This is the first course in the academic writing sequence at Lane. Most students who graduate from Lane are required to take WR121 to learn the basics of college-level writing. When I teach this course I often try to work with an overarching theme that connects all of the separate assignments in the course so that the course is more cohesive and students are gaining depth in their knowledge about a specific topic. For Winter 2014, I was inspired by the complex reactions many of my students had to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story” when I shared it in several courses last term, as well as by NPR’s StoryCorps and the beautiful feature piece “Refuge: 18 Stories from the Syrian Exodus,” published by reporter Kevin Sullivan and photographer Linda Davidson in the Washington Post. The theme for the course this term is “Challenging the Single Story Using Personal Narrative.”
In their first project, students will view Adichie’s TED talk, and be asked to deeply consider the power of stereotypes and Adichie’s statement that “the problem with stereotypes is not that they exist, it’s that they’re incomplete.” After viewing the TED talk, they will work together as a class to generate a list of stereotypes that they associate with “refugees” and “U.S. military.” They will then read a selection of personal narratives from “Refuge” as well as a selection of personal narratives from StoryCorps’ military collection. Using the list of stereotypes they’ve generated for these groups, they will examine the way in which the narratives from within each group challenge and/or work with these stereotypes, with the goal of figuring out how the authors engage and challenge stereotypes. They will then compose an essay where they present the specific strategies they think are used by authors to help challenge stereotypes and make room for individual voices within groups.
In their second project, students will chose a specific group they wish to focus on for the rest of the course. In Project Two students will research how people outside their chosen group view the people within that group, allowing them to establish an idea of the stereotypes associated with their chosen group. Each student will compose an essay wherein they present the stereotypes the people outside their chosen group associate with this group.
In the third project, students will interview three people from within their chosen group, as well as find three or more sources written by people within their chosen group that will help give them a sense of how members of their chosen group view themselves. Each student will then compose an article in which they present an “inside” view of the group, including a trio of personal narratives.
Looking back on the term, I have to say that I feel this class went really well. When I developed the course, while I thought it was a great course, I was also terrified to teach it. This course design was one that I felt would either be a great success or an all-out, explode-in-my-face disaster. In this case, I got lucky, and ended up with a successful course. (Trust me when I assure you this is not always the case in my pedagogical journey!)
I think much of the success of the course was connected to the fact that most students chose groups to focus on and research that they were either part of themselves, or were closely connected to. This gave students the level of personal investment required to choose and stick with a single topic for the duration of a term. Students’ dedication to their topics provided many of them the energy, focus, and perseverance to dig deeply and critically into their research and the ideas of others, as well as the courage to engage outside perspectives alongside their own ideas, perspectives, and experiences. When I teach this course in the future, I will certainly advise students to choose a group that they are part of or connected to for these reasons.
Because students were required to write, at different points in the course, to both those inside the group they focused on as well as those outside the group, they were forced to be far more aware of the context in which the sources they found in their research were written and published, and to evaluate which sources would work best to support claims when writing to those inside the group, and which sources might work better for those outside the group. During the second project, many students stumbled upon sources during their research that weren’t useful to them for the writing situation they were addressing in that project, but which they aptly identified as sources that would be useful in the third project, when they would be writing to those outside their chosen group. This is the first time in a WR121 course when I have seen a good number of students with a deep enough understanding of the relationship between sources and their audience, as well as a strong enough grasp on all the projects in the course and how they worked together to be able to set aside and keep resources they found but could not use in one project for a future project in the course.
The one major weakness in the course happened in Project Two. Although I tried to make it clear both in the assignment as well as in my explanation and discussions of the assignment that the goal of the second essay was to INFORM rather than to persuade or challenge, many students really struggled to grasp this throughout the project. They tended instead toward persuasive and argumentative essays intended to challenge the stereotypes of the group, rather than toward informing the group of the stereotypes those outside the group held of them. Before I teach this course again, I need to reconsider both the wording of the assignment as well as the language I use when I talk about the assignment in the classroom, so that it’s clear from the very beginning that the students’ goal in Project Two is to write an informative essay.
I’m looking forward to teaching this class again next year, hopefully as an Honors Option course the next time around.