First Year Composition: an Epic Win?

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I think most composition instructors would chuckle, ruefully of course, because what we want so desperately (for our students to share our sense that FYC is the most important course in their education, that their freedom to choose their own topics should evoke intellectual curiosity and lead to a lifetime of learning, etc.) very rarely comes to pass.

Writing instruction certainly improves when we move past the "write on a theme" assignments to self-designed project-based learning; it also benefits from our insistence on attention to rhetorical situations (considering audience, intention, and constraints) instead of imposing genre on them (write a narrative, an analysis, a proposal, etc.). We might encourage students to imagine real situations, but it's still pretty exceptional to find students who are NOT writing for the instructor and for a grade. (Web publishing is changing this; see, for example, Bob Cummings's Lazy Virtues on using Wikipedia in FYC).

In the context of my recent thinking about gamification, I've been asking myself whether one way to answer the "So what?" question is to go big: to imagine assignments that challenge what students believe they are capable of accomplishing. Inspired by Jane McGonigal's Find the Future game (in which 500 students locked in the NY Public Library overnight co-authored a book, which now resides in the Rare Book and Manuscripts collection), I've been thinking about a few possibilities.

I should mention beforehand that I'm inclined toward providing a loose framework for my Honors Composition classes. Last year, we interrogated Penn State's motto "Making Life Better," which was ironic but deeply meaningful in the context of the events of last Fall. A lof of negative attention was cast on Penn State, especially after the students rioted in the wake of Joe Paterno's firing, and some pundits suggested that the football cheer "We Are ... Penn State" represents all that was wrong with the university: it depended on football and the alumni support it created; having a sports program that was too big to fail led to ethical failures, if not also criminal acts. In order to speak back against that attitude, which mis-characterizes the university and its students, it might be interesting to have students reflect on questions of identity and ethics (and history and future direction and more) in what we might call the "Who We Are" project.

So, back to the potential for epic projects, now situated within the context of representing "Who We [Penn Staters] Are" --

A Day in the Life of Penn State: Ask students in the class to take photographs throughout the day on campus, covering as much ground as possible. They could then select the best shots, write captions and a short essay explaining what they saw and did, and how their completed photo essay explains "Who We Are."

That's an interesting enough assignment, in my book. It's different from the usual FYC fare, and it might even be fun. It's not quite epic, though, unless you then challenge the class to compile the individual essays into a single text that could be published as an e-Book or printed on-demand.

If you really wanted to push for epic scale, though, you could invite everyone on campus to participate. Or if you really wanted to go big, you could coordinate with classes on other campuses (Penn State has what, 24?) to make it a University-wide event and project.

Similarly, students could write essays inspired by This I Believe.  That's not an uncommon assignment in college and high school writing classes, but scale matters here. It's one thing for each individual to say what he or she believes, but it's much more interesting to see what a social group or community believes. The project would highlight the diversity that exists within the class, or if the scale were broadened, across campus or the University.

Story Corps could inspire a podcasting project. It would be interesting for students to interview each other using standard Story Corps questions, but it would also be interesting for them to interview students not in the class, faculty, staff, and perhaps especially alumni. That would provide some historical scope to the questions, which might include things like "What is your favorite memory of Penn State?"

I would imagine still asking students to complete a semester-long research project related to their majors, but perhaps making the outcome a multigeneric essay that defines who they are as Penn State students: as people, as scholars, as professionals in training. This could also be accomplished through an electronic portfolio.

I'd be interested to conclude the course with presentations inspired by Ignite (or TED, or Pecha Kucha) in which students, using a limited number of slides and a limited amount of time, explain who they are. It could be a wonderful evening event, with their parents and friends and the faculty (heck, even the student body at large) invited. They could record their talks and post them on their e-portfolios, or on a course website.

I don't know how serious I am about doing any one these projects, but I think they illustrate the kind of large-scale thinking that could help make my FYC classes more dynamic and exciting, and thereby stimulate more and better work.

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