A Model for Teaching College Writing

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

*The following is a guest post from UT-Dallas graduate student, Barbara Vance ([@brvance)][1]. This past semester Barbara taught an atypical rhetoric and composition course. Barbara teaches Rhetoric 1302, the standard introductory college writing course. She was given a course with a group of students who she was told, were struggling with writing and needed, “more structure.” As a response Barbara did the smart thing, and actually gave the students more freedom and control over their education. I’ll quickly summarize, and then get out of the way and let Barbara tell the story. Essentially, Barbara turned the class into a [documentary production class][2] where the students spent the semester producing a film, working collaboratively on one project. Where is the writing you ask? Well read on, but Barbara had them write about their experiences the whole time, giving them a reason and context to write. The results are pretty amazing. The post is a bit on the long side, but worth the read as Barbara covers not only the “what” but the “why.” Also check out the two embedded video the one below is the video from the students, and at the end is an interview with Barbara. This is a bold, risky approach, especially given Barbara’s status as a graduate student, not tenured faculty, but I think if college rhetoric and indeed college education is to remain relevant over the coming years this is the type of experimentation and adaptation that will be necessary. *

The Internet has fundamentally changed not only the means through which we communicate, but also how we communicate and how we think. It has, in turn, altered what others expect from our writing, what employers look for in applicants, and how we conceive of work that used to be private. One need only look at the blog explosion to see how the ability to disseminate our thoughts cheaply and quickly, and to develop a dialogue with others empowered thousands to believe their voice was/is worth sharing.

Teachers cannot ignore this communication shift. A Kindle is more than a paperless book: it changes how we read, how we define reading, and how we perceive intellectual ownership. As society continues down a path toward ever-increasing mobile communication, our conceptions of how we persuade will also change. I think few Rhetoric instructors would argue with the idea that students should be able to not only consume information, something they’ve been doing their entire lives, but also to produce it. But as it stands now, most rhetoric courses focus strictly on writing, and they limit assignments to the classroom environment – practices that devalue other rhetorical mediums, and the purpose of rhetoric itself. It is with this spirit in mind that I designed my special topics Fall 2009 freshman rhetoric course at the University of Texas at Dallas. I wanted to transform the traditional rhetoric class with its standard textbook into a more relevant, new-media oriented course that focused not only on writing and speaking, but one that also looked at rhetoric in film, photography and music.

To that end, I designed the course to include a live WordPress blog on which students could speak to each other and anyone else in the world who cared to listen. A website containing copies of their larger papers coincided with the blog. This made the assignments more communal in nature and reinforced that writing is meant to be shared. In a more traditional classroom environment, students write only for the teacher, an approach that makes assignments seem less relevant to the students and devalues the very idea of rhetoric. Requiring students to blog, contact people outside their classroom, and post writing on the Internet teaches them to engage with the community, gives their writing more significance, and supports rhetoric – a term that, by definition, implies community.

While this public exposure to their work can be intimidating for some students, it forces them to take more accountability for their words while teaching them the power of communication. If they embrace it, students can develop a sense of freedom and power that resides in someone who feels comfortable with both the tools of communication and also the arenas that currently dominate the conversation. Right now, a majority of the conversations are increasingly happening online. Students must know how to navigate these waters. It is a direction more and more university rhetoric departments are going toward, including Ohio State University, which has some excellent examples of class blogs.

A strictly digital approach is not for everyone. I will always prefer a paper book, believe memorizing grammar rules is essential, and don’t think everyone needs a blog. Nonetheless, these are issues students should be aware of. Creating work in a vacuum delegitimizes it. When the goal of your course is to teach students to persuade, and you don’t include what is now the most influential tool for disseminating your argument, you are crippling your students.
Writing and reading online is different than performing those same tasks on paper. We communicate differently on the Internet, and as more and more people read from their phones and portable e-readers, our understanding of communication will change further still. As technology shifts, so does our means of persuasion; if students do not explore this, they will find their skills quickly out of date. Rhetoric is more than just learning a standard structure for an argument. Students should be asking themselves: “How does what we write and what we think change when we know that in ten minutes we can create a blog and broadcast to the world? How does this change how we see and portray ourselves?” These are the deeper rhetorical questions students need to grapple with. It is this focus that will make them stronger readers, writers, and citizens.

The second media-based aspect of the course was centering the writing assignments around a film that the students would produce. My goal was that this would provide continuity between assignments, while reinforcing one of the fundamental ideas underlying this class: rhetoric is found in a variety of media, not just writing. Many rhetoric programs devote time to “visual rhetoric,” but it is often cursory at best and culminates in a short essay examining a film or piece of art. While I do not object to this method, I was always bothered that writing was still given precedent over the image. We tell students that pictures are a viable means of persuasion, and then we as them to write about it. This hardly reinforces the message. So I thought: “Why not have the students work with the mediums they study, including film?”

I “hired” each student for a position in the “company” based on his skills and interests with the idea that this would not only hold their interest, but also be quite germane to their course of study. Everyone had to apply for their job, writing a cover letter and resume, and having a personal interview with me. Students were never entirely on their own, as the positions were part of large groups: pre-production, post-production, marketing, and web design.

Throughout the semester we discussed the various rhetorical aspects that comprise a film – including text, images, music, and sound effects – focusing on how and why creators made the decisions they did. Always, the emphasis was on these crafts as rhetorical devices. The end result was a website and corresponding film, created by the students and comprised of their work throughout the semester. Overall, I have found it a fun, effective approach.

An added benefit of the film was that it captured the students’ interest, as did broadcasting their work on their website, www.rvuentertainment.com. They became so invested in the film that the writing pertaining to it took on new meaning. The first essay required them to identify an issue in their local community and write about it. From these, the students voted on which would be made into a film. The second major writing assignment was a visual essay in which the students each described how they would make the film, supporting their paper with images they found online or took themselves. In addition to these, smaller assignments were given to each student based on his role in the company, including reports, marketing letters, short essays on artists who inspired them, and storyboards. All students were also required to blog weekly. The students really took to the project and, barring the procrastination that is a given for many college freshman, they handled it well. Weekly student-run meetings in class kept everyone on the same page and let me know where things stood. There were also individual meetings in which I worked one-on-one or in small groups to help them with their respective roles.

I admit, I had my doubts. Coming from a traditional writing background, and considering the departments goals, I felt the focus of the class should remain on writing aptitude, and the one constant question rolling around my head all semester was: “Are you doing the students an injustice? Are you taking time away from writing skills to focus on film, sound, and these “alternate” methods of persuasion?” I think my fears were reasonable, but ultimately the class worked out well. Because so many rhetorical devices remain constant across mediums, teaching students how pacing working in screen cuts or music only reinforces how it could be employed in their writing.

Overall, I think the class was a success. It taught the students to work with a variety of mediums and to always consider their work as something to share. It is this final point that the entire course hinged on: community. The blog, the group film – everything the students – did was about engaging the world, establishing a presence, and utilizing the tools that the rest of the world is operating with, rather than limiting them to traditional print-based technology.

Here is an interview about the project with Barbara.

[1]: http://twitter.com/brvance [2]: http://www.rvuentertainment.com