Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Writing for a real audience

"Does anyone recognize this person?"

My first-year composition students looked at the stranger standing next to me in front of class, puzzled.  
"Well, she's a woman," said a clever guy in the front row. Gold star! Then another asked, "Didn't she speak to us at Matriculation?"

Yes she did--because she's the Provost! Big round of applause for our chief academic officer!

Why was the provost visiting my composition class? Because I'd asked her to. I wanted my students to have a face-to-face encounter with the audience for their research papers.

Yes: my first-year students are doing something totally different for their research papers this fall. I'm taking advantage of the fact that the College is currently working on a major revision to our General Education curriculum; the assignment asks students to propose a change: "Your task in this essay is to write a formal memo directed to the Provost arguing that all Marietta College students should be required to complete a certain specific experience for reasons you will specify." And they have to support that argument with evidence from at least eight reputable sources.

I designed this unusual assignment because I was tired of the same old uninspired research essays on the same old tired topics. I want students to write about topics that touch them where they are, and I want them to direct their arguments at an audience they can visualize instead of some vague nameless "you." Finally, I want them to write as if their argument can make a difference.

So I asked the Provost to pay a short visit to my class, and even though I didn't know when she would visit, today turned out to be the perfect time. At the beginning of class students did some free-writing on two topics: If your proposal is approved, what will that look and feel like--what will improve? And if your proposal is rejected, what will that look and feel like--what will be lost? Then we talked about what types of evidence they will need to find to back up these claims.

When the Provost came in, she immediately put my students at their ease by asking about their topics and responding enthusiastically. The example I use in class and on handouts is "All students should be required to learn to juggle," but no one is researching that topic, tragically. Instead, they're proposing that students should be required to study abroad or take a personal finance class or attend fine arts events or learn about healthy eating choices or a host of other topics. 

I asked the Provost what kind of evidence she would need to be persuaded by a student's proposal, and she reinforced exactly what we had been doing in class: show what will happen if your proposal is approved; show what we'll lose if it isn't; provide reasons, facts, data to support your claims. Which is exactly what we'd been talking about before she arrived in my class.

Serendipity in the classroom! I couldn't have worked better if we'd planned it that way.

So now my students will write their papers with a specific audience in mind, a person who has already shown enthusiasm about their ideas and has given them clear guidance about how to win her over. Will that make a difference? Give me a week and I'll let you know.



Bardiac said...

What a BRILLIANT idea! And it's great that your Provost joined your class and helped them see that they're communicating with a real person about real issues.

I hope they write great papers. And totally, juggling required for all who can.

Stacey Lee Donohue said...

I can't wait to hear how it goes! Has any student asked to argue against certain requirements (like math or writing)?

Bev said...

Not so far, but I haven't seen all of their topics yet and they still have time to change.

Stacey Lee Donohue said...

One of my students wants to argue that Gen Ed requirements are just a way for colleges to make money.

I'm working on this.

Bev said...

Right. Maybe we should make them swipe their credit cards as they enter the classroom.