Sequencing the Sequence

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This post is part of a continuing series on building a course around the textbook Emerging. For previous posts in the series on assignments, see herehere, and here. Every summer I enlist a graduate teaching assistant to help me design and test the assignment sequence we use in our first-year writing classes in the fall.  This past summer, TA Ryan Dessler helped out, and we decided to share our process so that others can see how we conceive, write, implement, and revise a sequence of assignments. It all started with Julia Alvarez’s essay, “Selections from Once Upon a Quinceañera. I’ve been dying to teach this essay since we included it in Emerging.  I love that it deals with something students can really relate to.  We are in South Florida, so many of our students will have had or attended a quince, while others will have experienced similar rituals such as sweet sixteens, debutante balls, and bat and bar mitzvahs.  I’m hoping our students will be able to see themselves in the essay, which will give them a basis from which to speak to, and speak back to, Alvarez’s analysis. And her analysis is complex, which I also love.  She doesn’t end up saying how she feels about quinces. Instead she reveals how very complex these coming-of-age rituals are.  There are massive economics involved (along the lines of a wedding), but also complex cultural factors: cultural identification for Americanized generations of Hispanics, borrowing across and between different Hispanic cultures, and the relation of coming of age to issues of gender and feminism.  The more Alvarez examines the ritual, the more she discovers; she is, in fact, doing just what we hope our students will do. Why do I say that? I think it is a challenge for students to see beyond the black and white.  They read an assigned essay and reduce it to a flattened idea or concept.  They don’t want to deal with complexity.  But Alvarez shows how complex even simple issues can be and how, by exploring that complexity, we can reach a deeper and more nuanced understanding.  Perfect. From there, Ryan and I built out the rest of the sequence by determining what selection would work well with Alvarez; we decided on Appiah.  Appiah offers a set of conceptual tools for understanding how cultural practices come into place, how they operate, and how they can change.  We believed it would complement our students’ analysis of Alvarez’s text. From Appiah, we then move into Helen Epstein’s “AIDS Inc.”  In examining the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa, Epstein raises the stakes when it comes to cultural practices.  We’re not just looking at parties for teenagers any more; instead, students will use the tools they’ve been developing in the assignments to look at how to change cultural practices in ways that reduce the global spread of HIV/AIDS. We decided to end with Leslie Savan’s essay, “What’s Black, Then White, and Said All Over?”  In examining pop culture and advertising, Savan addresses many of the economic and racial issues embedded in the other essays. Once we had the set of essays, all that was missing was a title for the sequence.  Ryan nailed it: Cultural Currencies.
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.