This is a Writing Honors course I designed during the 2012-13 academic year. Over the summer of 2013, I revised the course to work together with a College Success course to form a Learning Community. This Learning Community, which also includes a WR121_H course taught by my colleague Eileen Thompson, is part of the overall redesign of the Honors Program, and meant to be taken by Honors students or students considering the Honors Program in their first term at Lane.
WR 122 is a course in Argument, Style, and Research. In this special Honors section, students focus examining Minority Rhetorics, and concentrate specifically on Black American Rhetoric. They read an extensive list of academic articles and engage in a 10 week long inquiry-based research process focused on a specific person or event in Black American history from 1900-present. Based on the discoveries they make in their readings and research, students compose two argumentative essays, one on the significance of their person/event to Black American and Mainstream American History and the second focused on how Black American Rhetoric was used in the “contact zone” surrounding their person/event.
As I revised WR122_H to make it work both with the College Success course as well as in the larger framework of the Honors Program, I added an ePortfolio element to the course. The Honors Program requires all Honors students to create and maintain an ePortfolio during their time at Lane as part of the Program requirements; these ePortfolios have a primary focus on reflection and document student’s learning processes. Since I already expected students to do reflective writing throughout their journeys in WR122_H, it made perfect sense to incorporate these ePortfolios into the pedagogy of this course. During class time I teach the basic “nuts and bolts” of how to create an ePortfolio in WordPress, as most students in the course have not done this work before. Then students are expected to build an “About” page, “Goals” page, and “Academics” page with a WR122_H page embedded within it by the time they complete the course. Detailed ePortfolio expectations for the course can be found below. At the end of the term, we’ll have an ePortfolio Showcase where everyone (including me) will share their ePortfolios with the class in a short presentation and talk about the work they’ve done on them during the course.
As we turn the corner into Week 10, I’ve found myself reflecting a lot on how the first run of this course in its Learning Community format has gone.
It seems as though the research component of the course went especially well this time. Students were particularly open to the idea of an inquiry-based research model and mostly enthusiastic about focusing on a person or event in Black American history–an area some of them said they’d never done research in before. I had a good number of memorable one-on-one research sessions with students in the course, especially during Project Two when they were attempting to ferret out historical documents that sometimes like to hide in tricky places. And of course, we couldn’t have found them all without the help of our amazing and magical course librarian, Jen Klaudinyi. Some of the most exciting research documents students found this term including a letter-exchange between Jackie Robinson and Malcolm X, a scan of a hand-written letter from an anti-lynching campaign, and some of the scientific articles first published in academic journals about HeLa cells.
In-class discussions which focused on critically engaging texts and ideas also seemed to go especially well this term. I was particularly impressed with how deeply students engaged with some of the key texts in the course, most noteably Mary Louise Pratt’s “Arts of the Contact Zone.” I think the Active Reading Assignment that students completed after reading Pratt fostered a deeper understanding of this essay and deeper critical engagement with Pratt’s ideas. This is an assignment I plan to continue giving with the Pratt reading in the future.
One of the things I think didn’t work as well as I’d have liked this term was having an overall sense of balance between instruction and workshop time during class periods. In order to add the ePortfolio component to the course and still keep student workload reasonable, I had to select a few of the lengthy core readings to remove from the reading list. For most students the vast majority of historical and contextual information they need to be successful in the course is obtained from the readings in the course (as many come with little or no background in Black American history). As a result, when I removed these readings from the reading list, I shifted the delivery of this information to in-class lectures. While the lectures seem to be well received by students and they felt comfortable getting engaged and making these lectures interactive by asking questions, commenting, and asking for clarification throughout, the lectures did take up more of our in-class time together than I’d have liked. This meant that the balance of in-class instruction and workshop time that I try to achieve in my writing courses was out of alignment, and I didn’t feel as though I had enough workshop time in the class to work one-on-one with students the way I typically do. I’m considering recording some of these lectures for the next time I teach the course and making the videos available on Moodle. Then students can watch the videos (instead of reading the lengthy articles) for homework and we can discuss the questions and comments they have or areas where they need more clarification in the following class period. This will still leave space to engage the lectures during class, but will free up some of the in-class time for workshop.