Monday, December 18, 2023

Currently Thinking about Next Semester

Next semester I am teaching two Comp I classes. What I've been doing for the past few years, and what works really well, is I'm forcing the entire class to research and write a paper on a specific subject, which I choose -- like, this past semester, they had to choose an invasive species and either write an informative paper about the effect of that species on the environment, or a solution to the invasion. I made them read a lot of scientific papers and some general media about feral hogs and the hippos in Columbia, and they proposed and researched some invasive species of their own.

As I said, it works pretty well, because they have a limited field in which they can choose a topic, and so I don't get a bunch of shit papers like "why social media is bad" or "abortion is murder" or "gun control just means only criminals have guns."

Also it cuts down on plagiarism. When they have to propose a topic in the first weeks of class, and then find a source on that topic and write an evaluation of it as a source; and then write an annotated bibliography for that topic; and then write an essay map for that topic, and so on, it both teaches them how a research paper is written and keeps them from buying a paper off the net or having an AI write it for them, since they have to write all the steps along the way first.

Though some of them don't bother to do these steps and just give me the final paper. But then they fail the class, so.

ANYWAY: I'm trying to think of a topic for this coming semester. I don't do the same topics in consecutive semesters, because we do have frats and sororities on campus, so I don't want to tempt people into using the essay banks I know those groups have.

I have two ideas in mind right now.

(1) The problem of plastics in the environment

(2) The causes/solutions for poverty

The second seems a really interesting topic, especially for this moment in time; but about half my students are working class and about half come from the wealthy or religious families in town who don't want to send their kids up the hill to the flagship because they want their kids to stay under their thumbs. So I'll have a bunch of kids raised up with the prosperity gospel who think being poor is a crime/sin, and a bunch of kids who have been raised up in households without enough money who also think being poor is a crime/sin. The topic will make both sets emotional, is what I'm saying. They won't be able to look at the question impartially, and being emotional will mean they won't be able to think about the question. They'll just emote at it.

Plastics is better. It's still a current problem, and even though they'll STILL get emotional (because many of them are conservative, and thus thinking about harm done to the environment is a crime/sin), they'll get less emotional about that. And it's an interesting topic. I can use the research to show them why there's no simple answer here -- why, for instance, banning straws won't solve the problem, and why "vegan leather" is a terrible idea, and why we can't, in fact, just stop using plastic.

But there's no real solution, and plastic is in fact terrible for the environment, so it will be a depressing semester.

I should find a third topic, I guess.


Anonymous said...

You are so right about the drawback of assigning (or letting students choose) topics that are high emotion. Teachers choose or allow this because they think that those topics are more engaging. And they might be. But it is VERY hard to learn to make a good argument or rationale or even descriptive piece when people's values are at stake.

But also, many of those topics are so expansive that confining the assignment to a reasonable length -- especially for Comp I students, is a challenge they may not be ready for. Cause and cure for poverty would also have this drawback. There isn't even consensus on the asnwer to those questions among experts, even experts who share the value of reducing poverty. So an awfully big pill to swallow for 18 year olds.

Plastics is much better, even though still fraught with values issues and with a huge amount of scientific, economic, and cultural material to understand.

Topics that make an appropirate amount of demands on students are very hard to come up with!

nicoleandmaggie said...

I sometimes teach an entire class on #2. Another big thing there is racism on top of everything else you mention. I'm not sure you want to go there. I do start the class with Scalzi's essay Being Poor and the wealthy students say it's one of the things that sticks most with them from their entire college careers. But like, I also teach it as an economics class elective so they have a lot more tools than a comp I class will have to understand what is going on.

How about something re: education? Like best ways to teach X (where X could be algebra or gifted kids or ESL or even writing), how to help struggling K-12 learners, etc.? That's another with no simple answers and the research tends to be much more straight-forward than poverty research-- lots of experiments and qualitative work, especially if you stick to K-12 research.

delagar said...

Yeah, and we have a *lot* of problems with racism here, usually directed toward Latinx and Muslim people, and immigrants. About half my students are convinced that "illegals" are all on welfare.

nicoleandmaggie said...

Another thought:

Students each pick a non-profit of their choice (you could limit to secular, or the top X from Charity Navigator etc.) and then have to research what it does and why given the broader literature on that topic. You might get some pro-life/anti-abortion stuff, but if you limit everyone to a different topic, you'd only get one of each. Similar to the endangered species idea, but a broader scope.