My first several years as a college writing instructor my writing assignments followed the traditional modes of writing. I did employ writing workshop and a portfolio giving students the ability to draft then revise based on instructor conferences and peer review, but many of my students failed to transfer the writing lessons they learned in my classroom to the next writing class — and even fewer of them transferred those lessons to classes beyond the English Department. Like others before (and after) me, I began to suspect that at least part of the problem was the modes aka “mutt genres” that Elizabeth Wardle described so aptly. If we assign disposable writing then our students will always see their academic writing as disposable. One important step in my solution to the disposable writing problem (to improve transfer) was to engage in project-based learning, but another crucial step was to embark into the exciting territory of themes.
I fell into my first themed writing class by accident when I started using pop culture to help my students better understand the contemporary relevance of the topics we were explored in our humanities-focused Writing II class. Both students and instructor were engaged by this work and I was inspired by the results of these efforts to embark on a popular culture theme for First Year Seminar which then led to employing the theme for Writing I as well. I still love employing the popular culture connection to help students think more deeply about the enduring questions that have always challenged humankind (and don’t expect I will abandon it entirely any time soon), but this academic year I embarked on two new themes. My Writing I classes explored NWP’s Writing Our Future: American Creed initiative. In the Spring, my Writing II classes will focus on Games (inspired by Jason Helms and Lee Bessette, blog post coming soon!).
However, there are many who believe (see Joseph R. Teller and Stephen Combs) themed courses have no place in the writing classroom because they distract from grammar, rules of writing, MLA, and other red-ink spawning lesson plans, but like Emily Shearer Stewart (who composed a wonderful response to Teller) I know I can both engage students with a theme and help my students become better writers and thinkers. In fact, like Emily Shearer Stewart, I believe my students become better writers and thinkers because of, not in spite of, a theme. Here are my three reasons for teaching a themed writing class.
My philosophy of teaching writing centers on engaging students in a cycle of discussion, reading, and writing and theme gives us a topic for our work and questions to explore. I believe in giving my students’ choice, but I have found that restricting that choice to a specific topic or theme allows us to avoid so many deadly college composition topics (my eye starts to twitch just thinking about reading another of those essays) and it also helps us avoid many of the easy plagiarism traps those topics inspire. Focusing on a specific theme allows us to delve more deeply into that topic and explore the layers as we peel them back through our cycle of engaging with a variety of texts, discussing the ideas they introduce and our questions, and responding through writing. This process provides a model for students to follow in the future. It also fosters the habits of the mind that we should focus on in college rather than skimming along the surface of a wide range of topics. While the on the surface my chosen themes might appear light, anyone who has spent much time with comics knows that they deal with a wide range of weighty issues from racism to government power (was that redundant?). If we want students to take writing seriously then we need to demonstrate in every class the power that words wield and if my entry point to that conversation is asking students to defend their choice of the worst Walking Dead villain then so be it because I know it can lead to conversations about ethics and parental responsibility.
When my students get the chance to watch Walking Dead clips or slam poems they are engaged and inspired. My students regularly write 500 or more words in one class session, because I use my themes to capture their imagination and inspire their muse. I work hard to build community in my classes because I know how essential that trust and personal connections are to the effectiveness of writing workshop, but I have found that it is much easier to build community in a themed class. Themes lend themselves to inside jokes and common language. We connect as we share the things we love about books, comics, TV shows, and movies then report back after trying something new based on the recommendation of another community member. We bond as we share our personal definitions of what it means to be an American and our hopes for the future of our country. Even as our theme helps us grow closer as a community, it also inspires our community to think more deeply about the enduring questions inspired by it. We can love America and still recognize its flaws — and that is a lesson I will always defend — but creating projects inspired by that theme also proves the power and importance of writing.
I have written before about my heretical views of seeing our writing instruction as apparatus rather than content. As I have written many times before on this blog. Our goal as writing teachers is not to help students create one (or four) polished pieces of writing before they leave our classes — our goal is to help our students grow as writers (and thinkers). Our writing instruction is merely the apparatus where we play out this work, but the activity we engage in is what drives that work. Most students are not going to be excited about lessons about grammar, word choice, or MLA, but if they are engaged in a project that interests them for an audience they want to engage then they will care about those lessons. As we polish their passion projects we can have those tricky conversations about tone or transition and students pay attention because they want their project to succeed and they are committed to the reader-writer contract. I have found over and over and over that students who are engaged and inspired by their work will work harder and longer — and the most effective engagement tool I have found is the theme. Themes have helped me convince students that they have a voice that should be heard and that my friends is a hill I will die on.