Question Authority

I’ll be collecting the final portfolios for my first year writing class next Tuesday. I pretty much know what to expect, because I have held conferences and reviewed drafts from the 17 survivors (out of an initial class size of 24). It’s been a long time since I’ve taught first-year writing, and I did it differently this time. I think it worked out reasonably well. I taught it with an emphasis on visual rhetoric initially, but I did not allow that to constrain the student’s topic choices.

The results in most ways were predictable— no one chose to write about visual topics. Most wrote about the same old canned topics that first year students think it will be easiest to write about. However, they seemed to write about them in a much more inquisitive and rebellious fashion. Their analyses seemed deeper than usual, and I think that the structure of the class afforded that. Most wrote with an intensely critical eye toward the reliability of their sources. I’m going to try to write about the choices I made in teaching this class this time, with the hope that if I get to do it again I can improve. The class was a big divergence from ways I’ve done it before—I granted less freedom, asked for more output, and generally got it. There was less stumbling on the way to the goal of their final research papers.

I kept the reading content at arms length from the research component, and this worked out extraordinarily well. In short, I tried to develop the critical skills through greater use of readings rather than peer-review or instructor feedback on their writing. I let them write their own way through their issues, instead of trying to impose an outside point of view. I would have liked to encourage more peer interaction on their topics, but it seemed hard to manage and less interesting. I used the readings as a common locus for community rather than attempting “group research.” There was some crossover, but not enough. Mostly people managed their research on their own.

I’ve never used a textbook for first year writing before, preferring instead to use web-based content and readings via PDF in the course shell (or the old-fashioned hand-out prior to University adoptions of WebCT). This time, however, I found a book that was perfect for my needs. I credit Geoff Sirc’s seminar in composition theory and its survey of historic textbooks for leading me to a variant on the classic Ways of Reading by Bartholome and Petrovsky, Ways of Reading: Words and Images from 2003. The book features a rich number of excerpts from classic image/texts, starting with Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and apparently it was well adopted enough to have used copies available starting at $2. Nice. Using a trick I learned from Dr. Jim Levernier at UALR, I thought it would be great to deconstruct a really conservative textbook as classroom exercise, while the students were using it. Jim taught 18th century American lit that way.

Bartholome and Petrovsky use all of the usual suspects, Evans and Agee, Lange and Taylor, Barthes, John Berger, etc. They leave Bourke-White and Caldwell out completely—prompting some really interesting discussions in class regarding why that might be the case. I enriched this with lots of short documentary films, some to elaborate on the text readings and others for their innovative techniques. The Errol Morris “First Person” piece on Temple Grandin was the most popular one among my farm kids. I found having a sort of core-theme of the ways that farming is represented particularly effective on an agricultural campus—the use of classic documentary texts was a sort of dual winner in this context too. The class also responded well to Morris’s blog essays at the New York Times, at least until the second installment where they felt it was getting awfully tedious. In fact, I think it was pretty much the burnout factor of doing so much discussion of images that left them anxious to do something different for their major research project.

This didn’t really bother me, because as we progressed through the class projects of a prospectus, annotated bib, bibliographic essay, and then final paper it seemed that their projects were about really questioning the authority of their sources (Morris, I think, really helped out with this). If the major reason for assigning texts is to teach critical thought (rather than style), I think this grouping worked out in spades.

I am writing this out now because I want to remain clear on exactly what I was doing. Teaching the history of documentary practice was simply an “extra” in the class—it was not the main point. The main project was examining citation in practice—and images are often taken to be the ultimate “citation” of the real—to help them figure out just what citations can and cannot do. These were bright kids, and I think the results were worth following up on.

The readings suggest it was a class in visual rhetoric. It wasn’t. It was a class in writing. Over the break, I’d like to write more about what I actually did in the class and what revisiting so much of this older visual theory did for me over the course of the class. I think it worked out well for me, as well as for my students. This is probably the best result I’ve ever had in trying to get people to write critically; while they weren’t comfortable with my topic (visual rhetoric), they did push harder and further into topics that were of some interest to them. Topic selection in themed classes is simply a device to explore deeper and more lasting skill-sets (at least in my opinion). It shouldn’t be about pushing a personal agenda forward.