The Endings of Things: A Couple of “Capstone” Assignments

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The regular academic year is quickly coming to a close. As usual, I’m experiencing a mix of emotions. There’s certainly excitement about the possibilities of summer and other new beginnings. Really, who isn’t already thinking about a warm day on the beach with a good book in hand? These warm fuzzies, though, are always tinged with a little bit of sadness for the ending of a thing.

It’s at this time of year that I begin to reflect on the semester that is ending and to consider carefully what I hope to achieve with my students in the final days of the term. More than ever, this time of year compels me to reflect on what we’ve accomplished as a class. At the same time, I know there’s still work to be done. 

I know, for instance, that there are central concepts from my course that I want to revisit and highlight again in our remaining class sessions. These are the bedrock concepts of my course, the ideas around which the rest of their experiences in the class have been organized. These are also the concepts and skills I believe will benefit students the most as they move forward in their academic careers, and as they look ahead to their professional lives.

More than anything else, I’m hopeful that my students will take with them more refined skills in assessing the dynamic complexities of various rhetorical situations. I hope I’ve provided them with transferable frameworks for analyzing and understanding these rhetorical situations no matter where they find themselves, whether in an academic, social, or professional context. 

In this blog post, then, I’d like to share a couple of assignments I’ve used over the years to “wrap up” my WID-based first-year writing courses. I designed these “capstone” assignments, in both cases, to reach backward, to take students back into the heart of the course, as well as to reach forward, or to move them to consider their own futures as academic writers or professionals.

Rhetorical Analysis of Student-Generated Academic Text

Throughout my course, students rely on various frameworks, or lenses, to engage in rhetorical analysis. In this specific final course project I ask students to select a text, a specific genre they produced as part of the course (e.g., an interpretation of an artistic text, a literature review, a lab report), and to analyze the rhetoric of their text as a form of self-analysis and reflection. 

As the assignment sheet indicates, students are directed to select for analysis one of their previous projects completed in the course, and to consider their audience for the project carefully before explaining (by citing and analyzing specific examples of their rhetorical decisions) how their texts were crafted (at both the global and local levels) to accommodate the needs and expectations of the particular academic community in which their work was situated. 

For example, if a student selected her social science theory response project to analyze, then her task is to study closely how she constructed her own text, and to make a case for how that text (through its rhetoric--the structural, reference, and language features of the text) would satisfy the needs of a target audience of other social scientists.

I like this assignment very much, partly because it reinforces many of the basic principles of rhetoric that are the heart of my course, but also because it asks students to recognize that their own, self-constructed texts are themselves complex rhetorical events that communicate specific disciplinary values via the elements through which they are constructed.

I also just love the look on my students’ faces when I tell them they’ll be analyzing their own rhetoric for their final project in the course. Initially, many of them have a difficult time understanding how their own texts are “worthy” targets of rhetorical analysis. By positioning their own texts as “worthy” subjects for these kinds of investigations, though, I hope my students leave the course a little more able to see themselves as actual scholars who are capable of producing disciplinary texts that allow for authentic engagement in differing academic communities.

Rhetorical Analysis of a Self-Selected Genre in the Applied Fields

Another “capstone” project I use in my WID-based FYC course asks students to identify and explore an applied field of interest to them. As part of that exploration, I further ask students to identify a specific genre of (written) communication through which members of a selected applied field community often engage with one another.

After identifying such a genre, and locating and reading examples of that genre, students are then asked to write a rhetorical analysis of the genre in which they identify the conventional expectations for the genre itself. More specifically, I ask students to answer the following question as the core of their analyses: what structural, language, and reference features does the genre conventionally rely on?

Like the assignment described above, wherein students analyze a text they produced, this project requires students to engage in basic rhetorical analysis, to notice rhetorical features conventional to a applied fields genre. But this assignment also allows many students to reach into their own futures by investigating a genre they may produce professionally as a member of the specific applied field of interest to them. I’ve found that my students are really excited to have the opportunity to investigate the kinds of writing they may be asked to do as professionals in a specific applied field, as well as to get a chance to apply the rhetorical principles they’ve learned throughout my course to a more “real-life” situation.

These two assignments reveal a couple of the ways I’ve tried to “cap” my first-year writing courses. I’d be interested in hearing about the ways others “cap” their own courses. What kinds of assignments do you find most appropriate for course endings? What makes them good “capping” projects? What do you like most about those assignments?

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About the Author
Roy Stamper is Senior Lecturer in English and former Associate Director of the First-Year Writing Program in the Department of English at North Carolina State University, where he teaches courses in composition and rhetoric. He is also academic advisor to the department’s Language, Writing, and Rhetoric majors. He has been recognized as an Outstanding Lecturer in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and is a recipient of NC State's New Advisor Award. Prior to his current appointment, he worked as a high school English teacher. He has presented papers at a number of local, regional, and national conferences, including the Conference of the Council of Writing Program Administrators and the Conference on College Composition and Communication.