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How would your students teach your course? How would they pitch it?: Reflecting on audience, purpose, & the classroom

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to teach a first-year writing seminar called “Metamorphosis: Identity and Change,” which drew on texts as varied as Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the film of Interview with a Vampire to explore the relationship between change and the self. The topic also proved fertile ground for developing writing projects, especially those that focused on revision. There are two assignments from the course, one used relatively early on and one used as a sort of informal course evaluation on the last day, that I thought would make a good contribution to HASTAC's ongoing Pedagogy Project. While both are built around my course topic of metamorphosis, they could be easily adapted for any writing-centered course.


Assignment #1: Metamorphose the Course Description


Purpose: The principal purpose of this assignment was to help students think about how audience and purpose affects writing through the use of a real world example: the 300 word course descriptions that appeared in the course catalogue. However, the assignment also gave students an opportunity to reflect both on their own experience of the course and on the ways in which I, their instructor, was also a writer who had to think about rhetorical contexts.


Implementation: Students were broken into small groups of 3-4 students and given a handout that included the original course description and identified its original audience and purpose: the purpose was to convince students to sign up for my course and the audience was principally freshmen. The groups worked together to rewrite the description based on one of four options for purpose and audience: (1) To convince an audience of freshmen to not take the class. (2) To convince freshmen students’ parents that their children should take this class. (3) To convince freshmen students’ parents that their children should not take this class. (4) To convince a middle-aged, working professional who is thinking about taking a night class for personal enrichment to take the course. Then, each group shared their description with the rest of the class who had to guess which option they’d chosen.


Reflection: I don’t know if I would have used this particular assignment if I wasn’t already pretty confident about my rapport with students and relatively confident that most of them were enjoying the class. I wanted students to feel comfortable during the exercise and to be able to have fun with it. In this case, it seemed like the assignment went very well and students weren’t overly anxious about making fun of the class. We had just finished a difficult section in which we read portions of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind and one group, who had chosen option 1, produced the best description of all the groups, which began: “Do you enjoy reading dry, impenetrable German philosophy?”


Assignment #2: Metamorphose the Course


Purpose: The purpose of this assignment was largely to elicit feedback from students about the course. However, like the “Metamorphose the Course” assignment, it also places students in the instructor’s role and allowed students to intervene creatively within the course instead of merely evaluating it.


Implementation: In the previous class, students were given a handout that gave them the university’s requirements for first-year writing seminars and instructed them to write a brief one page description of how they would have designed the course. The only requirement was that they had to change at least one aspect of the course and that their designed course had to meet the university requirements. On the next day of class—which was also the final day—we went around the room and each student briefly explained what they had proposed.   


Reflection: As with the previous assignment, I think it’s crucial for students to feel comfortable thinking critically about the classroom and about their own experiences in the context of a public discussion. I had this assignment due on the same day that students were going to fill out their official anonymous evaluations, and I think that the balance of informal and formal, public and private forms of evaluation worked well. Students seemed interested in the assignment and it provided a nice, “low-key” way to end the course.


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