Tuesday, January 10, 2017
January 10, 2017: Spring 2017 Previews: First-year Writing II
[Next week, a new semester begins; so this week, I’ll preview five classes and other aspects of that semester, this time through the lens of teaching and working in the age of Trump. Leading up to a special weekend post on book talks and plans!]
On the challenge of controversial content in a skills-focused writing course.
As I wrote about in this article for Teaching American Literature, I’ve always tried to practice a student-centered pedagogy, one where my central emphasis is more on helping develop student voices and skills rather than on any particular readings or content. While (as that article indicates) I’ve adjusted the balance between skills and content somewhat in my literature survey courses and upper-level literature seminars over the years, I haven’t done so much at all in my first-year writing courses (Fitchburg State has a two-part sequence, Writing I and Writing II). After all, these are courses that every incoming student at Fitchburg State is required to take in or around his or her first year, and that thus have the vital role of introducing not only a number of different types and forms of writing, but also related academic skills such as critical reading and thinking, individual and group communication, research and information literacy, and more. While of course I use particular texts and content in these courses, I see and treat those readings and topics explicitly as a means to help move students closer to the courses’ particular academic ends.
That perspective is going to be challenged a bit this spring, however. I’ll be teaching for the second time my Writing II syllabus on Analyzing 21st Century Identities, and in a class that kicks off only a few days before the presidential inauguration, I’m not sure whether or how we’ll be able to avoid discussing all things Trump as part of that topic. When I taught my English Studies Senior Seminar on Analyzing 21st Century America this past fall, of course we talked about the election and related topics; but that was a class that included a through-line of #BlackLivesMatter readings and units on such topics as climate change and immigration (among many others), so political connections and discussions were a planned part of the class dynamic in any case. Whereas, again, my choices of readings and content for the Writing II course are designed more to introduce assignments and lenses (such as personal narratives of digital identities or contextual analyses of multimedia texts) that can help the students develop different writing and academic skills, rather than ones that lend themselves organically to political topics and debates. Yet how can we talk day in and day out about 2017 American identities and texts without engaging those political questions?
I don’t know that we can, and I’m certainly not going to stop any discussion that moves from our readings and topics to those political questions (although I’ll try to make sure that we remain analytical and evidence-based as we do so). Indeed, I think there could be great value in thinking about (for example) how the themes and lenses provided by our first unit, on advertising and marketing, might help us analyze politics and society in the age of Trump. And the last, most open-ended unit, where students research and write an interdisciplinary multi-textual analysis of a topic of their choice, will undoubtedly produce some political topics. But that’s precisely my goal, and the way to keep my student-centered emphasis despite such inevitable content connections: allowing student ideas and voices to lead to our political conversations (or not, if they don’t), rather than foregrounding those issues myself. Despite nonsensical fears about professors “brainwashing” or “indoctrinating” students, our goal is always to help them make those kinds of connections themselves, to see how they can apply critical reading and thinking to (when appropriate, as it certainly will be in this course) contemporary and political topics and debates. So if this Writing II class will present a new teaching challenge along those lines, it’s one to which I’ll be happy to respond.
Next preview tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Spring plans you’d highlight or share?