It is now a commonplace that composition teaching ought to venture beyond the five-paragraph essay or any other sort of abstract missive to an indeterminate addressee. Instead, composition should emphasize writing in real-world, professional genres, across the disciplines. But no genre exists in a vacuum, as the text must interact with the world. Guided by this conviction, I designed a mock science conference poster project for the Natural Sciences unit of my First-Year Composition: Writing Across the Disciplines course. To create a virtual, immersive, conference space, I relied upon the resources of the Renaissance Computing Institute (RenCI) at UNC-Chapel Hill.
I assigned students to research a significant controversy in contemporary science, then devise a 5-minute poster talk for an imaginary science conference. To familiarize students with the conference poster genre, I presented several real-world models, not only of posters, but of conference CFPs and recorded conference talks. I invited two scientists to bring posters from their conference talks to my classroom, present their poster, and answer questions about research, poster design, and the conference experience, including the crucial question, "Why do scientists go to conferences?" I had met these scientists at UNC-Chapel Hill's Center for Teaching Excellence, during the seminars for our Future Faculty Fellowship.
After the scientists' visits, students began brainstorming controversies (initially from Science Daily's news roundups), learned how to locate appropriate, up-to-date sources for their literature review, and compiled a bibliography of such sources. Peer critique helped students to develop a research question and method (the first "feeder" assignment), then an argument.
For their second feeder, they visited RenCI to see the space that would become their poster session room: the Social Computing Room. In the SCR, twelve projectors, each located behind one of the four walls, create a 360-degree display. One Windows desktop wraps round the whole room. That means that almost any immersive environment can be synthesized there. To synthesize a poster session room at a conference, my class would need to upload the posters as JPegs, then use the RenCI-developed program Collage to evenly space them round the room. The first time I taught this project, I allowed students to innovate on the poster genre. Since then, I have become concerned that too much leeway doesn't prepare them adequately to write within the genre, in science courses and beyond, so the guidelines have been tightened.
My students presenting at RenCI.
I organized students into panels, by topic, and the groups went to the SCR outside of class to prepare and practice their poster talks. Then, on presentation day, we participated in several mock poster sessions.
I know that this project fulfilled many of the course outcomes. Students didn't just present talks illustrated by images (as in many PowerPoint or Prezi talks.) They made eye contact with their visualizations, pointed at them, engaged with them on a physiological level - as the weather reporter on the TV news does, but with a better ability to see their visuals. Students' presentations skills developed remarkably. One student who was very shy and visibly afraid of presentation became very talkative in seminar during the assignment sequence immediately following her presentation. Students have praised RenCI ("the fancy computer room") in their evaluations, and one specifically liked interacting with the guest scientists. Several have presented versions of their poster talks as PowerPoint presentations at the Writing Program's highly competitive undergraduate conference, the People, Ideas, and Things Conference.
This is only one of the immersive environments that the SCR can approximate for the teaching of real-world genres across the disciplines. Others include an art gallery (plan your exhibit without moving any actual artworks), an archaeological site, a map gallery, and more. RenCI's resources, including the SCR, are accessible to all faculty, staff, graduate, and undergraduate members of the UNC community and several other communities at RenCI's various sites. To find out more, go here or email me.