English 105

I haven’t taught a Freshman Composition course in several years, though I used to make my living doing it and I am currently teaching a graduate seminar called “Teaching Freshman Composition.”  For fall, I was offered an honors section of English 105 “Freshman Composition II,” which the catalog describes as

Frequent papers, chiefly informative and persuasive, with an emphasis on language and logic. Techniques of the research paper. Readings. Course fulfills GE Sub-area A3.

I have taught an honors course before, though it was in science fiction.  Students from the Honors College are bright, motivated, and very competitive.  It is a bit like teaching high school because it is a small program and they all know each other, so their competition is very personal.  It was fun.  They hated the Blackboard discussion board so much that they created their own in Forumotion and offered to give me administrator privileges.  I took them up on the offer.

So I decided to accept the course.  But now I have to design it!  And the bookstore wants the book order immediately!

The Approach

In my seminar, we have been discussing various approaches to teaching composition–expressivist, epistemic, rhetorical, grammatical, current traditional, argumentative, and ideological (cultural studies)–and finding all of them wanting in some way.  My students tend to respond to this situation by wanting to combine the best of several approaches.  I always caution against creating a theoretical hodge-podge because a little bit of this and a little bit of that might not add up to a coherent course.

This course is supposed to feature argumentation and logical fallacies, plus research techniques.  I think I need to honor that.  I tend to favor a rhetorical approach to composition because I think that rhetorical principles and strategies will transfer from situation to situation.  The main purpose of a composition course, in my view, should be to prepare writers to discover ways to write effectively in whatever rhetorical situation they find themselves, whether it be another course or a workplace.  So a rhetorical approach it will be.  But should I use a book?  Textbooks these days are so expensive that students sometimes refuse to buy them.  I often go textbookless and use my own materials combined with materials on the web, or use trade books not designed as textbooks, which are much cheaper.  This is a lot of work, however.

The Texts

One of my colleagues recommended Rhetorical Analysis: A Brief Guide for Writers by Mark G. Longaker and Jeffrey Walker, both at University of Texas, Austin.  The table of contents looks good. The approach is built on classical rhetoric, with terms from Aristotle (ethos, logos, pathos), the sophists (kairos) and a bit of Cicero (the five canons of rhetoric.)  It has a chapter on argument and another on ideology, updating Aristotle’s concept of logos a bit.  This looks quite serviceable, and not too expensive.  I ordered it.

But what will we research, discuss, argue and write about?  I usually avoid creating theme courses in which I impose a topic on the students.  I usually find that we are all happier if the students are working on topics of their own choosing.  However, at this particular moment in time, I think that there is one issue that trumps all others, that is, if you will, the mastodon in the room that no one wants to see or talk about.  That issue is climate change.  At one point, I had thought about doing an ERWC module on climate change, but my initial research on the topic revealed that there was essentially no debate.  The articles in the press amounted to nearly all of science on one side and the Bush administration on the other.  I also saw that climate change was not something that was going to happen in the far future.  It was happening now, and it was really scary.  I decided not to pursue that module, at that time (about 10 years ago).

Knowing that climate change was a concern close to my heart, my colleague also recommended building a course around The Moral Challenge of Dangerous Climate Change: Values, Poverty, and Policy by Darrel Moellendorf.  The author is a philosopher, and this is an account of the morality and ethics of climate change.  It is a very interesting book, but the prose is dense and the arguments complex.  It didn’t seem appropriate for a freshman course, even for honors students.  However, in looking for this book I encountered two others that seemed more approachable.

The first was Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed–And What It Means for Our Future by Dale Jamieson. As one can see from the title, this text is about reasoning and why the rhetoric presenting this reasoning failed to effect change in policy. It is pessimistic. Jamieson clearly believes that it is already too late to prevent the dire effects of climate change. One of his themes is about how to live meaningful lives in such times. Though Jamieson is also a philosopher, he writes for a much more diverse audience than Moellendorf. The book is readable and strangely enough, not depressing. Things are bad and will get worse, but we are not helpless.

The second book is The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert, who is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Kolbert traces the history and scientific evidence of each of the five major extinction events of the past. She visits paleolithic excavations, travels with geologists to collect samples and observe rock formations, and accompanies biologists collecting specimens of disappearing amphibians and bats. Part of the book is done in first-person, on the spot reporting. The rest is a readable narrative of the history of life on Earth.

Of course, the “sixth extinction” is the one that is currently unfolding. It is possible that each previous extinction was caused by warming or cooling associated with a change in atmospheric CO2 levels, in some cases caused by volcanism, in some by an overabundance of one highly successful species. The dinosaurs may have been finished off by an asteroid strike, but it is possible they were already doomed. The current extinction is almost without a doubt caused by us. The only difference is that we are the first causal species capable of understanding what we are doing.

The Decision

The arguments associated with the issue of climate change are scientific, economic, political, technical, philosophical, and even religious. They are interdisciplinary. The opportunities for rhetorical analysis are almost unlimited. The issue is undoubtedly the most important faced by homo sapiens in the history of the species. For all of these reasons, this is the course I have chosen to teach. I will post later on the design and sequencing of the course and the writing assignments.


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