In writing courses, design matters. What assignments come first, in the middle, and last in a course will depend on such factors as their complexity, the difficulty and number of rhetorical and writerly skills involved, their relationship to the issue at hand, and their relationship to one another. Most instructors speak in terms of a sequence or cycle of assignments in order to highlight their interdependence. One writing task foregrounds another; a set of skills practiced in one assignment get reactivated in a subsequent assignment; and a constituent question or an issue gets reiterated or reframed, giving a student the opportunity to rethink an earlier approach. Assignments, in other words, build upon and play off of one another, suggesting an evolutionary trajectory.
Many writing instructors think of assignments within a semester sequence as projects, which suggests a cluster of processural activities. Projects typically take students 3-4 weeks to complete as students are asked to read or research, discuss and respond to those readings, fashion a draft, receive feedback (from instructors and peers), and revise. At Davidson, a four-project model has become the norm, with each of the projects designed in service of inquiring into a “big question” that adumbrates all of the reading and writing over the course of the semester. The big question gives a rhetorical purpose to the whole course since ideas and approaches attendant to the big question get worked on in one after another project from beginning to end.
The Big Question (4 in 15) Course Design
(The 13-week compressed semester, arranged for pandemic teaching, implements a “3 in 13” model, a course built on three major writing projects sequenced throughout the semester, each taking four weeks to complete. A model course syllabus for this course is available at the “Model Syllabus” tab, and the reading and writing assignments in a three-project course is found at the “Model Course B” tab.)
Writing 101 is typically designed around four major writing projects. Each takes approximately three or four weeks to complete since each involves a process of reading, discussion, drafting, commentary on drafts, and revision. Each of the four major writing projects speaks to a “big question” which adumbrates the entire course. The big question offers a way to frame an important issue that each of the writing projects, in their own ways, attends to or addresses. Big questions have no readily-available answers, but addressing them in arguments allows writers to make some headway as respondents. Previous big questions that guided first-year writing courses include:
- How has human suffering been depicted in the media, and what are the ethical effects of those images?
- How do American citizens experience democratic values in their everyday lives?
- How fairly and accurately is scientific knowledge represented in the news?
- How has the African continent been problematically represented in historical, political, and global contexts, at what costs?
One can envision such questions being of interest both to the wide educated public and to scholars. If we offer questions that interest both professional scholars and the wider public, then we can speak about the production, distribution, and reception of intelligent prose, we can say what we’re doing in the course is in service of supporting intellectual discourse. When we choose an issue with general relevance, we help our students understand something important about academic work: that it generates understandings of use not only to a few specialist professionals, but advances general knowledge as well.
Here are several documents that sketch out the design of the 4 in 15 model in some detail, revealing the sequence of rhetorical activities involved in each project.