I'm in an especially expansive Grand-Scheme-of-Things mood these days. The beginning of a semester is always a susceptible time; it's maybe a bit worse this year because I just finished (a draft of) an essay that's been about 20 years in the making, about the phenomenon of hitting the wall academically speaking (or going about as fur as we can go, as the Oklahoma lyrics put it), so I'm in interdisciplinary mode. Maybe that's where composition teachers belong. At any rate, what I've been thinking about is the sequencing of instruction in courses (promising myself I will eventually get around to my own syllabus).
Consider these tried-and-true options:
- The chronological approach. Of course, history classes are the prototype here. Lay out your timeline, chop off your eras, decades, monarchs' reigns or presidents' terms, alternating rhythms of war and peace. Mark off those cataclysmic events: the burning of the library at Alexandria, the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Causal chains link the events of history, so this is a logical approach (though other more thematically based structures are possible, I suppose). This approach also show up, for somewhat less compelling reasons, in many literature classes.
It seems to me that things are not so simple in the composition class, which feels in contrast to the above subjects nearly content-less.
This idea of a controlling vision seemed to be close to what I'm after when I think about how to put together my composition class. It is, for me, a work in progress (one of the chief advantages to the academic life, from the teacher's POV, being the opportunity each semester to go back and do it over again). Writing is hard. It's a complex activity involving many different sequences and progressions, a lot of balls (or plates or knives) for the juggler to keep in the air at one time. (Look at it this way: THINKING is its embedded skill. Though I suppose that's a simplification: we've got that familiar think-to-write/write-to-think duality going on as well. How closely does that parallel eat-to-live/live-to-eat, I wonder?)
Anyway...here are some of the sequences I've been trying out the past two years (with direction from a few different texts):
- I've tried the standard rhetorical modes approach, using several different essay collections as texts (with a considerable amount of difficulty using professional essays as student models); more about my take on the modes approach can be found elsewhere on this blog. I suppose a central issue here is how to order the different modes and what criteria guide that ordering.
- I've used a progression through syntactical units, from words (specific nouns, concrete adjectives, active verbs) to sentences (just what is a complete sentence?, issues of avoiding wordiness, coordination/subordination, parallelism) to paragraphs ("chunking" information, unity and cohesiveness, lead and concluding paragraphs). One issue, of course, is that these elements don't exist in isolation; as writers we have to handle all of them at once. (It does make sense, in the revision process, to look from large to small, but this approach doesn't seem to work for me as an overall course structure.)
- I've used Don Murray's The Craft of Revision, in which he walks students through revising for focus, genre, strucutre, documentation, development, voice, and clarity.
- This past summer I tried out Robert Scholes (et al.'s) The Practice of Writing, which is organized into three sections: writing the self (expression and reflection), writing and knowledge (narration, description, classification, and analysis), and writing and power (writing to influence people's beliefs and behavior)in essence, then, the book is structured by considering the writer's purpose. The text concludes with a section on synthesis, which combines all three purposes; I was drawn to the book because this section includes source materials for students to use in common (which seems to me to have a considerable amount of pedagogical value, in addition to its obvious advantages of deterring plagiarism).
And to finally get somewhere within yodeling distance of my syllabus for this semester, here's the structure I've decided to try out this semester:
- Looking, in which I (i.e., they) do a shortened version of the ethnographic fieldworking (see earlier entry) I did last semester, this time focusing on primary research only. Go out into the world and observe a subculture, describe a fieldsite, etc. I will link on our class WebCT space to online info/models.
- Reading, in which we wrestle some texts, courtesy of UMass Amherst. There are supporting links on UMass's web site (above) as well as several interesting exercises helping (I hope) students get the hang of close reading (the selection of essays looked promising!). This will introduce students to integrating and citing source material from a single (or maybe several) text(s).
- Researching, in which we move on to books, research databases, the Internet. On the Synthesis: step by step link to the left I've posted a version of my WebCT unit, which I'll do some tinkering with. I think this time I'll require students to do a web tutorial; this one from Ithaca College looked good, especially because it sends students to specific web sites to evaluate. I'm planning to require that students pick research topics from either their subcultures or one of the wrestling essays; I'll set up a Question Bank topic listing on our WebCT discussion board for students (and me) to post research question possibilities that occur to them as the semester progresses.