Assistant Professor Bill Holbrook created a unique unit for his English 104 students that required students to design a professional, academic proposal for the next freshman common reader. Read on to learn more about the unit, its success, and how it inspired his English 104 students to become more voracious readers.
by Bill Holbrook
Theory and Practice
With Composition II classes, there is the trend to find more relevant, researched-based writing units while staying with the core needs of the university and the English department’s writing program. In two decades of creating assignments, within my self-designed teaching packets, I have searched for assignments that combine composition theory and practice with those instructional goals.
There is always the concern, when departing from units that have been successful, that new units will not measure up. Therefore, when I wanted to make a change in one of the four ENG 104 units, I sought the help of Brenda Habich, Bracken reference librarian, and Dr. Melinda Messineo, chair of the sociology department and head of the selection committee for the Ball State Freshmen Common Reader. The reader is given out during summer orientation so that incoming students can read the book and attend a September convocation with the author.
A Paper becomes a Proposal
My initial idea was to design a project that would have students write a proposal for the freshmen reader, but I was not sure how all of the particulars would fit together. Brenda Habich researched the extent of novels available in Bracken. (I have been concerned that only memoirs and non-fiction were being chosen by the committee.) There was also the concern as to the ease for students to find fiction written by living American authors who could be available to speak at BSU.
There was also the issue of a time frame. Most writing units have a window of three to five weeks. Having students find novels, research the author’s availability, and determine whether almost four thousand freshmen would be interested and informed by reading the text was more than a five-week process. Brenda and I determined that the process should cover a longer period by opening the semester with an overview, and by not having the assignment due until late in the semester. Early in the semester, students would begin searching web sites about authors, their agents, their publishers, and their critics. Each time a substantive element was found, students would complete an annotated bibliography for credit. (In the end several students talked by phone with authors and author agents.)
When I contacted Dr. Messineo about the project, she volunteered to attend as many of my four ENG 104 classes as possible. She was able to attend three of the four, as one class was in session when she was also teaching. The students therefore were able to have access to a main audience member for their proposals. Dr. Messineo, in her hour-long discussion, gave the history of the freshmen reader, its early authors, the staff volunteers needed for seminars the first week of school, and the criteria for choosing an author. Issues such as cost, author availability, interest level and subject matter of the text were all considerations for the selection committee. In each of the classes, students asked questions about the process and what they must consider when writing their own proposals.
Meanwhile, when students met with Brenda Habich for their required library orientation pertaining to how best to use the library’s on-line resources, she presented a multitude of perspectives on how to approach aspects of their research. The students could immediately see the relevance of those databases and research methodologies.
One intangible that was very apparent with the ENG 104 students was Dr. Messineo’s enthusiasm that more students would have a voice in the selection process. So, when a dozen of the most well-constructed proposals were submitted at the end of the semester, she was more than pleased. The unit broke down normal methods that seem to stifle more creative ways to engage students with their writing while being sure that solid research methodologies were followed.
The unit was a snapshot of other university academic endeavors where several departments and professionals combine efforts to better teach students. There was no denying that the number of students who completed very competent proposals displayed the unit’s success. The unit proved that when students are given relevant assignments and the time to complete those assignments, the chances for success are increased.
A final plus
Some students read two and three novels before finding one to propose to the selection committee. I am always telling classes, “College students read.” Read they did. And the students’ research became natural extensions to constructing clear, relevant arguments for why a text and an author should be chosen as the freshmen reader. Such writing skills will be repeated throughout their college and professional careers.