Writing and Social Justice

This course was first launched during the American presidential campaign of 2016, at New York City College of Technology. This context allowed students to engage at once in critical thinking, problem solving and persuasive writing. The challenge was to create an intensive writing course that engaged students in critical thinking, problem-solving and persuasive writing. The hope was, upon completion of this course, students would be able to use these skills within a variety of contexts – academic, work related and social justice oriented. The course took place within the electrically charged framework of presidential debates, robust news coverage and on-the-street exchanges between students and members of the general public. As the candidates narrowed to two, a treasure-trove of writing stimuli surfaced, enabling students to write about a wide variety of political issues and they explored how these issues might impact their individual lives and the lives of their families.

In February, at the beginning of the term, students brainstormed a list of topics they preferred to explore. From that list, I created a “ballot” that enabled them to “elect” five themes. Based on their first, second and third choices from among these themes, students joined small groups of no more than six students each. Each student then explored his/her assigned theme to identify one controversy that would form the stimulus for their term’s work. Each student then conducted a two-part research project. Part ONE involved identifying a problem related to their controversy, identifying the central question, and articulating competing answers to the central question. Part TWO involved defending his/her personal answer to the central question. The answer could be one of the competing answers already identified or a new answer. The student then had to address the most salient issue raised by the opposition.

Part THREE involved using research completed in the previous research, along with literary elements, to analyze a thematically-related short story. Over the course of the term, small groups also appeared on panels to discuss related journal articles that explored various aspects of the overall themes.  They produced three essays (5-7 pages), one at the culmination of each of the three-parts of their research.

Completing their projects required collaborating in small groups, sharing their progress and getting ideas and resources from others. The projects also involved locating research in professional journals available through the college library databases. The final examination at the end of the term required that they respond to a very short article containing a controversy unrelated to the ones that they had studied earlier in the term. This was for the purpose of enabling them to use skills gained earlier in the term within a different learning context.

The framework of their research was the 2016 presidential campaign and its aftermath, where they identified the controversies  they perceived to be of most consequence for them and their families – environmentalism, immigration, racism, technology and women’s issues.

During the first term that the course was offered, students exhibited a very high level of engagement with the subject matter. This enthusiasm continued in the Fall term where the course was offered again as the U.S. crossed the threshold of the Fall 2016 election. The excitement was still evident, after the election when a third group of students, in  Fall of 2017, explored the same themes in the post-election context of sweeping changes by the new administration.

It is the syllabus for the above sections of English 1121 that is the foundation for this current course manual. The manual contains three units and an appendix. The course design is flexible, in that instructors are free to update the content by brainstorming with students to create a new list, issuing the new “ballot”, identifying new themes and locating new readings related to those themes. The appendix contains the course syllabus, the ballot, and links to selected additional resources that might be useful to both instructors and students. Links to the recommended readings for each unit are provided within the units where they are referenced.