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Like writing, there is no quick fix or magic in scripting a syllabus.

Eric O’Dell, a friend and colleague at Mercer, quipped a few days ago that someone should develop an app to generate a syllabus. I responded that I wanted a Harry Potter wand. Like writing, there is no quick fix or magic in scripting a syllabus.

I have not posted for a couple of days because I need to get ready for a new semester at Mercer. If you are teacher, you know that these days before a term are hectic and filled with a slight amount of anxiety. It would be easier just to copy and paste the syllabus from the last time taught—something I must confess to doing once or twice—but I always tweak a course because the previous offering does not go the way I hope. The rearranging can start more than two months before teaching said class. When book orders come due (and they are early if you don’t already know), the first pangs of guilt about making a change come over me. Do I use the same books even if they didn’t work? I often only change one text between offerings because I am not convinced the book is the problem. The decision, however, is nothing compared to the moment I set down to create the actual syllabus. Like all of us who end up in the academy, the renewal of semesters always promises more than is possible.

For the past two days, I have been adjusting a course syllabus for SST 180 (Introduction to Southern Studies) in a physical sense, but the change occurred mentally during finals week this past December. A colleague at College of Charleston, Matthew Cressler, posted a comment on social media about how well students did with the final unessay assignment used in a course he co-taught with Sarah Rubin. I had heard the term before since my colleague and associate editor at the Journal of Souther Religion Emily Suzanne Clark had written several posts, including an extended explanation on her own blog, about this pedagogical approach to teaching a subject. As with any good academic, Emily gives credit to Ryan Cordell for the idea and who has written about this kind of assignment in his own post before refining it for Debates in Digital Humanities 2016.

All the components for an essay are there but the emphasis is on a “product,” creatively generated.

Intrigued by Emily’s description and Matthew and Sarah’s success, I started reading about the topic, its triumphs and pitfalls. At heart, it asks students to think about their work beyond a traditional research paper. All the components for an essay are there but the emphasis is on a “product,” creatively generated. In the case of Cordell’s work, a student would create a digital humanities unessay. I am shifting the focus a little in the same way Clark and Cressler did by having my students generate a cultural artifact to represent their understanding of the South. The emphasis on digital humanities in the unessay assignment is intriguing and I’ll allow students with the ability to create a digital product. For this course, however, I will not limit them to a digital-only project.

students said research papers are old and useless

During the same week, I read a comment by a colleague, Amy Nichols-Belo, at Mercer that noted that students said research papers are old and useless. Given that our writing program at Mercer has oriented to a rhetoric and communication focus that highlights many genres of writing and deemphasizes the research paper, the idea of adding an unessay to my syllabus appeared to be one more in a long line of assignments that displaces good research and writing skills. Likely part of another post, those skills reach far beyond turning out the “mini-me” as one administrator suggested. Students benefit from asking or being asked tough questions that force them to pursue the information that might help them answer the question, but I’ll leave that for later.

the students will generate a proposal, an annotated bibliography, a “mini-research” essay, a creator’s statement, and the cultural artifact they have spent the semester thinking how to create.

In this case, I decided to revamp a course in the disciplines (the intro course for southern studies), which currently has a “writing” designation attached to it. We are in the process of getting rid of the General Education requirement for writing in this kind of Gen Ed course, but I wanted to use the writing that I think is important to produce a “product” at the end. I envision this course’s change something I will continue to do in the future so it made sense to use the writing emphasis to build a scaffold to the final creation. In the process, the students will do a research-oriented paper so that they can think critically about the South within six themes—agrarianism, social class, race, family and gender, religion, and politics. Students will be required to have their final creation incorporate three of the six themes, with credit added for abilities to engage more of the themes. In this case, the students will generate a proposal, an annotated bibliography, a “mini-research” essay, a creator’s statement, and the cultural artifact they have spent the semester thinking how to create.

The initial idea for a single project blossomed into fully scaffold writing exercises that feed the creation of the artifact.

In a first for me, I am posting my assignments online. Partly so that if someone reads the post with expertise in the idea, I can get some feedback as the course moves along. I am also posting it here because like Wednesday‘s  post on writing explains: the writing process even for assignments is a craft, one I am still honing. What the reader who has come this far will find below is the extension of the single “unessay” assignment for a writing course. The initial idea for a single project blossomed into fully scaffold writing exercises that feed the creation of the artifact. In the spirit of the course, I will create sample assignments with the students so they can see what I am looking for in the writing and the product. I have included rubrics for those who are interested.

I intend to create a photo-collage as my artifact following the assignments listed below. Regardless of the outcome, I will post about how the semester’s assignments went in May (sooner, if they prove successful).

 

SST 180R001–WRT

From Writing to Cultural Artifact

I have built some writing steps in the semester so that you can see how writing helps you think about a subject. The course objectives for the writing component say I am suppose to have you ready to do a research project in future courses. We will work on those skills by allowing the writing and research to help you think about the creation of a final product: a cultural artifact. Rather than lengthy sessions in the library or talking about databases, I will encourage to explore topics on your own and see what you find, evaluate the sources’ importance, and then incorporate that work into the writing and the final product. Here is the overview:

 

Cultural Artifact Proposal: Write a 500-word proposal that outlines the kind of final product you are interested in creating. At the moment, you cannot know how to put all of the pieces from the course together but this exercise lets you and me have some sense of the direction you would like to take. Think big here even if you don’t produce the thing you describe.

All scholars think about projects in segments and everyone has to create a proposal before their boss lets them move forward with a project. Even in the business world, proposals dictate who gets to do what so this is a way to practice a skill that is important beyond this course.

Due January 27 by 3:00 p.m. on Canvas

Category (30pt) A (Exceeds) B (Meets with Distinction) C (Meets) D (Does not Meet) F
Product (15pt) Well thought out and descriptive (15-14) Descriptive (13-12) General idea but not fully developed (11) No idea and little effort

(10-9)

Not turned in (0)
Writing (10pt) Strong writing with clear, connected points (10-9) Clear points with some connection between points (8) Uneven and lacking a clear connection between points (7) Poor writing with no connection between points (6) No work turned in (0)
Style, includes word count (5pt) No errors in composition (5) A few errors in composition but coherent (4) Numerous errors and a general coherence (3.5) Too many error and no coherence (3) No work turned in (0)

 

Annotated Bibliography: Write an annotated bibliography with eight to ten entries that will help you better understand the South. At this point, you can probably make some educated guesses about what makes the South “the South,” but you might be wrong. You want to do some research on a subject before you write about it in more than a superficial way. The annotated bibliography allows you to see what others have written about the South or about your particular kind of artifact. You read their work and then write about how it helps you think about your own idea. You will want to keep an eye toward sources that help you build your final product. My feedback in this exercise is about where you may have missed something or put too much weight into a source that doesn’t help you.

As a scholar in the field and one that plays a role in shaping it, you can benefit from the feedback. Again, when a boss or manager who has more experience than you provides feedback, you will need to know how to incorporate that into your over vision. Don’t take the feedback as negative as much as it is helpful for you thinking about a subject. Hint: Cemetery stones have gone through a dramatic change in the past one hundred years.

Due February 10 by 3:00 p.m. on Canvas

Category (25pt) A (Exceeds) B (Meets with Distinction) C (Meets) D (Does not Meet) F
Entries (5pt) More than eight (5) Seven (4) Six (3.5) Five (3) Not turned in (0)
Annotation (15pt) Strong annotation, giving attention to the source and its value (15-14) Annotation, giving some attention to the source and its value (13-12) Limited annotation with little attention given to source’s value (11) Little annotation (10-9) No work turned in (0)
Style (5pt) No errors in composition (5) A few errors in composition but coherent (4) Numerous errors and a general coherence (3.5) Too many error and no coherence (3) No work turned in (0)


Mini-research:
Write a 1000-word statement on what you have learned about the South through your research. What areas became more interesting to you as you dug deeper into the subject? How does this help you think about the final product? Evaluate the sources so that I can see how they help you think about the subject. This assignment is what we often refer to as “the essay” in courses. You will make the case for having learned something with a well-developed thesis and evidence to support that point. Everything you have done in the course to this point is to help you write this particular assignment, so use the research you did in the annotated bibliography and match it to the type of cultural artifact you want to produce. This assignment requires that you integrate at least three themes from the course into the essay.

In some ways, many of you will not write an extended research essay in your classes so this one might feel like a waste our your time. It is not. The skills you use in this assignment transfer into almost any arena. There is a central question you addressing; you make a well-reasoned point to help others understand a possible answer; and you provide your audience with sufficient evidence from sources that convinces them your idea is plausible even if they don’t agree with your conclusions.  

Due by March 18 by 3:00 p.m. on Canvas

Category (40pt) A (Exceeds) B (Meets with Distinction) C (Meets) D (Does not Meet) F
Thesis (10pt) Clear, commanding thesis (10-9) Clear thesis (8) General idea (7) No thesis (6) Not turned in (0)
Support (15pt) Strong use of sources (15-14) Use of sources (13-12) Some use of sources (11) No use of sources (10-9) No work turned in (0)
Structure (10pt) Well-developed structure with clear transitions and awareness of three points of contact with course content (10-9) Structure with transitions and awareness of three points of contact with course content (8) Little structure and limited transitions, including little awareness of course content (7) No structure and no engagement with course content (6) No work turned in (0)
Style (5pt) No errors in composition (5) A few errors in composition but coherent (4) Numerous errors and a general coherence (3.5) Too many error and no coherence (3) No work turned in (0)

 

Creator’s Statement: Write a statement that will be no more than 500-words. Here you condense all the knowledge you have gained on the subject into a tight statement about how the themes we covered this semester are found in your artifact. You will not have to have a complete artifact by the time you submit this assignment, but it will help if you do (or at least mostly complete with some things to finish up for the final exam period). The important point to this assignment is to make connections between at least three themes in the course content and the cultural artifact you are creating.

Outside of the art world, there are few occupations that require you to do this kind of work. But if you recognize that the assignment drives at metacognition, you will begin to see how critical self-reflection plays a role in your learning experiences and your life. It is not important to do this work in every area of life, but if you hone the ability to reflect critically on a subject, including your own thinking, you will begin to see the bigger picture. Employers want to know that you learn from your mistakes and can be reflective about your abilities. Also, every once in awhile you should make a creator’s statement about your life, where it is and where you would like it to be in the future. Most of us do this in our heads all the time; this exercise lets you practice putting into words and having someone else read it.  

Due April 21 by 3:00 p.m. on Canvas

Category (40pt) A (Exceeds) B (Meets with Distinction) C (Meets) D (Does not Meet) F
Central idea (10pt) Clear, commanding idea (10-9) Clear (8) General idea (7) No idea (6) Not turned in (0)
Support (15pt) Three themes fully integrated in the artifact (15-14) Three themes present in artifact (13-12) Some use of themes in artifact (11) No use of themes (10-9) No work turned in (0)
Creativity (10pt) Good use of the idea expressed in the medium (10-9) Idea present in the medium (8) Little of the idea found in the medium (7) No part of the medium expresses the idea (6) No work turned in (0)
Style (5pt) No errors in composition (5) A few errors in composition but coherent (4) Numerous errors and a general coherence (3.5) Too many error and no coherence (3) No work turned in (0)

 

Cultural Artifact Presentation: During the final exam period we will reveal our final projects and discuss what we learned in their creation about the region and how that learning helps us understand something about us. I will not evaluate the finished product as much as your presentation of the ideas that the object expresses. There is an oral component to this presentation and a focus on making direct connections from course content to the artifact. It is not enough to say “here is what I made.” The mini-research essay will be helpful in making a concise (see further revision) public statement about this artifact.

As for how this may help you in the future, almost every person has to talk in front of a group at some point in their lives whether it is in an official employment role or in private settings where you are trying to convince a group of people why your idea matters. Every chance you get to speak publicly is an opportunity to work on a skill that will be with you the rest of your life. Dynamic speakers get asked to talk often (and some make a living at it), but good speakers get things done in their communities and workplaces. Take this assignment seriously and work on the actual presentation. Use a timer and present it in your bathroom or closet five times and then to friends one or two more times. Practice, practice, practice!

Due May1 during the final exam period (9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.)

Category (25pt) A (Exceeds) B (Meets with Distinction) C (Meets) D (Does not Meet) F
Time: 5 min (5pt) Hit the 5 min mark (5) Over or under by 1 min (4) Over or under by 2 min (3.5) Over or under by 3 min (3) Did not present (0)
Connection with course content (15pt) Explains thoroughly the three points of contact with course contact and the artifact (15-14) Explains the three points of contact with the course content (13-12) Makes connections with fewer than three points of contact or poorly explains (11) Poor explanation and little contact with course content (10-9) Did not present (0)
Style (5pt) Contains few awkward pauses or verbal tics (5) Contains more than a few pauses or verbal tics (4) Contains many pauses and verbal tics (3.5) Too many awkward pauses and verbal tics (3) Did not present (0)

 

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