Commentaries
It Was All "About Me"

A student at UNC-Chapel Hill breezed through freshman composition and learned—nothing.

By Ashley Russell

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December 09, 2010

Last year, I blogged my way to an easy A. Most freshmen at UNC-Chapel Hill take English 101 and 102, both labeled “English Composition and Rhetoric.” The first semester, English 101, was what I expected—learning about paragraph structure and organization. We were docked points when our paragraphs did not have the right flow or if they were not logically organized.

But 102 was completely different. Students who have chosen their majors or have some idea of the academic discipline that interests them can take an English 102i class. These classes are part of the “Writing in the Disciplines” courses, which are supposed to introduce students to writing in specific areas of inquiry.

As a major in journalism, I chose the English 102i class “Writing in Humanities.” My instructor was a graduate student pursuing a doctorate in English. Our class had a Google site. It explained that we would concentrate on writing “through the disciplines of: English (Creative Writing), American Studies, & History.” Although these were the teacher’s topics, we never really covered any of the above in class besides creative writing.

At the beginning, we wrote blog entries rather than formal papers, posting three times a week—one entry for every day of class. Our instructor encouraged us to try “new writing identities,” so we were allowed to write under a “handle” or pseudonym. He made it seem as though as college students we were still not capable of handling criticism; thus, we were to write under pseudonyms. This made students less accountable for their work because no one even knew who was writing the entries. It may have also stifled some class discussions because the person who wrote them often refrained from talking about them. Even so, because we worked primarily in teams, we got to know the writings of our group members.

The class was split into groups based on a “broad area of contemporary popular culture,” including foods, music, fashion, movies, and literature. I chose literature because I like to read and I thought we would be reading literature. There were four people in my group. We reviewed each member’s papers over the course of the semester and developed group projects.

Our first assignment was to go through online blogs that dealt with our area of focus and try to identify the “persona” the writer used. We would use Google to find online “About Me” descriptions and then identify how the person constructed his or her persona. We figured out the template of three authors and made each one into our own version of an “About Me.” The three templates that I adopted were 1) narrative, 2) a grocery list of traits, and 3) academic achievements.

A member of my group (unfortunately he has since taken the blog site down) wrote a rap for his first “About Me” assignment. The rap was creative and was a real icebreaker in class; however, it had nothing to do with writing in an academic discipline—unless of course I missed the course signups for Rap 101. 

Our second assignment was to attend two events of our choosing during the C.H.A.T. Festival hosted at UNC-Chapel Hill. C.H.A.T. stands for Collaborations: Humanities, Arts & Technology. These two events replaced classroom time for a week.

The first was about how technology is changing entertainment. Robert J. Bach, president of Microsoft’s Division of Entertainment and Devices, illustrated the impact of innovations such as “Natural User Interfaces” (NUIs)—touch screens, motion sensors, and voice recognition. I enjoy technology, and its advances, but his talk had absolutely nothing to do with the humanities. The second panel featured two of the creators behind the “Monster Mashups” series of books that started with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. (For those not in the know, Austen’s novel has been revamped to include monsters—and the new novel was on the New York Times best-seller list for weeks.) This seminar convinced me to read the book for myself. However, this truly had nothing to do with the humanities except that some of the original work of Jane Austen remains in the new zombie-infested version.

After viewing these C.H.A.T. panels, our group was to create a 50-minute presentation for the rest of the class—using what we had learned about panel presentation. Our topic was centered on journalism. Each group member had to do a presentation about journalism in the light of an academic discipline such as ethics or history. We had to make up questions of our own and answer them. If this sounds confusing, it was.

Our third, and final, assignment was known as (My) Philosophy of Education. The purpose was to develop our own philosophy of education after reading some writings by educators. This was the first time we were required to read anything from the humanities. We read excerpts (no more than 10 pages each) from: Aristotle, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Dewey, Amartya Sen, Otfried Hoffe, and Paolo Freire. Each group was to teach a particular article to the class on the appointed day. For most, this was the only article that they read during this unit. These articles were dense and obscure. I read through the first two articles before I basically gave up. Not only were they hard to understand, but we were expected to teach something that no one in our group fully understood. Leading a discussion on a difficult article with a class that more than likely had not even read it was frustrating to say the least.

Our final project was to compile these authors’ ideas into one philosophy of education that we could call our own. We had to select a creative format in which to discuss this—I used a “critical memoir” format in which I looked back on my freshman year and articulated what I like about the general education requirements at UNC-Chapel Hill.

As I think back on this course, I must say that I absolutely love creative writing, and that is basically what this class was. But I had not signed up for a creative writing class. English 102i was supposed to teach me about how to write in humanities courses. The only time we ever wrote on anything to do with humanities, besides my blog about Jane Austen’s zombies, was our final project dealing with authors such as Rousseau and Aristotle.  Except for Aristotle (whose philosophy my instructor actually lectured on), I remain mystified about what their views on education were.

Core classes, especially English, should prepare first-year students for the more challenging classes that they will enter into as they advance toward their degrees. These classes should provide students with knowledge about how to structure papers and how to get their points across in a well-thought-out manner. This class did little for me in those areas. I came out with the same writing skills as I went in with; there was rarely, if any, instructor guidance on classroom papers.

Instead of being the composition class centered on humanities that I expected, I got a creative writing class mixed with a philosophy course. It was interesting at times, but not beneficial in advancing my writing skills.

 

 

 


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