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Course design: the creative process

posted: 2.7.13 by archived

As I’ve been working on a new version of my comp class, I’ve been thinking about not just the particular units and assignments, readings and activities I plan to use but also the process of course design itself. It has reminded me of one of my old analogies for the writing process, as I described in a comment to one of Susan’s posts:

Writing an essay is like cleaning a room. If you just take it one item at a time, it’s too easy to get sidetracked and leave the job half-(or less) done. When I was a little girl, my mother taught me instead to first dump everything that wasn’t in its place into the middle of the room. Paradoxically it becomes easier to manage when you have a heaping, messy pile in front of you that needs only to be sorted into piles that are easy to manage: dirty dishes for the sink, books for the bookcase, dirty clothes for the laundry, and (always) that pile of garbage for the trashcan.

Picking a room. First comes the choice of a theme. For me, this has often been quite an instinctive decision, influenced by articles (or books or videos or whatever) I happen to come across and the critical mass of curiosity that accretes around these materials.  In a recent blog post “what is the topic of composition?” Alex Reid considers the choice of theme more systematically, coming up with his own list of criteria for an appropriate FYC theme: (condensed version) the issue connects to student experience and instructor interest; the issue has been addressed in multiple academic disciplines and genres as well as in other public professional and nonprofessional discourse; the issue is timely; and the issue does not lend itself to firmly entrenched binary positions. My own criteria are evolving, but include the following: consideration of the theme can move from personal to public; it is not connected to the usual sociopolitical controversies (abortion, immigration, childhood obesity) but rather a topic that encourages students to look at their own experience more freshly.

Collecting up stuff. Once I decide on a topic or theme, my next step is to cast a wide net to gather up information. An earlier blog post lists some of my favorite places to look for articles and websites online; this is a prime place for me to look because then I can provide links to students rather than worry about copyright issues. I use diigo to save sources so that I can access them from my several devices, organize sources with multiple tags, and later share these articles conveniently with students. Now that I’ve activated the dangerous one-click option on amazon, I’ve also found myself ordering books on the theme I’ve chosen, which serve to give me additional info and approaches. (This time I’m not looking for a course text, though I may put some of the books in the library on reserve for student use, and other semesters I may choose to use a mass market nonfiction text to stimulate student thinking and give them practice with sustained reading.)

Making piles. As my pile of sources and information grows, categories become apparent. I’m looking for possibilities for three, four, or five units that will give a structure to the semester. As I decide on these, I can adjust tags on my diigo reading list to reflect these categories. At this point I’m also starting to have ideas about specific assignments I might use.

Deciding on order. In addition to an order that seems appropriate thematically, I also want to arrange these units in a progression that lets me move through the writing-instruction topics I typically cover; a generalized and incomplete list would include critical thinking, writing and reading processes, rhetorical issues, language and grammar, and the research process. So I’m continuing to think about what activities and assignments would fit in with these various units. I’d also like these units to let students move from personal experience to more public considerations and from single-source text-wrestling (to borrow the term used by UMass-Amherst’s Writing Program) to synthesis of multiple sources. I suppose I could use something like Excel to organize these units, but my process feels more visual, like flipping overlays in anatomy text of organ systems, or sliding some apparatus of layered tiles.

Throwing things away. Inevitably I have much too much information and ideas to cover. Some are too complex or vague, and some too similar. Here I remind myself of the diversity of experience and abilities of my students and what’s reasonable in terms of number of assignments, amount of reading, types of in-class activities. I look for balance (similarly weighted units, individual vs. collaborative work) and a progression that works both in terms of the theme and my more explicit (or embedded) writing instruction.

Putting things into place. At this final stage, I look within each pile/category to finalize readings and writing assignments. As the beginning of the semester nears, I look at my syllabus; though much of the classroom management is quite similar from semester to semester, I add an introduction to the theme and adjust the section on grading to reflect the particular assignments I’ve chosen and their relative weights. I set up the mother-blog for the course that will provide day-to-day instructions and source material; later it will include links to the blogs that students will set up to share their writing with each other.

For those of you who use a theme-based approach or any approach where you’re actively involved in course design, please share in the comments anything you can add about your own process (or feel free to comment on the process I’ve been using).




Categories: Holly Pappas
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