Monday, August 30, 2010

How Do You Describe Your Course?

For me, as an instructor, the challenge isn't teaching the remedial writing courses; the challenge is teaching the more advanced required writing course. While we are told when we teach remedial writing that we can do or use what we want, as long as the kids can write at a college level by the end of it, the more advanced writing courses are a part of the student's general education requirement, and thus have a laundry list of boxes to check (common textbook, common assignments, common readings, etc). And the students, having already made it through Freshman Writing, don't really see the point of doing yet another writing course.

I was really excited, however, when I saw that one of the units in the textbook was on "Education." The current debate surrounding education reform, my personal interest in the role and purpose higher education, the fact the these students have chosen to attend university and typically come from underperforming, rural high schools, I thought this course would be an opportunity for the students to really think critically about their (continuing) education and the education they would want their children to receive. Couple that with a few weeks spent on really talking about rhetoric and rhetorical devices, I thought that this course would be a slam dunk with the students.

I was very, very wrong.

As I was introducing the students to concepts we were going to be talking about in the class, I saw their eyes glaze over the moment I mentioned that we were going to look at education. You could feel the energy and enthusiasm in the room drain away. And once it was gone, I couldn't find a way to get it back. Nothing I said about education, its implications for them as students and future parents got their attention again. I sort of got a reaction when I mentioned that concept of unschooling, but other than that, nothing. I could see the wheels turning in their heads, trying to figure out how to manipulate their schedules in order to change out of my class.

I was extremely discouraged. How can I get students to enjoy remedial writing, but I can't get them excited about education, a subject that has touched and shaped all of their lives in a really important way? And then I realized that I had forgotten one of the important lessons I teach my students: words matter. Sounds simplistic, I know, but we forget (and students take for granted) that we can say the same thing in many, many different ways. The meaning itself hasn't changed, but how we interpret and receive that meaning can vary a great deal.

So I set about rebranding my course. How can I get my students excited about studying and thinking more critically about rhetoric and education? Once I came up with my answer, I had a wonderful epiphany: why don't I have my students come up with their own rebranding for our course? It would help give them a sense of ownership (the latter half of course will be entirely driven by their own interests in education) and be a preliminary exercise in the power of words, or how rhetoric can work.

And that's what I did. I told the students they couldn't change the content of the course, only how the material is introduced? How should I have titled and described the course in order to have ignited their interest? For a generation that has been completely bombarded with ads since birth, they had a surprising amount of difficulty coming up with anything, further reinforcing the need to study rhetoric. We had a couple of interesting narrative descriptions, but a really snappy catch-phrase way to describe the course eluded them.

I shared with them what I came up with: Rhetoric, or How to Get Anything You Want; Rhetoric, or Why you Continually get Conned even though you swear you're a Cynic; and Education, or Why High School Sucked. Everyone laughed. I had them again. So now, we're on a mission to understanding how rhetoric works, for better or for worse, and to see if we can't look at what high school (and higher education) could be or should be, rather than what it is.

It's all in the words you use.

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