Monday, August 8, 2011

More comp postings: Analysis or Argument? Or Clothes?

Thanks peeps for all your comments on my previous posts. I was good and graded one set of a stack of assignments already today and am taking a break for blogging before turning back to my article. Which still needs so much work. Sigh.

Anyway, to respond to several people's suggestions, everyone in the department who teaches comp will now be using this textbook, so it's not really optional. And I'm a postdoc which isn't the same as being tt and being able to draw some sort of line in the sand over it. And while last time I supplemented with other readings, I really don't want to put in the extra work to do that again (which is why, despite your flattery, I'm not creating a textbook anytime soon! Even if I did have the time, it doesn't count for squat on a cv.)

An added consideration is that when you bring in supplemental readings students a) wonder why then they spent 80 bucks on a damn textbook they aren't using (good question) and b) think that the articles you bring in from outside count "extra," as in, they are your "real" beliefs that they must then pretend to agree with if they want to get a good grade. Not all of them feel that way, it is true, but I don't want them to be able to figure out my beliefs with ease anyway. The point is for them to evaluate the argument's merits, which is why it's so nice to have all the articles weighted equally.

And now that I think about it, why do we even have standardized textbooks at all? My old one was 700 pages; this one, more than 800. They are bricks. And I certainly don't assign even half of all these readings --- does anyone? The point isn't to have enough readings to cover in a semester, but to have enough choices so that many instructors can pick and choose what they want and still have a standard textbook.

But I got a bunch of ads once, years ago, for an online, customizable textbook company --- you could pick and choose whatever you wanted, with whatever intro material you liked, for the surveys, and also upload your syllabus and other documents to have them bound in there too. Of course, it was for the lit surveys and 90 percent of that stuff is out of copyright and thus cheap. I forget the name of this co. But wouldn't it be nice if your dept chose a "textbook" and then each instructor went and picked all the readings and instructional material they wanted and then only that was printed and supplied to the students! It wouldn't really cut down on costs, I think --- and it would make re-sale for the students impossible, which the textbook companies would actually like --- but it at least would mean that students would use the entire textbook they were assigned. Hm. Someone should get on that.

But I was interested by Contingent Cassandra's comment that "most actual academic writing is analytical, with perhaps an underlying persuasive edge/agenda, while much of what is in comp readers is explicitly persuasive, with, if you're lucky, analytical support for the argument." Hmm. That's sorta true, and yet I feel like a lot of the academic writing I read has a pretty significant "scholar X says this, but he's wrong" to it. And I find ---- and I have generally taught comp to weaker students at cc and other less-selective schools, which might be part of it ---- that when I try to teach something as subtle as analysis I get weird empty platitudes and what passes for "common sense thinking." But teaching argument ---- particularly my style of argument, which first and foremost claims that real debates always have more than two sides ---- at least gets students to recognize and make some nice clear strong claims. Then I pass them along into their disciplines --- it's you guys's job to get them from clarity to subtlety. ;)

Or am I totally wrong and I should chuck aside the emphasis on argument? I was just reading some discussions on the Chronicle forums the other day that were working through the difficulties of teaching Toulmin argument (which I have troubles with) and had been convinced I need to go back and refocus the class even more consistently on argument. You see, I often skip "warrants" because they are hard and often teach argument without using official names for things. And when your reader is completely personal narrative, you don't have any framework to reinforce it for them. But, this reader has two chapters at the beginning where the terms are defined and given as examples, so I feel like now it is time to actually learn how to teach argument the official way.

And to make a long post even longer, I will go off here on some fun stuff for a minute. A couple other bloggers were bemoaning that the grad student/fashion bloggers Academichic are closing down their blog. Which is sad, but to be expected (I was surprised they were always in such good moods all the time, but it turns out they hadn't hit the "going on the market" stage yet). Where will we get fashion that is combined with some nice, thoughtful analysis, people cried?

This made me think, what fun it would be to use a dress and society reader for comp! Unfortunately, no such things exist. But think about it: you could have plenty of sections thinking through dress and class, dress and race, dress and gender, the debates over school uniforms (and how they are used to police along race and class lines), debates over the wearing of the hijab in France or the Supreme Court rulings for and against t-shirts as venues for personal expression, you could get some nice reflections on dress and luxury and consumerism and some good rants against consumerism or wearing labels or conformity, plus all of the more analytical pieces on what does clothing mean and how clothing is a major intersection point between the personal and the social --- which means you start somewhere very accessible to all students and encourage them to grow out into a more sociological way of thinking. And if you get a good range of fashions represented in there, I bet you could have both male and female students interested. Maybe, in deference to Cassandra, I would split it and have a range of both argumentative and analytical articles. Heh. (For getting students' dander up, there is nothing like a good ranty "kids these days!" kind of article attacking how they dress and arguing how they should dress.) Fun! I'm kinda tired of using tv/movies/media analysis, and this would be the same thing in a cool new venue. Ooh, and I forgot the whole debate about sweatshops/ethics/sustainability, which makes for great arguments and makes students suddenly conscious of their impact on the world.

I couldn't use such a reader right now anyway, since I can't pick my book. I did find this one book, for fashion majors, it says, called The Fashion Reader, but even though the entire book is on one topic, it still isn't working well to make nice connections. Which is probably because it tries to have "coverage" and thus only has one article about each topic, time, or place, and I want articles that directly contradict each other on the same topic, so students can practice critiquing and comparing arguments and choosing one over the other. I think a text more focused on the USA rather than all fashions in all times and places would allow for more range of analyses and arguments.

So someone go out and build this for me, ok? And be sure to put in lots of pictures for me to look at, cause I like pictures.


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Nay! Putting together a comp reader would count in your tenure file if you were at a SLAC. My SLAC would eat that right up. Maybe I should do it. :-/

Bardiac said...

And you could include stuff on early modern sumptuary laws and all those commentaries complaining about English folks wearing French or Dutch styles!

anthea said...

I really like your textbook idea, this would be really easy in the age of self-printed books and on demand printing. Wouldn't it be great to be able to choose the chapters we want at a set price? This would give the students an affordable book which they could then resell to the following years students. The following students could then buy the additional chapters as they need. E-books could be even easier! I would like to see textbooks priced at $40 rather than the $100+ that I regularly see.

karinaL said...

What a freakin' excellent idea! We don't have 'comp' here in Australia ( is it short for composition? Comprehension?) but I can see a book like this working in lots of areas teaching to undergrads. Hmmm...

Sisyphus said...

karinaelle, it's a first-year general writing course --- do you not have classes specifically for teaching writing? Or for weeding out all those students who really should not have been admitted to the school, in our case?

Dr. Koshary said...

This should totally happen. I nominate Fie to get the tenure-file glory for this. And just think, when she publishes it, it can be sold with a shiny "Endorsed by Sisyphus!" sticker on it!

Contingent Cassandra said...

I'm unusual in being wary of the "just get them to write *some* kind of argument" argument, which is indeed the standard wisdom. My perspective is probably skewed by the fact that, while I've taught freshman comp, and undoubtedly will teach it again, my main gig these days is teaching writing in the disciplines. There's sometimes some unlearning to do for students who've become too convinced that an argument means a persuasive, should/shouldn't, right/wrong sort of one. Insisting that most problems can be seen from more than two perspectives is certainly a step in the right direction, though, as is being able to analyze the components of the argument itself (and I think that Toulmin is a step in that direction, but I admit that I don't speak fluent Toulminese myself).

I love the idea of a "dress and society" reader/comp text (without or without analytical articles, but it's a topic that would definitely lend itself to analysis, since students could easily go out and observe new examples of the things the authors had written about. If they wrote both persuasive and analytical pieces about the same or related topics, they might even begin to understand the differences better). The custom readers you mention are very common these days; I think pretty much every major publisher offers some such set up, and there are some companies that do only custom editions. Since the printing part is easy to arrange, the main service they're offering is handling rights issues, either by offering a menu of selections for which they've already secured rights agreements, or by doing much what your school's copyright office would do in-house, and negotiating the agreements for readings you choose. It might even be worth pitching your idea to a publisher or two; I had an officemate who was co-author of a comp/rhet textbook, and she thought it had helped her get a job. But if what you really want is a job in which you spend less time teaching comp, and more teaching your specialty, then concentrate on Floyd, ungainly as he may be at this stage.

karinaL said...

We have some similar programs here but they are by no means compulsory, or even widely used, although they should be - we definitely have an issue with people not having even basic writing / comprehension / analytical skills. (Not to mention the poor international students who English language skills wouldn't get them through ordering at a restaurant, let alone writing a 3000 word essay on urbanization)

karinaL said...

* whose

Funny about Money said...

LOL! I asked the chair at the college where I'm teaching adjunct if I could do something very similar, the required text being a $90+ piece of $h!t. He said nooo chance.

That notwithstanding, I've decided to give my 101 sections what I call an "overarching subject": fashion for men and women. This is broken down into three subtopics to which groups of students are assigned; each student in a given group has to create and focus her or his own topics for the four required papers, and these must be relevant to the group subtopic.

Tried this out on this summer's 5-week Eng 101 section, with middling success. Take not that SOME PEOPLE REALLY DO NOT LIKE FASHION or at best do not care in the slightest about it. To generate more interest, I decided to expand the category to include fashion of all sorts--for example, fashions in motorcycles, fashions in electronic gear, fashion in pets, etc. Anything, in short, that has to do with popular tastes is fair game.

We'll soon see if this works a little better, since I'm about to inflict the expanded version on the fall 101s.

More successful was the 102 variant, in which I asked classmates to research and write about social mores and the economy as they're manifest in our state, from about 1920 to present. It's more challenging, and it doesn't offend anyone's moral sense. It should, but it doesn't...