For My spring 2015 first year writing class, I wanted to experiment with framing the class around a threshold concept, and I wanted to spend the semester explicitly revisiting how we, both me and my students, understood this threshold concept as we worked our way through three major writing assignments and a final reflection. As I developed my course, I spent a lot of time thinking about scaffolding, and about how smaller explicit and also exploratory writing and reading projects could be combined and redesigned by students into more sustained writing projects.
I also wanted to design a series of assignments that would reflect on, build, and complement each other. To me, there’s nothing that screams, “here’s a GE class you will never think about again” like a set of disconnected units, assignments or concepts. We began our semester with a few central ideas we would return to all semester:
- Writing is rhetorical practice– because I was using a “Writing about Writing” approach, we drew from composition scholarship to frame this idea, including discussions about rhetorical ecology, activity systems, and literacy.
- What does it mean to do rhetoric/how do we define rhetoric– we returned throughout the semester to to big ideas here, one rhetorical and one pedagogical
- The first is Sharon Crowley’s definition of rhetoric as a theoretical frame from “Composition is Not Rhetoric”:
Any theoretical discourse that is entitled to be called “rhetoric” must at minimum conceive of rhetoric as an art of invention, that is, it must give a central place to the systematic discovery and investigation of the available arguments in a given situation. Furthermore, it must conceive of the arguments generated by rhetorical invention as both produced and circulated within a network of social and civic discourse, images, and events. (2)
- The second is an adaptation from James Paul Gee’s “What is Literacy?” His conception of the relationship between learning and acquisition frames my pedagogical approach to FYC:
We get better at what we practice. We develop mastery—flexibility, confidence, authority, and access in a discourse—when we know how to talk about and evaluate what we practice.
Over the course of the semester my students completed the following writing projects: (Please see An extended rationale, detailed weekly schedule and assignment sheets for more detailed illustrations of this work.)
- They made narrative maps of their own writing lives as rhetorical ecologies. They designed research questions and wrote exploratory essays based on their maps.
- Armed with more insight about their own writing lives, they then turned their analysis to how communities, organizations, and groups participate in, create, and affect rhetorical ecologies.
- We practiced doing community research by mapping fictional communities as activity systems, then designed research questions and proposals for primary and secondary research based on their analysis of their activity system maps.
- Students identified organizations, groups, or communities they were involved with or interested in (or identified issues they cared about and then found groups or organizations engaged with those issues) to explore.
- As a result of their primary and secondary research related to their chosen communities they wrote proposals to address specific issues related to or within those communities.
- For their final projects, students were given an open ended prompt: redesign and revise something you have worked on this semester for a new audience outside our classroom. You must consider how these projects will circulate to/through your chosen audience.
- Students proposed projects, worked together to design a rubric to evaluate a range of projects in various modes for diverse audiences, and completed extensive reflections of their rhetorical choices and writing processes as they worked.
This semester is the first time I’ve designed assignments that were task-based and open-ended. It was nerve-wracking at first to leave so much up to them– to give my students so much freedom and responsibility for the work they were doing in my class. I couldn’t be more pleased with the results. Students chose to challenge themselves and make real connections with communities and issues they care about in so many interesting ways. Some examples of work done for these final projects include:
- A student who will meet with a local organization about it’s childcare policies to continue a discussion about the student’s research (a follow up reuested by the director of the organisation.) The student will offer options to the organization for both short-term and long term possibilities to address child safety/security issues in an unsupervised game room space, including possible signage and wording for adjusted policies.
- A student who has redesigned her issue proposal as a newsletter for the CAPS office on campus, outlining concerns with student depression and the whether or not freshmen are aware of mental health services available to them campus. Her newsletter includes survey results, research of practices at comparable institutions, and recommendations for improving publicity and access to available services.
- A student in the process of proposing a campus organization designed to network the multiple clubs, resources, and spaces available to student inventors/innovators. Go to this website. Check this out boilerdriver.com
- A student has designed an infographic about audience and rhetorical ecology he intends to share with his high school English instructor who teaches a class on persuasive speeches/essays.