A Not-So-Radical Approach to Teaching Final Papers

In my last post, I mentioned that I was trying something a bit different with my current expository writing class. I should say upfront that State and programatic expectations for the course don't give me too much wiggle room. The syllabus I inherited was quite traditional EDNA, and my approaching to teaching expository writing as blogging (attempting to emphasize social [ethical] practice alongside knowledge [epistemological] production) seemed experimental enough. The past times I have taught the course, the final paper has been a traditional 8 to 10 page argumentative research paper. I felt I needed to have something traditional to turn over in case my course was selected for SACS accreditation review.

For whatever reason, I feel less concerned over this matter this semester. Not that what I am proposing here is "radical" by any means. But its a new approach to teaching research and scholarship that I am trying out, and I figured I would share. The influences on this approach are, I think, people like Geof Sirc (his essay from Writing New Media), Pat Sullivan (her discussion of feminist research methods in Writing Spaces, and Gregory Ulmer (pretty much everything he's ever written). And, of course, there's a good bit of Levinas and his intersubjective ethics (over, might I call it, institutional epistemology) operating in this one too. I also used ed. Sherry Turkle's recent collection Evocative Objects as model essays for approaching the project (particularly Jenkins' essay for the way that it folds together reminiscences on childhood comic books with an exploration of our relation to death). I've also discussed Foucault's genealogical approach to history as a particular inventive method for approaching the project.

For the final project this year, I am asking students to construct 8 to 10 page essays that fold five different requirements into their writing.

  • Research: The paper must present attention to something(s). Think: I looked at A (and B and C) in X.
  • Personal: The paper must disclose/explore a personal investment in/relation to the research. Think: I looked at A and B and C in relation to X.
  • Argument: The paper must include some kind of argumentative proposition directed toward a particular person or idea. Think: X says A and B but C or D is better in relation to X.
  • Theory: the paper must move outside of the particular object or idea at hand to offer a more philosophical exploration of what it means to be a human being.
  • Kairos: The paper must offer some rational for why it is particularly important for us (and "I" from bullet two and an audience identified through this very articulation) to read the paper now, at this time, at this crucial, reflective, boring, tense, vital, transitory, resistant, opportune time).

As I said, I don't think I am recreating the wheel here. It is the theory bullet that I think is the most compelling--and the most difficult to "teach." But, in working with several students in drafts, I've seen the proverbial light-go-on--a moment where an investigation into X produces a deeper understanding of Y or when investigating X requires us to consider how we are already invested in Y or... well, I hope you (and my students) get the point. This kind of approach speaks to the writing I have been doing lately--writing on Levinas's potential benefit to Rhetoric and Composition in a political-curricular era evermore concerned with standardization, [mass] assessment, and accountability. Rather than connecting writing with the will-to-master, I'm looking to connect it with an obligation-to-alterity. I've been downplaying the Argument section as much as I can, but still feel compelled (both by State expectations and personal orientations) to teach some kind of thesis. Perhaps this too shall pass.

PS. Theory bullet. Irony alert?

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