Wednesday, July 05, 2006

syllabus stressing

I'm supposed to hand in a draft syllabus for my fall writing course in a couple of weeks. I'm excited about the reading selections I've chosen, but I am stymied by the lack of recommendations the program has given as to how best to incorporate the writing textbook into the course structure. Looking at sample syllabi, some have students reading from the textbook every week; others just use it as a reference for certain assignments. We're also allowed to pick and choose what kind of assignments to do when (whether or not to assign a longer paper, for example, or stick to many shorter ones). The upshot is that I'm at a loss when it comes to choosing between these options -- it's nice, to some degree, that we have all this flexibility, since it implies that however we structure the course, the students are going to learn something. But as someone who hasn't planned a writing course before, and whose last experience taking a writing course was first semester freshman year of college, I'd appreciate at least some recommendations, some outright plusses and minuses of structuring a syllabus in a particular way. The writing program's supposed to be expert, so it's time for them to share some of their expertise. Maybe I'll write and ask, and hope that I get back a less nebulous response.


Jane Dark said...

I've found it really useful to set up a couple of small assignments that lead into a longer paper. So for an essay written while reading James Loewen's "Handicapped By History" (or an excerpt of it) and excerpts from Joan Didion's Sentimental Journeys, the major paper (assigned in advance) was to develop and defend a claim about the media's (mis/re)presentation of a current public figure (i.e. Martha Stewart, the Pope, Bush, Cheney).

The first small assignment was a rather traditional 2-3 page response to the essay, asking students to summarize major points, and then discuss one in detail, raising both supports and challenges to it (I'm grossly summarizing myself, here); the second assignment was after we'd discussed social construction, and asked them to use 2-3 pages to discuss the social construction(s) or a particular person, place, event, or other entity.

They were allowed to recycle parts of both of these assignments for the major paper (5-7 pages), with the caveat that recycling did not mean just stitching the two small papers together -- they were expected to revise.

If I'd had them do one more small paper, it probably would have been an annotated bibliography.

Does that help? I don't know how revision-based your class is...

kermitthefrog said...

Very revision-based, in fact; using several small assignments to build up to a larger one would make sense, given that very short assignments are the mainstay of this particular writing philosophy. I'll see how I can incorporate some such progression... thanks!

SK said...

For my freshman seminar at my "SLAC" (not specifically a writing course, but fulfilled the requirement), we had to write one 2-page paper, 3 4-page papers, and one 6-8 page paper.
Then again, it wasn't a graded course, and it was about Buddhist poetry, so we could basically write whatever we wanted and get away with it.

But, yeah, more shorter assignments are better than fewer enormous ones. Also, I don't know if you have guidelines about this, but creative assignments are really good (personal responses, stuff like that). I'd go by the assumption that no one really wants to learn about writing, and assign things that are actually fun. Well, that only really applies if you want your students to like you. Also bribe them with food.

PS. I really like the "SLAC" abbreviation. It makes it sound like I'm at a special school for pothead skateboarders or something.

kermitthefrog said...

Oh, for the times you could have passed for a pothead skateboarder. Now, alas, the dreads are gone.

Scrivener said...

I should say, first, that I had a very opposite first teaching experience--our syllabus was pretty much supplied for us and there was little or no flexibility about how we ran our classes. And I so wished at the time, at least, that I would have had much more flexibility.

I pretty much disagree about the idea of assigning "fun" writing. I have had terrible, terrible experiences writing "personal narrative" assignments. I actually think you're better to get them writing more formalized essays, even if they complain about it. The fact is, that most high school students have lots of experiences writing "creative" essays that say nothing but get good grades already, and it's exceedingly difficult to push them out of that rut. Besides, what they'll need in college is more experience writing analytically, even if they don't especially enjoy it.