The English 1106 course Melissa and I put together came about in a somewhat serendipitous manner. I was feeling (and I think all of us in the office were feeling) somewhat hesitant about preparing an 1106 syllabus. In Spring 2009, I felt my class was okay, but I wasn’t happy with the way I’d arranged the class. To some extent, my assignments had been selected buffet style–I just filled up my plate with ready-made assignments and tweaked them a bit for my purposes. There is, of course, nothing wrong with doing this–just because one person develops an assignment, it doesn’t mean it can’t be used to great effect by someone else–but I was looking for a syllabus with a bit more cohesiveness. I guess I was looking for a course “theme.”
I stumbled upon a theme for 1106 during discussions with Melissa about our shared interest in the idea of place. I can’t recall exactly how this came about, but I believe it grew out of my observation that Melissa had learned a remarkable amount about Blacksburg and the greater New River Valley area in the year and half she’d lived here (she knows of more things to do here than I do, and I’ve lived here most of my life). From this observation, we began discussing how different we are in terms of learning about the places in which we live, and from that conversation, we began to consider the different ways people “know” a place, beginning with the idea of maps–relationship maps, sound maps, image maps, and of course standard street/transit maps. It wasn’t long before one of us floated the idea of building a course around the idea of maps, and from this idea we eventually settled on the broader question of how we “know” the places in which we live.
Once Melissa and I settled on a theme–“Where Are We?”: Writing About Place–we left the course design process alone, excepting occasional brainstorming, until the week before the spring semester was to begin. We’d already decided on a text–Writing Place–, and we had floated several assignment ideas, so we met in our office and began the process of putting our ideas down on paper (or, in this case, the computer screen) and developing them into a cohesive 1106 syllabus. One of the first decisions we made–and certainly one of the best decisions we made–was to build our course using Google documents in order to enable easy editing, file-sharing, etc. This allowed us greater freedom while we developed the syllabus and assignments, as we weren’t always required to be in the same place at the same time.
When planning the course assignment sequence, we were, of course, preoccupied with the way in which our assignments would allow us introduce our students to research concepts and resources. What we found was that writing about place allowed us to introduce students to college-level research in a natural way, a way that mimics the manner in which any curious individual might progress in her desire to learn about a place. We began with observation, requiring the students to observe places around Blacksburg and write about their experience(s) there. This assignment focused on developing students’ awareness to detail, helping them focus on observation as a sensual experience, and encouraging them to attend to the questions and problems suggested by the details of their observation. From a research perspective, the most important aspect of these first assignments was a student’s ability to make connections between their observation experience and larger social/cultural issues–to begin with personal experience and move beyond that experience, connecting it to larger problems and patterns of existence. From a rhetorical perspective, it was also vital for students to develop descriptive writing facility, improving their ability to communicate their observation and reflection to their readers.
The following writing assignments we developed built upon observation and introduced students to more sophisticated research processes. Each assignment was rooted in observation, but additional research was required for the latter two, recognizing the inherent limits to what one can learn about a place from simple observation. First, we introduced students to the process of archival research as a way to access the history of the places they were observing. The history of national architectural and geographical treasures is fairly easy to access without recourse to primary sources, but local history is more difficult to trace. Students were introduced to Special Collections at Newman Library (a unique experience among 1106 students) and required to use primary historical documents to help them uncover the history of the places they were observing and writing about. In the final writing assignment, observation and archival materials were supplemented by scholarly secondary sources. Students were taught to use the library’s database system, to distinguish between scholarly and non-scholarly sources, and were required to include scholarly materials in their final paper in addition to observation and archival research.
This sort of composition–observing, researching, and writing about place–was new to most of our students. In anticipation of their unfamiliarity with this sort of writing, we carefully planned readings throughout the semester to help students become comfortable with the genre of place writing, front-loaded the course with reading, writing responses, and class discussion. As the semester progressed, we decreased the readings to allow for greater attention to the students’ own compositions. Finally, in recognition of Virginia Tech’s emphasis on technology and technological literacy–and also as a way to incorporate our original interest in mapping–we had students build personal and group maps of Blacksburg using Google Maps, incorporating text, images, audio, and video of the places they had observed and researched.
Overall, I think the course Melissa and I developed was quite successful. Our syllabus was very ambitious, requiring a lot of our students (which they quickly picked up on–and sometimes complained about–when comparing their own work load with that of their peers in other 1106 classes). The demanding material affected students in different ways, and so I would describe my own classes’ response to the course as ambivalent. There were, to be sure, some students who found the whole exercise of writing about place–especially a place as “boring” as Blacksburg–to be pointless and frustrating. On the other hand, I was pleased to see a significant number of my students blossom into conscientious writers and researchers, not only “discovering” Blacksburg, but also discovering that they liked writing, especially about their own observations and experiences, and they enjoyed expanding on their experiences and making their reflection more nuanced through the research process. My students’ final papers were quite long, most of them easily outstripping the word count requirement, and I think this reflects both their realization that taking the time to communicate what it is they have to say has no firm correlation to word or page count, as well as their successful adoption of the research processes emphasized in the course. It is hard to combine observation, primary research, secondary research, and personal reflection into even five pages and have it be cohesive and effective, and I think many students were surprised and pleased by how much they had to say and were willing to take the time and space necessary to effectively communicate their thoughts and research on paper. While I am aware that the course material didn’t “reach” every student, I think the writing produced by the majority of my students easily shows that the course, while demanding, was quite successful.