Sample Assignment Response: Analyzing Debatable Claims

Another of the assignments students are asked to do in ENGL 135 in the November 2019 session, following a course redesign, is an analysis of debatable claims. (A previous assignment is discussed here.) Students are asked to “select a TED Talk that presents a persuasive argument on a debatable issue,” record its identifying information, and draft a two- to three-page (so 650- to 975-word) summary that addresses a number of points evocative of other classes’ rhetorical analysis. To continue my practice of providing models for students to follow, I offer what appears below:

https://pi.tedcdn.com/r/talkstar-photos.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/41dce1f7-2417-4999-845e-97727063eac8/IlluminatedManuscripts_textless.jpg?h=200
Image taken from the thumbnail on the TED talk treated in the present sample, here, used for commentary

As with earlier sample work, the first task is to select a subject. To do so for the present sample, I went to TED.com and ran a simple search for one of my major areas of interest, using the search term “medieval.” Doing so yielded 92 results, which is a larger set than admits of effective parsing within the confines of the session and its demands. Accordingly, I restricted myself to the first page of results returned–which, at 30, was still a fair number. Given that the assignment calls for only two to three pages of work (plus title and references pages), I determined that the talk I would treat should be a shorter one. I was fortunate that two of the first three results returned fit that criterion, and I decided to treat the less formal of the two, since I want to make my work as fun for myself as I can reasonably do.

With a subject selected, I went ahead and set up my document, stubbing out a title page, main text, and references page and ensuring that the document as a whole was set to double-spaced 12-point Times New Roman type with one-inch margins on letter-sized paper. I also inserted running heads and page numbers as appropriate. I also made sure to enter an APA-style reference entry for my selected TED talk to make sure that it got done.

To help keep myself oriented in what would come, I copied and pasted the series of questions from the University’s assignment materials into my document. I then highlighted it in green so that I would remember to remove it later; I tend to give myself writing targets (such as theses for more formal work) in my documents, coloring them thusly so I know what I need to write towards and that I need to get rid of it later. It is a method I recommend, though I know others’ results will vary.

That done watched the talk, doing so twice. The first time was simply to get a feel for the talk as a whole. The second, though, I took notes, using the assignment questions as a guide. It made for somewhat jerky watching, to be fair, but it did allow me to get a basic outline down of the sample assignment.

With my notes ready, I began drafting. The first pass consisted mostly of expanding my notes into cohesive, coherent sentences and paragraphs, as well as adding introduction and conclusion. Revision ensued thence, focusing mainly on smoothing out transitions among materials–I opted to retain the order of the assignment’s questions in large part, mostly for ease, though I did alter their groupings somewhat–and on making the language accessible to student readers (as determined by Flesch-Kincaid grade level).

All that done, I reviewed my draft to make sure it adheres to usage standards that will be applied to student work. Once done with that, I rendered the draft accessible; it appears below, iteration of my continued hope to be of use to others: G. Elliott Sample Debatable Claim Analysis.

I still continue to appreciate support for drafting new teaching materials.

Sample Assignment Response: Current Event

One of the assignments students are asked to do in ENGL 135 in the November 2019 session, following a course redesign, is a summary-and-response piece that looks at two treatments of arguable topics in current news and related media, summarizes each, and compares the two. Each of the summaries is expected to be three paragraphs in length, formatted appropriately; the comparative passage should be some two to three pages. Since APA formatting is requested, a title page and a references list are likely expected, as well. And, following my long-standing practice, an example of the kind of work I hope to see on the assignment and a narrative of how I put it together follow.

Murder of Abel from BL Royal 19 D II, f. 10v
Murder of Abel from BL Royal 19 D II, f. 10v; I’m told it’s a public domain image.

Clearly, the first task to do to complete the assignment is to select a topic. I tend to restrict topics I’ll accept from students, and I am doing so for later assignments in the session, so I will follow the restriction as I generate the present example and steer away from treating abortion, gun control, legalizing marijuana, LGBTQIA+ rights, political ideology (in the sense of party alignment), and religious ideology. Doing so avoids “hot-button” issues about which most people have preconceived ideas that are more or less articles of faith. Experience suggests that most students–indeed, most people–are not willing to concede that they can be wrong about them, and a willingness to be wrong is necessary for learning. But even aside from the obvious topics, there is much to discuss, and in some detail.

Among the things to discuss is an issue prevalent in the academic field I sought to enter (about which more here and here). That field, medieval studies, is currently grappling with its racist appropriations and underpinnings, with a particular event (recent to the time of this writing, meaning within the last 60 days) and reactions to it standing out as exemplary of the struggle still ongoing and still needing to be done. There are many articles surrounding the event, as a quick Google search for it revealed (and I admit to being helped by being familiar with the topic already), and I selected two such, one from the Washington Post and one from Inside Higher Ed.

After selecting the topic and the articles to treat in the example assignment, I opened a Word document and began to format it for use in the assignment. That is, I set it to double-spaced 12-point Times New Roman type with one-inch margins on letter-size paper; inserted my running head, headers, and page numbers; and stubbed out sections for my title page, main text, and references list. Doing so obliged me to develop a title–easy enough, given that APA asks for descriptive paper titles–and it allowed me to record citations for my articles so that I would not forget to do so later. The latter is particularly important, as I’ve had many students lose points or fail papers entirely because they “forgot” to add citations that they “meant to go back and put in later.”

That done, and knowing I would need to summarize the articles, I read them. As I did, I made marginal notes (I printed the articles, as I read better and more swiftly from a physical page than a digital) and identified major points of argument, as well as strengths and weaknesses of the pieces as I read. I began with the earlier-published piece, the chronology seeming to make sense.

Having read the pieces, I began to write my summaries of them. As with the reading, I began with the earlier-published piece. Even before moving through the summaries, though, I stubbed out the direction I wanted my text to go, making sure that movement between the parts of the paper would be clear and indicate to readers how the new part connects to the previous. It also allowed me to move towards a thesis–which I hold a comparative piece should have. That is, comparative works should move past simply listing similarities and differences to make a claim about the things being compared–usually in terms of some value-judgement (“Ð is a better example of writing than Þ because…”).

Once I had my thesis in place and my summaries done, it came time to actually argue the thesis. That is, I had made a claim, so I needed to support it. The response portion of the paper is supposed to take some two to three pages. I average 325 words per page, making my target length somewhere between 650 and 975 words for the portion–figures which I looked at because my summaries ended at a strange point on the page. My habit in all but the shortest papers is to make a counterpoint and rebut it before moving into my central argument, and though 650 words is quite brief, 975 allows me space in which to make the more nuanced presentation.

As I wrote, knowing that the piece is intended for student use as an example, I strove to make the text accessible to first-year composition students. Consequently, I wrote in relatively short paragraphs (approximately 85-150 words), keeping the average reading level right around the end of high school, per Flesch-Kincaid grade levels. I revised to keep the reading level in line as I composed, thinking it important.

After arriving at a decent stopping point that fell within the word-count range I’d established, I reviewed the text I’d written for overall adherence to APA usage standards. Finding no problems (but acknowledging that my own eye for my work is not without flaw, and that proofreading immediately after writing is other than optimal), I put the text in a form others could access, which I present here in the continued hope that what I do will be of use to others, both in my class and in others that may be taught: G. Elliott Sample Current Event.

I continue to appreciate support for drafting new teaching materials.

Initial Comments on the November 2019 Session at DeVry University

I have been offered and have signed a contract to teach a class at DeVry University for the November 2019 instructional session, a section of ENGL 135: Advanced Composition. It is wholly online, with the session spanning 28 October 2019 to 5 January 2020; consequently, instruction will be almost wholly asynchronous, though I will hold a regular office hour, likely on Wednesday evening, given other scheduling concerns I have at the moment.

An IStock image by Jaroslav Frank appearing on Robert Ubell’s 13 December 2016 Inside Higher Ed article “Why Faculty Still Don’t Want to Teach Online,” used for commentary

The redesign I mentioned previously seems still to be in place, but they seem to tend to less grading than I recall from earlier experiences teaching ENGL 135. I will have to generate new examples, of course, but I need to be doing more writing, anyway, and students continue to benefit from having the models to follow. Given broader events, I am not sure how I can produce ethically sound examples that will still do what I need them to do; I am not the master of my own curriculum, here, but am obliged to follow a prescribed sequence once again. I knew that going in, though; my comments from more than a year ago still seem to hold.

For all the problems that are in place with the kind of teaching I will be doing, I am still glad to have the opportunity to do so once again. Though I presently need the funding less than I have in the past–the regular job I work treats me pretty well in that regard and in several others–it is still welcome. More welcome is the chance to once again put to work the skills I spent so long developing; I hope they have not atrophied such that they will no longer serve me or the students enrolled in my class.