Unit One: Responding to an Academic Context
Goals of Unit One:
- Introduce students to the importance of a text's purpose, audience, and context.
- Move students from more familiar, personal responses to more academic modes of discourse that are appropriate for an academic context.
- Teach principles of accurate and objective summarization of texts
- Develop skills in reading nonfiction texts critically.
This unit establishes the course's overall goal of having students recognize that writing is a response to a specific context - an attempt to achieve a specific purpose addressed to a specific audience. In this case, we'll be moving from a more personal context in Essay 1 to a more academic context in Essay 2. Each essay will highlight choices made regarding purpose, audience, focus, and use of evidence depending on the rhetorical situation surrounding the writing. Each student must define his/her goals for each paper, based not just on the assignment sheet provided, but on recognizing that assignment sheet as exemplifying and identifying a specific context for writing. (Refer to the "Primary Teaching Goals of CO150" for a larger discussion of this topic).
Writing Skills Emphasized: This unit highlights analyzing a rhetorical context to determine what approaches are available for producing a text. Students will be asked to define and analyze their purpose in writing, as well as consider their audience. Given the academic context, this unit emphasizes the introduction and development of academic writing skills - objectivity and accuracy in summary, the use of evidence in support of a response to a reading or set of ideas, conventions for organization and defining theses -- as well as developing critical reading skills. However, it's important that we emphasize these skills as responding to the context of academia. These skills, as we all know, are not as relevant to the contexts of business or personal writing. We do a disservice to students to teach them these "skills" without acknowledging that these "skills," themselves, function in response to a context.
Role of Reading: Critical and active reading skills are vital not just in this unit, but in most of the academic and professional texts they will encounter in the future, so it is important to help your students develop the skills to define a writer's purpose, position, and main ideas accurately and objectively. In this regard, it is more important to focus on the argument or main ideas of the texts rather than understanding and emphasizing each event or example or illustration, a way of reading which many students used to reading narrative fiction find particularly challenging.
Tips from Experience:
Some things to consider or anticipate in this unit:
- Most students seem to arrive at CO150 much more accustomed to reading "literature" (i.e. narratives, poetry) than many of the nonfiction texts they will encounter in this class. This is good to keep in mind because it helps to explain and anticipate their tendency to recount events rather than ideas. You may want to make "IDEAS, not EVENTS" your mantra for this section, especially when we read narrative essays like Wong or Chapkis. They'll really need to learn to FOCUS their summaries on a main idea or thesis, which is sometimes helpful to think of as the writer's argument. At any rate, in their first summaries, be prepared for many of them to mention things you don't even remember from the narratives but they present as central events to the text. For example, we used to read the Rose essay in The PHG for summaries, and we all got a lot of descriptions of Rose's bus ride to school that none of us even recalled from the text!
- In regard to the use of personal evidence, there are two main things to watch out for:
- First, many students have had hammered into their heads the idea that personal experience is never acceptable in academic writing, and many will be fearful that they will be struck by lightning if they use the word "I". You may want to discuss why this was the rule in the past and why it's slowly changing now, even in the sciences, where "objectivity" was always the rule.
- Second, when using personal experience, many students have a very hard time using detail. For example, they will say they will agree with an author's point because they "remember that from high school" and leave it at that. Gently remind them that you (and probably no one else in the room) went to high school with them, so they will need to explain this more. Point out to them how a writer like Chapkis manages to give us necessary details of her life without losing focus of her main ideas about cultural expectations of appearance.
- For students who just don't think they can "relate" to these essays (and you'll hear this a lot -- "relating" to an essay is a popular way into that essay), you might notice them trying to force a personal connection to respond to it. In the past we've gotten responses comparing the experience of being a preppie to being a black student from rural Kentucky in an all-white university. It's not a good analogy, obviously. Instead, encourage them to look at why they can't relate to an experience they have read about. What was their background like that may have spared them some of the difficulties some authors may present? Focusing on this is more valuable to them than trying to force a false connection to an alien idea or experience and helps further foreground the importance of how cultural contexts of readers and writers influence interactions with texts. And again, remind them we're responding to ideas in these essays, not events or experiences.
- Also, for Essay 2 you might encourage them to look at how they can't relate to a certain text and consider how that might serve their purposes in meeting the purpose of their essay. Would a professor want a text that students could relate to? What benefits are there to being able to relate to a text that would be useful for a classroom setting? How could not being able to relate to a text possibly make an essay less effective in a classroom setting?
- Finally, students often consider their reasons for believing something adequate evidence. For example, they might react to a main idea for the first essay and say that smokers should not be allowed to light up in public because second-hand smoke harms non-smokers in the area. While this certainly might be true, thus far this is only a reason. A writer must go further and provide evidence to show that this effect actually occurs. "Reason" vs. "Evidence" will likely be a mantra over the semester.