Writing@CSU: Composition Teaching Resources

CO150 Course Goals, 2002-2003

Many of us come to CSU with widely varying different experiences in writing classes. There are numerous ways to teach writing and to write successfully; as a result, we think it is central to begin a description of the course you will be teaching by clarifying its goals. We hope (and fully expect) that your teaching styles will differ and that you will make the activities in the common syllabus “your own,” based on your own writing experiences and knowledge about writing. However, in a multi-sectioned course such as CO150, common goals ensure a similar educational experience for all students in the course. No matter who is teaching an individual section, the following goals should be pursued in all CO150 classes:

  • Present writing as a process of joining and contributing to a conversation among writers and readers
  • Teach students how to ask questions about their writing (rhetorical) situations so that they might make the best choices as they produce documents that respond to those situations
  • Teach writing as a process of drafting and revision
  • Teach students to use writing for academic, personal, and civic purposes

How the Four Goals Interact

Given the nature of writing situations, good writing can never be defined universally; rather, the appropriateness of a document can only be evaluated according to the choices a writer makes in light of his or her writing situation. For instance, is the purpose appropriate for the situation? Is the text appropriate for the readers’ needs and interests? Is the document organized in a way that allows readers to follow it? Does the document take into account the social, historical, and cultural contexts in which it will be read? Does the writer recognize and address the limitations, requirements, and opportunities that are part of the writing situation? Rather than teaching writing as a set of rules on how to produce specific forms—such as a research essay or a review of literature—we focus on writing as a process involving questions that shape a writer’s choices.

CO150 is designed to help student writers understand and make informed choices about their writing processes and the documents they produce. We assume that, by modeling the process and choice-making strategies within the contexts we set up in the syllabus, we can help student writers apply these ways of thinking to future writing situations. Thus, the writing assignments addressed in the course focus on educated audiences inside and outside the academy. The assignments help students use writing processes and strategies to write to public audiences for specific purposes. Moreover, the focus on publicly debated issues throughout the course offers a way to help students think about how reading and writing might serve them, not only as students in a university but also as educated citizens of a democracy.

For these reasons, the conversation metaphor used throughout the course is particularly important. By using this metaphor, we can help students build on their understanding of conversations as situated within larger social, historical, and cultural contexts. Students realize that they would be foolish to open their mouths the moment they join a group of people engaged in conversation - instead, they’d listen for a few moments to understand what’s being discussed. Then, if they found they had something to offer, they would wait until an appropriate moment to contribute. Our students understand what happens to people who make off-topic, insensitive, inappropriate, or ill-considered remarks in a conversation. In CO150, we build on this understanding by suggesting that, prior to contributing to the debate about an issue, they should read and analyze what other writers have written. Then, when they’ve gained an understanding of the conversation about that issue, they can offer their own contribution to it.

To become more effective writers, then, students need to ask questions about their writing situations and make informed choices to respond to those situations. In a nutshell, this course helps students engage in the processes of learning what has already been written about a publicly debated issue, drafting a response to the conversation about the issue, and revising that response as they consider their writing situation. Learning about the conversation—a process we refer to as becoming an accountable member of the conversation—involves learning how to read critically, how to write summaries, how to use textual evidence (e.g., quotation and paraphrase) and evidence from personal experience, and how to analyze and evaluate the arguments made by other writers. Learning how to contribute to the conversation—essentially, creating your own response to what others have written—involves learning how to generate ideas, develop claims and reasons, use evidence effectively, write effective and easy-to-follow prose, and organize and design documents that meet the needs of a specific context and take into account the needs and interests of readers. Learning how to assess the effectiveness of a document involves rethinking their investment in a particular document and in the ideas presented within that document. We understand that the effort entailed in producing a document can create a sense of attachment by the writer to the ideas and information in that document. This can make writers reluctant to revise because they might fear it will distort their meaning. By encouraging and teaching revision, we help student writers learn not only how to revise their documents, but also the value of revising the ideas and meaning within those documents.

As students work on their assignments in CO150, they are likely to find themselves challenged by the ideas they encounter in their reading about the issue on which they’ve decided to focus and by their efforts to draft and revise a response to the conversation they’ve decided to join. Writers are influenced by social, historical, and cultural beliefs and pressures, which influence their choices as they produce a document. By helping student writers understand the complexity of the situations within which they find themselves, we can help students recognize writing as a social act and view revision as a way to affect change within society. Therefore, students can also begin to see how writing can serve not only academic but also cultural and civic purposes. To make this interaction of the four goals more concrete, consider the following example . . .

Writing a paper for a graduate course includes a variety of possible topic choices, such as which literary text you will choose, what reading approach you will take, and what aspect of the text is most important. All of these choices are influenced by the situation in which it was assigned and the audience for which it is being written, and includes such factors as what you’ve done in class, the nature of past discussions, and what you believe the professor might expect. Within this complicated writing situation, writers define goals for papers that, hopefully, also have something to do with what they want to express about the text to this audience. What such a situation creates is the need for writers to make a series of choices about the writing task based on an assessment of every aspect of the situation. Each choice limits the other kinds of choices to make. If you choose, for instance, to write a feminist analysis of Pride and Prejudice, you’ve already limited which aspects of the novel you might focus on and what kinds of analyses youwill have to conduct. As you clarify your ideas about the phallocentric nature of the “romance,” you might also have to decide what to include based on what you think your audience will readily accept and what you will have to prove in detail. Perhaps you will complete a draft only to decide the professor is a bit threatened by feminism (because of her cultural experiences and positioning), so you might then go back and revise the essay to be a bit more attentive to the audience’s concerns. Or, you might choose to stay with your original analysis to try to confront the audience’s possible beliefs more directly. Thus, we can see the interaction of revision and asking questions about the rhetorical context and how they inform a writer’s response to that context.

However, the writing process doesn’t really end there. In a larger sense, writing always occurs within a cultural context. In writing an essay about Pride and Prejudice, you’re also writing about culture. How does culture view romance? How do cultural forces influence our actions within relationships? In effect, as we write, whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re participating in culture. Writing is a way to gain a voice in the constantly changing nature of society. Yet, in order for this voice to be authentic, writers must be aware of the social, historical, and cultural contexts in which they write. If we return to the example above, we see that writing such an analysis is already analyzing cultural notions of how relationships are affected by the phallocentric culture of the time (e.g., the book may reproduce expectations about gender roles within a relationship that were dominant at that time). However, as the writing process unfolds, writers can also express and revise their own views of society and culture. For example, while writing a paragraph on how the novel reinforces traditional gender roles, you might be able to see how those roles are present in your own relationships. While the act of revision changes what you’re saying in the text, it also may change your cultural views. If you then decide to stay with your original analysis rather than revise to more readily fit what you suspect are the views of the professor, you could make an active and direct attempt to change cultural notions of gender roles within relationships, thus representing your own (revised) beliefs more accurately.

Final Thoughts

We begin our common syllabus with this philosophical statement because it is easy, once you begin teaching, to focus only on how to produce the particular kinds of documents asked for in the major writing assignments. Keeping the goal of teaching choice within a context, however, can help prevent too much focus on producing an “A” paper of a particular genre. While success in particular genres will no doubt help your students succeed in CO150, it will not necessarily help them succeed in writing tasks beyond this individual class—the main purpose of a first-year course.

Although much of this syllabus focuses on specific essays and reports, it is important to keep in mind that the goal of CO150 is not simply to teach students to write these particular kinds of documents well. Although CO150 is meant to help students write for other courses, the variety of genres and assignments across the curriculum cannot be readily reproduced in this course. Instead, the major goal of CO150 is to teach students about writing in such a way that they can respond effectively to a variety of writing assignments, contexts, and tasks in the future. Therefore, we have designed the course so that students must choose and analyze real writing situations. Our hope is that this will help students learn how to apply academic thinking and writing strategies to new, more public contexts. In short, then, the main goal of the course is to create better writers rather than writers proficient only at producing certain kinds of documents.