Fantasy a No Go with This Years Students

Back in January, you may have seen my post about using novels instead of textbooks for my ENG101 and RWR090 classes. Two of the novels worked out okay, but one was a disaster.

Feed by M. T. Anderson

This semester’s 101 students weren’t as enthusiastic about Feed as last semesters, but after a rocky start, they did get into the book. The romance plot hooked them. They engaged with the book when characters made bad choices. Most importantly, it made them think. They saw clear connections between the book, the articles we read, and the TED talks we watched.

When it came time to write essays, they dug into topics like consumerism, dependence on technology, and social media. They succeeded at finding ways to narrow those things down, and while some struggled to balance all the different sources, most of them did assert and support an interesting thesis.

For now, I’ll continue to use Feed.

Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

As much as I love this book, using it in class was a nightmare. I had thought that my students would like it because they could “see themselves” on the page and use things like the snippets of Spanish dialogue and description of familiar food to connect to the book. This backfired. I was being stupid, letting my white, middle class privilege influence my thoughts.

Yes, some students did like the descriptions of Caribbean food and connected to the relationships the characters had to their family members. Some of them had even lived in the neighborhood the story was set in. It helped a little, but mostly, they were indifferent to it or bored.

The supernatural elements were what tipped them over the edge. The idea of characters controlling and summoning spirits disturbed them. Some couldn’t understand the magic system but more found it to be too real. At least one or two students believed in spirits. One said their pastor told them not to read it, because that kind of thing “opened doors” for bad spirits to come in. Another said a friends aunt claimed to be able to control spirits and use magic to bring people good or bad luck.

The combination of being bored with the setting, disturbed by the magic, and annoyed by the main character meant they complained about the book non-stop. It didn’t help that I was out with a concussion for a good part of that unit.

When it came time to write, they trudged through a character analysis, wrote reviews for extra credit, and celebrated when it was over.

Love, Hate, and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed

This is a book I will again for RWR090. My students did seem to enjoy it and learn a lot from it. They could relate to the experience to some of the experiences the main character had balancing American culture with her parent’s culture and loved learning about Indian and Muslim culture.

Their essays were thoughtful explorations of concepts that came up in the book, and with no small amount of hard work, they found articles about those concepts and connected them to the book.

I admit I didn’t do nearly as much with it as I should’ve. I feel like I barely scratched the surface of it, and there is tons of untapped potential to explore in a new semester with a new group of students. I think I was a little drained or burn out from the rougher portions of the semester. However, with time to reflect on and examine what I did and didn’t do, I can make much better use of it next time.

Comments?

I’m interested to hear if any one else has used novels in a first year writing course – one that isn’t specifically geared towards literature. What did you use? How did it go? Will you do it again? Why or why not?

 

Replacing Textbooks With novels in First Year Writing

For the past five years, I’ve taught first year writing at community college and state universities. I assigned textbooks and/or trade books based on what other teachers used or what seemed like the kind of book college students should read. It didn’t work out so well. Now, I’m using books I get excited about.

The first books I recall assigning were writing textbooks like Curious Researcher or Axelrod & Cooper’s Concise Guide to Writing. While these contain good information about writing and some useful exercises, they didn’t engage students. Half the students didn’t even bother reading, and the ones who did complained the book wasn’t worth the $50 or $60 they paid for it. 

As I got more experienced, I realized that most of the material in the textbooks could be conveyed through discussions about writing and having students reflect on their own writing and/or other people’s writing.

I stopped making students buy expensive textbooks and started assigning one or two trade books. Additionally, students would read assortment of articles they could access for free online or through the library’s databases. This works well for a lot of teachers.

While I did manage to find a handful or articles and essays that engaged my students, I couldn’t seem to find a book they liked.

The Mind at Work by Mike Rose held their attention for one chapter. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba was a neat concept, but they got bored with the amount of detail in the story. They liked some of the “facts” in Modified by Caitlin Shetterly, but were easily confused and claimed she kept getting “off topic” and wound up hating the book. They claimed Dwellings by Linda Hogan only needed to be a few pages because it repeated the same message over and over again.

The first book I assigned that more than one student seemed to enjoy was Feed by M. T. Anderson—a novel.

It took a while, but I finally figured out what my problem was: I really don’t enjoy reading book length non-fiction. I know it is sometimes necessary, and that a lot can be learned from it, but it always feels like work.

I don’t get excited about it, and that is a huge problem.

Students have very sharp bullshit detectors, so they know when I’m faking it. If I’m not excited about the book, why should they get excited about it?

Feed was the first novel I asked students to read. It also happened to be dystopian, YA, and science fiction – a combination of genres I love.

Because I was so excited about it when I introduced it, they gave it chance. Because they gave it chance, many of them got pulled into the story and enjoyed it. A few loved it. One student told me it made him want to start reading novels again.

Sure there were a few who didn’t like it, but since books are so subjective, that is to be expected. Enough liked it. And enough wrote thoughtful, sourced based papers because of it.

I’ve learned my lesson. Unless the department requires it, I won’t teach a book I am not passionate about. And novel’s can get students thinking just as much as non-fiction, and the questions those novel’s raise can prompt students to do research for essays.

So this semester, I am using novels all around. Comp 1 is reading Feed again and writing a sourced based paper about the issues the novel raises. My reading class is going to read Love, Hate and Other Filters as well as Shadowshaper.

I’m still working out the details of the assignments, but I am confident these books will go over better if I can express my confidence and excitement when introducing them to the students.

I’ll post something later in the semester about how it worked out.

Why Bullshitted Papers are Underrated

Why Bullshitted Papers are Underrated

By Sara Codair

It’s the last day of class before finals. While some students have their notebooks and netbooks open, ready to take notes, others are glancing at their phone, counting down the minutes until I give them permission to leave. They’re all exhausted. Most have been working all day, yet they still showed for this last class, hoping to learn something, or get the extra-credit for perfect attendance.

Phrases like “C’s get degrees” and “Night students just want to get their A’s and get home” float through my head as I try to focus on framing the wrap up discussion.

I don’t remember how it began, but the bookworm in the back row declared that every essay she ever wrote, from elementary school through my  English Composition II, class was completely bull-shitted.

I stared for a minute, mentally rereading her essays. She was one of the strongest writers in my class, and an avid reader. She’s someone who, if I met under different circumstances, that I could have been friends with, and I don’t say that about too many people. We could read and talk about books for hours if life didn’t make us do other things.

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Goose thinks writing is snack…

I smiled. “Isn’t all writing bullshitted?”

 

The class stared at me, probably thinking I had lost my mind.

“What’s a novel?” I asked. “Isn’t it just stuff people made up? Isn’t that bullshit?”

And she thought about, and tried to explain that novels are things people are passionate about. Yes, they are made up, but they are crafted and polished before they are sold to people who live for them.

I asked her about her last essay, one exploring and defining dystopian young adult novels. She admitted she actually liked that essay, so she spent more time writing it

I smiled again. “Well, writing is better when you care about your topic. I wish all essays were open topic, but unfortunately, that doesn’t happen.”

The debate went on, growing from the concept of “bulshitting” essays to the kind of writing we do in college and its usefulness, or lack thereof, in the “real world.” While no one won it, I hope that the students left with a few insights.

The students who claim they bull-shit their papers do not give themselves enough credit. They can sit down, and think, and make words appear on the page. They can generate four or five pages of half-decent prose a couple of hours. Believe it or not, that is a big deal.

 

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Writing might be easy for the students who are over 21…

The most challenging obstacle I often face when teaching writing is getting students to
actually write. Many will stare at the screen, agonizing over each word and sentence, afraid to make a mistake or just unsure how to convey their ideas.

 

I told my students that if they could bull-shit a paper, then they had taken the first step to becoming a good writer. In order to write, first, people need to be able to dump what they are thinking onto the page. Second, they need to shape into some kind of genre or convention. In the case of the students, they need to revise their ideas into an introduction, thesis, body paragraphs and conclusion. Third, they need to edit it and make sure it follows the format their teacher wants.

They are generating ideas inside and putting them outside.

While I didn’t go into any gross details in class, I often compare writing to bodily functions. When I say writing is shit from bulls, I take the metaphor quite seriously.

 

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Horses are good at eating and shitting too.

We consume information like bulls consume grass. We digest it, just like they digest grass. We break it down and use it up. We excrete what is left in the form of words.

 

In a more advanced class, one filled with people who were there because they wanted to be, not  because they were required to take the course, I might get into the nitty gritty details of crafting sentences and fine-tuning arguments. However, in a first year writing course, I am happy if my students leave with the ability to put ideas on the page in a coherent manner, and follow guidelines when they turn it in.

When students get an A’s on bullshitted papers, it’s not because they fooled their teachers. It’s because they weren’t censoring themselves like the students who agonize over every sentence. Getting words down on paper is the first step to developing as a writer. Being able to bull-shit a paper is a sign that  students are already halfway up the mountain.

I can’t make someone a master writer in one semester. What I can do is give them the tools to get words on the page, and empower them. I can help build a grain of confidence.

I can  plant seeds in their bullshit, and hope that one day, there is enough shit their to make the soil fertile so their ideas grow.

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©2017 Sara Codair

Making the Space

The space a class is taught in often has a profound impact on the students’ attitude and the ambiance of the classroom’s community. It’s not everything, but it can go a long way. As an adjunct, I have virtually no control over what room my class is taught in, so I’ve learned to make the most of what I have.

This semester, I have one particularly rowdy group. Their attention is easy to loose and difficult to hold. The classroom we are in has tables that 2 to 4 students can sit at.20160412_161229The tables are lined up so the students all sit facing me. It’s set up for a traditional, lecture style class.

In other places I’ve taught, and even in other buildings of the same school, I’ve had classic college desks, desk/chairs on wheels, and tables on wheels.

The heavy, not moving rows of tables are by far the worst. The students wind up expecting a lecture. They sit with their friends or hide phones under the big tables and cruise through social media all class.

They were okay for the first few weeks of class, but quickly dissolved into random interruptions, side conversations, abuse of phones and chaos.

So by midterm, I got fed up. I knew I needed to make some kind of change. The content I was using in class worked fine with other groups, so I thought I’d try changing the space and structure.

I got to class early and dragged the heavy tables together in the center of the room so it was set up like a conference room instead of a lecture hall.

The students were confused when they came to class, but quickly adapted. They didn’t all get their usual seat by their friends, and even if they did, they couldn’t easily hide their conversation or phones. It wasn’t just me looking at them, but their classmates.

When we started a discussion, instead of asking for volunteers, we just went around the table. Students were allowed to say pass if they weren’t comfortable talking, but few took that option in a majority of the discussions. Eventually, I did allow the discussion to take a more natural form, but by that point, it was much easier to moderate.

While I still noticed a few people texting, no one was having side conversations and the interruptions were minimized. Students were more respectful of each other and of me. They listened and made eye contact with the people who were talking. They stayed on topic (mostly). Everyone who did talk contributed something valuable to the discussion whether it was presenting their research or on strategies for avoiding procrastination.

By making a few adjustments to the layout of the room and structure of discussions, I transformed a the rowdy class that gave me anxiety to one I look forward to teaching again.