Sunday, December 4, 2011

musings on the new comp textbook

We're getting a new textbook in Comp next semester. This means overhauling the Basic Comp course, which might not be a bad thing because I don't think what I'm doing now is working very well. (I think I will have them write actual essays and business letters and stuff from the beginning of the class, instead of starting with paragraphs. Because really, who writes a paragraph in isolation? I also think I might scrap most of the rhetorical-analysis stuff, since I'm starting to feel like I don't even know why I emphasize it so much, except that it was what we did in Basic Comp at the University of Basketball. And the students have trouble analyzing how a newspaper op-ed piece works; half of them are at the point where they're still trying to make sense of what it says, and none of them are used to going that meta.)

But anyway: the new book. It's ... different. I'm used to teaching with a no-nonsense handbook, the sort of text that explains what thesis statements are, gives examples of every conceivable citation style, and has a handful of sample essays by strong student writers, but pretty much leaves professors and students on their own as to content. But this new book is kind of a semi-handbook and semi-reader; it has all of these essays on assorted topics by professional writers, everyone from Dave Barry to Amy Tan, and I'm not entirely sure what I'm supposed to do with the essays. Presumably they are not meant to be used as models, since the writing is too polished to be a reachable model for most students, and neither the style nor the subject matter resembles a typical college paper. Are the students supposed to be writing about them, then? What are they supposed to be saying about them?

Also, I find myself vaguely distrusting the new book because it has too many colored pictures, the typeface is too big, and there are footnotes defining words like "literal," "ambiguous," "Rubik's Cube," and "horrific." It feels, in short, like a K-12 text and not a college-level one. (This isn't actually a problem in Basic Comp, which pretty much is a K-12-level course, but I feel like it would be vaguely insulting to spring this text on regular freshman comp students. But then, I was the sort of kid who habitually took offense at notes explaining the meaning or pronunciation of words, even when I was in elementary school, and I don't know that this is necessarily a normal reaction.)

Growf. I think I have a hard time coping with change.


Bardiac said...

One of the difficulties with teaching from a book that uses professional type "belle letristic" sorts of essays is that students are rarely if ever asked to write those in college. It would be better to teach them from real college style essays somehow.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Yeah, exactly. I'm used to using real essays from previous semesters as models, and showing students how to find articles from the library databases as sources. I feel like the essays in the book are not particularly useful as either.

Sisyphus said...

Sounds like you have a rhetoric and reader instead of a handbook. This fall we got both, and it's a bit of overkill --- I could just use the handbook and a packet of readings around a theme instead. But whatevs.

Yeah, Bardiac, that's what I hated about our old comp textbook --- all those personal essays that sounded beautiful but had no examples of a thesis or topic sentence anywhere!

And my students in 101/102 can't figure out how to look *at* a text instead of at the *content* of a text, so I dropped any attempt at rhetorical analysis long ago. Luckily the new textbook, while it still has a lot of journalism and personal essays instead of academic stuff, contains "comprehension questions" so I can make them do homework every night without having to make them try to do rhetorical analyses every night.

I don't know about Basic, but last spring when I had all the people who flunked 101, I just hit them with paragraphs every day, inside and outside of class --- they had no fluency, and the thought of coming up with more than 2 sentences at once scared them, so we just went for practicing generating lots of ideas. it was a mixed success.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Sisyphus -- Yeah, I'm not sure whether I should be pushing how to look AT a text even harder (is it worth teaching precisely because it's so difficult for them?) or whether I should just give up and focus on responding to content.