On the Joys of Teaching First Year Composition

One of the real pleasures of teaching the first year composition courses is that I encourage students to choose their own topics.  Being on the dreaded quarter system, we teach three levels of first year composition (the first two are required for most students, while the third is required for transfer students):

Comp I: Students will be submitting their informative researched essays tomorrow. Topics range from What is up with NASA? to Why the latest Vocaloid is Cool to How the history of tea houses intersects with political revolution. There are also at least two papers on Zombies that I’m truly looking forward to reading.

Comp II: Students will be submitting their researched exploratory argument essays next week. Topics range from Are fathers necessary? to Why has Harry Potter causes such a ruckus in literacy studies? to Is separation of church and state truly viable?

Comp III: Students are working on their extended researched essays, and have just submitted their formal outlines in anticipation of drafting their essays this week. Topics range from What roles do angels play in various religions and cultures? to How has US action and influence, guided by current foreign policy, affected our citizens and the developing nations involved? to Has the way society treats transgendered people changed, and if so, it is enough?

As one student put it today, I must be great at party small talk after reading a batch of essays on such a variety of topics.

I’m looking forward to reading and learning, but evaluating/grading–not so much.  I plan to stock up on tea, gin and cookies for the next few weeks.

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My Comp Students

writing1It’s midterm week–the week when each class starts to “gel” or form its own personality.  I love this time in the term.  Yes, I did just return graded essays, which can be stressful when the student hates their grade, but luckily, that hasn’t happened this term (crossing fingers, toes, etc.).  Instead, students are coming to class on time, chatting casually with each other and with me, and seem to be engaged with the work of the class.  For both classes today, I basically had to tell students our class was over.  I love when that happens.

Composition I: they are working on analysis and interpretation as skills, in preparation for writing an essay analyzing and interpreting a “text” of their choice (artwork, song lyric, film, for example).  As with last term, the students are so intrigued by an explicit discussion and practice of these skills–as if they never really understood what they were doing in high school literature classes. 

Composition II: These students are starting to do research on an issue in preparation for their Annotated Bibliography and Review of the Literature essay (for many, these are two new, and frightening, genres of academic writing).  While many stick to topics that feel safe to them (alas, I have a few of the old standbys) others have more confidence and select the less typical topics such as gender and globalization, or parasites and schizophrenia, or different perspectives on the value of monogamy–topics they most likely were exposed to in other classes. And really, isn’t that the point of a required composition class: to get students to write about subjects theya re exploring in other classes, to integrate the content knowledge with the writing to learn knowledge?

Composition III (yes, all comp. for me this term, no lit): These students are working on a term-long research project, from topic selection, library research, to the prospectus, annotated bibliography and, finally, the 15-20 page researched essay. (While still a first year class, we must review the skills from the previous classes.)  This term I have topics ranging from the Psychology of the Vampires (Twilight, of course, led to that topic), to the Science Behind Dune–two literary-inspired topics I don’t usually get.  Then there other interesting topics such as Children of War and Aggression, Hypnosis, Dream Therapy, and the Invasion of Iraq. This class is my smallest, and they are all bravely plugging away on their research and note-taking now–this is impressive, considering the high attrition rate of this class normally.  That 15-20 page paper, as well as the sustained attention to the topic and process, truly weeds out those who skated by in the previous comp. courses.

I have many more young male students this term than ever before:  33 out of 80 students (4 classes).  (The collegewide ratio is 45% male, up from 43% last year, though I used to have classes where only 2-3 students were men.) This adds an interesting dynamic to the class, since some of these younger male students are sometimes quite confident challenging me, politely, but firmly,  on abstract ideas.  I’m enjoying that new development, and  it’s catching: the students are, too.

Just one of those postings where I get to express how much I enjoy my job.  (And it doesn’t hurt that it was 60 degrees and sunny today, and tonight is my weekly “Lost” gathering with wine and pizza).

Student Essay Topics: If They Choose It, They Will Come (usually) To Write a Delightful Essay

As has become an annual ritual for me, I’m spending the long Thanksgiving weekend reading and commenting on research paper drafts.  Because of the abbreviated length of the quarter system (vs. the semester system) research paper drafts are always due right before Thanksgiving, allowing me the long weekend to read them and return them to students a week before the final revision is due. 

Reading these first year students’ attempts at writing what for most is their first true synthesis essay, with the additional burdens of following a documentation system that is usually not MLA, and getting them to engage in a conversation with their research rather than dumping it in the essay “hit and run” style (see Graff and Birkenstein’s wonderful gem of an anti-textbook, They Say, I Say) , is alternatively rewarding and, frankly, horrifying.  But since I’m still under the glow of being thankful for my life, I’ll focus on the former.

The topics students have chosen this term range from the usual (the causes and effects of autism; the debate about stem cell research) to the creative (the myth of the creative genius;  the demise of the Massai culture).  Usually, I can almost predict that drafts on the recurring topics (such as the value of universal health care and going organic) will be the least “effective” essays, while those who choose more original topics (a multidisciplinary approach to the concept of honor; or, the history and evolution of the CEO) tend to have stronger draft essays.  However, this term is a little different:  many (but not all) who chose the creative topics are floundering trying to develop and organize ideas, while many (but not all) of those who chose the old standby topics are approaching them in wonderfully original ways.   

It’s a small epiphany, but one that forces me to remember not to be so doubtful about those old standby topics. 

Meanwhile, my Comp 1 students are struggling with a smaller, but still challenging researched essay examining, analyzing and interpreting a social trend (see Rosenwasser and Stephen’s Writing Analytically-another gem of a textbook).   The topics for these essays are even more delightful this term:  the popularity of the coffee shop; the popularity of social networking sites like Facebook; and the trend of Hollywood films about Marvel comics superheroes.  The drafts I’ve seen so far are a treat to read: students have done original research (such as surveys) and are truly engaged in their chosen subjects.  

Just a brief bloggy pause, as I spend the next few days of my long weekend reading and commenting on draft essays (with half finished novels such as Sherman  Alexie’s  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian  waiting for me, patiently, by my bed).