*(Note: This is not a post in which I am declaring my hatred of composition classes or my unfitness to teach or anything else that needs to be psychologized or changed. If you remember back to when I was writing about my research, these long posts are ways of figuring out what I think so that I can then move through and beyond the dilemma. I'm still pissed at the way youall responded to the decorating posts so if you don't want to play the game, shut up.)
Long perusal of comp anthologies through teaching and tutoring and trying to create sample syllabi from publishers' websites or for job applications has taught me that I don't hate all comp anthologies equally. Though I do hate them all. In an ideal world I would have the time and liberty to create exactly the readings and syllabus I want and have somebody bind it up in a way that was convenient and cheap for freshmen. In a slightly-better-than-reality world I would be allowed to choose an anthology that I had already taught from or developed a syllabus for. In the present situation, I am told that because the departmentally-chosen anthology is very expensive, I should supplement it as little as possible to save money for the students. Sigh.
Trying to make a syllabus with this anthology has taught me that I like to teach "sequences." I teach content as a way of learning about writing; maybe this is "writing within a discipline" (I certainly have serious complaints about the whole "writing across the disciplines" approach) and you could probably cite a lot of pedagogical research about why this is bad, but I find it has a lot of advantages. (Side note: I saw a couple panels on the last MLA convention program about "writing without content" or --- wait, it might have been phrased differently; it was writing only about writing --- and this may be trying to be the next big pedagogy fad. I would need a lot more selling on the idea before I believed it.)
When I teach sequences, I like to provide a lot of content. And this is very specific content. What I find is that students just don't know enough about any topic, no matter how accessible, to really develop interesting papers and ideas. And the more limited the views on this topic, the harder it is to get them to see beyond the Point-Counterpoint television debate style, where there are precisely two opinions and then you end your essay with the statement that these positions have both similarities and differences and it is up to someone else (or each individual) to decide about them. Moreover, I like my topics to be very focused. And I like to assign a lot of types of readings --- both news articles that give the 5Ws and encyclopedia articles that give the facts as well as various argumentative or policy pieces.
For example, a really nice sequence would be the CA budget mess and how this is affecting students. (Yes, I teach from a pretty soc-science standpoint, which is another way I am at odds with most of the depts./other teachers I have run up against. I think it's easier for younger and inexperienced students to grapple with a fairly concrete rather than abstract or philosophical problem. Or fiction.). But back to the example ---- look, my students come up with really stupid and uniformed knee-jerk responses to the budget crisis unless we spend a significant amount of time on the background: how does the budget get set? how does our government work? what has been happening in the news about it in the last year or so? Then, because we are taking a pretty in-depth look, we can start to discuss the political and philosophical leanings of the various opinion and solution articles with some real nuance ---- if we read moderate and liberal and far left responses, I have no problem with them also reading libertarian and far right responses too. And I think it does them much more good to be able to distinguish between all these different positions. They come up with solutions and proposals that are much more feasible. And if they are able to say, "hey! I agree with the Libertarians! Maybe I'm a Libertarian!" then, hey, they are able to articulate their political positions rather than just having an inchoate mush of contradictory opinions, so, yay.
This book claims to have sequences, but does not. "Identity" isn't really workable to me as a sequence. And then I get very antsy about teaching a piece about why there should be no affirmative action or why we should be post-identity politics when the "liberal" pieces in that "sequence" are not responding to the same topic, but may be, I don't know, affirming Latina feminism or talking about family and the Moynihan report. Since my students have no context for any of these topics or rationale for why we are even talking about stuff like race or politics or family and social structures, I have to either do a lot more of the work providing context in class (which takes valuable time away from teaching how to write and do revision) or leave the students with a very partial understanding of the topics, and of why we write essays in response to these topics, which are not usually about responding to one essay in a vacuum or comparing apples and oranges about theme Y. But this one goes, "Identity!--- everyone has one but let's not talk about why we are reading these essays together!" to "Science! --- here are a lot of unconnected topics from different disciplines that have no connections!" to "Government! --- everybody has one! So let's throw together famous writings on government from the whole history of the entire planet!"
Grumble. You know, I hate teaching "ethics and cloning" but I'd rather have five essays on that topic than one on women in science, one on evolution, one on paradigm shifts and the discovery of relativity, and one on global warming. Each of these topics has a debate associated with it, but when you can't teach the different sides of the debate, you can't really get across how there are a variety of positions in this debate. Each article becomes "the" stance on this position, and because the teacher has assigned it, the teacher must agree with/like that position, and therefore I, the student, had better agree with it and give the teacher what she wants.
Similarly, if you teach a bunch of "identity essays" with every type of identity except the one the majority of your students will identify with but don't explain why the class is taking this focus and why one studies minority and excluded identities, you are just setting up the class for more resentment and conflict than you need. And since this anthology's preface just goes "ooh let's all write identity essays!" and that is the end of the story, you're asking for students to write about themselves without interacting with these different perspectives in a serious way. Granted, I'm coming at this as someone who is in pretty much every mainstream identity group, but I always responded better when someone explained the reasons why we were going to learn all about people who were different from me. And while we're on the subject, why are we reading personal essays in the first place? And why does anybody require them in comp??? It's not like any of the rest of their college classes will be asking them to just write about themselves and not interact with a text, so I don't see why this is standard here, or anywhere. The last place I worked had a focus on personal narrative for the non-credit writing class just below freshman comp, and I think I like that better.
And furthermore, I would like to point out that the vast majority of freshmen finishing their year of comp are still not ready to read in their disciplines because they have not read any articles from them. Oh no. No no no. Even most of the "discipline-specific" anthologies I have looked at do not have your standard twenty-page academic article in them --- they have popular writings on a topic from the discipline. Sure, assigning students articles from The New Yorker or Slate or Salon or The Atlantic is fine, but it's not actually familiarizing them with academic writing conventions. The introduction to Nickel and Dimed or Convergence Culture is waaaay watered down from what the students will encounter in their sophomore major courses ---- unless everyone has switched over to textbooks without any footnotes already except for senior courses? Hmm. I always found that when I taught in the other departments my students had a very hard time navigating the methodology and lit review sections of academic articles --- their usual recourse was to just not read that part --- and looking at these anthologies I kinda feel like they are part of the problem. Although my students generally have a difficult time reading the three-page opinion pieces from The New York Times published in the comp anthology, so maybe the answer is that there needs to be an additional reading/writing course for students in their major, after completing comp 101 and 102.
So having gotten that out of my system, what am I going to do for all my essay sequences when I can only find three and am only interested in two? Hmm. I may stick very heavily to the anthology for the first half of the course and start bringing in more outside things for them to read for the ending sequences. I've still got my back up about the idea of having them read a bunch of personal essays and then write their own, though. Bleah. Well at least now that I've got that out of my system I can go back to reading through this anthology without throwing up. Gah.