This is the first post in a weekly series featuring the teaching strategies of second-level writing instructors at OSU.
In the course I teach, Comparative Studies 367.01: American Identity in the World, students are asked to read, think, and talk about the ways in which race, class, gender continue to shape a culture that most students are proud to claim as their own. In order to mitigate discomfort that may result in defensiveness about one’s roles in systems of social privilege, I have my students engage these topics in a set of low-stakes assignments which lead them from self-reflexive analysis to cultural analysis.
I assign three short “take-home critical responses.” Each assignment begins with a prompt that asks students to apply a specific course concept to their own lives. This allows students to use their expertise on a topic (their own experience) in conjunction with critical tools that are new to them (what we cover in the course), which provides them with a degree of confidence in what they write while also asking them to do something unfamiliar. Additionally, this assignment serves to remind me of the complex subjectivities that my students bring to the classroom while providing a platform whereupon a dialogue about writing between my students and myself can begin.
I also assign “in-class critical responses” comprised of 2-3 open-ended questions which are completed in conjunction with films we watch during the course. The questions I ask usually take a particularly rich quote from one of the theoretical texts that we are reading and ask the students to apply the quote to a particular element in the film. Students are asked to generate answers either in narrative or outline form. Having students complete these responses allows them to do some “pre-writing” in anticipation of class discussion regarding the films, and this assignment demonstrates how to use course readings and discussion as the grounds from which we can ask interesting questions (which they are asked to do for their final paper assignment). Also, reading the students’ responses provides me with feedback concerning how well the class is understanding the course material and how prepared they are to apply course material to a case study of their choosing for the final paper. I find that removing the pressure of grades allows students to take the sorts of risks that are necessary for learning, so I assess both of these assignments on a pass/fail basis. Anyone who completes the assignments according to the instructions receives full credit.
Students who initially resist the analytical approaches to American identity that provide a foundation for the course tend to benefit most from these assignments. For example, one student who initially served as a voice of resistance in class discussion, gradually revealed an increasing willingness to engage with the course material. At the end of the quarter, he surprised me with an email explaining that the course had really taught him to think more carefully about race in the United States. He then continued on demonstrating what he had learned by offering his analysis of the role that implicit ideas about race continued to play in discourses surrounding President Obama–an analysis he would not have listened to, much less made, when the quarter started!