Friday, November 14, 2008

Pick a UW20 Course By Topic, Not Time Slot

Ask any UW20 professor and s/he'll tell you--choosing a UW20 section solely because it fits into your schedule is a bad idea. Here's why.

It's true that all sections of UW20 are designed to improve students' abilities to read and think critically in preparation for a variety of analytical writing genres, as well as to explore emerging and traditional information resources, to frame sound questions or hypotheses, and to conduct university-level research. (Click here for more on common course goals, and the elements required in each course design.) But each faculty member designs her or his course around a stimulating topic of current intellectual interest. This spring over 40 different topics are being offered, ranging from Conspiracy Theory, Malcom X, and Comparative Masculinities to Legacies of the Holocaust, Textual Authority in Religion and Law, and Global Warming and the Problem of Global Governance.

Research in composition studies demonstrates that students learn to write more effectively when they are active participants in a well-defined field of inquiry, working with the goal of communicating with authentic audiences. Karen Spear explains that topics give students something interesting to write about, and save the teacher from having to invent "dummy" assignments. What's more, topics necessarily require students to recognize and participate in the "the particular academic disciplines or interest groups--discourse community has become the standard term" that produce them (Spear, "Controversy and Consensus in Freshman Writing," The Review of Higher Education 20 [3]). As GW Writing Professor Phyllis Ryder and Research Librarian Jennifer Nutefall report, many composition scholars agree that in order to enter the "discourse community--to learn to write and speak as a a participant there" students have to learn the conventions of the community. As David Bartholome puts it, they must learn the "commonplaces, the texts, the gestures, and the jargons--the interpretive schemes of a group" (qtd. in Ryder and Nutefall, "Teaching Research Rhetorically," Academic Exchange Quarterly Fall 2005).

So choosing a topic means choosing a discourse community and meeting the attendent expectations of that community--not just in terms of how that community thinks, speaks and writes, but also in terms of how it gets its work done.

Eve Deveau, a UW20 alumn, talks about her experience choosing a UW20 with a service learning component:

"The UW20 Writing for Social Change is a class which uses service learning as a learning tool. As a student in the class I was able to go out into the community and experience parts of DC that I might otherwise not have the chance to get to know. Service learning also allowed me to become passionate about my writing. It was a very effective way of improving my writing because it allowed a lot of creativity, but the form of writing we were doing had strict guidelines which always kept us on task. The class was a lot of work. It's true, we had no class on Fridays! But we also had to dedicate multiple hours per week to a community service organization. Overall I think the class was very helpful and improved my writing skills, social skills, and my knowledge of D.C and society.

Taking this class especially taught me to chose a UW20 by subject and NOT only by time. Many students didn't know what they were signing up for at the beginning of the semester and later decided that they didn't want to do all of the work that was required for the class. UW20 is an opportunity to improve your writing skills through a topic or method that is specific to you. It can be a really helpful and eye opening experience and you shouldn't have to end up in a class that you hate because you picked it solely based on its time slot."

Nikki Rappaport, a graduating senior has this advice for first-year students registering for UW20:

"[Because] the UW course requires in depth conversation and analysis, freshman should definitely take a University Writing class based on their interests. [This is particularly important because] UW20 allows students, with their major research paper project, to dive into a topic of their choice based on the course theme. This is a fantastic personal and academic opportunity to engage yourself in an interesting topic as a beginning to your academic and writing career at GW. As a graduating senior I realized my UW course and research paper ended up mirroring my undergraduate career and matching my professional goals."

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