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Hume-anities: picking an intro comp text

April 3, 2006

In the spirit of this week’s discussion on the role of big ideas and the need to earn marketable skills in college/university, we take on academic freedom and composition texts.

I have just started an online course where the text is centrally chosen. That is, I am teaching intro composition from a text that is geared toward using literature to teach writing. It should work, in theory, like this: student reads well written essays, fiction and poetry. Student is exposed to “big ideas” well crafted. Student discusses said ideas. Student begins to write better from the whole exchange.

I like this approach. I really do. I think it has great merit…for a full semester, on-ground class. Course discussion is a wonderful way to explore ideas, but not online. Why? What I call the “let-me-tell-you-what-I-think” imperative endemic in students. They read and then have an overwhelming demand within themselves to describe the encounter…in detail…with personal history thrown in. “Yeah” I say when I have an hour to fill. Not so good when online. The difference? Online, while I get a sometimes more intimate and graphic encounter with ideas (again, not necessarily a bad thing), I also get a more limited encounter, which all seems to depend on the student’s ability to type. If they can type, then they might talk themselves through a difficult idea, but this is a rarity. More likely they will skim the surface, hoping to fulfill the participation requirement and get on to the graded assignment.

My choice for online composition would be less Peter Elbow and more skills oriented (clear expression, understanding of grammar, etc.). This places me about 1930s…

I am not entirely happy with that.

Why, then, would I disregard free-writing, voice, expression, big ideas, etc.?


I have six weeks of asynchronous communication to move below-high school writing level to a demonstration of the basics of documentation. That is, by then of the course, my students are expected to be able to adequately prevent themselves from plagiarizing…something at which portions always seem to fail.

Any thoughts?

  1. Dr. Crazy permalink
    April 3, 2006 6:24 pm

    I suspect that I would take the 1930s approach in your situation as well, in part because it’s very difficult to work on things like voice and expression with people who are entirely disembodied. All of that stuff (at least the way that I deal with it in my in-person comp classes) requires getting to know the students and building trust between me and them and between the class generally. I don’t know how one would be able to build that kind of trust in 6 weeks online. Also, I’m not really sure what the payoff would be for trying to do so. Ultimately, I’d argue that students who choose to take this sort of course online probably don’t care at all about having big ideas or about expressing themselves – they care about getting the course credit in a way that fits into their schedules. I’m not making a judgment about whether that’s right, wrong, or somewhere in between, but if that’s the reality, shouldn’t we acknowledge it?

    Nice post 🙂

  2. Piss Poor Prof permalink
    April 4, 2006 1:33 pm

    Thanks Dr. Crazy. I agree that I would definitely take a different tack, as I have, in a semester-long on-ground course. I take a portfolio, Elbowian (word?) approach with lots of free-writing and exploring voice, structure, etc. with very little formal grammar instruction–its seems to come on its own.

    Online, though, I don’t have the time (either in accumulated days or on conversation…only so much can go through an e-mail or essay feedback–there is no dialog in asynchronous learning).

    I also agree that online students (I have only one traditional student here) are seeking a degree for professional advance above all else. I can post some testimony to this if anyone wishes. While Dean Dad’s point about not moving up the ladder without critical thinking can be true, it is not exclusively true. I have seen plenty of advancement through shrewd manipulation of the local system (knowing who to align with, the tacit rules of the administration game, etc–“street smarts of the cube set” we’ll say) that did not come from extended analysis of the Platonic Ideal.

    Thanks for the feedback. It is encouraging. 🙂

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