Research, Synthesis, and Discourse in FYC: A Writing about Writing Assignment Sequence (Part 1)

0 0 1,036

I am teaching a section of first-semester composition with a 2-credit corequisite, designed specifically for students from non-English speaking backgrounds. I approached the development of my syllabus and assignments in a Writing about Writing (WAW) framework, but this semester I am including a stronger focus on information literacy and source synthesis, based in part on my college’s current Quality Enhancement Plan focus (QEP).


I am presenting source-based writing to my students this term following Joseph Bizup’s 2008 article, “BEAM: A Rhetorical Vocabulary for Teaching Research-Based Writing.”  The premise of Bizup’s framework is that students need to consider source-based composition rhetorically, with a vocabulary that characterizes how sources function in texts. As Bizup puts it, “We should adopt terms that allow us to name, describe, and analyze the different ways writers use their materials on the page, or equivalently, the various postures towards their materials that writers adopt” (75). Bizup uses the acronym BEAM to illustrate four ways of handling source material in a text. Sources can serve as background material (B), exhibits for analysis or interpretation (E), arguments for evaluation, rebuttal, or extension (A), or methods that frame research or provide a particular vocabulary for it (M).

In my course, students will be researching and analyzing a discourse community as a course-long project. Their research will lead them to background sources, exhibits, and arguments. I will be providing sources that give them a method and vocabulary for their research.

Our first major reading assignment also serves as the students’ initial exposure to the first of these method sources: James Gee’s 1989 article, “Literacy, Linguistics, and Discourse: Introduction.”  This essay is challenging in terms of vocabulary, but in our corequisite structure, students have additional time to work through these lexical difficulties. I have found that they engage quickly with the concept of secondary Discourses and dominant Discourses—noting their own struggles not only to learn English but to understand various English Discourses (in Gee’s sense) from which they are excluded or in which they aspire to participate.

The first significant writing assignment is a framed literacy narrative: students discuss their own reading or writing development through the conceptual lens of Discourse, as defined by Gee. Many of these students have never been required to reflect on their own experiences through such a conceptual framework, nor have they been shown how to introduce a method source and apply it effectively in their own writing. Preparation for this assignment, therefore, has included practice in summary, paraphrase, quotation, and consideration of rhetorical context.

I have just finished reading students’ first drafts, and I am astounded at their stories and their efforts to frame them in Gee’s terms, however clumsy those first attempts might be. And to my surprise, many of my students selected a second method source from our textbook, Roxane Gay’s “Peculiar Benefits”: they interpreted their literacy stories not only in terms of Discourse (Gee) but in terms of privilege, as defined by Gay.

In previous courses, I have asked students to write literacy narratives and compare their experiences to those of other writers whose literacy stories we have read. But this is the first time I’ve asked them to frame their narratives using a method source, and I am pleased with the outcome. We have a basis now for talking about method sources as we move to the next phase of the project, which will require different types of source use.

I wish I could share their stories, and especially their understanding of Discourse and privilege, with lawmakers who will now determine the fate of many of my students—those who currently have DACA protections but may lose them, given the President’s recent rescission of that executive order. My students do not see themselves as victims, as those without privilege, even though they have been excluded in many cases from participation in dominant Discourses and positions of power. They see themselves as privileged, simply because they are in the classroom with the opportunity to learn. I am honored to be teaching—and learning—with them.

Want to offer feedback, comments, and suggestions on this post? Join the Macmillan Community to get involved (it’s free, quick, and easy)!

About the Author
Miriam Moore is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Georgia. She teaches undergraduate linguistics and grammar courses, developmental English courses (integrated reading and writing), ESL composition and pedagogy, and the first-year composition sequence. She is the co-author with Susan Anker of Real Essays, Real Writing, Real Reading and Writing, and Writing Essentials Online. She has over 20 years experience in community college teaching as well. Her interests include applied linguistics, writing about writing approaches to composition, professionalism for two-year college English faculty, and threshold concepts for composition, reading, and grammar.