Numerous scholars have pointed out that one of the dominant metaphors used to describe academic discourse is conversation. As David Bartholomae argues in “Inventing the University,” when students enter the university, they are also asked to enter into established conversations on history, literature, ethics, business, science, and a multitude of other fields, some they have never encountered before. This poses a difficulty for students as it takes time to become familiar with conversations that have been going on for years or decades. What can a college freshman coming straight out of high school feel she has to say about Milton (for example), when those already in the conversation span countries and centuries, when they have the authority of advanced degrees, or when they hold the power of grades? In my first-year writing classroom, my goal is to give my students the skills and tools to discern the conversations that are often in the background of the courses they take, to understand those conversations, and to respond to them.
For this reason, my approach to teaching writing is largely guided by my interest in adaptation and appropriation theory. I believe that adaptation and appropriation are important building blocks of both literary and academic writing, whether in a form as simple as quotation or as complex as The Lizzie Bennet Diaries‘ reworking of Pride and Prejudice across YouTube video blogs, Tumblr sites, and Twitter feeds. For this reason, adaptations and appropriations function as both subject material and models for the sorts of intellectual work I want from students. When teaching Othello, for example, I ask my students whether James Earl Jones’ recitation of Othello’s speech to the Venetian Senate at a White House poetry event during Barack Obama’s first term appropriates Shakespeare’s play, and how it might comment on Obama’s racial and political identities. Because Othello’s designation as a “Moor” means he might be Middle-Eastern rather than African, students must analyze the difference between early modern and current views of race, particularly beliefs about what constitutes “blackness”; more, students must consider the ethos of quoting Shakespeare, and how quoting a text in a new context can change its meaning.
Academic writing adapts or appropriates source material in different ways than literary texts or performances, so I introduce students to the process of using these moves in an academic context by discussing how scholars respond to and build on the ideas of others. For example, at the beginning of the semester, I might assign a chapter from Julie Sanders’ Adaptation and Appropriation, as well as one of the sources she quotes from, such as T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” In class, I would ask students to examine the extent to which Sanders’ own definitions of adaptation and appropriation help us understand how she is using her source material. By framing quotations as a form of adaptation, I want students to learn that quoting a text requires a particular sort of fidelity to the original: they must read a text generously and attempt to represent, as best they can, the author’s intentions. However, quotation can also be a form of appropriation: once students have understood and represented a text’s meaning, they can transform those quotations into something that serves their own intellectual projects. By focusing on adaptation and appropriation, I create a writing classroom that is useful to students from all disciplines: if students are introduced to the ways in which authors and readers collaborate in the construction of knowledge by interpreting texts and putting them to work, then students can see themselves in the same light, and thus be more critical and self-aware participants in a variety of disciplines and intellectual communities. They begin to see the conversations at the heart of academic writing.
In developing my approach to teaching first year composition, I have drawn extensively from Joseph Harris’s Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts, a text I often assign my classes. Harris highlights the idea that writing functions as a mediating force in the university, and in the world at large. While my students are often skeptical of this fact, their own experience of the world having been mediated largely by visual sources and personal experience, my goal is to demonstrate the power of writing as a tool for thinking and changing thought. My courses are thus centered on themes that allow students to trace the development of a single image or idea over long stretches of time—often from the medieval or early modern periods through to today’s popular films and media. As a class, we trace and respond to a conversation about the relationship between science and disabilities, or images of hell and apocalypse, or the possibility of a utopian society.
I regularly incorporate student writing into class discussion, a practice that leads directly into reflection and revision, which are necessary for developing students’ self-awareness as writers. For example, in my Fall 2012 course on science fiction and ethics, we began the semester reading Foucault’s “Panopticism” and thinking about the ethics of surveillance. On the first day we discussed the reading, I brought in paragraphs from students’ short responses as we talked about the reading, asking students to respond to the ideas of their classmates. Students immediately wanted to revise their writing in light of their fellow students’ questions and responses. I build on this impulse by requiring that each paper go through a rigorous revision process that includes at least one individual conference with me. I also often require students to participate in small group tutorials, where I meet with groups of three or four students to discuss their papers and revision plans. In addition, I encourage revision over the course of the semester by crafting assignment sequences that require students to return to and reexamine ideas from earlier papers. The final paper for my course on science fiction and ethics, for example, asked students to consider Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” as texts that might further complicate their ideas about technology, spectacle, surveillance, and power.
As my students begin to understand the nature of the conversation surrounding a given topic, we discuss the rules that govern their entrance into that conversation. In my syllabus, I state that one of the goals of my course is not only to teach students the rules of academic discourse, but also to teach them how to discern when and where it is profitable to bend or break those rules. I teach my students that their papers must each have an argument that is stated clearly in the introduction. I then give them examples—from my own writing, from academic and popular essays, from the writing of their fellow students—to demonstrate moments where this strategy is effective, but also where accomplished writers have broken that rule. Sometimes, they learn, it is better to start a paper with a question and only provide an answer at the end. It is in such moments that students learn to approach a conversation on its own terms, but simultaneously gain the authority to make the conversation their own.