College Writing, Space Exploration Theme, Take Two

I just completed my second semester teaching college writing I at Kent State University, and I’ve learned a few more things about teaching and how to organize my class (for my past postings on college writing click here).  

In Fall 2008, I taught my first college writing class at KSU with the theme, “Space Exploration and Your Future.”  In that singular class, I employed a variety of materials to augment and provide prompts for student discussion and writing.  The primary sources included Walt Disney’s Mars and Beyond, Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot.  

Based on the feedback that I received from my students at the beginning of the school year, I didn’t retain Sagan’s book for the Spring semester, because many students had difficulty engaging that particular science popularization.  It bears noting that I didn’t drop that text, because I thought it was too difficult for my students; instead, I dropped it, because I felt my student’s lack of engagement with the text created a roadblock to the more important goal in the class, which is to develop their professional writing skills.  In the place of Pale Blue Dot, I included Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, because it serves as a model of “good writing” and its “right stuff” thesis provided material for in-class exercises and one of the major essays in the Spring semester classes.  

In addition to The Right Stuff book, I provided time for viewing the film version by Philip Kaufman, and the film version of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick.  My reasoning behind this was that students in my Fall class had trouble imagining or visualizing the things that we read in Clarke’s 2001. Again, I didn’t want the reading to become an impediment, so I thought augmenting the text with video might bridge my students’ understanding of the texts and provide for useful discussions and writing prompts.  

Now that I’ve finishing reading my students’ final portfolios, which I was happy with overall, I learned a few things about what my students thought of the major (and some of the minor) assignments based on each students’ reflective essay.  Overwhelmingly, my students reported problems with watching Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  They seemed to enjoy the novel much more than the film.  During class, we discussed this disconnection between the two media, and the consensus seemed to be that the film is too theoretical, too abstract, and lacking the concrete details and explanations found in the novel.  I believe that I will cut the film from my class in the Fall based on this feedback, and I will find other ways to help students engage the novel, which may include documentaries, guided research, and in-class discussion/lecture.  

The other thing that I learned was that the film version of The Right Stuff was probably unnecessary, too.  It did provide an opportunity to discuss the differences of using different media to present a thesis or idea, but I don’t know if I want to devote that much time to the film in the future.  I have not definitively decided if I will keep Kaufman’s film, but I do think that its use was more successful in the class than Kubrick’s 2001.

Other feedback that I received from my students included their gaining benefits from reading their work in class, which provided them with confidence in their work, prompted them to work harder on those assignments, and hearing what others had to say and how they said it.  I first did this in my Fall semester class, and I plan on doing more of this in my two Fall 2009 semester classes.  I received mixed responses to peer review from my students this semester.  I believe that the problem with peer review was two fold–I am still working toward a better way to demonstrate and inculcate peer review skills, and students didn’t always receive the kind of feedback that they desired.  I’ve spoken with some folks in the department about this, and I got some good ideas from Pam Takayoshi and others at the Blogging Brown Bag series that I will employ in the future (e.g., having groups meet individually with me for a peer review modeling session).

A final idea that I have for my Fall 2009 classes is that I will move the entire class online.  All handouts and course materials (besides assigned books) will be online.  I almost fully implemented this with these two classes.  The other aspect of the class will be handled through blogging.  I will have my students do their journals, daily writing exercises, and major papers all on individual blogs that I will guide them through configuring at the beginning of the semester.  This semester I gave my students written letters for feedback, so carrying things a step further my going online for their assignments will only complement my reader responses.  Additionally, I will have to walk between two buildings about ten minutes apart on campus with only that much time between my two classes, so I feel that moving the writing online will simplify my access to my students’ work, and prevent the loss of any materials that I may have lug through the wintery weather.  

I’m looking forward to revising my syllabus over the Summer so that I can provide an improved experience for my future students.