Wednesday, December 13, 2017
December 13, 2017: Fall 2017 Reflections: First-year Writing I
[As another semester comes to a close, I wanted to spend the week reflecting on some complex moments and questions related to Teaching under Trump (trademark AmericanStudier!). I’d love to hear your thoughts, on these or any of your own teaching or semester reflections, in comments!]
On how a culminating assignment can help us engage with the world around us.
In the semester preview post for my First-year Writing I class, I focused on the many non-writing-specific skills that writing courses like this one also have to include and teach. As I mentioned there, Fitchburg State University is moving toward the creation of First Year Experience courses (likely to be piloted this coming academic year, and one of which I’m likely to teach so watch this space for more), a kind of complementary introductory class that might well allow some of those skills to shift out of the First-year Writing series. If so, that could help create more space for us to focus on the variety of writing skills and assignments that not only are the official center of these first-year writing courses, but also and even more importantly have their own vital contributions to make to our students’ identities and lives, well beyond their time on campus. In this post I wanted to focus on the potential benefits of one such assignment in my own Writing I class, a complex culminating paper in which I ask students to combine the two dominant modes of writing—personal and analytical—through which we have moved in the course of the semester.
For this Paper 5 assignment, I ask the students to pick a broad topic for which they both have personal connections/experiences and can imagine analytical questions and lenses. Some of the many wonderful topics that students chose this time around included eating disorders and body image, experiences and issues of veterans reintegrating into society, the cultural role and complexities of video games as an artistic genre, and challenges and opportunities related to nursing in a multicultural society. For the paper I ask the students to create roughly 4-5 paragraphs each for more personal and more analytical sides (with one or more outside sources helping provide the evidence for the analytical paragraphs in particular), and to then create a paper structure that moves back and forth between these two forms of writing. They also give their one oral presentation of the semester on their topic and work in progress, to practice those skills as well as get feedback from both me and a peer on their developing paper. And along the way we read and discuss two particularly prominent and illuminating examples of this complex genre of writing, Adrienne Rich’s “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-vision” and Richard Rodriguez’s “The Achievement of Desire,” to help model its form and elements.
There’s a lot that I value and love about this culminating assignment, which I’ve been using since my first time teaching Writing I at FSU back in Fall 2005 (!). But here I want to highlight briefly three applications of it to the lifelong goal of engaged citizenship in 21st century America. First, the assignment asks students to consider their personal stakes in broad topics, and indeed to treat those personal connections as just as worth attention and investigation as more formal analytical questions; as this space no doubt reflects, I think we can’t fully discuss any topic without such personal reflection and engagement. Second, the assignment requires at least a bit of research before the students can create the analytical paragraphs, reflecting the importance of specific detail and knowledge for such analysis of issues; from our current president on down, all Americans could use more research time before they opine in any and all debates and conversations. And third, both the oral presentation and the paper itself require the students to communicate both the personal and analytical lenses to outside audiences, and thus to think about how they can add their own perspective and their evolving knowledge into such broader conversations and communities. Am I saying all Americans should write a version of my Writing I Paper 5? Well…
Next reflection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Fall reflections you’d share?