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Making Lists and Choosing Topics

posted: 2.6.12 by archived

After explaining about my experiment with individualized themes for my composition classes this semester, I thought I’d go into a little more detail about how I have been compiling reading lists and asking students to choose from among the ten themes I selected.

I’ve been using the social bookmarking site diigo (here’s my diigo library) to collect articles, tagging each likely candidate with “readingjournal” and the particular theme in question, so here, for example, is the current list for technology articles. This allows me to post a link for students to a page that can be added onto as the semester progresses. (Of course, diigo could also be used to have students help in the aggregation process, selecting articles they found themselves. For this first try at multiple themes, though, I’m doing all of the selecting myself to try to ensure that articles are both authoritative and substantial in length.)

The sources I used to find these articles include the following:

  • the usual favorites that I check on a weekly or monthly basis (the New Yorker, the AtlanticHarper’s magazine, the New York Times magazine section, the Boston Globe magazine section, Arts  & Letters Daily)
  • two web sites that curate nonfiction, Byliner (which I’ve written about earlier) and Longreads, both of which can be searched by subject
  • David Brooks’s annual Sydney awards (here’s part I and part II from last month)
  • the Best American Essays series (here’s the table of contents from the most recent volume)
  • the New York Times feature Room for Debate, which is indexed by discussion topic
  • the apps Flipboard and Zite on my iPad

On the theme “reading lists,” I’m also including video sources drawn from these sources:

After writing my last post about this individualized theme approach (and Jack’s comment hypothesizing that students would split between sports and the family), I spent some time considering just how to set-up the selection process. Before I asked students to choose their theme for the semester, I described my own brainstormed list of possible topics for an economics/business theme. Then I asked student groups to brainstorm topics for a pair of assigned themes and posted the collated results on our course blog.  I emphasized that students must be able to envision personal, ethnographic, and argumentative approaches for the theme they selected and that this should be a theme about which they had not only experience but also curiosity.

Only then did I asked students to write a proposal explaining not only their reasons for choosing a particular theme but also some examples of essays they might want to write for each of the genres we’re covering in the class. So that groups would have a “critical mass” (so that there would be enough students in each group to productively share reading notes via linked blogs), I also asked students to select a second and third choice; this also would allow me to have individual conversations with students who seemed to have settled too easily on the “obvious choice” themes of sports and the family, which I had also suspected would be the most popular choices.

The final results are not in yet as to distribution of students among themes, as only about half of the students have turned in proposals. However, I’m delighted to report that it looks as if students have self-selected into roughly equal groups split between the six themes of the arts, education, health, food, and, yes, the family and sports. At least a couple of students selected each of the less popular options (crime, the environment, technology, and business).

As you can see, this is all very much a work in progress, so I’d love to hear any comments or suggestions you might have.


Categories: Holly Pappas, Uncategorized
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2 Responses to “Making Lists and Choosing Topics”

  1. Traci Gardner Says:

    I’m a little confused on the process. Students needed to choose a preferred theme and possible essays for their choice. Then students also had to make second and third choices. Did they have to suggest essays for these second and third choices as well?

  2. Holly Pappas, Bristol CC Says:

    Yeah, still working out the process. I asked students to list brainstormed possibilities for the first choice, but only to list the two alternatives. I was maybe too worried abut that sports/family split, which turned out not to be the case. A number of students included possible topics for alternative themes, particularly if they were torn between two possibilities. Most students did end up with their first choice, though I asked many for clarification or amplification before I approved their choice. I have the luxury of teaching three sections in a computer lab, so I did quite a bit of circling around the room and chatting with students about their proposals and possible essays. I’m not sure yet how I might want to amend the process–will have to see how things turn out.