The Flexible Final Project

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May 042011

While I have not received feedback from students on this project, leaving the project open (rather than forcing students to argue a certain way) seems to have been a good decision. The quality of projects already appears higher, and I am sure the arrangement is less stressful for students. The purpose of this assignment is to encourage students to think about the available means of persuasion, including the various media available to them, and then use them to make an effective argument. I hope that this assignment has given students a chance to reflect not just on persuasive strategies, but on the advantages and pitfalls of various media for making specific arguments.@ viz.

Jan 182011

For two years now I’ve been using rants as a first-day freewrite in 101 at Emerson — my prompt is literally “have a rant about something that’s on your mind”, with the caveat that it shouldn’t be about another student — and if I haven’t already sung the exercise’s praises to you I’ll do so now. To wit, they’re great because:

1. They’re a good way to break the ice (and a good way to help you stick names to faces), and

2. A rant pretty much by design has to have a workable Short Course proposition, or something that can easily be turned into one. (“The dining hall food is bad,” “Smokers outside the LB are annoying,” and “[prerequisite] is a pointless class for [major]” are some that seem to come up a lot.)

For the latter reason I use my first-day rants as a way to segue into Short Course, but as it is the first day and I’m essentially asking them to workshop a freewrite with a group of total strangers, volunteers aren’t always forthcoming. So this semester I tried showing them this video instead.

It’s basically a dramatic reading of a videogame “review”, one written as a response on one of those incoherent internet comment boards. In addition to being hilarious, it actually contains a relatively complex and interesting Short Course–style argument that you can get students to tease out — which is valuable both as a way to teach Short Course and as a vivid demonstration of how quickly people will write off your (relatively complex and interesting) argument if you don’t present it according to certain conventions.

Room for Debate

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Sep 292010

The last two years in 101 I have been pairing Short Course with the NY Times “Room for Debate” blog.  In the “Room for Debate,” according to the website, the newspaper “invites knowledgeable outside contributors to discuss news events and other timely issues.”  In other words, they put together a panel of experts who all put in their two cents on a particular issue.  Of course, they have numerous discussions on a variety of topics which are archived and available free of charge.  Topics range from cell phone use to the War in Iraq to the cultural significance of a movie like The Kids Are All Right.


I have been pleased with how Short Course, the “Room for Debate” and Harris work together, for several reasons.  First, it allows me to present the students with a pretty convincing representation of Harris’ dinner party.  I usually tell my students to think of the panel members as the guests they meet at the dinner party and with whom they mingle to shape their opinion.  Second, it makes it easy to grant the students a lot of freedom in the topics they choose to write about while giving me a means of restricting enough to do some quality control.  Also, as we move into longer papers in Unit 2, I find it makes it relatively easy to stress the importance of doing some research and exploring a variety of opinions in order to establish credentials and to develop a more robust paper.

Reading Comprehension

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Sep 252010

Most of us probably don't think reading comprehension tests are a good idea, but how often are we inclined to behave, intentionally or not, as though reading comprehension is a readily teachable skill?  This article offers a straightforward argument, I think, for having students read widely in the first-year writing course.  Also, I find it helpful to be reminded that reading comprehension is by no means a linear process as I critique the strategies I use to bring readings into the classroom and into student writing.

Public Writing Assignments

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Sep 012010

In both WR101 WR121, we’re asking students to think about writing as a response to “real” rhetorical and cultural demands — “calls to write” beyond the classroom. One approach I’ve found helpful for getting students thinking of writing more publicly is to borrow assignments from public writing projects. In WR101, for instance, the first assignment I give my class is to write a This I Believe essay. In WR121, the whole semester builds toward increasingly public writing projects like proposals for public space and field guides for a public audience, but it’s bothered me that the earlier assignments of the semester feel more private to the classroom. This semester, I’m hoping to address that by using Orion’s The Place Where You Live as the first assignment. Not only does this call to write emphasize writing about place in the same way our semester will, but it also allows for each writer to select the most effective genre and approach, just as I will ask my class to do as we proceed.

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