This course is a significantly revised version of my Spring 2014 WR 122 class. It retains the Sustainability forcus of that class, but has been revised both to address the shortcomings of the 2014 version, as well as to accommodate the departure of the librarian who helped design and co-taught the 2014 version with me. Since our class sizes have also increased since last year in addition to no longer having a second set of “research hands” in the classroom, I had to modify the course and the assignments to retain the richness of the inquiry-based research process, while still being realistic about what I alone could assist a larger number of students in reasonably accomplishing.
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.” Then students work in small groups to re-imagine argument through a metaphor other than war. Finally, we have a large-group discussion about what argument means in an academic setting. 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.
One of the other difficult aspects of teaching this course is teaching the inquiry process. Typically students come into this class accustomed to doing research that is driven by supporting an idea or belief they already have rather than by an inquiry question to which they do not already know the answer. I have included a variety of scaffolding activities to try to ensure that students are conducting inquiry-driven research and arriving at answers through this research. This term I have also redesigned the first extensive writing assignment in the course. For this assignment students will be writing a detailed reflection of their inquiry process rather than an argumentative piece. It’s my hope that by having students really focus on inquiry for the first 1/3 of the course and asking them to document and reflect upon their inquiry process, I can engage more students in a genuine inquiry-driven research.
As I mentioned earlier, the focus of this course will be on sustainability as it is most broadly defined. Students will each choose an area of sustainability to focus on for the entire course. Students will be asked to engage in an inquiry-based research process driven by a inquiry-question related to their topic. They will compose an extensive, detailed annotated bibliography for their sources. Then, they will craft an argumentative email addressed to an audience who they feel should care about the information they found during their inquiry process. 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 email to its intended audience, taking the writing they did in the classroom and giving it real-world meaning.
Many of the changes I made to this course as I revised it for this term worked quite well. Beginning with a clear focus on the inquiry process really helped students to engage with this process in a genuine way. Having the first major writing assignment be a detailed reflection upon the inquiry process served several important functions. It ensured that each student began their research process with an open-ended question and engaged in a genuine inquiry process. It allowed me to provide clear, step-by-step scaffolding for the inquiry process, because in order to help students figure out what they needed to keep track of during their inquiry process to write a successful reflection, I had to provide students with a list of detailed questions that they answered as they journeyed along their inquiry path. Being accountable for answering each of these questions ensured that students understood what I meant when I talked about the “inquiry process” in class and that they had the language necessary to ask questions about specific parts of this process as they arose. This assignment also allowed both me and my students to track their growth in knowledge and skills across the inquiry process, as well as to have an understanding of how their confidence with and understanding of the inquiry process grew over time. I think I will use some version of this inquiry reflection assignment at the start of each of my WR122 classes in the future.
Asking students to chose, analyze, and write to their own real-world audience also seemed quite effective in this course. The process of choosing and analyzing their audience really helped them to think through who might be interested in the information they’d found in their inquiry process as well as to consider why this audience would care about this information and how they might be potentially impacted by it. The process of writing to a real-world audience of their choice helped students understand the importance of writing to and for an audience on a much deeper level. When I asked them whether specific points they made in their drafts would really be relevant to their audience or whether they might need to reframe a point or give the audience more background information for them to understand a specific idea, students could envision actual people interacting with their text in a way that made considering their audience’s potential reaction to their writing something that seemed more “real” and therefore important to them.
One thing that was really challenging this term was student work in peer groups. While several of the peer response groups worked well together and really benefited from their interactions, I saw many of the students struggle with their peer groups all term. Several people in the class didn’t attend class regularly, were unprepared, and/or were not respectful to their peers, making effective peer group work difficult to impossible. This caused issues that I’d never seen before, having used the same peer group model with students for many years. I believe strongly (and many past students have affirmed this belief) that students in writing classes benefit the most from peer response and peer interactions. In my experience, having students work in small, self-chosen, and consistent peer groups is the best way to foster high quality peer feedback and interactions. But this term that model failed for about half the class and several students ended up dropping the course all together in response to their frustrations that arose form the use of this peer group model.
Because receiving and giving high-quality peer response is so vital to growth as a writer, I need to figure out how to rectify the struggles so many students in this class had with the peer group work this term. While I’d like to believe that this was just a “fluke” term where the dynamic of the individuals within the class coupled with the high attrition rates of Spring term combined to make a difficult situation, I’m hesitant to believe this. I really think the high rate of peer-group work frustration this term was in part fed by a growing incompatibility between the peer group model I’ve honed over the years and the changing dynamic of student expectations and willingness to participate, which I believe is largely driven by changes in communication patterns that result from shifts in technology. As of now, I don’t really know how to shift the model I currently use to one that’s more successful. In my Fall 2015 writing class, I plan to use my “old” model as a basis, asking for student input to help me build a new model over the course of the term.