Tuesday, May 6, 2014
May 6, 2014: NeMLA Follow Ups: The 21st Century Composition Classroom
[About a month ago, I spent a wonderful weekend in Harrisburg for the 2014 Northeast MLA (NeMLA) Conference. As always, I came away inspired on a number of levels, and in this series I’ll share some of the conversations and voices that contributed to that inspiration. And in the weekend post, I’ll let you know how you can add your own voice and perspective to NeMLA as we move forward!]
On two distinct but complementary visions for how to bring the classics into our 21st century classes.
Besides my panel on reading the river, I also had the chance to chair two very interesting and salient roundtable discussions at the conference. The first (I’ll discuss the second in tomorrow’s post) focused on the question of whether and how we should bring classical rhetoric and concepts into contemporary composition courses, and thus on some of the most pressing questions facing all 21st century instructors: can and should we bridge the gap between our thoroughly digital-age students (this year’s first year students were probably born in 1996!) and pre-digital conversations and concepts; and if so, what are the most effective and meaningful ways to do so?
While the roundtable’s two presenters agreed that we should try to bridge those gaps and make the classics part of our composition classes, they articulated two quite distinct perspectives on how we do so. Heather Urbanski, a colleague of mine at Fitchburg State University whose own work consistently analyzes our 21st century digital and multimedia age, made a compelling case for how rhetorical canons and concepts of memory have a significant place in our classes, but at the same time argued for updates to those concepts that redress their limitations and bring them into our own era more meaningfully. Gavin Hurley, who’s completing his PhD at the University of Rhode Island and whose work focuses on spirituality and rhetoric (both classical and contemporary), shared a far more overtly traditional and challenging part of his composition syllabus: his use of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica as both a reading and assignment prompt.
As I come to the close of my first semester teaching a Writing II syllabus on 21st century identities (on which more in next week’s semester wrap-up series), I’ve been thinking a lot about the balance between engaging students where they are (which this class of mine has mostly done) and challenging them to go places they’re not as comfortable (which, I’ll admit, this class has not). I suppose my own instinct is that we have to start with the former, particularly in classes (such as first-year writing) that are driven more by the students’ skills and voices than by any particular content. But Gavin made a great case for the opposite, that by starting his semester with far more traditional and challenging texts, he pushes his students in ways that help them develop their writing and voices successfully, and prepares them to be more analytical and critical when they come up to contemporary texts and conversations toward the end of his syllabus. In any case, Heather and Gavin individually and collectively modeled how to think with complexity and nuance about these vital pedagogical balances and questions.
Next follow up tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on these topics? If you were at the conference, other NeMLA follow ups?