Engaging argumentation topics for a first year composition class?
October 11, 2010 11:08 AM   Subscribe

What are some engaging argumentation topics for a first year composition class?

This is my first time teaching composition at a large university. I have seventy five students. So far, they've written a short memoir, a social commentary and a review. The final paper for the semester is an argument incorporating research to support their point. I've allowed them to choose their own topics on the other assignments, which makes my students a bit less resistant to writing, but hasn't resulted in these writers really challenging themselves. I was considering assigning a range of issues to construct an argument around for two reasons: 1. I can make sure they engage in a more academic topic than they may have chosen and 2. I can't stand to read another ham-handed argument about legalizing pot, why abortions should be illegal, why one must be a vegan etcetera.

I was considering assigning topics such as technology (whether the internet is changing the way we think & write), society (income inequality, "the culture wars" or other trends likely to impact the future of a 20-something), America's future on the global stage.

I'm not sure any of these topics will actually be engaging. I'd like something that bridges their self-interest with more intellectual concepts. If you were a first year composition student, what might make a compelling topic for argument?
posted by Kitty Stardust to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Switch it up a bit and have them write about China or India's future on the global stage (in relation to America, if you'd like.) It's a little more compelling once they realize everything they own/many services they use come from abroad for pennies on the dollar, etc. etc.
posted by griphus at 11:12 AM on October 11, 2010

I have over ten years of experience wrestling with this exact issue. Based on what you've said, I would advise continuing to allow them to choose their topics BUT with the caveat that, because this is The Big Final Research Paper, they must pre-submit their topics to you (via email or whatever) and you must approve each topic. To expedite the process, you might try having them email you multiple topic ideas at once, so their odds of getting at least one approved go up.
posted by AugieAugustus at 11:14 AM on October 11, 2010

Well, an anecdote: in my first-year composition course at college, our entire semester was devoted to writing about sex & porn (each class had a 'theme' and we were randomly assigned). It was actually fascinating. We read everything from poetic essays by Atwood to memoirs of fisting in alleyways by Susie Bright to news bits from the late '80's about the NEA fiasco, to scientific research about pornography and society, etc. I ended up doing my final argumentative paper on Mapplethorpe and porn v. art - which is kind of up there with your legalize pot/vegan/abortion topics - but it is of course, if you actually do the research on legalities, history, aesthetics, a great topic.

I think it's safe to say that everyone at least felt the topic was engaging.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:18 AM on October 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I asked students to write about the rhetoric associated with their chosen issues rather than writing about the issues directly. So, for example, students weren't allowed to write about whether abortion should be legal, but they were allowed to write about the rhetoric associated with the abortion debate--which parties were using what rhetorical strategies, whether those strategies were ethical in and of themselves, how effective they were, etc. This still allowed students a fair bit of leeway to choose the subject, but it also forced them to think about how they were arguing, which I think made them better writers and also made the papers more interesting to read.
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 11:31 AM on October 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: There is a debate series called "Intelligence Squared" that I've heard sometimes on NPR from which you could draw some interesting potential topics. You can access the archives here.

For example, some of the past topics included "The U.S. should step back from its special relationship with Israel"; "we should legalize the market for human organs"; and "aid to Africa is doing more harm than good." There's a long list of interesting topics there.
posted by greenmagnet at 11:38 AM on October 11, 2010

The answer is right in front of you... Two of my most successful semesters teaching Freshman Comp were the result of me sending students to Metafilter. They could use a MeFi or AskMe post as a springboard for their argument. They submitted proposals to me and provided the link to the particular post they used. Metafilter is such a fantastic resource for demonstrations of argumentation, audience, why a particular position is successful or not...

Good luck. 75 students is a bitch of a classroom cap!
posted by madred at 12:09 PM on October 11, 2010

Do you mean 3 sections with a total of 75 students or one class with 75 students? I ask as a retired academic and note the way universities have taken on the cost-cutting methods of the corporate world...at the expense of the consumer (students) and workers (teachers).
posted by Postroad at 2:50 PM on October 11, 2010

I had good success in my freshman writing class with the topic of concussions in the NFL (and football in general). Several experts have linked multiple concussions to early dementia in ex-pro athletes, and the league attempted to suppress the info, even going so far as to discredit the researchers. I started with a great Malcolm Gladwell article from the New Yorker, and the topic was getting some notice in daily papers--it was right before the Superbowl. Students enjoyed doing research about a sports topic.
posted by feste at 3:23 PM on October 11, 2010

Aspects of life at the university could be a solid way to get students to raise their personal concerns to the level of academic discourse. Dry campus? Should it be? Foreign language requirement? If not, should students have to take a year to graduate? There are all kinds of things wrapped up in every university that students take issue with. By getting these kids to do research to back up their opinions, you could be creating a pretty meaningful class. (Not that it isn't already)
posted by Ghidorah at 5:12 PM on October 11, 2010

For whatever reason, this premise almost immediately popped into my head: "Your home state/province/county is prepared to declare sovereignty." It's broad enough that each student can look at it through their preferred lens (historical, economic, political, philosophical, etc.), it's personal without being invasive, and is sure to be a hell of a lot more interesting to read than another marijuana essay. It's hypothetical, though, which may or may not be appropriate, and it could be a touchy subject, depending on where your students are from.
posted by clorox at 5:26 PM on October 11, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for the link to Intelligence Squared, Greenmagnet. I'll be using that one in class for sure.

Ghidorah, I really like your idea of using University policies as a way to structure writing assignments. I'm going to run this one by a few more professors before I try it.

Postroad, I teach 3 sections of 25 students, though now that the final week for withdrawing has passed, it's more like 22.

Thanks to everyone for the suggestions.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 5:00 PM on October 15, 2010

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