Friday, February 24, 2006

a course of my own

One option for third-year grad students in my program is to teach freshman writing; that's what I'll be doing next fall. I get to come up with a theme or general rubric around which to develop a syllabus, the stipulation being that I can't assign too much reading, as it's supposed to be a writing rather than a content-based course. I came up this afternoon with some ideas for a reading list centered around the idea of passing judgement (something freshmen certainly know a lot about...). Hopefully, such a course would encourage them to think about their own *processes* of judging, including how they and others judge their writing, and what's required to write persuasively in an academic setting.

Right now, I'm thinking of:
  • a unit on reviews (of books, movies, fashion...): Anthony Lane, Pauline Kael, food critics, MFK Fisher even though she's not a reviewer per se
  • fiction that either explicitly thematizes judgement, or clearly forces the reader to adopt a position of judgement on character or ethics:
    • Kafka's "The Judgement"
    • Melville's "Benito Cereno" or "Bartleby"
    • Ishiguro's Remains of the Day
    • Susan Glaspell's story "A Jury of Her Peers"
    • Perhaps one of Flaubert's Three Stories or Gertrude Stein's Three Lives?
  • Sneaking in a paragraph or two of Kant
  • Perhaps some legal cases and/or critical legal theory, discussing the role of the judge in the legal system as a whole (such as Robert Cover's "Violence and the Word")
Any thoughts? Suggestions? good idea/bad idea? And if you were a high school senior, what kind of title would make you interested in a class like this?


luckybuzz said...

How about, like, "who makes the call?" or "it's your call" (though that's kind of Jerry Springer)... (kind of emphasizing the shifting positions of judge/judged, I guess)...Sounds like it'll be interesting! (hopefully more interesting than my title suggestions...)

kermitthefrog said...

Yes, the risk of running into bad TV show language is great! "You Be the Judge" is one I discarded. :)

Bardiac said...

It sounds like a really interesting theme, for sure. I have no good title ideas, though, sorry. I really like the potential focus on how they and others judge writing, particularly writing at the university level.

I'd be wary of teaching even as much literature as you seem to have planned, though. First, it takes a lot longer than most people realize to get first year students through just about any text, so you spend a lot more time reading than writing. Second, most students won't be writing literary type texts, so while reading them is pleasurable, and long term beneficial for language use, they don't feed easily into the kinds of essays students are under the most pressure to write.

I'm not trying to say you should conceive your course purely as a service course, but recognize what kinds of pressures they're feeling, and where they're coming from as writers.

Does your university conceive of first year writing as a service course? What do faculty outside the English (or humanities) department want students to leave the course knowing, or knowing how to do?

Jane Dark said...

What Bardiac said, really. And I would, regretfully, add that students being excited about a theme, and said excitement transferring to excitement about doing the writing for the course are two different things.

I have found that having students write a literacy autobiography (their history in terms of reading and writing, whether positive or negative, no limits whatsoever set on what sorts of texts they're talking about) can be useful for getting students to reflect on what tools they have. And courtesy of my friend Cat, I have begun using authority lists: on the first day of class, students list 8-10 subjects (again, no limits) in which they are authorities. Anything from bacon-cheeseburgers to Halo 2 to hooking up with people at parties entirely through eye contact. For homework, they choose one of these and write 1-2 pages about that subject.

Later in the quarter, I ask them to revise it, but first we talk about audiences, and they're required to stipulate what audience they're now writing for. Sometimes, I have them write two one-pagers, one about the subject for fellow experts, and one for novices.

I should add that I tend to teach this in the context of Stanley Fish's "How To Recognize A Poem When You See One," which works well.

What year of students are you expecting in this class? If it's 1st year, lower your expectations. In the six classes that I've had so far, one class might have been able to get at Kant, but I'm not sure they would have understood why.

I like the theme of judgment, and Bartleby sounds good. Maybe one other story?

The only caveat I have to offer in regards to anything approaching pop culture is that you have to make sure to LAY DOWN THE LAW about analysis, and train them in what that means. Otherwise, you'll get endless kids wanting to write about the Olsen twins and Eminem.

kermitthefrog said...

Thanks for the suggestions, bardiac and JD! To clarify, I meant the list more as a cross-section of possibilities than as an actual syllabus - I agree that it would be too much reading taken as a whole. The writing program recommends pretty firmly a limit of 500-700 pgs. over the course of the semester. These are first-year students.

And it's unfortunately quite ambiguous exactly what the goal of the course is. Or rather, the declaration that the goal is "to help our students become better writers" is so vague as to be absolutely useless. There are more concrete requirements (conferencing, revision, exposure to various genres of writing, reading good writing), but there's a disappointing lack of an articulate philosophy as to the point of these first-year writing courses.

Finally, after all that, I'm thinking of switching to a more topically-based course on the traveler and the fugitive that would allow a mix of genres, some critical reading, and a more concrete focus than the concept of "judgement." I only have a few days to think about this, so I'll keep you posted...

Bardiac said...

Cool, sorry I misunderstood.

Have you read much composition theory or research? Does your program offer support for reading/studying comp theory and such?

kermitthefrog said...

We get a week of training at the end of this semester, and a week at the beginning of next fall - I'm not sure if that includes exposure to comp. theory or not, but on the whole I haven't heard great things about the training in general...

Jenny D said...

Belatedly--yes, I think fewer & simpler texts & more concrete--this is sounding more like an upper-level seminar, I think "judgment" is a wonderful idea but for this kind of a course too abstract. I did a version of a class like this some years ago with a cultural criticism theme (it wasn't meant to have a literature component, though); did a sport unit, for instance, with excerpts from "Fever Pitch" and "Among the Thugs" and "Beyond a Boundary" and an essay by Malcolm Gladwell about physical talent. Premise: keep the readings relatively short and accessible so that you can spend a ton of class time on writing-related stuff. (Also have things that to some extent "model" prose style for the students--I realize this is now controversial in composition theory circles, but it seems to me a pity not to teach some essays that are genuinely well-written!) Anyway, good luck with syllabus & course.