Not too long ago, I made a post to this webspace in which I noted the perils of “If I had it to do again” and laid out what I might do if ever I did. Also not too long ago, I made a post noting that I received another teaching assignment from the small bit of academe in which I remain. As I thought about the latter, the former came to mind, and, since I have it to do again in at least one small area, I figured I ought to give some thought to how I would do it.
Now, for some context: the class that I was assigned is a second-semester composition class. Students enrolled in it are supposed to have completed the first-semester class, so they should have some introduction both to the college environment and to how college-level writing (a term which is nebulous at best) or academic writing works. The second-semester class is supposed to build upon that introduction, traditionally culminating in a conference-length paper (i.e., eight to ten pages of double-spaced, 12-point text, or some 2,600 to 3,250 words, plus references). At the school where I am assigned the class, the paper emerges from a series of assignments that center around a set of general topics from which the students are asked to select one–and therein lies the problem.
The issue is not necessarily in the assignment sequence itself. While it could be improved upon (as everything can), it is reasonable and seems to work decently. What the issue is is the selection of topics. For one, they are too broad, requiring students to do more work to narrow their focus than most who sit for the class are equipped to do–even with explicit, targeted coaching and prompting. For another, they are supposed “high interest” topics such as dieting and gun control, topics which have been exhaustively detailed and on which no real progress in discussion has been made in the United States that I have seen. Worse, they are topics with which most of my students–adults who already have formed and largely set opinions–do not engage with, having little stake in them. They end up parroting media talking points rather than actually generating new thoughts and trying to create new knowledge, largely because they do not feel they are in a position to do so.
Because the topics are promulgated by the school as standards, I shall continue to accept them, of course. I can hardly not. But what I will do, since I do have it to do again, is suggest to my students, strongly, that they take up an alternative topic, one in which they have some investment and engagement–and one with which I have had success with students in the past (such as here). In effect, I will ask my students to look at their curricula, identify one major change that needs to be made, and argue why that change is the change that needs to be made. As such, the students will have a topic with which they have direct involvement, which is a motivating factor; they will have a narrow topic, which allows for detailed work and more sustained argument; and they will have a directly discernible audience, which will allow both for analysis of that audience and more effective address thereof.
I’ll be working up materials in more detail, of course, but I know that the students will have easy recourse to primary source material (their own course catalogs and other schools’), secondary source materials (the contents of ERIC come to mind, as does the Occupational Outlook Handbook, particularly since most or all of my students seek their degrees specifically for job prospects and career advancement), and tertiary/critical sources (namely accreditation requirements and theories of education both academic and popular). And I know that at least one student will argue that the composition course requirements should be lightened or eliminated–there always is at least one–and I have a wealth of information about that particular line of inquiry for reasons that I think are obvious.
Not many people get the chance to do things again, I know. I have been lucky in that I have been given the opportunity, and more than once. (I am less lucky in that I have also blown it more than once, but that’s another matter, entirely.) I mean to seize upon this opportunity; I hope that it will lead to a good end.