Thursday, April 29, 2010

Comp Tailz

I just got back some student evals from my intro to literature class, and I'm so excited by how positive they are. I didn't even have that one student (or two, or three) who finds me really annoying or lame. Amazing.

I'm not saying this to brag but rather as a preface to this confession: I know my comp evals would not be so positive. I only had to do student evals for one class this term, so I won't see comp evals this year, but I know they wouldn't be pretty. I've been doing a lot of new things this term, and, as a result, the time managment and organization has been tough for me and, therefore, tough on the students.

Let's face it. After about 13 or so years of teaching it, I have never figured out the best way to teach composition. And by "composition," I mean a writing class that focuses on argument and ends with a 10-page documented argument, which is otherwise known as "The Research Paper."

Why can't I get it together with this class? Perhaps it's because I teach at a community college and have a lot of unskilled writers, for whom I feel a great sense of panic about their lack of writing skills? Perhaps, as result of this panic, I try to do too much?

Either way, the class is too multi-faceted for me. Give me a good survey or lit class any day, for which I can adopt a rather linear curriculum and a sane and regular assignment schedule. How I love chronology, let me count the ways. But as many of you know, the comp class involves grammar, style, MLA documentation, rhetoric, logic, organization, information competency--and that's just the beginning of the list which contains all kinds of subtlties, such as not "preaching" to your reader, having strong conclusions, integrating quotations, avoiding inflammatory comments . . . the list could go on forever, right? And it's not like math when you don't have to do certain functions until you've covered them. A writing class doesn't have that kind of inherent progression. We could talk about style first. We could talk about syntax first. We could talk about argument first. We could talk about paragraphs first. We could talk about MLA first. Right?

I think it's typical for most writing instructors to have a variety of assignment types and drafts that are always coming and going. Since there are so many skills to master, we mix it up a bit. But this busy highway of work is making me--and my students--crazy. I think that sometimes we are actually losing the cost-benefit struggle. It's. All. Just. Too. Much. It's so fragmented, like a giant post-modernist experiment that refuses to cohere.

So. I think I need to do something different (although I'm sure my husband would tell you that doing something different [every term] is a big part of my problem).

But after getting such positive evals back today from my lit class, I'm thinking, "What can I do to offer a more positive learning experience for my comp students?" "Why can't I be as good at teaching comp as I am at teaching lit?" (Actually, I think I used to be better at teaching comp than I am now, but that's another mystery.)

Maybe I just need to start leaving stuff out. Focus more. It's not like they really master or even get all off the stuff I'm telling them they need to do, so maybe if I leave a few things out, they will master more of what we do cover, and we will all keep our sanity along with some degree of self-confidence. But what would I leave out?

Tell me. How do you focus/structure you comp classes? What works best for you? What do you skip? What do you hit hard? How do you make the class more linear and progressive and less like a giant spider web of skills that are so hard to master? How do you make it engaging? How do you make it coherent? How do you make it so that you enjoy it and don't drive yourself crazy?


The Steel Magnolia said...

My comp feedback is pretty good, but I'm not sure that I'm any better at it than you are describing. I do try to compartmentalize, meaning that lately I've been leaving grammar largely to online quizzes that we go over once they've completed them. After that, I just don't dwell on it. I harp and harp on the citation stuff because they need it through their matriculation. Beyond that, I cover style, etc. without really expecting most of them to demonstrate mastery. At the end, I just hope they can make their writing more readable and smart. Is that a strategy? Don't know. But there you have it.

Amstr said...

It's been a long time since I've taught comp. But I always did find it much easier to teach Freshman Comp (essay writing) and Critical Thinking/Argumentation (incl. research paper) as separate classes. I think it's hard to include a research paper and all that it entails into a class that must introduce college writing to new students. Wish I could be more help.

Gaga said...

Yep, leave stuff out and focus on the most important. I couldn't teach comp, but it's true of everything we teach. Try to teach too much and the result is less learning than you want. And a frustrated instructor and students.

The Joyous Scholar said...

So much depends on the students in the comp class I have been teaching over the past 9 years. I definitely put critical thinking at the top of the list, with its subsets, like question sets (also connected to Invention). I assign essays for students to read as homework, to check reading comprehension, to look for examples of rhetorical strategies and literary techniques. Students do not like this, and this year, it was a nightmare. But because I am a stick in the mud, I did not change my criteria, and some of the students are catching on only now (in the last month). I assign in-class exercises to test critical thinking, like advertisement or museum exhibit printout analysis. Students did not participate for longer than five minutes in these exercises, nor did they take advantage of online posting of peer review essays (which would work as a great way to have them produce writing every week). I focus all these exercises by repeating key terms, like the "purpose" of one's essay, and the fact that all those organisation techniques exist - since ancient times - because they are such an efficient way to get one's message across. So, the short of my little spiel is that teaching such a class is a thankless task, forced into the "miraculous" domain of trying to make students think, which one cannot do until the student wants to.

C. Troubadour said...

Oh man, GEW. I did not have to teach a comp class when I was at Little U., but I did have to integrate teaching comp skills so that the lit papers (that argued a position of some sort on selected reading(s)) would not be a mess when they were submitted.

You know, I did change things up based on what I saw my students struggling most with. If one set of students was generally doing fine with integrating quotes, I reminded them of the basic pitfalls to avoid and left it at that. But if my students the following semester were having a really hard time with that skill, we practiced with an assignment. So basically, I amended my syllabus to suit my students' needs (perhaps an assessment of their skills at the beginning of the course -- no idea what that would be, but let's say such a thing could be created -- would help you decide what would be best to look at more closely?). The sad thing is that these skills are supposed to be taught in high school. Maybe we have to hope they've at least seen these things before so we don't succumb to the guilt of straight-up neglecting to introduce them to the students ...

Word verification does it again! I've got "kryses."

--ginger. said...

GEW, I think you've heard me wax on (and off) about this one: for me it's Process. And I use that as the spoke of the wheel for all my writing classes. If I can teach them idea discovery, then I think they make a connection to their own thoughts and then when things like comma usage and paragraph organization and development and on and on come, then they're leaning in a little more. I prefer waking the dead to perfecting the zombie. And while I am still tired at the end of the year (okay, quarter, okay mid-quarter), I am more and more interested in comp every year. It stays freshfor me because I love to see them wake up. So man of the skills we want them to learn are lying dormant, I believe. They've been absolutely harangued to learn them for years and years afer all. I think they're like skinny little weaklings with monstrous tool boxes they can't carry when they arrive. But I'm mixing metaphors here, which is my spiritual gift. This topic deserves a trip to a coffee shop together, I'd say. :)

Ink said...

I also assign a lot of essays as we go along to make them *constantly* engage with what makes research and argument work.

That's the backbone of my course: how to structure an effective, compelling argument (which takes everything else -- including finding critical sources -- into account).