I have the great fortune of teaching freshman writing seminars at Rice University. Rather than approaching the art of college writing in a detached, theoretical, or "language arts" style, I thought it might be more useful to teach writing on topical studies. Thus, my seminars expose students to the historical origins of two contemporary American problems: national gun culture and the role of Confederate symbolism in contemporary society. Ultimately, but perhaps naively, I hope that students come away with seeing how historical investigation and context are crucial ingredients for understanding modern society. Such topics naturally elicit passionate debate, offering an ideal arena in which to teach writing. I have learned that, after only two weeks of class, these students are quite eager to formulate thoughts and opinions on these controversial topics.
While putting together the two courses over the summer, I
assumed that teaching writing would not be my biggest challenge, but instead
instructing students on how to respect opposing opinions and viewpoints. So
far, the latter has not been an issue at all. Each seminar has 15 students, all
of whom hold very different positions on these topics. Yet,everyone (so far) has been treated with respect and tolerance. The international students offer
quite possibly the best perspectives because they force the class to think
about issues that are rarely considered in the American context.
At this point, a vast majority of students in each class are
unified by a surprising perspective: the insistence that local, state, or
federal governments are incapable of solving the issues of national gun culture
or Confederate symbolism. Many students, from across the political and
ideological spectrum (and trust me, there are many gradations represented),
have made it very clear that their generation is disillusioned by the political
process and political parties. I find this fascinating, but do not yet know
precisely how to interpret it. (I have a few thoughts, but they will be
withheld at this time...) This has easily been the most intriguing aspect in
each course. I look forward to seeing if/how this perspective changes over the
I intend to use this blog as a monthly update on the progression
of each course; to introduce various assignments/readings that have either
succeeded or failed; and to welcome your feedback and commentary.