Stop the Insanity: Arduous Arguments, Part One

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I’ve heard it said that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  It’s a definition I find particularly resonant this semester since I am teaching our first semester writing course in the spring.  Historically, our fail rates for this spring are around double what they are in the fall.  Of course, that is on some level not all that surprising—many students taking the course in the spring do so because they didn’t pass it in the fall.  In order to address this problem and (more importantly) in order to help these students, I am trying something completely new for me and for our program.  Consider it my attempt to stop the insanity.  Perhaps this new approach will offer new results. Normally, we have students write six papers in a semester.  Relentless, I know.  And baffling in a way.  After all, we’re asking them to demonstrate from the very first paper the skills they’re not expected to have until the end of the semester.  That is, we’re asking them to know how to write a paper even though we teach them how to do that throughout the course of the semester.  Talk about insanity. This semester I thought I would mix things up by breaking apart a paper into small constituent parts: argument, evidence, organization.  I’m walking the students through each part before they assemble them all into a paper.  I’m hoping that breaking the task down will have a number of benefits. First, I am hoping that the smaller pieces will be more digestible, that focusing on only one aspect of a paper will help students to get a handle on it in ways that working on an entire paper might not.  Second, by breaking apart the first paper into pieces parts I am hoping to make the paper itself less intimidating: writing a whole paper might feel overwhelming but writing just one sentence (an argument) might feel perfectly manageable.  Third, I am hoping that students can begin to see how each piece engages a kind of critical thinking and that they might slowly hone their skills with such thinking part by part. There are more reasons to try this approach too, I think, but before I venture to lay them forth I’d like to report on how things go.  I’m getting drafts of their argument for the first paper today so will report on progress soon. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your own approaches to teaching the academic expository paper.  Where do you start?
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.