A misreading of the prompt can have far-reaching ramifications for student papers. Perhaps their claims will answer a different question or superficially address that question. Or they may invoke a different target audience than suggested by the prompt.
For my fairy tale course, I would like to prepare students to develop a conference paper as though delivering it in a professional setting. This will be a very new idea for many of them, so I will need to scaffold it on short writing assignments and introduce them to this new rhetorical context.
Along with looking at examples of conference papers on youtube, I want to do a short unit on the rhetoric of the call for papers. First we will look at a few CFPs as a genre in class and talk about how they are structured. Students will then choose one and write a short rhetorical analysis of it based on their previous work on genre analysis. In a page, they will describe the theme of the conference, the potential audience members (through looking at the organization’s website), and what kind of topics might be a good fit for the conference. At the end of the unit, the class as a whole will brainstorm and compose a CFP for our own mini-conference that we will hold for the end of the second act, keeping in mind the structure of a CFP that they have looked at so far. Since the generated the prompt for their conference papers collaboratively, they will begin drafting with a firm idea of what kind of work is being asked for.
What does Adventure Time have to do with Chaucer? How did we get from Gawain and the Green Knight to Finn and Jake? What do we miss out on if the only Little Mermaid we know is an 80s movie? In this class, we will explore together the development of faerie and fantasy genres, and enter into it ourselves as writers. While reading faerie and fantasy running from medieval romance to Victorian revisioning of the fairy tale and beyond, we will describe and interpret patterns and breaks in the tradition, write the same literary genres that we read, and add our own voices to the scholarly conversation through writing and delivering short conference papers. Like any romance or hero’s journey, we will end by telling others what we have learned through composing educational pieces (such as blog posts, vlogs, and podcasts) for a general audience and making them available online. Instead of a term paper, your challenge will be to communicate your insights to a specific audience, whether in the context of a conference or serving an online community. The readings will include: Sir Orfeo, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, fairy tales by Andrew Lang and the Brothers Grimm, George MacDonald’s The Golden Key, Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” and critical work by Tolkien and Lewis (because they were amazing medievalists).
I want a classroom where more happens, more matters—and where, in a literature class, the texts we read make a difference to students.
– Peter Elbow
For any of us who are caught up in the debate between lecture or discussion, sage on the stage or guide on the side, Peter Elbow offers another way to look at the experiential classroom. In “Breathing Life into the Text,” Elbow proposes that even though the act of talking is a form of experience, it doesn’t necessarily involve the affective life of the students. We may look to our own experience of a riveting and successful discussion for inspiration but then find out that we aren’t able to always successfully reproduce it in the writing classroom. Instead of merely a discussion-oriented class, Elbow suggests that we organize our classes like a workshop to help students understand the phenomenological experience of reading.
To this end, he offers four activities that can supplement in-class discussion.
1. Write before you read
Concerned that putting reading before writing in a course suggests that writing exists to serve reading and readers are separated from the high holy station of the artist, Elbow gives writing prompts to students on a theme in the text before reading it.
2. Movie of the Reader’s Mind
To help students experience how reading is a process and not an instantaneous and magical event, Elbow has students describe their mental experience of a text one section at a time.
3. Embody the Text
Elbow suggests that we have students embody the text in some way, whether through reading it aloud, performing a wordless skit, or transforming it into a dialogue. In this project, he does not limit students to a linear experience of the text but promotes play, perhaps even parody.
4. Respond as Writers
For this last activity, Elbow has students to write an imaginative piece that engages an element of the text. For instance, they could write a poem about a season or time of year when reading Sonnet 73. Elbow takes a decidedly dialogical view of writing here and notes that using the text as a springboard and emulating it in some way operates as a form of interpretation.
In a note at the end, Elbow has this to say about translation:
Nowadays we tend to assume that the goal of translation is to get present readers to enter the language and culture and world of the original text: to be “true” to the original. But for most of the history of our culture (for example, in the eras of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Pope)–and for many cultures than ours–the goal of translation was quite the opposite: to transform the language and culture and world of the original text into those of our own.
I want to combine this understanding of translation as transformation with Elbow’s fourth activity where students use other texts as a springboard for their own. In my fairy tale class, we will read Sir Orfeo (listen to it below) along with Ovid’s version of Orpheus and perhaps Terrance Hayes’s “Cocktails with Orpheus.”
Each of these texts provides a variant on the myth. Both Hayes and the anonymous poet of Sir Orfeo tell us that Eurydice did not perish. For this writing prompt students will engage the text in a similar way and make it their own
Short Writing Prompt
Pick a scene from any of the versions of the Orpheus myth we’ve been looking at. What would it mean for the story if the scene had happened differently? What if Orfeo had been taken under the ympe-tre instead? Or what if Orpheus had not turned around? Change a pivotal aspect of your chosen scene and rewrite it. (1-2 pages)
This low-stakes assignment prepares students to write a later higher-stakes creative project and gets them thinking about the importance of changes in different versions of a narrative. The following short analysis paper will call on students to examine the significance of Heurodis returning with Orfeo in the end.
How do you read a text for the first time? What in your own experience would be beneficial to show students? What would be confusing? What are your bad reading habits, and how do they affect your teaching?
Elbow notes that students have accused these experimental writing activities of being artificial. What’s your evaluation of his four supplemental activities? If they they are artificial, how would you revise them?
When did a text you read for a class make a difference in your life? What was the context of your reading? How was the text presented? How were you prepared or not prepared for it?
Fairy tales aren’t easy. We might think through a Disney-induced cultural memory that we have a handle on the genre, but we aren’t the target audience. Some medieval romances were written for a courtly audience. I don’t know about you, but I’m not part of a court with its concerns and expected knowledge of participants. Even the later collection and reimagining of the fairy tale with work by the Brothers Grimm or George MacDonald addresses a past audience that seems deceptively similar to a contemporary, English-speaking reader. Reading a medieval or Romantic or Victorian text actually means reading the texts of a different culture.
So how do we help students read these texts? Maybe they’ve grown up with Disney (or the far superior Studio Ghibli works) and need to work out the assumption that come with that. Perhaps they’ve read Tolkien and Lewis and know the genre from its modern descendants.
In Engaging Ideas, John Bean goes through ways to help students transition from surface reading to becoming deep readers who can do more with difficult texts, including deceptively simple texts like the fairy tale.
First, let the students know that these texts aren’t so simple and that struggling with them is synonymous with engaging them, NOT with a lack of reading skills.
A way to go about this is modeling your own reading for the students. Perhaps with a document camera, show where you find the text puzzling or where you summarize and analyse the text in the margins. At the same time hold back from directly explaining the text yourself. Bean cautions against promoting the vicious circle where students who struggle with interpreting a difficult text assume the professor will just lecture on it because it is difficult.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t use mini-lectures to help students with context. In my fairy tale course, I’ll need to point out the structure of a romance as integration, alienation, and reintegration to help students engage the different ways that same genre is imagined and reimagined across texts.
But we still need to promote deep reading by having students engage and struggle with the text without relying on an expected lecture.
Summary writing and genre analysis can help there. For my course, I will have students write short summaries of each romance and fairy tale we read together. These will need to be as absent of analytical moves as possible (though acknowledging that every summary has implicit analysis through selection of important details). Then, using those summaries as evidence, they will write a short genre analysis paper of about three pages. In this paper they will describe the general structure of the genre, identify a target audience, and consider the possible rhetorical purpose of texts within the genre.
For the fairy tale course I’m designing, I devote the first unit to developing these critical reading skills to prepare students for their later writing. You can see the course arc with this three-acts worksheet.
In “Working Through Theory in a Community College Classroom,” Howard Tinberg notes that in a community college setting student needs can be quite diverse. We might be more likely to have adult learners rather than traditionally-aged students, and those students may be focused on immediate professional rather than academic goals. Consequently, he proposes that FYC classes must be developed with the specific needs of students within the context of the local institution.Within the specific context of a community college, he notes that a desired outcome is for students to have a “hybrid literacy,” including training in writing for academia and the workforce. For this reason, some of Tinberg’s goals follow the current traditional model, with an emphasis on a use of evidence and use of language.
To support transfer and academic success among community college students, Tinberg follows Anne Beaufort is presenting the following four kinds of knowledge as learning goals:
Rhetorical Knowledge: Understanding of the rhetorical situation and ability to leverage the three modes of persuasion (logos, ethos, pathos)
Genre Knowledge: Understanding the anatomy of different forms and how to use them. Tinberg specifically names the proposal as a genre, which would be significant for more professionally-oriented writing pedagogy. He also notes that this specific course is mostly genre-based.
Process Knowledge: Draft, revise, peer-review, edit, and polish.
Metacognitive Knowledge: Self-reflective writing enabled by gaining critical vocabulary about writing.
All throughout course development needs to be guided by the following questions:
What role does reading have in a writing classroom? What level of complexity is appropriate for such readings? Who are my students as readers? What knowledge do my students need to have to work with these readings?
NOT Bartholomae and Petrosky’s Ways of Reading (Though the book is still influential on the conceptual level for assignment sequences).
Essay of Belief: Students compose an audio essay that presents a belief they hold in a way that considers audience needs. Since this assignment requires no research, it can be a good place to start for inexperienced writers.
Application Essay: Following the more practical and professional orientation of the community college’s mission statement, Tinberg then has students write an application for transfer to a four-year college. This assignment develops the audience awareness students began considering in the audio essay, but directs the focus outward to the requirements of an institution rather than inward with individual belief. As a result, this assignment adds some outside research to the process.
Profile: Students interview and write a profile on a fellow student. While the first two assignments help students develop their own voice, this one requires them to listen to the voice of another student that they interview.
Proposal: Combining previous work on audience awareness and outside research, the proposal assignment calls on students to solve a problem in the community. In this assignment, students have the practice a specific genre common in professional writing.
Article Annotation: With this assignment, the course transitions from professional writing to academic writing. Building on their experience with research in the application essay, this assignment asks students to summarize and eveluate a peer-reviewed article in two paragraphs.
Trend Analsysis: The skills developed in the previous assignments culminate in this final project. In a 3-5 page paper, students analyze a marketing or business trend through their own research.
Tinberg emphasizes peer review and written feedback in the course via blog commenting. He also provides ways for students to assess his feedback through “Talk Back” reflections.
FYC at Emory
Tinberg’s insights into the inappropriateness of assigning complex readings along with his emphasis on audience awareness and slowly scaffolding from inward sources to outward sources and rhetorical contexts are all quite relevant for Emory. However, the emphasis on professional writing would not be a good fit. Were Tinberg to teach at Emory, I think he would point out that his first principle is to conform his course development to the mission statement and needs of the local institution.
Reimagining the Course
I understand that each institution has different needs and I think Tinberg was right to move away from complex reading assignments in an FYC course, but I’m not fully convinced that a community college course should be this radically different from courses developed at a four-year college or private university. Some students are entering a community college as a cheaper springboard to completing a bachelors, and I’m not sure that this assignment sequence would be a good fit for them. Also, I worry about perpetuating inequality through purposefully offering a different kind of course to community college students. This sequence resonates too much for me with the idea of a vocational track.
Instead, I would like to be in touch with the writing faculty of local four-year colleges and universities that partner with my institution and find a compromise between meeting student needs and offering equivalent opportunities to a four-year FYC course.
I would also update the Essay on Belief from a radio essay to a podcast and change the topic. I think a podcast would include more multimodal composition than a radio essay (though they are related genres), and it would be a more familiar genre for students. Though I appreciate the metacognitive development that can come from critically considering one’s own beliefs, I’m not sure if incoming students will be ready for that for their first assignment. Instead I would like to have a lower stakes topic, such as explaining a process they already know to an outside audience, so they can focus on the actual craft of developing a spoken presence and thinking about audience needs.
Some of the dullest research I’ve done has been pulling together literature reviews. Reading formulaic article after formulaic article, even if all you’re doing is jumping from abstract to results and discussion with a figure or two in between, can be soul crushing. But in any discipline there would still be something more engaging from time to time. There would be a Drucker who let human concerns shine in or a Schumpeter who wrote before stodgy generic expectations began to form and eventually calcify as the only option.
In his research on writing development among children, James Britton shows us that there’s more than the “transactional” format that enables us to flit from figure to figure until we land on the results. There is also room for the “expressive” where writers discover, or the “poetic” where the writers allow for more oracular heights than usually found in the standard academic essay.
For my ENG 181 class, I want to give students a chance to play with the genres they’re reading while practicing formal academic writing and thinking directly about the differences between the two. While reading short faerie and fantasy (like in this course) texts for the class running from medieval romance to Victorian revisioning of the fairy tale, we’ll work through the following assignment sequence:
Students will choose one text to work with for the following assignments.
First, students will emulate the text. If a poem is chosen, the student will write a poem with the same form. If a romance, then the student will write a narrative that moves from integration through alienation to reintegration. Here, students have a chance to show their understanding of the text in a way that couldn’t be contained in a closed-form paper. Audience: same as the one invoked by original text.
Second, students will write a traditional academic paper (4-6 pages) analyzing the same text. This paper will need to, for the time being, strictly follow disciplinary expectations, such as use of main claim or thesis and organization. Audience: academic readers of the discipline (not me).
Third, taking the main ideas (and perhaps a re-vision of the thesis), students will write about the text in an alternative genre to a general audience. Students can choose to compose a blog post, exploratory essay, vlog, podcast, or propose a different alternative genre to me. Here, it is important that they think about what their main ideas are and how to best get those ideas across to their chosen audience.
Finally, students will write a short reflection (1-2 pages) answering the followingquestions:
What are the differences between the different texts you composed?
What (if any) connections do you see across the three texts?
What techniques, styles, or sentences from the alternative text could you see yourself using in formal academic papers (or vice versa) in the future?
My hope is that this process will help students make conscious rhetorical choices across different genres. During further revisioning, I would like to work with writers as they practice incorporating more of their own voice in a final term paper.