A Sequence on Sequencing: How? (Part I)

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Last post I talked about why I choose to sequence assignments.  In the next several posts I’d like to offer some techniques I’ve found useful in designing sequences so that you can create your own. One of the methods I use is reading centered.  I start with a reading I really want to teach and then I build out the sequence from there.  Given the shape of our semester we can usually cover four readings.  I like to use the following pattern for assignments:
  • Paper One on Reading One
  • Paper Two on Reading One and Reading Two
  • Paper Three on Readings One, Two, and Three
  • Paper Four on Reading Four and one other reading of the student’s choice
You might select a different pattern but I will say that having students work with more than one reading offers good opportunities for analysis, synthesis, and critical thinking. So, before the semester I will skim the table of contents and think about a reading I’d really love to teach because it’s interesting or has good ideas or would work well in the classroom.  The quick annotations in the table of contents of Emerging can help with this part of the process if you’ve not experienced a reading before. For example, let’s say I select Michael Pollan’s “The Animals: Practicing Complexity.”  From experience I know that students love this essay.  I love it because it deals with complex adaptive systems, which I love thinking about.  I know it works well in the classroom so it’s a good choice. My next step is to jot down all the ideas and themes in Pollan’s essay.  Emerging offers a number of tools for this, from the tags in the table of contents, to the questions accompanying the reading, to the thematic table of contents, to the existing sequences, to the Instructor’s Manual.  All of these tools help me see what Pollan does and what readings connect easily to his. My list might look something like this: organic farming, food, holons, ecosystems, education, agribusiness, industry, nature, economics, systems, health, eating, animals. That last term, animals, is appealing to me. I’ve never taught a sequence with that focus so I think I will pursue it this time.  My next step is to use all the same tools to look for readings that have some connection to the idea of “animals.”  That list might look something like this: Dalai Lama (genetic engineering with some discussion of animals), Hal Herzog (ethics and animals), and David Foster Wallace (ethics and animals again).  I broaden the list to include useful counterpoints; in this case what it means to be human: Brian Christian (humans and artificial intelligence), Patricia Churchland (genes and behavior), Francis Fukuyama (genetic engineering and what makes humans human), and Richard Restak (brains and technology).  Finally, I look for “universal” essays, ones with ideas that apply to just about everything: Kwame Anthony Appiah (how change happens) and Daniel Gilbert (how to be happy). Now I have a list of possible readings to use in the sequence.  The complete list looks like this:
  • Appiah
  • Christian
  • Churchland
  • Dalai Lama
  • Fukuyama
  • Gilbert
  • Herzog
  • Pollan
  • Restak
  • Wallace
I know I am going to use Pollan.  I want to also use Wallace because he’s so fun to read.  Herzog is a natural match because his ideas work so well with the other two.  I sometimes choose a final reading from what seems to be left field, one that picks up on something entirely new and offers students completely new perspectives.  In this case, I might choose something about education.  But instead I am going to stick with the emerging theme and select Fukuyama, who talks about what it means to be human and why, for example, we don’t eat grandma. See the readings together, there’s a clear theme: the ethics of eating. Now I consider the order.  I’ll start with Pollan.  He has a few ideas but also a lot of narrative.  For my second essay I will want something with more ideas in it.  I’ll go with Herzog.  It’s brief but has a good central idea about ethics.  Wallace will work well as third since it’s so cohesive.  Fukuyama will end to open it up to larger issues about what it means to be human. Final step is to write the assignments.  I’ll write the first two, perhaps, and then see how they go, adjusting later assignments as needed. I wrote recently about the intellectual work of sequences.  I think it’s distinctly pleasurable work.  Hope you will give it a try.  
About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.