Using Course Material As a Springboard for “Drier” Essentials

One major concern I ran into as an instructor at CUNY (particularly in Composition), was how to integrate my subject matter (English in general, ¬†American Literature in particular) with the basic, foundation skills requires for paper writing? ¬†(“Papers” being the final desired outcome for my class.) ¬†Further, how to do this without either condescending to the material you’re working with, nor making the task at hand seem trivial or unproductively “free form” with regard to low-pressure writing? ¬†This seems to be a common concern among faculty: how to integrate skills smoothly, non-oppressively, and with a degree of efficacy while still not totally derailing the planned coursework and materials to be covered?

How I addressed this in my American Literature course, with broader import, I think, for other (even non-humanities) disciplines, was in getting students to engage with course material in the¬†form of the required assignment. ¬†That is, isolating a skill required for a later assignments and making this skill manifest as the required form of response to the course content. ¬†In service of John Jay’s requirement for a “mock interview” between the students’ sources (a less intimidating way of approaching the annotated bibliography), I had my students respond to a piece of writing that was written in Question and Answer format. ¬†The text in question was David Foster Wallace’s¬†story “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” from the short story collection of the same title, which is told in the unique format of an extended question-and-answer sessions with the interviewer’s questions removed. ¬†We made informed guesses as to what the missing questions possibly were based on the surrounding contextual clues in the interview subjects’ answers, gaining insights about the operation of literary dialogue while also accruing skills for how to flesh out opinions–both their own or that of their sources in the “mock interview” dialogue. ¬†I noticed the “interview” assignment went much better when prefaced with this more free-form (but secretly “literary”) assignment beforehand, as it had both helped the students study the composition of “voice” in prose, as well as reflect on how one might accurately render the opinions of their quoted sources.

While not every instructor might have the luxury of free-ranging formats allotted by postmodern literature, there is undoubtedly material that might cater to a particular skill that is required (sometimes implicitly) as part of a larger, later project. ¬†Perhaps an article highlighting a new scientific tool requiring a response in the form of a “methodology” section of an abstract? ¬†Or a “breakthrough” statistical study requiring response in the form of the study’s possible “outcomes”? ¬†In any case, isolating skills beforehand in a non-derailing way, potentially with the use of already existing course materials, can help these phantom skills from piling up last minute in the form of an intimidating, omnibus final assignment, to which students (in my experience) usually respond with non-productive fear-and-trembling.

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