This course is one that I’ve been planning for a long time in my mind. In Fall of 2011, I taught a section of WR122 that included a rather extensive research project focused on Sustainability, in connection with the Sustainability Strategic Direction at Lane. Students loved this assignment and took it in all sorts of interesting directions, from more traditional topics such as recycling mattresses and building houses from innovative organic materials to more radical topics such as the sustainability of family planning programs, the sustainability of college as it is now offered (in terms of tuition and textbook costs), and the sustainability of the U.S. prison systems. This project was such a success that I knew immediately that I wanted to expand it into an entire course. And, finally, after spending two years focused on developing an Honors WR122 course, I was able to come back and refocus on this class.
WR122 is an course in argument, style, and research. One of the most difficult aspects of teaching argumentative writing is getting students to re-think what it means to “argue.” The in U.S. most people view arguments within the framework of a war metaphor. This sets up writers to think that their “goal” in argumentative writing is to “be on target,” “shoot down others’ ideas,” “prove their ideas are the strongest,” and “win the argument.” This mentality does not lend itself to quality academic arguments, especially for beginning college writers, who have not had enough time and experience arguing or sufficient exposure to the various arguments surrounding a topic/field to “beat” other writers/arguments within the field.
So the first thing I do in all my argumentative writing courses is work with students to redefine argument–to think of it more through metaphors of conversation, dance, dialogue, collaboration, and learning. I begin this process by showing them Daniel Cohen’s TED Talk “For Argument’s Sake”. Then students read and discuss Rebecca Jones’ OER article “Finding the Good Argument or Why Bother With Logic.” Finally we discuss some of the ideas that George Lakoff and Mark Johnson raise in their book Metaphors We Live By. After we’ve look at all these texts together, students work in small groups to “map” argument using a metaphor other than war. Though this process we, as a class, create a body of language that we can use to talk about argumentative writing in the course through lenses other than that of war and battle.
In this section of WR122, the focus will be on sustainability, and students will each choose an area of sustainability to focus on for the entire course. Students will be asked to first write a personal argumentative essay explaining why they feel it’s important for people to pay attention to the area of sustainability they’ve chosen. Then we will begin an extensive, inquiry-based research process with our class librarian, Jen Klaudinyi. Students will research their area of sustainability as well as find a specific policy, law, or practice related to this area of sustainability that they feel is especially problematic. They will compose an extensive, detailed annotated bibliography for their sources. Then, they will craft an argumentative information packet. The packet will focus on the problematic policy, law, or practice related to their area of sustainability that they wish to challenge/change. They will be writing this packet for a specific audience–the person/people who currently practice/enforce the policy/law/practice. It is my hope that having a real-world audience will make the research and writing students complete in this course more meaningful to them. It is also my hope that students will send their argumentative information packet to its intended audience, taking the writing they did in the classroom and giving it real-world meaning.
This course has been interesting, to say the least. Students chose a broad-range of sustainability topics to research/write about this term, from hotel water use to bio-engineering, to the structure of the Oregon K-12 Educational system, to the rights of aboriginal peoples in Australia. The broad range of topics helped both me and my students gain an even deeper understanding of the complexities of building a sustainable future. The diversity of topics also fostered some interesting and complex in-class discussions about sustainability, research, and writing as well as about the Mission Statement and Strategic Directions at Lane.
The Personal Argument Essay was not a success. I included this assignment to help students embrace/include the “I” in their academic writing, as well as to help them figure out whether they were really engaged enough with their area of sustainability to research/write about it for ten weeks. While a handful of students really grasped what I was trying to do here and embraced this assignment as a way to jump-start their writing/research in the course, most students were frustrated and confused by the assignment. Most had only written arguments prior to this experience that included outside research and were not sure how to go about creating an argument based on their own experiences/thoughts/ideas. While I had anticipated this and included some in-class activities that were intended to help students figure out how to approach their Personal Argument Essay, I wasn’t successful in making this assignment accessible to everyone. This caused some frustration/resentment, which for some students lasted through the rest of the term. It also, I believe, contributed to attrition in the class. This was especially frustrating for me because I wanted the first writing experience of the course to be as positive as possible, and instead this assignment was the opposite for many students. When I teach this course again, this assignment either needs to be heavily revised using student input or eliminated and replaced all together.
On a more positive note, I think the research component of this class went really well. Because students were researching topics they were personally connected to, and often passionate about, most were willing to really engage in the inquiry process and willing to let their findings take them in whole new directions. Most students found strong, compelling resources that would be taken seriously by the audiences to whom they were writing.
I think the Annotated Bibliography assignment was the most successful assignment in the course and allowed students a space to demonstrate their research process as well as to deeply and critically engage with their sources. Overall the quality of the Annotated Bibliographies was strong and, more importantly, students seemed to grasp why they were being asked to do this work and how this work was relevant to their overall learning in the course. The longer I teach, the more I realize how important it is to have students write detailed annotations for their sources where they compose author, audience, and source analyses and explain how each source is relevant to their topic. Intentionally teaching them how to critically read sources, which is what this assignment does, is an essential component to the inquiry process.
I also think that the Argumentative Packet Assignment was strong. It led many students to produce clear, well-rounded, effective arguments about topics that mattered to them. Writing to a real-world audience also helped them consider how to chose what evidence to use and how to use it when writing to a specific audience. There were many in-class discussions between students during peer feedback sessions about the relative validity of a particular source for the specific audience being addressed. In the future I will revise the assignment sheet for this packet to make it more cohesive and clear. Students pointed to a number of places on the assignment where either word choice or structure impeded their ability to understand what the assignment was asking of them. I’ve noted these and will revise them before I teach the course again.
While the class did not go quite as well as I’d hoped overall due to a rough start, I do think it went relatively well considering that it was a completely new course design for my WR122 class. I’m hopeful that after I’ve had time to revise some of the course material and maybe the overall structure of the course, that it will be even more successful the next time I teach it.