The Great Challenge

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The assignment sequences in our program follow a general pattern: the first paper works with one author, the second paper with two, the third paper with three, and the fourth paper with two. That third paper is always a challenge for students—they just start to figure out how to work with two texts and suddenly we’re asking them to work with three. But I think it’s an important challenge. In asking students to work with three authors we give them a first glimpse of how knowledge is produced throughout the academy. As they move into their majors and disciplines they will often be asked to work with multiple sources; this third paper assignment gives them early practice with those skills. We also try to broaden the scope of this assignment to move beyond the texts of the classroom and back into the world in which we live. What does such an assignment look like? Well, here’s the one we came up with this past fall:
HIV/AIDS continues to be a global epidemic. In “AIDS, Inc.” Helen Epstein examines HIV/AIDS prevention programs in Africa, finding that not only are conversations about the disease important but that certain kinds of conversations are particularly essential. To what extent can her insights be used to help in the fight against HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases here in the United States? Using all three essays we’ve read so far, write a paper in which you propose strategies for halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases in the United States and across the globe.
Epstein was a great choice for our third reading. Her analysis of HIV prevention programs in Africa is revealing. It turns out that actually talking about the disease is a great way to stop its spread. With this assignment, we want students to think about how ideas from the texts can be used out in the world. We always provide a series of questions to get students started:
Are Epstein’s and Appiah’s understandings of conversation the same? How might they be used in our cultural context? And, given what Alvarez says about cultural borrowing, is it even possible to import models from African cultures to our context? How does social cohesion relate to quinces or to cosmopolitanism? What role might the “cool effect” play in both disease prevention and cultural practices such as quinces?
The goal of the questions is to help students see how they can make connections between the ideas in all the essays they’ve read so far. In doing so, they work with critical thinking and synthesis, and they do so with a real-world goal in mind: slowing the spread of HIV.
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.