Setting the Tone: Teaching English 111
By Terry Rowden
My English 111 class, one of the first I taught after arriving at CSI, would set the tone for what many students considered a college class to be like, so it was important to me not to teach an entry level English course disguised as a general education course. I was determined that it be a true general education course, that is, one that awakened students to the possibilities of education. With that in mind, I envisioned English 111 as a transdisciplinary introduction to what it means to be a college student in terms of class work, critical inquiry, and personal responsibility.
My primary objective was to familiarize students with the basics of college writing, to introduce them to college level critical and analytical thinking and humanistic study, and to flag any students with serious writing problems and direct them to the campus services that could help them address their problems. Although the primary emphasis of the class was on writing, it was also important to me to give students a chance to work on their communication skills in the context of active class discussions.
The course was organized around short readings from a range of periodicals. These readings were primarily on cultural issues that dealt with gender, ethnicity, current events, and social problems. For each of these readings I focused on the core concepts that could lead students into a consideration of that text as representative of a reading that might be assigned in a particular department.
Because this class met only once a week, in addition to the regularly scheduled longer assignments, the students submitted short critical response papers for each class period. These responses provided the groundwork for our group discussions and for my consideration of the grammatical and technical aspects of their writing. In these responses I asked them to identify and consider the interpretive and critical issues that the text presented. I made it clear that I expected these responses to be focused and subject to further development, and not just summaries of the readings.
These readings also provided the topics for our class discussions. At the beginning of the semester the students were placed in five groups of approximately six members each. These groups were maintained throughout the semester. Class discussions alternated between general full class discussions and focused small group discussions in which I would rotate among the groups over the course of the class period.
This arrangement facilitated a sense of familiarity among the students in the small groups and lessened some of the tensions that can arise when students are asked to do peer-review of their classmates’ work in a full class context. Essentially, the use of these small groups made it possible for me to offer more personalized basic instruction than large classes usually permit.
The class culminated in a ten page research paper on a pre-approved topic. I asked the students to write this paper in accordance with the critical approaches that were most in keeping with the requirements of the department in which a paper on that topic would most likely be required. For instance, a student who wrote a paper on the presidential campaign that was just beginning to heat up was told to find out what the expectations for critical papers was in the Department of Political Science. A student who wrote on working with AIDS patients was directed to the Department of Nursing for information. After each student had done the appropriate background work, we then considered the particular means best suited for accessing the kinds of information needed for that type of research.
Overall, I feel the class was a success. In my original design I now feel that I underestimated the range of competencies that I would be faced with, but devoting more time to basic technical work in the early weeks of the semester the next time I teach the class should go a long way toward lessening the problems related to that misjudgment. In the specific context of CUNY, however, I was unprepared for the number of ESL (English as a Second Language) issues that I was presented with during the semester. This was, by far, my biggest challenge in terms of evaluation and classroom dynamics. I am still not sure of how best to address this issue and would appreciate any suggestions that readers of this essay would care to forward to me.