Five questions with the English 150/250 course director


Barbara Blakely is an associate professor of English who has overseen the ISUComm foundation courses, English 150 and 250, since 2007. Photo by Christopher Gannon. 

  • Name: Barbara Blakely
  • Position: Director of ISUComm foundation courses, associate professor of English
  • Years at ISU: 35
  • Students per calendar year in 150/250: 6,500-7,200
  • Sections per calendar year in 150/250: Up to 300

Few Iowa State faculty have an impact on more students than Barbara Blakely, an associate professor of English who since 2007 has been the course director for English 150 and 250 -- the "foundation" communications courses required for all undergraduate students. Each year, thousands of students take the courses, which cover written, oral, visual and electronic communication and lay the groundwork for success in further studies, careers and life.

What does a course director do?

I oversee everything that has to do with the two courses in the ISUComm foundation program. I create template syllabi, not that instructors can't modify that. I prepare new teaching assistants. We mentor them all through the year. I do some annual reviews of lecturers. I do test-out exams for 150 and 250. I look at admissions folders for graduate students who want to be teaching assistants. There are a lot of things. The main part of it is the creation of the course materials.

How similar is overseeing a vast multisection course like this to being in a classroom?

It is different in that I need to have a bird's-eye view on the whole thing. But without being in the classroom and listening to instructors' experiences, I wouldn't be able to make decisions to guide the program. We go out and visit a lot of classrooms. Often times, the instructor thinks I'm there to watch them. That may be a tiny piece of it. But I'm also just looking to see how is this working, how are the students responding. It's never a matter that everyone is doing the same thing, lock-step. On the other hand, we can't just throw it open and say, 'Well, you just teach it however it makes sense to you.' I feel like I'm making a promise to students that, 'This is what the university wants you to get.' We need to deliver on that while not forcing instructors and students into a follow-the-bouncing-ball type of curriculum.

What are the key improvements you've made to the courses?

One of them is the campus place-based curriculum. That has been a really popular way to help students -- many who are coming to a large university from smaller towns or from abroad -- make that transition and find their place, to link to the larger trajectory, history and mission of Iowa State University and its land-grant status. When they start looking at some of the programs and organizations that represent that -- Reiman Gardens, the Iowa Water Center, the Beginning Farmer Center -- then they get it. They develop a sense of place.

The other thing I spearheaded is the creation of electronic portfolios. Students who create e-portoflios and use them along the way are more engaged in their learning. The reflective part of that is a meta-cognitive piece: 'What am I doing, why do I do it that way, how do I learn best, how does this connect to something that's coming up or maybe something I did in high school?' It's not just finishing it, stapling the paper, handing it in and saying, 'I'm done.' It's taking that extra step and cementing it.

Are there any online-only course sections?

In 150 and 250, so far, it's only face-to-face. I don't know whether that's going to change or not. I have misgivings about it, though I'm sympathetic to the idea that we want to serve as many students as we can and be as accessible as we can be. Particularly the 150 class, though -- many of those students are new, many are first-generation, and they need that connection with other students and with the instructor. I'm not saying that couldn't happen online, but it would have to be done really, really well. We hear over and over again from students in 150 and 250 that we are the smallest class that they have and we are the only instructors who know their names. That really means something to the students. I hate giving that up.

What sort of impact do you think social media and smartphones have had on reading and writing skills?

There's always something society is pointing at that's going to be the downfall of the next generation. I started teaching this class in 1983 when we didn't have those things. I don't see that there's a difference in students today. I don't see that they have more trouble or less trouble. I think they're more communicative. They're used to tapping in and finding answers or connecting with people, and I don't think that's a bad thing. It certainly gives us a way to capitalize on that digital component in society. Yes, that's the way the world is now -- school, work, personal lives. So, let's talk about how rhetorical principles apply to the digital world -- audience, material, organization, style and delivery. Sometimes your delivery is going to be a text message.