Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Class themes and book lists: switch them up or keep them the same?

This semester I have been Having Ideas. I have started to read enough interesting articles and news snippets that I have started a file on my desktop and in my Firefox bookmarks, and this is a clear sin that these Ideas are coming to a head. Usually, when something has been happening and I want to talk about it with people, I force my freshman comp students to read and write about it. I did a little around the Arab Spring a while ago, but was living in a pretty isolated place where getting them to think and care about other countries was difficult. But this year I am interested in two ideas: Transportation of the Future, and Surveillance. I could pick one of them and shape a course around the Idea.

Generally I like to start out very simple and concrete and we practice making little easy claims and arguments. My first theme clearly stems from my interest in choosing a new car at some point in the near future, and of course you can have a lot of fun writing essays about the various aspects of car culture and how people customize their cars to send meaningful messages about themselves. But this quickly spirals out into other important questions ---- should we really be spending so much of our money on personal transportation? What about the upcoming crisis with peak oil and environmental issues? Why not walking or bicycling? Car sharing? What about how our cities and suburbs are laid out ---- why are they laid out that way? How are we allocating money and should we divide it up for our current priorities ... for example, why is The Hot Place not putting much money into public transportation and infrastructure and funding? Should they put their money into public transit, or into making private transit more convenient?

By the end of the semester, students could spiral out into research projects on any number of topics related to just about anything on transportation, transportation technology, infrastructure, or even the cultural implications of these changes. I foresee this being more easily appealing to the males in the class, but since I have been doing pop culture from a very heavily fashion perspective I am ok with it.

The second Idea, of course, is a bit darker and more threatening. We could start very simply, with the idea of "creeping on" someone. I will leave aside for a moment how this bit of slang completely offends my ear and my understanding of prepositions. As my students have explained it to me, creepin on people involves checking out everything someone does on facebook, trawling back through years of their past posts and pictures, and even obsessively checking when that person is online. It opens up all sorts of interesting discussions about gossip and how their social media changes their friendships and love relationships and casual acquaintances that they may want to see succeed or fail. But who else is monitoring us, and what are they doing with this information? I don't want to just talk about Wikileaks and Snowden and Big Data, but also this disturbing trend toward self-surveillance that I find creepy and Foucauldian. Besides the FitBit and sleep devices that will constantly monitor your "performance" in terms of steps and heart rate and breathing and sleep patterns, I just found this at my local pet store:

Sort of like the nanny-cams hidden in stuffed animals I have seen for sale, this allows you to track everything your pet is doing, monitor its vital signs, and "see through the pet's eyes" so to speak if you switch over to pics or video. We seem to not only be completely reimagining the concept of privacy but the very notion of separateness. And not simply being tracked and assessed and categorized through intrusive technology everywhere we go, but we are apparently imposing it upon ourselves. The apps and "wearables" that allow you to hyper-intensively track your own productivity and efficiency of exercise, digestion, and sleep are particularly troubling when considered in light of Foucault's microphysics of control, that grid or webbing he hypothesized would form an ever-tightening mesh around us.

So, as you can see, I find both of these topics interesting and complex enough to build out an entire course around them. But I don't have readers, and I need to turn in book orders very very soon. I haven't gone through the process of making my own reader here yet, and I think those course packets are also due now, but I don't have the time to compile them or the strength of will to commit to one reading over another at the moment. (Decisions are always the toughest for me! Both/and, please!)

Hence my inclination to put this off and re-use the current reader/photocopies for the next year while I figure out how to teach the below transfer writing class (I have that in the fall and have never taught it before. It is part of my Special Program and it has a special theme. One very good sign that I am not cut out for this Special Program is that I should be re-designing all of my courses to match its theme; many people have proposed that as a good idea, and I am hesitant to do it, especially when Pop Culture and Surveillance and Transportation Futures are so fun.)

I have already bitten the bullet (it was tough for me) and decided (see?) not to change anything yet with my Comp/Intro to Lit course, and to stick with the same anthology and novel. I put in the book order today, yay!

Do you, oh wise internets, have a suggestion one way or another whether I change my freshman comp class readings? And what would you suggest for a book (and an anthology, and a "how to write essays" book, for a one-level-below-transfer writing class? And any guidelines on how much reading and writing to assign?)


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

See... I totally think of awesome themes and am all gun-ho to implement them. And then, after a couple of weeks I sputter out and get bored. Then, I'm slogging through the rest of the semester trying to make everything make sense with a syllabus that is clearly geared toward something that I feel like is failing, or I'm doing a bad job with. Ugh. I'm miserable when I try to do too much with theme.

If you're not like that, and you can sustain a theme, I think I would find the surveillance theme more interesting as a student. Much more interesting than transportation. There are so many great books you can use with that theme. Lots of good movies, too!

Belle said...

Add to your surveillance idea: the commercial tracking that goes along with credit cards, debit cards, google tracking - I personally don't worry as much about government tracking as that by for-profits. There used to be an old line about 'don't worry about the FBI; check out J&J, P&G and WalMart!'

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I *love* the surveillance idea, and I would totally take that class. And I think students would be into it, too. But I also understand your impulse not to dive into it until you feel ready to take on a new prep. Question is: are we ever ready?