get a lot of comments from students, but my success rate is good.

Students got out of my class at a success rate that’s actually higher than the second class of our composition sequence on this campus. Students have the option of taking this class or a more academically focused research paper class. I would say that I had more engagement in this class than then other.

One thing that I did was – and I’m doing this as we speak – is take some of these tasks and then dump them into my regular academic paper. I think that students like the idea of going out and locating information to be involved in original research, really from the first step, instead of being given a bunch of things to read.


How does this project or practice relate to assessment in your course(s)? How do you assess whether the project or practice has been successful/useful in the above areas – such as impact on student learning?

Our outcomes are pretty well defined. By the end of the semester, when students are producing a substantial bit of writing, if they meet these defined and pretty complicated outcomes I’m pretty happy with it.

At the end of the semester, students got to pick their own professional research project related to equity in the workplace. In light of the incidents in Minneapolis, students had the chance of working with the response in a professional environment. Everybody worked on a contemporary issue that was affecting the professional environment and what they liked about this was that it sustained a lot of discussion on the discussion forum. We had class discussions about what is the obligation of a workplace or a medical environment to deal with the unrest in Minneapolis. The discussion ended up being a place where students documented resources that they found. In other words, it sparked a discussion that actually spilled over into their final paper, which is not always easy to do with academic writing.

Students appreciated an opportunity to write about this, because obviously we were very much in the midst of it at that moment. Students appreciated the chance to deal with this in a meaningful, professional context.

Your Perspective

How has this project or practice changed the way you teach, or made your teaching better?

I’m asking students to engage with conflicts and controversies in real time – things that are happening right now. I can now ask students to do research that’s more interesting to me, and that makes any sense, and that involves original primary research.

We just finished a block on social media. In order to write this paper, I had students engage on social media and use examples from Instagram, and other social media. Since I am not as familiar with this stuff, it’s enjoyable to read about and something I haven’t read a million times, if that makes sense. The legalization of marijuana does not interest me, but if you are talking about how video games facilitate intelligence, or something like that, I’m on board with that. Because what I don’t know about online games could fill a warehouse.

I can ask students to write about things, and I can trust them to write about things that I don’t necessarily have a lot of comfort with as long as we emphasize this research project aspect from the very beginning. Then I can be in a position where I’m reading something new and interesting from students who have some expertise on the topic.