At Notre Dame as an undergrad in the mid 80’s my writing experience covered two courses: comp and lit and freshman seminar. Explain the difference…. Why separate content from writing?
We’re here to talk about….
Better known as….
Read the catalog description. It doesn’t seem that different on the surface…
But I’d like to call your attention to two key phrases: theme-based AND prepares them to read and write college level academic prose
It wasn’t always this way… Wind back a good 15 years or so. We are all familiar with this style of teaching writing.
I always started with narrative. Students can tell stories, right?
A real assignment I have used…
One that often leads to dull papers….
Another real assignment…
Ask for examples: summer and winter, kind and mean…
This one always yields interesting results. I once taught a bunch of nurses and medical assistants and one of the papers I got was on bowel evacuation.
You get the idea. This can result in some very good essays, and students can indeed learn to write better. However, the problem we all have noticed about this approach?
First, it’s artificial. Good writing often combines multiple rhetorical strategies, and sharp students will often pick up on this. Teaching them how to write in single rhetorical modes does not serve them well for the rest of their college classes. Which leads to the next important point…
What connection do the essays have with one another? What continuity does the course have except that it’s about writing essays? Most college courses are about something. A course that isolates subject matter into unconnected bits can be subject to ghetto-ization. And we all know that to some degree writing programs were traditionally considered the red-headed stepchildren of academia. Necessary, but not as somehow important.
I have taught courses like this at a number of schools. Most recently, CCP, where instructors are given just a bit of guidance, are allowed to choose their own book, like Evergreen or Langan’s works, and can conduct the course anyway they want.
But also at Brookdale in Lincroft, NJ, my first college teaching job. At Brookdale in the late 90s, they were using the portfolio system where I wasn’t supposed to grade anything until the end, and there was no theme or overriding struture.
At Middlesex County College, in Edison, NJ, once again I was given very little direction. Just get them to write well…
And nothing much different at St Joe’s, where I saw the the chairman of the English department on the day he hired me, and perhaps twice after that. I taught in isolation, hardly ever seeing other colleagues. But this is not a presentation about the horrors of adjuncthood, it is about how so many of our basic writing courses are poorly conceived on a model that had lasted over time, but
At Philadelphia University, a group of my colleagues decided they wanted to try something different. Admittedly, this process preceded my time. I came to the school in 2000 as an adjunct, and this process started in the early 90s.
The idea was to originally make WRTG 099 be in line with WRTG 101, the main composition course that all first year students took. Most of my information of this time comes from Nancy Sorkin, a colleague who was present for the development. At the time, WRTG 101 was a more typical “rhetoric of the week” course that I have just discussed.
Then a revolution of sorts happened at our school: college studies. The move to create a unified, interdisciplinary set of courses that gave students the content and the skills they would need to succeed in the rest of their college experience. These content areas included writing, history, math, the social sciences, and the arts.
And with this revolution a shift in thinking about writing courses took hold. And that shift focused on content: something that courses in the majors had that the traditional “rhetoric of the week” model did not. Why not teach writing around a unified subject? Why not have students study, read and write about a single subject area? That way, the courses would then echo the types of courses students would take later on, and it would do more to prepare them for success in those courses.
As we say on our common syllabus, students are not only learning to write, but writing to learn. In other words, they not only write formal academic papers using process approaches, and improve their skill in composing, revising and persuasion, but they will also experience how knowledge can grow as one thinks deeply on subjects and communicates these ideas clearly to others.
My first exposure to WRTG 099, which was then called H99, was in the fall of 2000. The subject for that semester was sports. The goal was to explore sports in all its aspects: cultural, sociological, ethical, economic, etc. The students did a lot of reading, but most of that came in the form of one main text.
Hoop Dreams. Not the film, but the companion book, written by Ben Joravsky. The idea was that the book could be spread out over the semester, and then augmented by selected readings, which were published in a bulkpack that the students could buy. The instructors could then pick and choose which readings to use to deepen the students understanding of the subject matter.
That first bulkpack I used had articles culled from newspapers, academic journals, and other books. One of those you will notice is Friday Night Lights.
When it became clear that Hoop Dreams was getting dated—it was after all published in 1994—and a bit tired, we switched to Friday Night Lights by Buzz Bissinger. This book proved more complex than Hoop Dreams, but still provided lots of subjects for writing. And that was the goal: to write and think in many different ways about a single subject. The fact that these books were also made into movies didn’t deter us. Many instructors avoided the movies, and gave reading quizzes to ensure students read. Others used the moves to augment the book. But the switch to Friday Night Lights showed us that we could keep the course fresh for both students and teachers.
We also branched out into other subjects. First of all, why limit ourselves to sports? Second, the course has a requirement that almost mandated this. If a student fails the course – defined as any grade lower than a C – he or she must retake the course. Any student gets three chances to take the course before they are asked to leave the University. Few actually fail three times, but many fail once. So if a first semester freshman failed the sports course in the fall, why would we want them to take the same exact course again in the spring? Thus, we began alternating subjects by semester.
For a few years, I focused more on WRTG 101, but when I returned as Coordinator a few years back, the fall semester version of the course focused on food in America. And the main text was Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. In this case, the movie proved to be less of a threat because it was a fictional adaptation of a non-fiction book. Any student who tried to watch instead of read got themselves way off base. In any event, the book allowed us to investigate something the students all knew well: fast food. But it also allowed us to jump off into other issues: health, nutrition, industrial farming, immigrant and underpaid labor, GMO foods, artificial flavors and additives, etc. BUT, by the time I got to be Coordinator, the bulkpack had all but disappeared. Instructors were encouraged to find their own materials. This lead to a very disparate experience, one which seemed to stray away from the original intentions of the course. So one change I made was to reintroduce the bulkpack, but this time it was made virual.
Using Blackboard, we created a database for teachers to access materials about food. The articles ranged from news sources, academic studies, chapters of books, and films.
One of the most useful sources proved to be chapters from Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. As Pollan is prolific, well known, and a great writer, we augmented this with a few pieces of his from the New York Times. He has gone over so well that we are considering making Omnivores the successor to Fast Food Nation in next fall’s course.
An instructor suggestion brought us excerpts from Skinny Bitch by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin. Not only was this an easy read, but the students responded well to the irreverent humor and language and the no-nonsene tone. The fact that one of my adjuncts suggested it is crucial, because I think a course like this should be collaborative. The idea is to focus on a subject in depth, and in a variety of ways.
One source I added, and some instructors followed my lead, was Morgan Spurlock’s excellent documentary SuperSize Me. The students like it. They are engaged by it. Some have already seen it. But it raises the important question of using movies as texts. Some colleagues have challenged it as counter to the initial intentions of the course. I counter by stressing how we all talk of information literacy and that information comes in many forms, especially in film and video. But this debate is the basis of a whole different presentation. Maybe next year ….
Another film I have used is Deborah Koons Garcia’s The Future of Food, a 2004 documentary about genetically modified crops.
Another film I have had success with is Simply Raw, a documentary about reversing diabetes with an all raw vegan diet. As you can see, we try to expand out of fast food into other areas of food and food policy. You also might notice that the supplementary works have gotten longer, which leads us to a problem we have noticed in the course.
Stretching one book over 15 weeks bores students. Year end evaluations have pointed this out to us: students complain of writing about the same thing over and over. And instructors have a hard time spinning the same subject matter into enough nuances. This presents a problem with this type of course in general: you have writing teachers, who often have backgrounds in comp/rhet and adjuncts who are often English, history, comp/rhet, sociology and a number of other fields, teaching a subject in which they are versed and read but not necessarily expert. This is not like taking a Homer course with an Iliad expert. Therefore, we decided to expand the works students read or watched.
Some of us who favor a more traditional approach have balked at using videos like Super Size Me, as they don’t involve reading but passive watching. This can be the subject of an entire other presentation, but we have justified our decision on a few factors. 1. Student response has been overwhelmingly positive. 2. These are visual students, and increasingly, we have visual professors as well. 3. Movies are texts that can be used as support material in an essay.
So how has this affected the sports track, which now runs in the spring? In a number of ways. Last spring I began running with two books, and augmenting them with articles and videos.
Chalked Up by Jennifer Sey, a former US National Gymnastics champion is a memoir that students have really responded to because her story doesn’t just focus on the sport but a host of other issues as well, including family, sacrifice, age, and bulimia. This has served as my first text the last two springs.
The second last year was The Blind Side by Michael Lewis, a writer I respect. The book has since created a sensation because of the movie starring Sandra Bullock, and the fact that Michael Oher, the protagonist, was drafted in the first round by the Baltimore Ravens. However, students found the book too “football-focused”, an ironic note in a course about sports.
So this spring I am using a different text: Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. I discovered this book from an interview I heard on NPR. The book focuses on writer’s quest to discover the mythical Mexican tribe the Tarahumara, who are legendary long distance runners. I have read the book but at this point the students have just begun it. The idea here is to focus not on a sport as much on the human element surrounding a sport. I will have an update on how well this works by semester’s end.
I am also trying to take advantage of the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Other topics I plan to cover are steroids, Title IX, over bearing parents and coaches.
The idea here is not to create a course for sports lovers, because some of the students are not that, but a course that explores sports in the context of our lives. The truth is that students respond to the human element of any topic more than to the details of the topic itself. Perhaps because they are not taking this course as part of their The idea here is not to create a course for sports lovers, because some of the students are not that, but a course that explores sports in the context of our lives. The truth is that students respond to the human element of any topic more than to the details of the topic itself. Perhaps because they are not taking this course as part of their The truth about the content of these courses is that students respond more to the human element of the subject – that is, the part of the subject that relates to their lives – than they do to the deep specifics of the subject itself. The Blind Side worked not when I delved into Lewis’ discussions of the left tackle and how it changed pro offenses and team strategies forever, but when we discussed how Michael was homeless and was taken in by a wealthy white family that gave him a place in their lives. Perhaps this is due to the fact that this course does not fall within the confines of a student’s major. This is a required course that they are mandated to take. This is a struggle that comp courses, esp developmental ones will always face. However, our subject matter seems to engage them enough to get them writing.
Now, let us turn our attention to the structure of the course. In preparing them for future college work, we have decided on a model that builds up from the simple to the more complex
The first two essays are page long paragraphs, a format where we can emphasize structure and evidence in a very controlled and manageable situation. The length does not allow the paper to get away from the students. The third then gets into a full length essay, albeit a short one. We do not demand on a five paragraph essay, but we do insist on an intro, body paragraphs and a conclusion. Finally, we end the semester with two longer essays, although at a max of 3 pages they are short compared to most courses. These final two essays demand more classic structure an the use of cited evidence.
We also used two common exams. The students are given a limited list of topics (usually 3-5) and a day or two to prepare. Then they write under timed circumstances: 50 minutes for the midterm, 2 hours for the final. The bluebooks are then double graded by the instructors. Initially, a student had to pass the final in order to pass the course.
This raised important questions among some instructors. What role did the exams play in a course where process is stressed? What benefit did timed writing provide? The classic answer had to do with preparing students for other courses and the workplace where writing had to be made by a deadline. A secondary answer had to do with providing a common arena to see how all the students from all the sections where grasping the concepts and the material. As Coordinator, I see the merits of the second argument but have never fully bought the first one. Last year, we eliminated the midterm, but have retained the final. The common final is a good way for me as Coordinator to assess the course and the instructors, but the midterm seemed too disruptive to the flow of the semester.
You might be curious about the paragraph assignments. Here is one I used for the food track last fall. It asks for limited evidence – in this case, viewing Super Size Me – and development of a single point.
Here is one I used this semester. This one draws from personal experience as the evidence because we had not gotten deep enough into the text.
Here is the second paragraph from this semester. It draws on our main text, Chalked Up, plus I allow personal experience as well.
Once we establish paragraphing skills, we broaden to the full essay, often introducing other sources besides the main text. This is the third assignment I am using this spring.
Concurrently with the reading, we do include a writing skills text. We find that John Langan’s work serves this level and purpose particularly well.
The challenge of such a course is balancing the focus on the content with the focus on writing skills. Some teachers naturally will get too engrossed in the material, and as a Coordinator I have to remind them that the content does ultimately serve as a basis for developing writing skills, not as an end in itself.
You will also notice that we have abandoned the rhetoric of the week strategy in favor of primarily one type of essay: argument. We did this very consciously as we believe that the primary form of writing that students do in college is argumentative, and that good argumentation makes use of many if not all of the other modes of exposition.
So what are the strengths of this approach? Well…… talk about how many move on and have to repeat the course
We believe our course builds a host of skills that developmental writing courses aim to achieve: paragraphing, argumentation, use of evidence, structure.
Our use of theme probably provides the best benefit: it engages the students in a subject that they want to write about and that they have something to say about.
However, it does present some challenges: student complaints of repetition and boredom, teachers asking to instruct a subject they are not expert in,
<ul><li>A Reading-Based Developmental Writing Course: </li></ul><ul><li>Preparing Our Students </li></ul>
Donald Seymour <ul><li>Assistant Professor of Writing </li></ul><ul><li>Coordinator, Fundamentals of Writing </li></ul><ul><li>Philadelphia University </li></ul>
<ul><li>This is a theme-based writing course designed for students who need additional preparation before taking Writing I. Students who place into this course are given background information about the content of Writing Seminar I, which prepares them to read and write college-level academic prose. Credits may not be applied toward graduation requirements, though the grade, as with other courses, does affect students' overall grade point average. Students must earn a “C” (2.00) or better to receive credit for Fundamentals courses. </li></ul>
<ul><li>This is a theme-based writing course designed for students who need additional preparation before taking Writing I. Students who place into this course are given background information about the content of Writing Seminar I, which prepares them to read and write college-level academic prose . Credits may not be applied toward graduation requirements, though the grade, as with other courses, does affect students' overall grade point average. Students must earn a “C” (2.00) or better to receive credit for Fundamentals courses. </li></ul>
<ul><li>rhetorical strategy </li></ul><ul><li>of the week </li></ul>
<ul><li>Essay #1 -- Paragraph </li></ul><ul><li>Objective : To practice developing strong arguments via the paragraph, using a topic sentence and specific evidence. </li></ul><ul><li>Topic : Fast food is the basis of a healthy and nutritious diet. Do you agree or disagree? </li></ul><ul><li>Grading : You will be graded on the following criteria: </li></ul><ul><ul><ul><ul><li>• proper paragraph format </li></ul></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><ul><li>• stating your argument in a clear thesis statement </li></ul></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><ul><li>• supporting your argument with specific and adequate details </li></ul></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><ul><li>• spelling, grammar and word choice </li></ul></ul></ul></ul><ul><ul><ul><ul><li>• appropriately addressing the topic </li></ul></ul></ul></ul>
<ul><li>Essay #1 -- Paragraph </li></ul><ul><li>Objective : To practice developing strong arguments and to practice organizing academic writing and process approaches to composing. </li></ul><ul><li>Topic : Parents very often enroll their children in sports programs because they believe the sports will benefit their kids. The most commonly heard claim is sports build character. Do you agree? Do organized sports build character in kids? </li></ul><ul><li>Grading : You will be graded on the following criteria: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Your ability to make a convincing argument </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Your ability to write a paragraph in standard format </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Your ability to write a clear topic sentence and support it with specific reasons </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Your ability to write clear and error-free prose </li></ul></ul>
<ul><li>In Chalked Up , Jennifer Sey states that her parents were not allowed to attend some of her meets. But she also stresses how her mother made volunteering at the gym the focus of her life. In addition, she talks of how she was afraid of some of her more intense and demanding coaches. In his New York Times editorial, Buzz Bissinger says that bad sportsmanship by parents and coaches “reflects a culture of youth sports in our country that is berserk.” Are competitive parents and/or coaches ruining youth sports? Argue for your opinion in a single, well-developed paragraph. </li></ul>
<ul><li>Topic : Make an argument about the difference between good and bad coaching . </li></ul><ul><li>In creating your argument, you must use not only Chalked Up , but also sources you find yourself, using University databases or acceptable news sources that we have discussed in class. Your discussion need not be limited only to gymnastics. In fact, it probably should cover a number of sports and/or activities. </li></ul><ul><li>Grading : You will be graded on the following criteria: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>establishing and developing a persuasive argument that appropriately responds to the topic </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>supporting that argument with logical evidence, including meaningful use of course texts </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>using conventional essay organization and format </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>writing prose with a limited number of grammar and mechanical errors </li></ul></ul>