April 22

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How I Teach College-Level Writing: Why I Teach Cool

Miles_Davis_by_Palumbo

This is the fourth essay in a series: “How I Teach College-Level Writing.”

I’m sharing what I do in the writing classroom, the first-year Composition classroom specifically, with the hope of offering something useful to anyone about to design his or her own syllabus.

You can read the previous essays here:
1. The Intro
2. The Theories
3. The Diagnosis

Now for…

Why I Teach Cool

In my previous essay in this series, I argued that many first-year college writers have a particular issue with the sorts of writing they will have to do in college: they have been trained to write five-paragraph essays. This is an essay format that has served them well in school, but in college, it’s not so suitable. The biggest problem with the five-paragraph essay is that it doesn’t, to a professor’s reading, seem to display thinking. Instead, it usually presents an unconvincing sort of certainty, a mere list of reasons why the student’s opinion is correct. And while the five-paragraph essay contains sources, those sources are rarely used in a precise, detailed way: they are merely brought in to prove the student’s point.

Here’s an example of what I mean: in my first semester teaching Composition 102 at UTK, I designed the course around an investigation of our city, Knoxville. I thought the students, many of whom hail from outside the area, would benefit from getting to know all the things going on in Knoxville. And a better teacher than me definitively could have made a great class from this theme. But I found that the papers my students wrote showed all the problems I just outlined. Because my theme was so concrete, students tended to write very factual accounts that tended either towards summaries of local history, or “persuasive papers” about something the student approved of or didn’t approve of.

Neither showed the kind of thinking or deliberating that I feel is necessary in a University environment.

So I decided, for better or worse, to change my course theme. Now I teach “cool.”

Here’s part of the course description:

What does it mean to be cool? Is cool just something you’re born with? If not, who decides what’s cool and what’s not? Is “cool” the same thing as “popular,” or are they completely different things? In this writing class, we will practice our research and argumentative skills by examining a wide variety of supposedly cool people and things. We’ll look at Apple’s design team, to ask whether a company can be cool; we’ll read about popular stereotypes of “the cool girl;” we’ll read the musician Questlove asking whether hip-hop is still cool. These discussions will enable you to investigate and write on your own, carrying out interviews and surveys, studying what people in the past thought cool was, as well as using the ideas of other scholars and writers to help develop your own views.

You do not need to be cool to take this class.

Again, this is just me, but I’ve been very happy with teaching Composition 102 this way. “Cool,” as a structuring idea for a writing class, has a number of useful benefits.

  1. Cool is nebulous

One advantage of making a course about “cool” is that no one really knows what cool is. In order to talk about it, both established writers and student writers need to make an argument about how they are explaining and justifying their words. This inclines students to develop the more complex language of framing and rationale-making. The class usually starts off with the premise that cool and popular are basically the same word, but through discussion and reading, divisions and complications emerge. The topic also leads naturally into bigger, more “philosophical” questions about society, expectations, the self, what we consciously believe we know vs what we actually think and do.

  1. Cool is a way to teach difference.

One odd difficulty I and many other teachers have had, in the first-year writing classroom, is that many students seem to write and talk as though everyone basically is saying the same thing.

The textbook Critical Passages is particularly brilliant on this, pointing out how in many student papers, one gets the feeling that every source quoted by the student is offering the same view on life, that the CEO of McDonalds and Scipio Africanus and Anne Sexton were all pretty much in agreement on the major questions of existence.

“Cool,” therefore, is a good way to try to break through that unconsidered certainty, because people have radically different ideas of what it is. In the early weeks of the course, I present the students with three essays, all talking about cool, but using the term in very different ways.

Elizabeth Winkler: Cool People Break the Rules—But Only the Right Rules
Anne Helen Peterson: The History of the Cool Girl
Questlove: What Happens When Black Loses Its Cool?

From Buzzfeed,
From Peterson’s article

If you read the three essays, you’ll see that while there are similarities between “cool” in each essay, the differences are not only subtantial, but also pretty much irreconcilable.

In Winkler’s piece, cool is more or less a moral act, a way of behaving well in society. For Peterson, it’s a PR campaign, one all the more effective because the cool person might not know she is performing. For Questlove, cool is a method of self-protection, a shield with which African-Americans warded off, as best they could, the attentions and threats that white society sent their way.

For Peterson, cool is fleeting: every cool girl loses it eventually. For Questlove, cool is eternal: no musician today can match the cool of Miles Davis or Nina Simone. This difference, I assert in class, is what makes things interesting. We don’t need to water down one writer in order to make her fit into another writer’s view of things.

I then supplement the in-class conversation with videos that the students watch for homework, videos I recorded myself, with the iPad app Adobe Voice. Here’s one video, advising the students what to look for in the Peterson essay:

http://voice.adobe.com/v/Md-EPw9v-5m

(How much time, you ask, did it take me to record a series of videos like that? A lot of time.)

Once we’ve had this discussion, I then require the students to take this idea of “difference” into the papers they write. Before the student can offer a claim, I suggest, she must first present not only a topic, but also describe a problem within that topic. Only once there’s a problem can a solution be interesting. Only once the student has located something in her topic that seems, on the face of things, irreconcilable, should she attempt to present her own claim, her own take.

And I do this in very explicit way, by giving guidelines for the class’s essays that go paragraph by paragraph, describing what to focus on in almost every paragraph of a 4 or 5 page paper. In other words, I teach them a couple of different essay structures which, I believe, will help them present thinking on the page.

I’ll describe how this works in the next post.


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how I teach college writing


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