My Writing Class and Clarke’s 2001, A Break Through

I believe today was a very good day in my introductory writing class. Today’s class concludes week seven, and until today, I didn’t feel like I was connecting with my students as well as in my past classes at this point in the semester. It was with that in mind that I devised a different third essay topic that still conjured my overarching exploration theme while keeping it grounded in their personal experiences and individual choices regarding their future careers.

After my students completed their beginning of class writing (15 minutes) and reading quiz over part 4 of Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (5 minutes), I began to go over the quiz and open the floor to questions about the novel. This is where things got exciting. My students began asking me insightful questions. They were seeking clarifications on plot holes in the text (e.g., TMA-1 coverup on the Moon, particularly after the Discovery is on its way), as well as seeking better understanding about HAL and his neurosis.

Then, I introduced their third major essay topic:

For your third major essay in our class, I would like you to write at least 1000 words about your future career choice and how you would feel about working with and competing with intelligent machines like HAL from Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is an exploration not only of the kinds of work you may do in your future career, but it is also a personal reflection on how you would potentially interact with machines in your work place.

In your essay, I would like you to write about your future job and the intelligent machines you may encounter there. Your manager may be a computer, or the surgeon may be a robot. Creative ideas for the type of work you do may be devised or distributed by a computer. There are many other possibilities, which I would like you to think about and include in your essay. Basically, think about existing jobs performed by human beings, and consider what it would be like to work with a machine instead of a human being.

Your essay should include at a minimum these things:
– introduce your topic and your personal feelings toward working with intelligent machines
– briefly explain how 2001: A Space Odyssey and HAL provide a model for your discussion
– provide some examples of where you may work with intelligent machines in your workplace and how you might deal with that–positively or negatively
– conclusion in which you discuss the ways in which intelligent machines should or should not find their way into your workplace

This is my first time offering this essay topic on 2001, and I let my students know this. I asked them to help me clarify the assignment as I went over it. They responded with more questions and possible examples that we then worked through. Also, several students approached me after class with further ideas about how to proceed with their writing, and I was happily surprised with the connections that they had already made in the final 30 minutes of class while they brainstormed their examples.

My students know about my blog, so if they find their way here, I do want them to know that I applaud their attention and questions in today’s class. I’ve tried different approaches in our class, and today, I believe that we made a very positive breakthrough that I want to carry forward in our further work together in our introductory writing class. Furthermore, it acknowledge that it wasn’t just the text or my essay assignment that made things connect today; it was my students who made things happen today and I was only too happy to go along for the ride.

Supposedly Different College Writing Classroom Dynamics

My hypothesis walking into my two classrooms in Moulton Hall at Kent State University this semester was that my morning classroom would facilitate discussion better than my afternoon classroom.  The reasoning behind my assumption was that the morning classroom has a great big central table with almost enough room for my 25 students to sit around it, and the afternoon classroom has “United Nations” style forward facing rows of tables in a distance learning enabled room.  My experience as a student and hearing others’ experiences led me to believe that sitting in a circle, so that all classroom participants, students and instructor, may see one another, produced better discussion.  It seemed like the traditional classroom layout of students facing forward and seeing the backs of one another’s heads stifled inter-student discussion and promoted instructor led lecturing.

img_0535Morning Classroom


Afternoon classroom

Now that we’re about to begin week 11, I have found over the semester that the conversations and discussion in the classrooms are nearly the same.  I suppose that it comes down to the students and the instructor.  My morning students talk just as much as my afternoon students.  In both cases, sometimes the conversation takes off organically, and other times I employ wait time, begin with writing prompts, or call on individual students to begin the conversation.  The one thing that I have noticed the most is that students in my afternoon class might develop sore backs from turning around in their chairs to see who’s talking or to address another student directly.  

There are a myriad of other possibilities that could contribute to the way my two classes engage in discussion despite the different classroom configurations.  My concern about the different classroom layouts may have contributed to both classes having good discussions, because I may have tried to get the afternoon class more energized or my observation and reflection on the earlier class may have honed my approach in the afternoon class.  Additionally, the students in the afternoon class may be a group of students that don’t need face-to-face contact to engage in lively discussion.  

This is certainly not an extensive survey of classroom dynamics, but it was a lesson that I was glad to learn and wanted to share.  I want both of my classes to be active and I want my students in both classrooms to have an equally positive and enriching experience.  I’m very glad that my assumptions about the classrooms didn’t come true.  

A short note on recent classroom activities:  This past week, we had a slow march into Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001:  A Space Odyssey, because I wanted to engage the students in two short writing assignments based on a documentary on the film version of 2001 that showcases the technology they would encounter in the book and film (which we will begin watching Friday), and a passage from the book on dissatisfaction and using our imaginative foresight to devise personal plans for overcoming person dissatisfactions.  This past Friday, my students shared their short dissatisfaction essays out loud in class, and we had some fruitful conversation in both classes based on that work.

2001 A Space Odyssey and College Writing

One choice that I wanted to adhere to in designing my first college writing course was that I would have my students read some Science Fiction.  Since I settled on the space exploration theme for the class, I thought that Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001:  A Space Odyssey was the path of least resistance to bringing SF into the writing classroom, particularly when the majority of them had never read SF (a suspicion confirmed by talking with my students).

I assigned the novel as part of the second unit of the course, in which my students will write their second formal essay.  Over the course of two weeks, I have my students read one (during the week) or two parts (over a weekend), and we come together to talk it over in class.  In addition to the text, I bring a lot of materials to class such as documentary videos and still images from the Kubrick’s film and astronomy observations.  Also, I bring my science background to class, because my students have had many poignant and spot-on questions about the science that takes place in the novel.  The integration of science, which they should have had some exposure to in high school, into the writing curriculum allows for another level of instruction in addition to the tremendous, yet not impossible, amount of writing that I require of my students.  Also, their curiosity about how and why things work the way that they do is leading them down the path to developing better critical thinking skills.

I can report that there have been good days and bad days in regard to our discussions on the novel.  A large part of that is my own lack of experience in leading discussion, using wait time, and encouraging my students to think about things before class through tailored assignments.  I spend a lot of time, a whole hell of a lot of time, planning my classes.  My student’s weekly two page journals have been an invaluable resource for altering course when one thing works better than another, because I can get their reflective feedback on things that we do, in addition to my own observations of class and my performance.

As much as I’ve enjoyed using 2001:  A Space Odyssey thus far in class, I’ve now come up against a wall regarding their next writing assignment.  I have a couple of ideas, but I will have to narrow these down tomorrow and put together a handout to give out on Friday after we finish talking about Bowman’s exit and return through the Star Gate.

This returns us to planning.  I’m still grappling with finding the appropriate time to devote to class planning and responding to my students’ work.  I can confidently say at this point in my burgeoning professional career as a teacher and researcher that I cannot meet my students on the page with the same intensity and time as someone such as Carmen Kynard, who writes about her work and experiences as an instructor in her article, “‘Y’all Are Killin’ Me up in Here’:  Response Theory from a Newjack Composition Instructor/SistahGurl Meeting Her Students on the Page.”  I wish that I could, but there isn’t enough time in the day (and I’m only teaching one course–Kynard writes about having 140 students!).  I spent approximately 10 hours evaluating my students’ first essay, and I regularly spend at least an hour and a half to two hours prepping for each class.  I realize that this is my first time teaching, so I’m building up an archive of materials and methods of teaching that I will be able to remix and re-purpose in future classes, but at this point, it all seems rather overwhelming to me.  I want to give my students my all, because I expect no less from them.  On the other hand, teaching is only one aspect of my PhD career at this point, and I have to engage the courses that I’m taking and produce my own work for those courses (and conferences–I still have to rewrite my Transsexual Technologies paper for SLSA 2008).

So, that’s my report thus far from a lone spaceman in tiny pod floating in space and feeling many millions of miles from home.  Luckily, my shipboard computer didn’t try to kill me, but the stresses of second year PhD life are taking its toll.