Anyone out there ever taught first-year college composition?
April 27, 2005 6:18 PM   Subscribe

Anyone out there ever taught first-year college composition?

Next semester will be my first time teaching it, and I'm trying to figure out some good texts. I've taught introductory communications and journalism classes before, but this is a much more basic course than I'm used to teaching. The actual lesson plans won't be a problem, but as there are about a zillion possible texts out there, I'm wondering if any of y'all have any opinions as to what's good.
posted by hifiparasol to Education (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'm impressed that you get to choose your own text -- in my experience, freshman comp classes usually stick to one text for all sections. That's cool.

We can probably help you more if you tell us what you want to do with the class: Straight rhetoric and argument? Some literature? Any creative assignments? Do you want to work more on sentence-level writing? Longer papers? Shorter papers?
posted by climalene at 6:54 PM on April 27, 2005

I don't know if this is what you're looking for, but I think this is an wonderful collection of essays.
posted by ori at 7:23 PM on April 27, 2005

Talk to some people that have taught the course in the past and ask them what seemed to interest the students and what didn't. If you talk to two or three different TAs, you'll easily be able to get enough information to compile a good course. Think back to your own composition courses you took when you were a student and what you might remember from it. If you remember something from a class 3-4 years ago, then it was probably good. I have a friend that has taught a few comp courses and she always liked making the students argue points that they don't agree with. Perhaps you could even just do a google search for 'syllabus' and 'composition 101'
posted by Arch Stanton at 7:55 PM on April 27, 2005

I've taught undergraduate writing courses...what are the objectives of your composition course? This would help to narrow down the texts.
posted by jeanmari at 8:04 PM on April 27, 2005

I've taught first and second year comp. The emphasis in my program, in the first year, was assisting students to find their voice as writers by helping them connect writing essays and research to their personal experiences and interests. I like William Zinsser for this purpose. There's also an emphasis on basic clarity and mechanical skill in his work that's helpful.

I also found that a coursepack filled with sample essays written by other beginning writers, both strong and weak, is a good tool. They learn a lot if you walk them through how an essay is evaluated, and if they see learn to spot weaknesses in others' writing, it helps them to see their own. My coursepack also contained assignment-specific exercises -- eg, for the research paper, material on styling references, how to paraphrase, when to cite, sample topics, etc. My first year, obviously, most of these materials came from other instructors. I'd ask as many people as possible in your program to share materials with you. If you are teaching as a grad student, many programs will have some kind of support program where you will meet with an advisor and perhaps other students in a group as a resource for such materials, as well as general teaching questions.

Other items in my coursepack included specific essays I really liked by a wide range of writers -- I remember Annie Dillard was great for the autobiographical essay, for instance. You can put together a great set of readings by picking and choosing from a range of books. Your university bookstore should have information about permissions, and there are good services for putting them together online to simplify things even more.

Argument and persuasive essays didn't enter the picture until second-year comp for me, but I don't know how your program functions. There should be at the very least some kind of orientation for you and suggested texts to use so you know what the program goals for the first are and can get some help preparing.
posted by melissa may at 9:23 PM on April 27, 2005

i thought john mcphee's giving good weight was the best text used in the literary journalism course i took, and i mention it only because said class gave far better writing instruction than the many dozens of literature / writing courses i took as an undergraduate.
posted by luriete at 11:46 PM on April 27, 2005

No, but I've seen some of the papers handed to a friend who has. Ha ha! There was one paper written on the little mermaid (!) that included the phrase "immortal sole". He drew a frowning fish in red ink next to it. So uh yeah, good luck with all... that.
posted by kavasa at 6:44 AM on April 28, 2005

I feel self-conscious writing a quickly tearing off a note about teaching writing! In this context, I write as I would talk. Just don’t want readers to think that I am leading young minds astray. Sorry for the length.

I used the same approach as melissa in teaching introductory writing at a small city college. I focused on helping students to find their own voice, develop the structure of a story, pay attention to the technical aspects of writing and strip out the clichés that they were using as a writing "crutch". I was pretty dismayed when I read the first assignment. Before this, I had been a graduate thesis advisor at a large university. The city college students had very poor basic writing skills! I couldn’t believe that they were allowed to graduate from high school. They were interesting kids though. I just had to get creative with the class design.

I leveraged multimedia, small groups and interaction to pull them into the experience of improving their writing. The administration had raised the maximum number of students in the class from eighteen to twenty-eight! So I also had to get creative about how to provide feedback and so forth.

The centerpiece of the course was to write a story based on a real life experience. There were other short assignments but the students worked on their centerpiece story throughout the semester. We explored the structure of a story through Zinsser’s On Writing Well and Radio: An Illustrated Guide (from the folks at This American Life). We discussed how to evaluate a story idea and how to give feedback respectfully. They worked in small groups (groups of three) to pitch ideas and give feedback to each other. They conducted research for the story by interviewing any other people who were involved (if they were available), and bringing in artifacts (photos, diaries, mementoes) related to the story to discuss in class.

We worked on many drafts of their stories and each draft taught a different lesson about writing. In the beginning, they weren’t paying attention to correcting technical mistakes from draft to draft. I brought in a news story from the CNN website. Unbeknownst to them, I had altered the story on my computer, adding technical mistakes, slang and poor grammar. We discussed it and they were more agitated by the mistakes than I had expected. They felt that the journalist was not credible because of them. At that point, I passed out a copy of the real story. We had a good laugh at my “trick” and we were able to talk about the impression that technical mistakes make upon the reader. (They actually used the term “street cred” to talk about the writer.) Their writing became more careful after that.

We read short stories from different writers and talked about style. We talked about the different components of a well-crafted story. I played episodes of “This American Life” in class and they worked in their groups to identify the different components of the stories. They created outlines and worked in their small groups to edit them.
To reduce the clutter in their writing, I told them that the local paper was interested in their writing, but had a limited amount of column space. They needed to make their drafts half as long as they were now while retaining the most important parts of the story by the end of class. They worked in their small groups, giving each other advice on what to discard. They agonized over cleaning up their work but all of them were happier with the final result.

Two years after the first class, one of my students is making a film of his story and another has published her story in a creative writing journal. Three students are interns within the media industry.

In a more advanced media class, I created a class weblog to give the students practice in formulating and presenting a point of view on a topic, creating interpretive questions and crafting thoughtful responses. Three students per week played “journalist” and posted an entry that summarized a media-related topic and posed a question. All other students were required to craft a thoughtful response to the question on the weblog. Since there were thirty students in that class (a grading nightmare), the weblog helped me to easily track who was participating and who wasn’t. The subject matter fed our in-class discussions.

I often felt strange dragging in my bag of props, tricks, handouts and so forth but the students stayed engaged and improved. That was satisfying. Good luck!
posted by jeanmari at 7:14 AM on April 28, 2005 [1 favorite]

Metafilter user beelzbubba has, just last semester in fact, at MSU. You should talk to him.
posted by klangklangston at 7:34 AM on April 28, 2005

I just finished my 4th semester of teaching freshman comp- I'd be happy to send you any of my syllabi or anything else you might find helpful.

I have had great success with The World is a Text and I find that students really like doing media literacy and current events because it makes them see how writing is connected to the world etc etc.

I'd love to talk more about this any time- and help you with your syllabus or share experiences or whatever (unfortunately, at this very moment I'm not thinking clearly so I can't offer you great off-the-cuff advice!).

Hope to hear from you soon.
posted by elisabeth r at 9:58 AM on April 28, 2005

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