I figured I’d use this last blog post of the semester to do a couple of things. First, to reflect upon the first project that my students write in my 1020 assignment sequence and how it—perhaps inadvertently—accomplishes some of the goals Lang talks about in his chapter on the first day of class. Next, to kind of brainstorm out loud one particular teaching strategy I would like to incorporate into the syllabus I am working on for our final assignment.
I know I’ve at least mentioned the first project in my 1020 assignment sequence before and here are the directions:
Descriptive/Narrative Paper: Mining for and Recognizing One’s Personal Voice: “Writing About Writing”
(3-4 pages, due 11:59 p.m., Sunday 1/25)
In Project One you will be introducing yourself to our class through the description and/or narration of one of the following prompts pertaining to the act of writing. For this project you can choose to describe and/or narrate:
- A time or experience in your life when you used writing to accomplish, change, obtain, prove, or express something important or defining.
- Why you like, dislike, love, hate, excel at, struggle with, look forward to, or dread writing. For this prompt, you might want to focus on a specific genre (or type) of writing.
- A particular piece of writing of which you are proud, and why. This could include anything you’ve written during or since high school—an essay, poem, personal statement, diary entry, editorial, et cetera ad infinitum.
You have total freedom on this first assignment to tell your story using whatever language, tone, form, and style you think most effective—and of course, as they are the key to truly conveying the who, what, when, where, and why of something, the more details the better. In this first paper I would like to see, hear, and meet you.
With Project One we begin our assignment sequence with a writing assignment that gives you a chance to write with comparatively few prescriptions, so as to get a sense of the personal voice in your writing that you are bringing to our class. You will use this first piece of writing to help frame, approach, and reflect upon the transition you will be making into “college” or “academic” writing scenes and situations, rife as they are with directions, requirements, and rubrics. Along with our corresponding discussions and class work, this assignment will help you identify a set of implicit questions (concerning audience, purpose, and situation) to reflect upon as you encounter each new writing task throughout the semester. Project One will help you begin to think about the similarities and dissimilarities, and continuities and discontinuities between your personal voice and the academic voice you will develop as you face the demands of writing for academic audiences and the corresponding rhetorical situations.
The past three 1020 classes that I’ve taught have done this assignment, and although it has been useful for a number of reasons that I had not even really considered when I was developing and writing it, I regret to say that I am not sure it has done what I intended with regards to voice. Why and how it has—and/or I have—failed to generate the ideas and discussions that I hoped it would (and which it still might, with more work on it this summer) is not why I’m talking about it, but instead I’m bringing it up because it accomplishes a couple of goals that Lang brings up in his chapter on the “First Days of Class.”
First of all, most of my students have said that they really enjoyed it, and I have received a lot of very thoughtful, sincere, poignant, and inspiring papers. Students also have often told me that starting the semester off with a low-stakes, “expressive” paper like this is an excellent way to ease back into the writing ritual after a break, instead of simply plunging right back into the “formal academic” writing that they will be doing throughout most of the rest of the semester.
At the most basic level, for me, as an instructor, this assignment is an excellent and fun way for my students to introduce themselves to me. Beyond this perhaps selfish reason though, the above assignment is a really effective way to elicit the kind of information that Lang talks about in the section of the aforementioned chapter that discusses “First Impressions” (31-37). In this regard, this first writing project in my 1020 assignment sequence has proven to be an incredible and pleasurable way to get an idea of the “prior knowledge” the students bring into the 1020 classes that I teach, to get at least some idea of how well my students write and express themselves (although this has not been an accurate barometer in this regard a few times now), and to get a picture of my students’ “past experiences with the course topic, or [of] their understanding of” at least some of the ideas and skills I will—hopefully—help them discover and develop over the course of the semester. Yeah, instead of covering this stuff in the first class or two, this assignment isn’t due until the end of the second week of classes, but on the other hand, this first project ultimately gives me a more in-depth and genuine account of this information than the short little first-day exercises that Lang describes.
I’m hoping to organize my syllabus around “keywords.” I will either derive the keywords from Raymond Williams’ influential Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society:
Or from Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler’s newest edition of Keywords for American Cultural Studies:
So, the idea is to have my students in perhaps ENG 2310, “Major American Books: Literature and Writing,” pick a keyword that ties into their interests, and have this keyword guide their readings throughout the semester. First, their will be a short assignment summarizing and responding to the corresponding entry in whichever of the above texts I choose to use, which will both begin the students engagement with their keyword and also commit them to it. I like the idea of having them do weekly blog-posts throughout the semester on each reading, and their readings and blog-posts will be guided primarily by considerations of their keyword.
So that the students’ keywords are in dialogue with one another beyond our discussions in class, I would organize keywords into individual blog groups. For instance, if I was to use Burgett and Hendler’s text, one blog group could consist of “Region,” “South,” and “Border.” Or if I was using the Williams’ text, a possible grouping of related keywords could consist of “Labour,” “Radical,” “Violence,” and “Industry.” Obviously the groupings for the blog groups could go on indefinitely. Part of the students' grades would also consist of responding to other students’ blog posts and there would be at least one short paper using the keyword to guide their analysis of a text the class reads.
That’s what I’ve got for now…but there is also this: