Building a First-Year Writing Course

Ferns growing on a stone wall

This spring, I’m adding a new course to my repertoire. It’s a single-semester class called Composition. The advanced track of a first-year writing requirement, it focuses not on basic prose but on rhetoric, or “making effective contributions in writing to intellectual discussions, academically and in other cultural settings.”

In other words, this course will initiate new undergraduates into academic rationality.

This is exciting. No, that’s not strong enough. Planning this course is really, really fun.

I team-taught a similar course, a first-year seminar in public affairs, as a graduate student. But that was several years ago. So my planning now draws mainly on my experience as an instructor in history. I’m asking myself what mental tools—mechanical, conceptual, and analytical—would have prepared students most effectively to communicate in my other classes over the years. At the same time, I’m trying to discern what similar lists of basic tools would look like for other disciplines. My course should cover a combined list of essential academic skills.

There’s also the matter of structure. My new course needs a framework that will support a wide variety of skills-building activities, arranged so that students will grow in ability and understanding over time. This needs to happen within an overall theme; my course should present students with a clear vision of what effective scholarly communication is for. Ideally, they should find that theme interesting on its own terms.

I’m toying with potential themes related to an essay all my students will have read: Jean Twenge’s provocative Atlantic article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” All the students taking first-year writing, in every section, have read and discussed this essay. We instructors have been encouraged to incorporate it into our sections. So I’ve considered setting a course theme like “Dis/connections” or “Brave New Worlds”; all the course content would be structured loosely around the concept of communicating in and about a rapidly changing society. The major units of the course, probably four in all, each culminating in a formal writing assignment, would each address a different contemporary U.S. or global public issue related to that concept.

But that’s only one possibility.

I need to reach my decision soon so that I can select appropriate textbooks in time to secure desk copies. Whatever approach I take, the reading assignments will be integral to the course.

As I look ahead, there’s one more urgent concern on my mind: The need to collect a cabinetfull of small discussion exercises and brief writing prompts. Most of what happens in my classroom will be happening (for me) for the first time. I need to find proven ways to help students practice critical thinking and writing in a seminar context. So I’m looking for highly practical, classroom-oriented instructor resources.

With only a winter break to plan this new course, which starts at the end of January, I want to have a good picture of what will actually be happening inside my classroom by late December.