In sending out variously tailored job letters and cvs (hm: would that be curricula vitarum?), I’ve realized that I’ve been lucky in the diversity of courses I’ve had the opportunity to construct and teach. Like most folks in my position, I’ve taught the first-year writing staff syllabus at my various institutions, but up to now, I hadn’t understood how few institutions encourage deviation from that staff syllabus. In my MFA and PhD careers, I think I’ve been fortunate to have been given free rein (after a trial run with the staff syllabus) to develop my own ideas about how first-year writing should be taught, and also — by participating in curriculum design committees — to have those ideas affect institutional values. And it’s good, as well, to look at my cv and see that I’ve done things beyond comp; that I’ve designed 200-level experimental writing courses, themed introductory literature courses, 300-level cultural studies examinations of the effects of digital technologies on English studies, and creative writing workshops.
But comp is where I live and my first love. Whatever else I might do, it always comes back to the classroom, and to the theory and practice of teaching first-year writing.
Which is what’s nice about the institution where I’m currently teaching and finishing my dissertation. There’s a strong programmatic attention here to developing good teachers, and part of that attention shows up in the fact that the program’s staff syllabus leaves Unit 4 open to the individual teacher. Unit 1 asks students to make connections between individual experience and societal context, to develop an attention to the recursive nature of writing and response, to critically analyze the particulars of personal experience that are often taken for granted, and to maintain a careful attention to the ways in which audiences might respond to representations of personal experience. Unit 2 asks students to engage with difficult academic texts and analyze the ways in which those texts respond to readerly expectations, and to cite such texts via quotation and paraphrase in service of an original argument that goes beyond the argument of the texts. Unit 3 asks students to examine the overlapping textual conversations on a variety of contemporary topics and then to choose their own topics and use library research to chart and evaluate the parameters of the discourse on that topic in order to secure a position from which they might originally and productively add to that conversation.
And now I’m at Unit 4, and for the first time since 1998, I don’t know what to do. On the part of the program, the openness is an excellent teacher-training move, but for me — with a brilliant bunch of students this semester — I’m having a hard time with figuring out what type of assignment would be most useful to them. As a class, their most significant struggles have been with logical transitions between paragraphs (i.e., carefully using connectors like “however” and “therefore” rather than just repeating words or phrases) and with stylistic innovation (i.e., not sounding purposefully bland), but those are both concerns that we’ve lately addressed in conferences. Furthermore, they’ve demonstrated considerable facility in working with library sources, and a few of them have said they’re tired of doing stuff that they’ve shown they already know how to do.
So if you were me, how would you challenge such a smart bunch? What necessary pedagogical goals for a composition class do you see as missing from my second paragraph, above? (Following this unit, unit 5 is a reflective essay that asks students to perform a retrospective evaluation of their writing over the course of the semester.) What does my syllabus fail to ask them to do that they need to be able to do? What might you suggest for possible Essay 4 assignments?
Here are some from my fine colleagues —
- Civic Writing.
- Analyzing Texts Through a Cultural Lens.
- Collaborative Writing for Multiple Audiences.
- Photo Essays.
- All the World Is a Text.
— but none, to me, quite fit my students. They’re brilliant, critical, and ahead of the cultural curve; they’re pop culture before pop culture happens, and at the same time deeply critical of cultural moments five minutes in the past — and, finally, they’re deeply self-conscious of their own quality of contemporaneity.
How might I ask them to critically revise or remix that sense of contemporaneity?