Content-based Courses Are Effective
One set of responses to Duane’s questions explored the differences between “content” and the activity of composing, which lead to a discussion of thematic writing courses whose “content” was something other than “writing.” The responses that follow support the claim that writing courses using thematic content or non-writing-content are effective.
From: Krawitz, Aaron D.
How beneficial is it to make writing secondary to content? I think it is substantially beneficial and by far the most effective way of reaching, and teaching, students. The incentive to write, and more generally to communicate, effectively is, I think, best nurtured in the context of the writer wanting to say something about an idea of interest to her. The technique should serve communication of the idea. That is, I think, one of the lessons we have learned from 20 years of a Writing Intensive requirement that requires at least one WI course in the major.
From: Bergmann, Linda S
I tend to agree that courses that teach something to be written about are preferable to those that don’t. Without something to write about, and a need to communicate it, why would anyone want to write? It is difficult and it hurts.
This doesn’t mean that the content should be literature, or that it needs to be narrowly focused on career interests, at least not in first year composition.
We have previously discussed the possibility of using rhetoric as the content for writing courses. There could be other kinds of content as well. For example, WAYS OF READING offers a range of good, difficult readings that can be be sorted thematically. (When I use it, the theme is ways of learning and knowing).
Trying to teach writing without a context, without a content, has never worked for me.
From: Ryan Skinnell
This semester I have had the (unique?) opportunity to be a part of a linked course grant in which my freshman comp class is populated with students who are concurrently enrolled in the same sociology course and another course (essentially, study skills); and I’m teaching a second FYC course that is not linked to anything.
One of the issues that has become increasingly obvious to me is that my students (in both classes, actually) often seem to have trouble connecting what we do in FYC with their other classes. They see whatever we do (rhetoric, literature, etc) as somehow removed from the things they do beyond my classroom. In other words, many of my students see the grade in my class as the end and sometimes fail to connect the content of our course to anything beyond our class.
Interestingly, however, and not surprisingly, given the mounds of research supporting linked courses, the students in my linked course seem to be fairing much better. They attend class more regularly, participate more vigorously, and seem to experience more regularly the kinds of lightbulb moments that keep me teaching.
So, after that long and winding introduction, I think the point I’m coming to is that the content of our classes, be it writing about headstones or writing about writing, is more successful and more important for my students when I can connect it to their lives (educations, jobs, etc) and classes beyond the four walls of my classroom. Often, I have trouble doing that because it’s rarely sufficient for me to say “You’ll get a better job if you can write well,” or some other obvious, but mostly unhelpful, generalization. In conclusion, I’m beginning to think that the real drawbacks to teaching literature or another “content” section is that the connections I tend to favor (for me, usually the historico-political aspects of the subject) often elide the important writing connections as well as the connections between my students’ learning and their lives beyond my classroom.
Of course, I also defer to the wisdom of those who remember teaching FYC classes before I was born, when composition was an amateur calling.
From: Jeffrey Klausman
I’ll chime in here from a two-year college perspective-which is not necessarily different from four-year colleges and universities where I’ve taught. I’ve been researching the role of WPA in the two-year college (I’m our first WPA, a new position created this year), and one piece of advice which was repeated by practitioners and theorists from across the spectrum is start here, with these students. So, a couple of assumptions can ground “content,” however we define that.
First, writing is always active (I can’t imagine passive writing other than, maybe, dictation). Second, the vast majority of students take FYC as a requirement, not an elective. Someone else, then, is writing their educational experiences, at least in our classes. Who? Why? To what effect? What is the active role students are taking or could take in their own educations?
Like Linda Bergman, I use Ways of Reading plus a supplemental essay or two on theories of education and writing one’s education in conjunction with students’ analyses of their own educational experiences. Inevitably, through writing, students begin to feel the power of writing their own academic lives. The two foci-rhetoric and content, even though that may be an unfair dichotomy-are melded. Anyway, I’ve been happy with the work students have produced and I’ve heard from a great number of them that their experiences in the class have had a profound effect upon their choices-changing or choosing majors, reconsidering careers, reflecting upon past influences.