HOF: Limiting Topics Brings Knowledge to Life

Here’s why I and my composition-teaching colleagues do not let students write arguments about certain topics.

First, let’s remember that I’m talking about first-year students who are learning about argument–about logic, fallacies, good evidence, bad evidence, finding common ground with opponents, refutation, and so on–for the very first time in their lives. The three or four short essays that my students have already written for me are the most writing they have ever done in one semester and perhaps more writing than they did in all of high school. Nearly all of my students enter our community college underprepared for high school, much less first-year college work. Many of these students have never used a library and none of them has used a college library.

In the catalog, the title of the course is Composition I. But it could just as well be called “Basic Introduction to College through Writing.”

school_research computer martinI’ll begin with a banned topic that rarely has anything to do with religion: gun control. When I allowed students to write about gun control, those who chose this topic were almost without exception paranoid far-right survivalist/militia fanatics who see New World Order conspiracies everywhere, or the children of such people. It was a self-selecting group: those obsessed with the topic were those who chose to write about it. And to these students, the gun-control argument has two sides: people who love freedom, and people who hate America and want to destroy America and want this to become a land of mindless slaves. A person who wants any sort of gun regulations whatsoever belongs to the second group. A person who’d like to see 30- and 50-round detachable magazine made illegal isn’t merely incorrect; he is an enemy every bit as dangerous as any foreign terrorist.

And to those students, arguments that support regulation of firearms simply don’t exist. Any data used to support arguments for gun regulation are fake–simply made up–or come from some foreign dictatorship where the people are already mindless slaves. It’s not that my no-gun-restrictions students didn’t want to consider other points of view. It’s that they simply denied the legitimacy of those points of view, since the students already knew that such viewpoints are lies concocted by communists or fascists who hate America, and so on and so forth.

My gun-loving students simply couldn’t do real research or construct even part of a proper argument. I think the term is “epistemic closure.” There’s really not an argument to be made when the choices are Good and Absolute Evil, is there? It’s as pointless as explaining why one should prefer Mister Rogers to Hitler. The inevitable poor grade on the assignment merely proved that colleges are controlled by communists or fascists who hate America, and so on and so forth.

The same kind of thing happened when I and my colleagues let students write about abortion, same-sex marriage, or prayer in public schools. With those topics, the self-selecting group consisted of religious fanatics. Please note that I am not saying that all religious people are wild-eyed fire-breathing theocrats. But I live in a part of the country where we have lots and lots of fanatics and more than a few wild-eyed fire-breathing theocrats. Catch John Hagee’s or Rod Parsley’s act on television sometime. To many of my students, that’s what a real Christian looks like. Pope Francis? Not a Christian. Demonic, in fact. I’ve had to shut down such a diatribe this semester.

For the religious fanatics in Comp I, the argument over abortion has two sides: God’s and Satan’s. It ain’t complicated. They don’t write arguments. They write sermons. Other points of view simply do not exist. My students who wrote about abortion always repeated the usual claims: women who have abortions are more likely to get cancer; women who have abortions kill themselves; women who have abortions become sterile. Giving them evidence to the contrary–science-based evidence from good sources–accomplished nothing. The articles are lies; the data are fraudulent; it’s all the work of pagans or atheists who like to kill babies. There is no need to waste time considering the ideas of people who have already proved that they are demonically evil by having such ideas.

Some of our students have been taught to leave a room when ungodly or demonic talk begins. If, say, a beginning-of-class conversation about a science story in the news drifts into mention of evolution or the Big Bang, a student will quietly pack up his or her books and leave, because he or she has been trained to get out of a room when Satan starts talking. It has happened to me and most of my colleagues.

And as with abortion, so with same-sex marriage, prayer in public schools, and other topics with a religious component. The students who write about them will not, can not, consider ideas other than their own because they already know that those other ideas are quite literally lies from Hell. They don’t write arguments. They refuse to. They write bad sermons. And if they get bad grades, they know that the instructor is on Satan’s side.

Again, please note that I am not claiming that all Christians fit a stereotype or caricature. But I live where the stereotypes and caricatures originated. I live where it’s not hard to find ramshackle little churches–old single-wides, as often as not–on back roads, churches that fly the Confederate battle flag next to and sometimes above a cross, and where men go to worship service with their AR-15s slung over their shoulders.

So I proscribe some topics. I try to make students begin arguments and research papers not with an opinion, but with a question about an important topic about which they know little and about which they know that they know very little. Then they need to show me that they have learned to use the college library well enough to find sound evidence that steered them to a point of view on the topic, and that they have examined the evidence for other points of view, and that they can assemble the products of their research into a logical and coherent whole that meets the requirements of the assignment.

It’s easier to accomplish that by proscribing topics that begin and end with Us or Them, Jesus or Satan, Liberty or Slavery. If it’s a topic that sometimes leads to shouting and screaming, pushing and shoving, fisticuffs, or gun play, then maybe it’s a topic that first-year composition students will not handle well.

Then, once a student has constructed a reasonably good written argument, I can say, “See what you did here? This is what grown-up discussion looks like. This–this way of thinking–is how all of should approach everything we think and believe, because everybody believes at least a few things that just aren’t correct. What you did in this assignment is how we can make sure that the things we believe make sense.” And I repeat the old saw: If you never change your mind, what’s the point of having one?

And then, next semester or next year, my composition students can apply their new knowledge in other courses such as sociology and philosophy, and maybe even re-examine some of their own assumptions. My Comp I class, after all, is not the last one in which students will have to make arguments. They’ll have plenty of opportunities to tackle controversies in other courses. My goal is to help them take the very first step in learning how to tackle a controversial topic.

from eumaois

Visual Rhetoric Assignment(s)

After presenting a particular textbook’s approach to images as a typical essay assignment about reading, rather than creating images (a point he has made a multiplicity of other times within the text), Rice in The Rhetoric of Cool asks,
Why don’t these authors ask students to write their own set of images? (152)

Possible Prompts
Rice suggests possible prompts to use with or instead of the reading image assignment in the book:
“compose with a series of iconic gestures” in a similar way to the ad presented
“critique the ad through your own ad”
“complicate the ad’s ..message by juxtaposing new images which challenge the ad’s stance”
“use the ad’s logic of juxtaposition to create your own series of ads” (152)

wordpress-icon“[A]ssemble iconic imagery into a space like a Web site … in order to construct an argument, present a position, express an idea, or perform any other rhetorical act” (152).

“[A]sk students to compose an autobiographical statement only with visual icons” (152).

For an example he presents the Absolut Vodka ads (which I have seen often in visual rhetoric presentations at PCA and SCMLA).
“These juxtapositions work with familiar icons” (153).
“[S]tudents use them as models in order to construct a series of iconic self-portraits, advertisements for themselves” (153).

Digital Presentations This Semester

The digital presentations are an important component of the writing classes I teach as they offer the students an opportunity to present information they have gathered (from the research paper for fyc) or created (for the commercial analysis for fyc).

They are also important components in my literature classes where they review what we learned in class (as students present their digital presentations on a work or aspect of a text that we read for class, where the videos serve as a unique review for the comprehensive final exam for British literature) or introduce students to an additional work (Old English Readings). They are rhetorically remixing and composing with a real-world medium.

These digital presentations have always been opportunities for the students to learn new technologies and to master information they have already been exposed to, but this semester, particularly, I have been delighted to see the students’ creativity as they have taken the assignments and used their particular giftings to make them phenomenal.

One of the students in my Old English readings course created all the images for her digital explication of the Harrowing of Hell (an Old English text that she read out of class and was introducing to her classmates). Whoo too!

One student in fyc created the video to parallel her research project out of a series of twenty interviews she filmed with teachers, administrators, and students at her high school alma mater regarding the soon-to-be-implemented school uniform policy. Last semester I had a journalism major who regularly interviews people for a television show and whose final project for Business Writing was a video; while it was good, this freshman project is another level beyond it.

One freshman student’s research was on the various forms of child abuse and the signs of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Her video was particularly poignant, with students commenting on her incredible invocation of pathos through text, images, and sound. I had written in my notes that the music was perfectly aligned—in both rhythm and meaning—for the presentation topic; soon after the presentations were shown I learned that she created and performed the music for her digital presentation.

Digital presentations are a different type of composition and aren’t specifically “writing” as we have known it. These compositions, however, add a strong rhetorical component to the writing classes, allow for introduction and recall of texts for the literature classes, and add the possibility of students showing their creative gifts, in addition to encouraging students to develop the skills to use the types of media they watch and interact with all the time.

Web 2.0 Collaboration in Bus Comm

steampunk_archive_icon_by_yereverluvinuncleber-d5jsav0Beuchler, Scott. “Using Web 2.0 to Collaborate.” Business Communication Today 73 (2010): 439-43. Web. 15 January 2014.

Beuchler added a blog to the final report project, which is a collaborative assignment. Group photos, the class naming the blog, required postings, and the information for those posts were part of the assignment. Teams of students related by industries they examined were required to create a video, which was also posted to the blog. After five companies made it to the finals, based on classroom voting and recommendations, students had to read posts on the five companies and add a comment arguing for the company they would choose to support. Beuchler found that the blog facilitated group decision making, allowed students to demonstrate their ability to use technology, and reinforced the responsibility of ideas.

typingThis is a fairly simple addition to the final report project, but apparently Beuchler had great success with it. Following the work of Cardon and Okoro, however, it indicates a use of technology not common in the business world. However, despite Cardon and Okoro’s arguments, learning an additional technology–even if it is not used in work–can be a positive benefit as students recognize their ability to learn and use technology and can claim facility with it as a skill on their résumé.

When I first read the summary, I thought the article would be a waste of time. However, I have been considering creating a blog (on my own website) that students would have access to and could add the information that they create for the freshmen. Then I could offer my own students (and others) the opportunity to peruse the website and use the information they find there. That is still a possibility for implementation in spring 2014 and is certainly doable by fall 2014.


Assessing New Media Compositions

steampunk_archive_icon_by_yereverluvinuncleber-d5jsav0Sorapure, Madeleine. “Between Modes: Assessing Student New Media Compositions.” <em>Kairos 10.2 (2005). Online journal. Web. 6 November 2013.

Since computer use changes the writing experience, the article argues that assessment must also change and suggests that the litmus test should be the effectiveness with which the modes (image, text, sound) are combined. Discussions of assessment indicate the importance of new media, but many assessments are based on the print component. The strategy of borrowing from other fields to teach and assess, Sorapure argues, decontextualizes the guidelines from their own field and puts rhetorical theory at risk of marginalization. Sorapure constructs a definition of new media as a combination of modes and the combination both creates and defines the “coherence in digital texts.” She then argues that metaphor and metonymy are two primary meaning-making activities. Her presentation of the student assignment is straightforward: create a collage illustrating Ginsberg’s quote on controlling the image to control the world using Photoshop. Visually all of the work is pleasing, but as a multimodal composition activating both metaphoric and metonymic relationships between verbal and visual is the most effective; Sorapure provides student examples and her assessments. She then introduces a second assignment (with links) and assesses them in the same way.

The argument for multimodal assignments to be assessed beyond the written is strong. The inclusion of specific examples and developed narratives of assessment is helpful. Problematically the assessment is not quantitative and is only one element, which Sorapure discusses. She mentions technical or aesthetic challenges as possible other elements. This assessment model is insufficient to stand alone, but does add depth to multimodal assessment.

This assessment could be added to my assessment rubric for digital storytelling without difficulty. It would add a level of complexity to the assessment which could possibly allow the better videos to be more accurately described.

“Metonymy designates a relation based on combination; modes can be metonymically related when they are linked by an association, as when lines from a poem are combined with a melody from a song. It is a relation based on contiguity between elements in different modes.”

RrNm Ann Bib

Considering Creative Projects

I am considering assigning creative projects as part of an upper division course in Old English Readings (in translation). –Actually the course is Brit Lit up to 1700, but we are ending in 1385 and concentrating on Old English.

I want to do this because it has been a while since I’ve had a creative project and I know they turn out well. (See The Best Final EVER for evidence.)

Zummara_Medieval dueling musicians WC pdThings I have considered as possibilities (to offer students an option) include:
a quire of hand-written magical incantations based on readings about definitions of licit and illicit magic and the few charms we are reading
an illuminated manuscript of a short poem–with poem and illumination provided by student
a needlepoint of a scene from Bayeux Tapestry (saw one done by a high school student who had been failing before his imagination was fired up!)

Then I thought about how much I enjoyed learning medieval weaving at Maker Faire and creating a chain mail bracelet and a viking weave bracelet. So, I followed the suggestions of my spouse, and got on YouTube to renew my acquaintance with something interesting. I found three very different presentations of the viking knit using craft wire:
without words
Blue Kitty’s Creations
Potomac Bead Company version
Beadaholique’s version, which though I like their videos, this seems a little too much “use our product–which doesn’t seem easier than doing it yourself
and a useful, but annoying because it gives all the product numbers, version from Jewelry Supply.com

I thought about creating my own creative projects as examples.

I have lots of medieval costumes. I could stage a fashion show and do a video to present to the class.
I found some amazing Viking miniatures on ebay and if I were endlessly rich I would purchase many and some Celtic miniatures and Roman, etc, and stage a map of England through the ages with the miniatures being the different people groups. Then I would do a photography timeline.
My husband has hundreds of incredible images from RenFair and other shoots. I have dozens. I could put those into some kind of digital presentation with an appropriate narrative or a selection of medieval music or both.
I could cook a medieval feast and serve it on pewter dishes (for the rich) or bread trenchers (for the rest of us).
I could pull out my collection of medieval stories and saints’ lives and create kid-appropriate versions.
I have already created slideshows of illustrations of Judith and Beowulf. Perhaps I could use those somehow.

What would the parameters of the assignment be? How would I make sure that the students all did commensurate work and did not (as I know one student did the last time I tried something like this) write a poem five minutes before class and get an A, because they were an excellent poet?

Digital Presentations

I teach an early British literature course for sophomores.

When I arrived at my university, I was told that we were encouraging technological involvement as part of the classroom experience. As part of that, I created an iBook for the course. Also as part of that, I began requiring a digital presentation.

In its early iterations the digital presentation was part of a longer assignment. The students chose a character from the readings of the semester and created a musical playlist for that character. They wrote an essay explaining how each song related to the character. Then they created a video using audio, text, and images to remind the rest of their classmates about the character. They were supposed to use the songs they had come up with for their playlist as part of the audio.

This semester my British literature class decided to follow the class plans of two of my colleagues and we had weekly literary analyses as well as an increased number of exams. There were no longer essays required. When I introduced the digital presentations, I showed examples of the earlier iterations students had presented.

At some point, very early in the assignment (after I showed examples, but while we were still in class being taught how to use iMovie), one of the students asked if they had to focus on the music for their videos. I said no, particularly since we didn’t have the playlist assignment.

The great thing about the digital presentation assignment is that we watch these the final week before exams (so we just finished them this week) and the students have a great review for the final.

The range of videos I received this semester was impressive. A lot of them, probably even the majority, still followed the previous classes’ model. However, there were some that were very different.

One student covered Sir Gawain using Joseph Campbell’s mono myth, which I had introduced in the class during the Old English readings.

One student wrote out a script for Miranda from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and told the story of the play from Miranda’s point of view. Even better, she explained what life was like as the future queen of Naples/Italy, having grown up almost alone on an island.

Another student looked at Gulliver’s Travels using the Neoclassical exam question on Lilliput and Brobdingnag and compared Gulliver’s experiences in living accommodations, with royalty, and with showing off for and being shown off by his hosts.

One student made a video and did a modern rendition of Everyman using Death and Everyman as the only characters, but talking about quite a few of the other characters–so that the audience was able to reconnect ideas.

A different student presented a video on The Dream of the Rood with pictures that at least one student said helped them understand the poem for the first time.

Several students chose sonnets to read and illustrate. –One even managed to finagle one of my colleagues into being the reader for the poem, so that the student’s voice wasn’t on the video!

One student compared the values of the Old English and Middle English periods, using Judith and Sir Gawain as her examples.

Another student told The Wife’s Lament in a modern explanation, with amazingly beautiful images. The rendition she gave actually combined two of the scholarly readings of the poem. (There are at least three.)

One student took video clips off of youtube.com and added text and music to explain “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales. The other students really liked her use of video rather than still images to create her presentation.

Since I had 48 students in those two classes, there were lots of other examples.

I have to admit that I enjoyed this iteration of the assignment even more than the playlist version. While many of the students created a playlist digital presentation, they weren’t limited by that in scope and so their creativity was expressed.

Two Texts Essay: Song Lyrics v. Music Video

Yesterday I was checking my email and discovered an email I had missed from last month.

The author wrote:

I am an adjunct at a community college. I am gearing up for my Fall semester and have been searching the web for new essay ideas for my FYC class. I came across your blog and was wondering if you would mind elaborating a bit on your assignment posted back on May 8th of this year. I am interested in the Lyric and Video comparison essay. I guess I am just wondering since most videos follow their song’s stories what they were comparing–were their contrasts as well as similiarities? Also how long was this essay? … I was just hoping you could give me a little more information.

Oops! I hadn’t seen it. I sent her an email yesterday, but I thought I would post here so that others who might be interested could see the information.

She was referencing a retrospective post that said this:

Thankfully I have an amazingly gifted colleague, Dr. Mikee Delony, who shared her assignment for this paper. She came up with the idea of comparing the lyrics of a song with an official music video for the work.

I introduced the idea using Tata Young’s “Cinderella” and Randy Travis’ “I’m Going to Love You Forever.” An interesting aspect of these two sets of lyrics, which was serendipitous, was that they both have a “they say/I say” aspect—which is the name of our new text for the course and a focus for the class. “Cinderella” says “My momma used to read me stories…. I’m going to rescue myself.” Excellent way to begin this discussion! Then Travis’ song says “They say that I’m … I’m no longer one of those guys.” That allows us to talk about reputation and change, something that students in a residential college setting may well have to deal with.

The assignment was very successful. The students enjoyed it because they were allowed to pick any music and the videos, it turns out, were sometimes quite bizarre. I think some of the students went looking for really odd videos to start with!

HeadphonesThe students don’t have any trouble at all finding videos that aren’t exactly like the lyrics or that are unexpected. A lot of music videos don’t follow the song as well as one might think. Yes, the creators knew the song when they put it together, but they didn’t necessarily design it in an expected manner.

As I mention, I start with two examples. We use Randy Travis’ “I’m Gonna Love You Forever.” We read the words of the song and talk about what we would expect from the music video. Older folks might think of Grease. There should be a young man singing to a young woman, or maybe even starting out they are young but then later they are middle aged and old. It should be about a couple. It should mostly have only them in it. It might have some shots of old men and old women sitting around talking.

Then I play the music video. It’s a guy singing at his sister’s wedding. Not what you are expecting, though there are some definitely sweet moments. “Honey, I don’t care. I ain’t in love with your hair. If it all fell out, I’d love you anyway” accompanies a shot of a woman kissing her husband’s bald head. Turn about is fair play.

Then we look at the words for Tata Young’s “Cinderella.” What do you expect? This is a song about someone not being a captive. It is about an empowered woman who is taking charge of her life. I would expect video of a woman whose life is filled with connection: friends with whom she meets regularly for coffee or meals, family with whom she stays in contact, a job that she is good at and is obviously respected in.

Then we watch the music video. Do you expect a girl in a bed? In very frilly girly clothes? A bed like a cage? No, so we talk about the rhetoric of the video.

After students find the song and video they are going to use, they take their song and list out lines, what they expected to see from that, and then what the video showed. Sometimes this is very different and sometimes it is not. I would hope that the students would write their expectations down first, but I am sure some students did not do that.

Two examples of the pre-writing exercise:
Blown Away Carrie Underwood
We are never getting back together

The second song actually has two videos, both official as far as I can tell. One has strange animals showing up at regular intervals. It is definitely unexpected as the animals are never explained and, while we tried, neither the student nor I could come up with a rational explanation that showed why the animals needed to be there or how what types of animals were chosen.

Honeymoon Inn musical cover WCThen the students wrote the paper.

The paper is 3 to 4 pages long.

Students enjoyed reading the papers that others wrote during the peer review process and for fun you might add a class period where everyone watches each other’s music videos and writes down things that they see in it. (After the student has done the prewriting.) This gives more ideas and might add depth to the paper. I haven’t done that for this particular assignment, but I have for a different one and it worked out well.

Just in case you are interested, here is the Two-Texts Essay Rubric I use to grade the final essay.