Kairos in Action: Or, building a Composition Course for Millennial Writers

My Comeback Article on this blog was all about the ‘so what’ factor of analysis: how to analyze anything with that ever-important ‘why your readers should care’ aspect of your argument. When I said this attitude was applicable to everything from academics to casual entertainment, I meant it, and this became abundantly clear to me as I began constructing my syllabus for my summer section of Composition II.

I’ve built syllabi before, and even though I always did so around a previously provided frame, I’m fortunate that I have a lot of flexibility as an adjunct where I teach. The department selects the assigned books, but instructors have a lot of freedom to select supplementary material to add to the texts available in the book. The book for the summer section of Comp II is the same as the one used for the summer section of Comp I, which is the book I taught from in the spring.

It’s a good book, and I like it a lot, but it’s exclusively focused around the process of writing and the topic of writing. Students are assigned readings that talk about how to write about literacy, the composing process, and the technology surrounding writing itself.

Now, I’m personally down with this. I’m a word nerd, I’ve been writing ever since I could hold a pencil, and I find the writing process fascinating. I have two degrees in English, so writing about writing is my jam.

My students, on the other hand, are usually not exactly thrilled at the prospect.

On the one hand, I expect low levels of enthusiasm from my students pretty much regardless of the textbook or the theme of the class. Most of them are engineering majors, and when they do use writing it’s definitely not the same kind of writing I do as an English teacher. However, universities continue to require students to take a composition sequence, and no matter how many times you try to explain knowledge transfer to anyone and everyone, the Kairos (or purpose) of composition classes is not easy to dig up or hold on to. Time and time again I see my students’ faces filled with the question “why are we taking this stupid class?” Sometimes they even ask me, though most of the time they ask more politely than that.

There are a couple ways to approach the So What of composition classes, and I quickly learned that the first way, ‘because the university says you have to’, is unsatisfying for both student and teacher alike. It’s like a parent saying ‘because I said so’, and (unsurprisingly) I was the kid who always insisted on a well-reasoned answer to a question, which is probably why everything from ‘why do I have to clean my room?’ to ‘why can’t I watch this movie?’ to ‘is god real?’ became a battle in my parent’s’ household. ‘Because I said so’ never cut it, and I’d argue until I was ready to pass out because I just wanted a REASON for a task, an answer to a question.

I was an annoying kid. Pretty sure my parents knew I’d be a grad student from the moment I started talking.

Back to writing. The So What of composition is that writing really is everywhere and everybody’s gonna use it, and especially in such a technologically-saturated environment, new ways of communicating will become both prevalent and worthy of study.

So, I approach the So What of composition by giving my students an answer to their question as best I can. Because my answer is, as you’ve probably guessed, ‘because critical thinking and well-reasoned argumentation is pretty damned important in the information age, and the vast majority of that appears in writing.’ But providing practical examples of that fact is more useful than words in any situation, and so I did my best to apply that reasoning as I built my reading list and my course theme.

I wanted to move beyond the theme of pure writing — most of the students in my class will have either taken Comp I or its equivalent. Normally Comp II has a more solid theme (like the Monsters class I taught last Fall). However, I needed a theme that worked with the provided text, and as I read through the articles I could assign I came up with a term that could bring the ideas of those works together in a way my students could find relatable and interesting.

So I turned back to the research I conducted in my final semester of my MA, and started thinking about Millennials.

It’s a term most college-age students are familiar with. It’s usually associated with sentiments of ‘kids these days’ and ‘generation me’ and other comments about teens and twentysomethings being entitled, spoiled, and lazy. Even if I have non-traditional students in my class who fall outside the Millennial year spectrum (which is folks born between 1980 and 2000 according to most studies), it’s a common term, and it encompasses a great many important themes that relate to the modern student and their university-level education.

Millennials is a broad term, but it’s prevalence means it deserves academic interrogation, and for me, a composition class is the best way to examine this term and the cultural artifacts that accompany it. Like I said before, in most universities, comp is required for all incoming freshmen, and students have to take it to graduate. As composition instructors, if all of our students are going to come through our doors, we should teach them material that is culturally relevant and that teaches analysis and criticism through texts brought together by a common and relatable theme.

Granted, what’s relatable in 2015 may not stay relatable, which is why most of the thematic courses you see in comp II are very broad (the book series we use also has topics such as Death, Food, and Money), but new cultural movements and academic lenses are used for retrospective analysis all the time. Look at Hamlet: it was first performed in the early 1600s, but take a class that involves that play and at least one person will bring up the Freudian Oedipal tones of the Hamlet/Gertrude relationship. Interesting, since Freud’s oedipus complex not only showed up in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, but was probably influenced by the play in and of itself. Go Shakespeare.

Relatability is relative. As I’ve said before, you can argue anything, it’s just a matter of whether or not it’s a sound argument, and whether or not you can apply your ‘so what’ in a way that’s even somewhat reasonable. If I weren’t teaching this class in a five week summer session, I might even consider assigning Hamlet, because that play has themes that are so relevant to Millennial sentiments.

Even just this famous soliloquy has a lot of Millennial material.

 

Seriously, Hamlet spends most of the play angsting about his parents, his girlfriend, his life, he’s fighting with his parents, he has all these weird responsibilities heaped upon him by the ghost of his father, and he either goes totally insane or pretends to go totally insane (depending on who in academia you talk to) in an attempt to make things right. He’s got the trappings of Millennialism all over him.

So my syllabus looks pretty all over the place at first glance. The first major reading assignment is Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener. This is followed by an in-class videogame demonstration of Portal 2. Then a viewing of the first episode of The 100. The Ones the Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula LeGuin. Short stories by Neil Gaiman and Chuck Palahniuk. I even have the album Danger Days by My Chemical Romance on this syllabus.

It’ll be five weeks of initially random but actually totally related texts. Some of them are old (Bartleby was first published in 1853), and others were released just a couple of months ago, but they all relate to this Millennial theme.

Which, ultimately, is my responsibility as the instructor. I can assign things that I find relatable, I can put forth my argument for their relevance to the theme, but my students can disagree. They can find things that I may not have seen the first time around, or at all. They might read Bartleby and say ‘this is not at all relevant to my life or modern culture’, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try and share these ideas with them. If nothing else, I can give them new perspective, even if it’s not a perspective they share, but that’s really just part of critical thinking. To think critically is to look below the surface, as I’ve said before, and using these pop culture texts alongside classics draws attention to the purpose of a theme, the arbitrary nature of cultural significance, what it really means to be part of This Generation, and how to examine commentary, both old and new, through a new lens.

Students will have the chance to do their own research on something Millennial. Which is pretty danged broad, but so is asking students to write an argumentative research paper about Monsters. Or Money. Or Death. Or Food.  I expect to get topics from very broad areas, but that’s what I want, because I want my students to understand.

You can relate anything to a theme. You just have to do it the right way.

What do I hope my students get out of this? Improved critical thinking skills. The ability to analytically reason. Engagement with a term that will be thrown at them for the vast majority of their lives. And, ultimately, the chance to be heard in a world that tends to assume they’re less intelligent and capable because of pop culture and technology.

We’ll see how it goes. I’ll have a follow-up article for you in a month when the class is over.

 

Got suggestions for a topic I can ramble about here on New Media Mayhem? email me at hex[dot]meridian[at]gmail[dot]com.  

Want to help keep this blog running? Want to help me study videogames? Leave a donation on my GoFundMe as I try to raise money for a new computer to use in my academic research!

 

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