Published Course Design

Published Course Design


Volume 26 Number 1 Spring 1998


Course Description
Institutional Context
Theoretical Rationale
Critical Reflection
Works Cited 

Course Description

English 496:  Senior Seminar in Writing 
Professor Elizabeth Ervin 
University of North Carolina at Wilmington 

English 496:  Senior Seminar in Writing, is designed as the "capstone experience" for English majors in the Professional and Creative Writing option at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, a rapidly-growing public comprehensive university with a combined population of approximately 10,000 graduate and undergraduate students.  The course also fulfills seminar requirements for English majors in General and Teacher Licensure options and satisfies the University's "oral communication competency" requirement.  It is described in the undergraduate catalog as a "[w]orkshop leading to production of a senior manuscript in prose or poetry and public reading of selected work." 

Institutional Context

In addition to the intellectual influences I've described, my design of Writing for Diverse Publics was affected by two sets of local circumstances.  The first was my frustration with the virtual absence of political involvement and civic-mindedness at my university.  Only 775 out of approximately 9000 undergraduate students voted in the 1997 Student Government Association presidential elections, for example (Shaw 1A), and the recent local elections attracted a measly 8% of registered voters from the campus precinct, and only 22% to 23% in the more residential neighborhoods immediately surrounding campus, where many students live ("Election" 2B).  These patterns may not be unique to my institution and community, but they are nonetheless troubling in a society that depends on civic participation for coherent political debate and sound public policy.  As Curtis Gans wrote in a post-election op-ed essay, "Because voting is a lowest-common denominator political act--that is, people who don't vote tend not to participate in any other societally useful activities--decline means both diminution of social capital and a polity dominated by the self-interested and the zealous" (5E).  Unfortunately, "societally useful activities" are considered extracurricular by many students and academics--even those whose pedagogies theoretically depend on engagement with the world outside the classroom.  I was determined that WDP present such activities as a norm of behavior, and writing as one way of practicing them. 

The second concern to which my course responded was the prevailing view within my department that "writing" refers either to "creative" (i.e., nonacademic) writing or literary analysis.  This perspective is partly a result of traditional institutional attitudes that literary production and study are the primary businesses of an English department, but it can be traced as well to the recent launching of a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at my institution--the only terminal degree the university offers, as my colleagues and I are repeatedly reminded.  Due to the happy coincidence of a charismatic program director, supportive administrators, and a generous local patron, the MFA and the undergraduate Professional and Creative Writing (PCW) option in English have thrived--to the detriment, some believe, of other programs in the English Department, including other kinds of writing.  Rhetoricians and compositionists, for example, are not considered "writing faculty," and are not members of the departmental PCW committee. 

To accommodate the growing number of PCW majors, two years ago the English department developed English 496, a senior seminar in writing that has functioned almost exclusively as a workshop in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction.  (Before that, we offered the all-purpose English 495:  Senior Seminar in English, which has since become Senior Seminar in Literature/Language, designed for English majors in the Language and Literature, General, and Teacher Licensure options.)  The relatively small number of PCW students who are interested in technical, professional, or, for lack of a more precise term, "civic" writing, or who wish to undertake advanced study of teaching writing, are not well served by this focus.  Although such courses count toward graduation requirements for PCW students, they are widely perceived as either too academic or not academic enough--in short, vaguely inappropriate for budding (creative) "writers"--and thus are seldom offered and often underenrolled.  The catalog description of English 496 further reflects this bias:  "Workshop leading to production of a senior manuscript in prose or poetry and public reading of selected work."  Other conceptions of writing--for example, the possibility that discourse might be "made public" through means other than an oral reading--go unnamed, and probably unimagined. 

These features of my local situation are, I think, related.  Simply put:  many of the faculty in my department possess a limited view of writing and practice writing in limited ways, and, subtly or directly, convey this perspective to students.  Consequently, even though Writing for Diverse Publics was designed specifically for those English majors whose personal or professional interests were not otherwise satisfied by advanced workshops in a creative genre, these students' inexperience with public discourse, combined with a tacit skepticism about its value to their lives, complicated our work together all semester. 


Theoretical Rationale

Elizabeth Ervin 
University of North Carolina at Wilmington 

In the past few years, composition instructors have expressed their increasing dissatisfaction with teaching writing in ways that objectify "society" rather than foster students' direct interaction with it, or that require students to produce texts that have no real exigency beyond getting a grade.  I'm one of those instructors, and Writing for Diverse Publics (WDP) is one in a series of pedagogical experiments that I have designed as a means of developing alternative purposes and discourses for school-based writing. 

Elsewhere I have suggested that textbooks and assignments that ask students to investigate and write about social issues might promote "latent inclinations toward civic engagement," but they do not necessarily eventuate civic behaviors outside of the classroom (Ervin 392).  Teachers who wish to foster such behaviors, I argued, must make more explicit the connections between classroom and public--not only by creating opportunities for students to use writing for authentic public purposes, but by "actively accompany[ing]" them in these efforts (389).  Susan Wells agrees, adding that we do justice neither to the complex history of public discourse nor to its possibilities for effecting social change when we assign students "generic public writing" that asks them to "inscribe their positions in a vacuum": 

[S]ince there is no place within the culture where student writing on [for example] gun control is held to be of general interest, no matter how persuasive the student, or how intimate their acquaintance with guns, "public writing" in such a context means "writing for no audience at all."  It is not some deficit on the part of students that makes such writing impossible.  (328) 

Indeed.  But neither is it some deficit on our part that makes it difficult for "real" public writing to conform to the particular circumstances and requirements of school:  its need to measure and evaluate, its artificial time constraints, its standardizing impulses.  These, rather, are conditions we must work around, work against; and they make teaching and learning public writing a difficult, unfamiliar, and often inconvenient enterprise. 

All of which makes it a good idea to examine some of the related trends in rhetoric and composition scholarship and pedagogy that manifest the kinds of concerns I've identified, and that influenced the design of Writing for Diverse Publics; these include service learning, community literacy, and public intellectualism.  With their attention to nonacademic contexts for writing, these trends can also be seen as a response to growing demands for universities to place more emphasis on workplace and civic readiness skills--demands that result not only from changes in the economy, but also the persistent perception that academics must be more accountable to community needs (see, e.g., Fairweather). 

Service learning is perhaps the most prominent of these trends--so much so that it can legitimately be called a "movement," or even, in the language of some proponents, a "microrevolution" (Adler-Kassner, Crooks, and Watters 1).  Although it takes myriad forms, service learning-oriented composition courses typically ask students to engage in structured community service activities (e.g., literacy tutoring) and then to reflect on and write about their experiences.  According to Linda Adler-Kassner, Robert Crooks, and Ann Watters, editors of a recent book on the subject, faculty and students who have participated in service learning projects "report radical transformations of their experiences and understanding of education and its relation to communities outside campus" (1).  Acknowledging that connections between community service and the teaching of writing are "by no means obvious" (309), Bruce Herzberg eventually arrives at the following rationale: 

The effort to reach into the composition class with a curriculum aimed at democracy and social justice is an attempt to make schools function . . . as radically democratic institutions, with the goal of making individual students more successful, but also of making better citizens, citizens in the strongest sense of those who take responsibility for communal welfare.  These efforts belong in the composition class because of the rhetorical as well as the practical nature of citizenship and social transformation.  (317) 

To guide composition teachers in their efforts to enact the kind of transformative rhetorical praxis that Herzberg envisions, Ann Watters and Marjorie Ford offer two companion textbooks:  Writing for Change (an anthology of readings) and A Guide for Change (an introductory handbook).  These texts are especially useful for teachers like me who do not enjoy the support of an established service learning office or program at their institutions; they offer references as well as many practical suggestions for individual and collaborative service-oriented writing projects. 

Having now coordinated several service learning projects, I remain deeply committed to that movement's objectives, but deeply ambivalent about how to achieve them--which is why I chose not to make WDP a service learning course.  Such courses require an enormous amount of advanced (and ongoing) planning, and thus do not easily accommodate the more urgent, spontaneous efforts that might be inspired by, for example, reading the local newspaper every day.  Moreover, some students feel coerced by service learning projects, especially if they require extensive collaboration (e.g., the infamous "class project"; see Sosnoski and Downing) or deal with issues to which the teacher, not the students, is strongly committed.  In WDP, I was determined that students learn to use their own interests as a basis for discovering and defining their own purposes for public writing.  I anticipated that most of them would initially lack confidence and experience (which was in fact the case), but wanted to provide them with the opportunity and responsibility to do it anyway.  If this moved them in the direction of community service, great, but I had no intention of making that decision for them. 

Several scholars have identified another potential problem with service learning that I wanted to avoid in WDP:  what Ellen Cushman calls its "here-I-am-to-save-the-day" propensities (20).  Wayne Campbell Peck, Linda Flower, and Lorraine Higgins, for example, warn that university/community collaborations cannot be successful if they remain rooted in the agenda of the university, and offer an alternative model--community literacy--in which such collaborations enact strategic, intercultural conversations and shared inquiry.  In a separate essay, Flower describes a specific practice called a "community problem-solving dialogue" (CPSD), which "bring[s] together students, faculty, community leaders, and everyday people, as well as the written knowledge of the academy and oral wisdom of the neighborhood," for this very purpose (105).  Although it emerged out of mentoring relationships at a community literacy center, Flower says that the principles of the CPSD--"telling the story behind the story, rival hypothesis thinking, and examining options and outcomes" (110)--can be translated into "ordinary" writing courses as well.  This is a significant point, since many of us, whether because of limited resources or personal preference, do not emphasize service learning or community literacy per se but rather teach academic writing that is informed by our commitments to public discourse and activism. 

Aaron Schutz and Anne Ruggles Gere call this approach "'public' service learning," a term they illustrate by describing a course in which students grouped themselves according to issues of mutual concern, and then "[wrote] a paper together about the topic arguing for a specific change and addressing the audience they had chosen" (136); groups were encouraged to submit their projects to the intended audiences, although only one of five actually did.  This course (or at least this assignment) corresponds in many respects to what I had in mind for WDP.  However, while Schutz and Gere see it as an example of the classroom as a public space, I see it as an extension of our profession's revived interest in public intellectualism.  Typically, these discussions have taken the form of exhortations that faculty do a little less analyzing of public discourse and a little more "doing" of it, and asserts, in the words of Edward Schiappa, that "We should not allow ourselves the easy out of believing that being 'political' in the classroom is a substitute for our direct civic participation" (22).  Schiappa and others, like Cushman, tend to equate civic participation (including public discourse) with activism--which, according to Cushman, "begins with a commitment to breaking down the sociological barriers between universities and communities" (12) and involves an abiding commitment to "expand the scope of our scholarly activities" (16).  By embracing a vision of public space that is more comprehensive--both practically and theoretically--than the classroom, courses like WDP invite students to engage in this process as well.  "Leading by example" must be a central tenet of this vision, for teachers can and, I think, should model public intellectualism, if not as high-profile activists, then at least as informed citizens, people who pay attention to and take responsibility for what's going on in their communities. 

Thus situated, Writing for Diverse Publics took shape in my mind as a workshop in which students and I would read, talk, inquire, and write together as a means of advancing publicly our individual and collective agendas.  In my fantasies, our classroom was a beehive of political activity where people were engaged in writing that really mattered (something like The War Room, that documentary about Clinton's first presidential campaign, with English majors instead of James Carville and George Stephanopolis), and my stated goals were only slightly more modest:  I wanted to establish a supportive environment in which public discourse was undertaken in a disciplined and enthusiastic way by all members of the class; in which course activities were determined primarily (if not solely) by students' interests and choices; and in which students began to see the world as a kaleidoscope of rhetorical situations and themselves as its agents.  In articulating these goals and expectations, I assumed that students did indeed have interests and convictions but needed the explicit instruction and encouragement that might assist them in constructing meaningful writing projects.  I hoped that by the end of the semester, they might consider careers in public information and nonprofits, as well as feel more deeply committed to, and capable of intervening in, the issues that concerned them. 

Critical Reflection


Over the first few weeks of the semester, I found out a few things about the students who enrolled in Writing for Diverse Publics.  Most were PCW majors who were interested in technical or professional writing or journalism and chose this as the most fitting seminar available; some couldn't get into the creative writing workshops they wanted and ended up in my course by default; a few simply wanted to try a different kind of writing.  Many of these students had been fed a steady diet of "writer as romantic figure" throughout their education and resisted (sometimes resented) my efforts to disabuse them of the notion that the principal purpose of writing is self-expression.  Six of the fourteen students planned to graduate at the end of the semester, but only one of these expressed any desire to pursue work as a professional writer.  Most seemed excited about the prospect of reading the newspaper every day, and many already did so.  Thirteen of the students were female.  Although all of my students readily compiled a list of interests or commitments that could guide their writing (they were pretty liberal, as UNCW students go), none of them had ever engaged in anything that might be considered public writing prior to our class; many, however, had considered doing so (mentally composing letters to the editor was a particularly common example), and some had actually come close (e.g., had written the letter but stopped short of sending it).  They attributed their reticence primarily to fear:  of being exposed as ignorant, of being disagreed with, of calling attention to themselves.  Some admitted to a certain laziness:  they had opinions but preferred leaving the "arguments" to someone else.  

On the whole, the circumstances seemed cause for reserved optimism; students appeared to have the "latent inclinations," if not yet sufficient confidence, to go public with their writing.  As a gesture of solidarity, I revealed a little about my own experience as a late bloomer to public writing:  how I've always been an obsessive reader of the local newspaper but for most of my life followed stories from the comfort of my living room; how at the age of 30 I decided I no longer wanted to be a passive spectator and wrote my first letter to the editor; how this experience so liberated me that I actually live in the world differently now, with the assumption that I will participate in my community's ongoing public conversations, whether through writing or other actions.  I told them how looking at the face of the "Pet of the Week" in the newspaper every Wednesday morning is not only a singular act of courage for me but also a weekly admonition to put my money where my mouth is, that is, to take more responsibility for my convictions.  I was never taught how to do this, I said, and was never encouraged to do it, either--maybe because of archaic taboos against women speaking out in public, maybe because civic behaviors are considered so basic as to be self-evident, maybe because they just don't seem to fall within the purview of school.  My experience is all too familiar, I concluded; public discourse is something of a mystery to most of us, which is why a course like Writing for Diverse Publics is so important. 

My little oration was intended to reassure students that it's possible to engage in meaningful public discourse even if you've never considered yourself "that kind of person."  And for a while, it did seem to have this effect.  Several students scornfully reported being required to write fake letters to newspaper editors or corporate presidents, even going so far as to address the envelopes and "send" them to their teachers.  Everyone recognized--and condemned--the hollowness of such assignments, and we resolved informally not to waste our time on them.  Guided by Wells' article, which we had just read for class, we discussed the incongruities inherent in engaging in public writing within a school setting, but collectively agreed to put forth the effort necessary to circumvent these problems. 

Not only did students seem to identify with my pedagogical goals, but many of them also shared an interest in animal rights, which united the class philosophically and also came in handy when I needed to illustrate unfamiliar concepts.  Early in the semester, for example, there emerged an ideal occasion to define and apply two key terms, rhetorical situation and public discursive intervention, with which students were struggling.  Ashley--a volunteer for a local group called Cat Adoption Team--had led a discussion of an article from the newspaper that dealt with the problem of "Dalmatian dumping":  people buying the dogs after seeing the movie 101 Dalmatians and then taking them to animal shelters when they grew too large or too unmanageable.  Students were shocked by the article and eager to talk about it.  We had already read Lloyd Bitzer's classic essay, in which he defines rhetorical situation as "a complex of persons, events, objects, and relations presenting an actual or potential exigence which can be completely or partially removed if discourse, introduced into the situation, can so constrain human decision or action as to bring about the significance of the exigence" (6).  Everyone considered Dalmation dumping an exigent rhetorical situation, so I suggested that we brainstorm a list of possible public discursive interventions that might respond to it; these interventions, I explained, were the "discourse[s] introduced into the situation" in order to persuade the target audience to take a desired action.  Our list included a public service announcement to run at the beginning of the video, a letter to Disney complaining about the problem, proposed incentives for more responsible breeding of "designer pets," flyers promoting a Dalmatian rescue league in our area, and protesting outside theatres where the movie was playing.  Some of these (e.g., the protest) were rejected because they were physical rather than discursive interventions; others were revised so that their purpose was to create an action rather than express an opinion (e.g., the letter of complaint directed at Disney became a letter requesting that Disney make a donation to humane associations).  When we had finished making adjustments to our list, I asked each student to choose one intervention idea and briefly analyze it in terms of exigence, audience, and constraints--according to Bitzer, the essential components of rhetorical situation. 

This exercise not only gave students a better sense of the range of public discourse "genres" available to them, but also provided them with practice in manipulating an actual rhetorical situation according to their motivations, commitments, and beliefs.  Students' fluency with these concepts was vitally important to their success in the course:  every week, they were required to identify and briefly analyze four rhetorical situations, as well as propose appropriate interventions, based primarily on their reading of the newspaper (this assignment was slightly modified midway through the semester after a few students complained that it was "boring").  These "interventions," as the assignment was called, were evaluated on the basis of variety, thoroughness, emphasis on promoting specific actions (as opposed to, say, expressing an opinion), and potential efficacy.  Although Bitzer points out that it's not possible to respond to all rhetorical situations, the purpose of this assignment was to heighten students' awareness of the rhetorical situations around them and help them to generate ideas for writing projects.  And because I wanted students to theorize rhetorical situations as well as intervene in them, I requested that they attach to each project turned in for a grade a detailed analysis of the rhetorical situation to which it responded. 
Despite heartening glimmers of comprehension like the one described above, the intricacies of rhetorical situations confounded my students all semester.  Most quickly mastered the idea of exigence, but problems with audience and constraints lingered.  For example, while Bitzer states that "a rhetorical audience consists only of those persons who are capable of being influenced by discourse and being mediators of change" (8), many students insisted on addressing their interventions to that mythical beast, the "general audience."  Bitzer also emphasizes that rhetoric "functions ultimately to produce action or change in the world. . . .  [It] is a mode of altering reality, not by the direct application of energy to objects, but by the creation of discourse which changes reality through the mediation of thought and action" (3-4).  And yet some students continued to make self-expression, not action, the primary purpose of their interventions (e.g., letters of complaint), and others preferred identifying situations that called for physical rather than discursive interventions--as when Lisa read about a talent show to raise money for a local resident who needed an organ transplant, and proposed to attend the event.  Finally, interventions generally lacked the variety and imagination displayed by the Dalmatian dumping list:  some weeks, three out of every four took the form of letters whose purpose was either to complain or request information. 
When I realized that students were having so much trouble constructing and theorizing rhetorical situations, I reluctantly decided to create assignments for them rather than ask them to devise their own.  At first I was concerned that this would compromise the authenticity of students' writing; however, I eventually concluded that more structure would enable me to establish clearer expectations as well as steer students toward more diverse and challenging projects.  After consulting with the class, then, I settled on four assignments that I believed could accommodate a variety of personal, professional, and civic exigencies; we began with letters (since most students already felt confident with that form), then moved on to reports and proposals, biographical sketches and speeches (to coincide with local elections), and press releases and press kits.  In an effort to encourage students to propose other projects, every assignment sheet included this statement:  "If you wish to create a piece of writing other than [the one assigned here], please talk to me so that we can establish expectations and criteria appropriate to your rhetorical situation."  No one took advantage of this opportunity, however.  I also explicitly encouraged students to "recycle" their research--i.e., use it as the basis for different kinds of writing projects--in order to save time and deepen their understandings of their topics, but few did, even when deadlines accelerated toward the end of the semester. 

Since these options were intended to help students be more efficient about their work as well as more committed to their projects, I was surprised that they didn't exploit them more fully.  What was even more surprising was why they didn't do so:  they saw it as cheating.  Sharnique wanted to use research from another class to propose the creation of a student ombudsman position in the Minority Affairs office; Selma wanted to write a profile of her roommate, founder of an organic gardening club, for the newspaper's weekly "Plant and Garden" page; Natassya wanted to revive the newsletter for GROW, a local gay and lesbian advocacy group; Kelli wanted to create an information packet about sex education programs on behalf of her mother's PTA; Will wanted to request that the English department offer a course on Hemingway . . . the list goes on and on.  I found out about most of these ideas almost by accident, when students casually mentioned them in class discussion, conversations after class, or, occasionally, their homework.  When I urged them to follow up on these ideas for class, the astonished reply was invariably "Can I really do that?"  I asked students if they understood that they could propose alternative assignments to fulfill the requirements for the course, and they assured me that they did.  They apparently didn't believe it, though, because if their projects involved recycling previous research or working with people they already knew--in other words, not starting from scratch--they usually rejected them. 
At first I attributed such incidents to students' inexperience in recognizing opportunities for public writing and told myself that they would become more adept at this as we moved through the semester.  Many students were, after all, voluntarily involved in extracurricular projects that required writing (Julie, for example, was singlehandedly writing, editing, and distributing a newletter for nontraditional students in an effort to rally enough support to establish a nontraditional students organization), and it seemed only a matter of time before they realized how these activities could satisfy the requirements of the course.  But this never really happened, and it wasn't until late in the semester that I was able to see the reality of the situation:  students still saw WDP as the same old school writing, defined most insidiously in terms of arbitrary rules apparently designed to "catch" them in the act of doing the wrong thing.  Or perhaps they were so thoroughly unfamiliar with the ways of public discourse that they were looking to their school writing experiences--however restrictive or inappropriate--for guidance on how to complete course assignments "correctly."  Whatever its exact source, this insecurity extended to the role they assigned me; on due dates, for example, when I asked if anyone was planning to use their writing for an actual purpose, someone inevitably replied, "It depends on what you think of it."  Students were desperate for discernible classroom landmarks, but I simply wanted to assume the mantel of "citizen intellectual."  In retrospect, this seems a little disingenuous on my part. 
Thus I have to consider the ways in which I might have been complicit in students' apparent inability to see the aims of the course as compatible with the aims of their lives.  The issue of recycling research seems significant here, too, for even if students chose to do this, I required them to produce a minimum number of pages of new, original writing for each assignment--a policy I established only after Renée handed in identical pieces of writing for two different assignments, reasoning that she'd found a "real" situation the second time.  Renée's behavior did, in fact, strike me as "cheating"--or at least violating the spirit of the class.  But the same could be said of my new policy:  however justified, it seemed mostly to confirm students' suspicions that recycling research opened them up to ambiguous charges of academic dishonesty (it wasn't exactly plagiarism, after all), prompting them to ask questions like "Does a chart count as a page of writing?" or "How different does it have to be in order to count as original?"  As a result of this policy, my subsequent efforts to be flexible and responsive to students' endeavors were viewed with similar mistrust.  Sometimes, for example, I allowed students to supplement their own writing with materials from other sources (e.g., FAQ sheets from the Internet) as long as they cited them appropriately; this led some to ask, "How will you know if we wrote it ourselves or if we got it off the Internet?"  And since I decided early on that I could neither assess students' commitment to an issue nor enjoin them to submit their writing for actual public purposes, they repeatedly asked, "Will you give us extra credit if we actually use this?" 
At first I tried to offer serious, thoughtful responses to questions like these, and later I urged students to search their own consciences for answers, but eventually I lost patience.  So when Kathryn asked me during the waning days of the semester if her press kit could respond to a fake rhetorical situation, I replied, "I can't force you to do something authentic, but I personally am too busy to pretend to create public discourse.  What's worth your time?"  Embedded in this exchange is perhaps the most frustrating element of WDP:  the students who did embrace its ideals were among the weakest writers in the class, and I couldn't find a way to make their admirable public commitments "count" towards their grades. 
Some of these problems were probably unavoidable:  ultimately, I couldn't not be the teacher in this class, and students couldn't not be students; I couldn't disentangle myself from my own responsibility to establish policies and assign grades, and therefore students couldn't convince themselves that "authenticity" was a higher value than "originality," or that "cheating" should be a moot point in this kind of class.  As Mary Rose O'Reilley observes in The Peaceable Classroom, 

One of the teacher's hardest jobs is to break conditioning.  You can't just open the cages, as do some of my friends in the animal liberation movement, and hope the poor beasts will run free.  They will cower on their familiar newspaper, by their dish of Kibbles and Bits.  Set free in the wide world they will desperately try to run mazes.  (69) 

This is as true for us as it is for our students, which is why some of the problems I've described might have been prevented had I simply built a better maze--that is, had I firmed up the rather inchoate, amorphous purposes of the course.  I had struggled to contextualize WDP in so many different ways--as "civically enhanced" professional writing, as rhetorical theory, as consciousness raising--that I couldn't establish the clarity and coherence that my students needed in order to take risks.  I didn't anticipate the ways in which the multiple meanings and possibilities for "writing for diverse publics" would confuse my goal of demonstrating that writing could serve motivations beyond achieving grades, interpreting literature, or expressing opinions in a vacuum.  I wasn't prepared for the ways in which the various constructions of "public discourse" would contradict each other (for one thing, public discourse isn't necessarily civic discourse, and vice versa).  And as I was teaching the course, I couldn't see the ways in which I was undermining my own goals by, for example, requiring that students write academic analyses of the same rhetorical situations they were trying to intervene in.  I've considered a number of ways I might respond to these problems if I ever teach the course again--minimize references to activism, require students to submit their assignments to the appropriate audience, omit the theoretical synthesis essay and all but a few of the theoretical readings--but none of these changes is completely satisfactory for reasons that highlight the unavoidable quandary of classes like this.  The first two locate the writing even more emphatically within teacher-defined school norms, while the last one undermines its legitimacy as an advanced academic course. 
Despite the conflicting motivations and identities that characterize the uncomfortable fit of public writing in the academy, I believe courses like this are worth doing; for among other things, WDP succeeded in convincing a number of students that public discourse can be usefully integrated into--can indeed enrich--the lives they already lead.  Even the admittedly "inorganic" assignment schedule I imposed on the semester seemed to help students to recognize that they could write dozens of letters, that there were interesting people and important issues all around them, that they could determine how, or if, their writing would matter.  And while most student writing projects didn't make it to their target publics, many of them did:  Lisa used her speech to ask for a raise at work (she got it); on behalf of the University's Spanish Club, Amy wrote a proposal to a regional cable company requesting that they add a Spanish-language channel (they declined); Kelli wrote a report on employee theft at her workplace and forwarded it to the company's main office (following her recommendation, they installed surveillance cameras); Julie secured a job writing press releases in the Office of University Advancement; Ashley helped her fiancé, an elementary school gym teacher, seek funding to buy equipment that his physically handicapped students could use (the verdict is still out on that one).  This list, too, goes on and on.  And if some of these public discursive interventions were a little clumsy or a little "raw," well, at least they were out there doing something--which is more than I can say for all those literary analysis papers in the recycling bin. 


Adler-Kassner, Linda, Robert Crooks, and Ann Watters.  "Service-Learning and Composition at the Crossroads."  Writing the Community:  Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in Composition.  Ed. Linda Adler-Kassner, Robert Crooks, and Ann Watters.  Washington, DC:  AAHE and NCTE, 1997.  1-17.

Bitzer, Lloyd F.  "The Rhetorical Situation."  Philosophy and Rhetoric 1 (1968):  1-14. 

Cushman, Ellen.  "The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change."  College Composition and Communication 47.1 (1996):  7-28.

"Election Results '97."  Wilmington Morning Star 5 Nov. 1997:  2B. 

Ervin, Elizabeth.  "Encouraging Civic Participation among First-Year Writing Students; or, Why Composition Class Should Be More Like a Bowling Team."  Rhetoric Review 15.2 (1997):  382-99.

Fairweather, James S.  Faculty Work and Public Trust:  Restoring the Value of Teaching and Public Service in American Academic Life.  Boston:  Allyn and Bacon, 1996. 

Flower, Linda.  "Partners in Inquiry:  A Logic for Community Outreach."  Writing the Community:  Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in Composition.  Ed. Linda Adler-Kassner, Robert Crooks, and Ann Watters.  Washington, DCL:  AAHE and NCTE, 1997.  95-117. 

Gans, Curtis.  ". . . But That Won't Help if Americans Ignore Public Affairs."  Sunday Star-News [Wilmington, NC] 9 Nov. 1997:  5E. 

Herzberg, Bruce.  "Community Service and Critical Teaching."  College Composition and Communication 45.3 (1994):  307-19. 

O'Reilley, Mary Rose.  The Peaceable Classroom.  Portsmouth, NH:  Boynton/Cook, 1993. 

Peck, Wayne Campbell, Linda Flower, and Lorraine Higgins.  "Community Literacy."  College Composition and Communication 46.2 (1995):  199-222. 

Schiappa, Edward.  "Intellectuals and the Place of Cultural Critique."  Rhetoric, Cultural Studies, and Literacy:  Selected Papers from the 1994 Conference of the Rhetoric Society of America.  Ed. John Frederick Reynolds.  Hillsdale:  Erlbaum, 1995. 21-27. 

Schutz, Aaron, and Anne Ruggles Gere.  "Service Learning and English Studies:  Rethinking 'Public' Service."  College English 60.2 (1998):  129-49. 

Shaw, Melissa.  "Pittard Wins Top Seat by 21 Vote Margin in Runoff."  [UNCW] Seahawk 23 Apr. 1997:  1A+. 

Sosnoski, James J., and David B. Downing.  "A Multivalent Pedagogy for a Multicultural Time."  PRE/TEXT 14.3-4 (1994):  307-40. 

Watters, Ann, and Marjorie Ford.  A Guide for Change:  Resources for Implementing Community Service Writing.  New York:  McGraw, 1995. 

---, eds.  Writing for Change:  A Community Reader.  New York:  McGraw, 1995. 

Wells, Susan.  "Rogue Cops and Health Care:  What Do We Want from Public Writing?"  College Composition and Communication 47.3 (1996):  325-41.


Writing for Diverse Publics 

Course Overview  
This course takes as its central premise that "publics" are not stable, monolithic places, but rather complex discursive practices that must negotiate multiple and often conflicting rhetorical demands.  It is designed to prepare students to intervene in public discourses both as citizens and as professionals.  With the goals of discovering, conceptualizing, and engaging in opportunities to write for diverse publics, readings will include the local newspaper, theoretical essays on rhetoric and public discourse, and models of the kinds of writing we will be working on. 
Required Texts 
Brereton, John C, and Margaret A. Mansfield.  Writing on the Job.  New York:  Norton, 1997. 
semester subscription to Wilmington Morning Star 
readings packet: 

Bitzer, Lloyd F.  "The Rhetorical Situation."  Philosophy and Rhetoric 1 (1968): 1-14. 

Carpignano, Paolo, et al.  "Chatter in the Age of Electronic Reproduction:  Talk Television and the 'Public Mind.'"  The Phantom Public Sphere.  Ed. Bruce Robbins.  Minneapolis:  U of Minnesota P, 1993.  93-120. 

Fisher, Walter R.  "Narration as a Human Communication Paradigm:  The Case of Public Moral Argument."  Communication Monographs 51 (1984):  1-22. 

---.  "Judging the Quality of Audiences and Narrative Rationality."  Practical Reasoning in Human Affairs.  Eds. J. L. Golden and J. J. Pilotta.  Dordrecht:  Reidel, 1986.  85-103. 

Fraser, Nancy.  "Rethinking the Public Sphere:  A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.  The Phantom Public Sphere.  Ed. Bruce Robbins.  Minneapolis:  U of Minnesota P, 1993.  1-32. 

Warner, Michael.  "The Mass Public and the Mass Subject."  The Phantom Public Sphere.  Ed. Bruce Robbins.  Minneapolis:  U of Minnesota P, 1993.  234-56. 

Weiler, Michael, and W. Barnett Pierce.  "Ceremonial Discourse:  The Rhetorical Ecology of the Reagan Administration."  Reagan and Public Discourse in America.  Eds. Michael Weiler and W. Barnett Pearce.  Tuscaloosa:  U of Alabama P, 1992.  11-42. 

Wells, Susan.  "Rogue Cops and Health Care:  What Do We Want from Public Writing?"  College Composition and Communication 47.3 (October 1996):  325-41. 

Course Requirements  

Daily Work:  Most class sessions will involve writing and discussion related to regular and careful reading of the course texts.  Students will submit weekly descriptions of potential "public discursive interventions," which will provide practice in locating and analyzing opportunities for public discourse and serve as the basis for more fully developed writing assignments.  Other daily work might include response journals, informal oral presentations, and collaborative work. 

Public Writing:  We will have four public writing assignments for this class, two of which will be completed for minimum credit (5%), and two of which will be completed for maximum credit (20%).  These assignments may include grant proposals, biographical sketches, speeches, and press releases; although specific grading criteria (e.g., length requirements) will vary for each assignment, expectations for maximum-credit options will be proportionately higher than those for minimum-credit options.  Class participants will choose how they wish to approach and weigh assignments based on their schedules, interests, and local opportunities, and may propose alternative projects (including collaborations) if assignments do not accommodate personal interests or commitments; deadlines, likewise, may be negotiated if they respond to actual circumstances.  Each assignment must be accompanied by a 1-2-page analysis of the rhetorical situation to which your writing responds. 

Theoretical Synthesis Essay:  Throughout the semester, we will be reading theoretical essays whose purpose is to enhance the sophistication with which we conceptualize public spheres, audiences, and discourses.  The final assignment will require class participants to write a 10-15-page paper synthesizing key concepts in these essays; illustrating and/or problematizing these concepts with examples from their own public discourse efforts; and generating conclusions about writing for diverse publics. 

Oral Competency:  In order to satisfy a departmental and university requirement for senior seminars, class participants, individually or in groups, will be expected to do one of the following:  give a formal oral presentation, lead an organized class discussion, or develop an oral component within a public writing assignment. 

Contributions to Class Learning:  A classroom is itself a public, and its members have rights and responsibilities.  We all have the right to express our opinions to an attentive audience, to choose writing topics and genres consistent with our interests and goals, and to expect all "citizens" of our class to be wholeheartedly engaged in learning.  Responsibilities include, but are not limited to, doing all required reading, writing, and research; coming to class ready to participate in all activities; voluntarily contributing to discussions and other activities; being tolerant of alternative viewpoints; formulating well-thought-out opinions; and insisting that all class participants take seriously their obligations as a member of this learning community.  These rights and responsibilities extend to work with peers.  Fulfilling your responsibilities will affect your grade positively; failing to do so will have the opposite effect. 

Daily Work (including weekly interventions)


Public Writing

2 x 5% = 10%


2 x 20% = 40%

Theoretical Synthesis Essay


Contributions to Class Learning 


* More extensive instructions and grading criteria will be discussed in detail as each project is assigned.  


It is imperative that everyone come to class prepared to discuss the newspaper and other assigned readings.  As we carry on conversations about these texts as a class, you should also challenge yourself to carry on your own dialogue with the writer/text as you read:  ask questions in the margins; make connections to your own experiences and goals for the course; mark passages that strike you as interesting and begin to speculate about them; educate yourself about local opportunities to engage in meaningful public discourse. 

Week 1

Introduction to class and informal discussion of examples of public discourse. Sign up for newspaper subscriptions.

Week 2

Discuss Wells (in packet).  Generate list of personal commitments that might guide   reading/writing for class. 

Discuss Bitzer (in packet) and, as a class, compose sample analyses of rhetorical situation (exigence, audience, constraints). 

Homework:  Read the local newspaper thoroughly.  Identify one possible public discursive intervention and write a 2-page analysis of the rhetorical situation for that intervention. 

Week 3

Discuss intervention ideas and analyses.  Introduce first public writing assignment:  letters (5%). 

Homework:  Describe 4 possible interventions (identification of proposed genre; brief analysis of exigence, audience, and constraints).  Of these, at least 3 should inspired by the newspaper and at least 1 should be a letter that might fulfill the expectations for the first assignment. 

*As we move through the semester, develop a strategy for reading the newspaper and keep your eyes and ears open for public discourse opportunities that emerge elsewhere (e.g., classes, other media, meetings of groups or agencies to which you feel committed).  Challenge yourself to come up with new intervention ideas, and get in the habit of bringing newspapers to class with you.

Week 4

Four interventions due.  Discuss WOJ Ch. 1, "Letters and Memos."  Discuss    interventions and how they might apply to assignment. 

Discuss WOJ "Introduction."  In small groups, discuss progress and review drafts of analyses of rhetorical situation.

Week 5

Four interventions due.  Student-led discussion of interventions and newspaper    highlights. 

Peer review of analyses and letters. 

Week 6

Student-led discussion of interventions and newspaper highlights. 

Discuss Fisher, "Narration" (in packet).  Analyze newspapers through  narrative/rational world paradigms. 
Homework:  Revisit the list of interests and commitments you generated earlier in the semester, and update it if necessary.  Have specific ideas in mind for the grant workshop. 

Week 7

Four interventions due.  Workshop:  finding grant opportunities in the library, on the Internet, and at campus and community offices.  Guest speaker:  Donna Gunter, bibliographic instruction librarian.  Meet in library classroom. 
Homework:  By Week 9, locate a suitable grant opportunity, obtain necessary forms and materials, and begin conceptualizing grant as a rhetorical situation.  If writing a report, do any necessary research. 

Discuss Fisher, "Judging" (in packet) and apply to sample texts.

Week 8

Four interventions due.  Discuss WOJ Ch. 6, "Reports and Proposals," including  grant opportunities as rhetorical situations and differences between reports and  proposals.  Introduce second public writing assignment:  report (5%) or proposal  (20%). 

Optional conferences in my office or time to work in library or computer lab.

Week 9

Four interventions due.  In small groups, discuss progress and review drafts of    analyses of rhetorical situation. 

Peer review of analyses and reports/proposals. 

Week 10

REPORTS/PROPOSALS (including all forms and materials required by funding    agency) AND ANALYSES DUE 
Discuss alternatives to interventions.  Student-led discussion of newspaper highlights. 

Workshop:  speech writing.  Guest speaker:  Nancy Jones, former speech writer at Environmental Protection Agency. 
Homework:  Write a 2-page characterization of the "rhetorical ecology" of the Wilmington Morning Star, using relevant concepts and terminology from Weiler and Pearce and illustrative examples from the newspaper. 

Week 11

Discuss Weiler and Pearce (in packet) and homework. 
Homework:  Bring to class several examples of biographical sketches from the newspaper. 

Discuss WOJ 57-62 and sample sketches.  Introduce third public writing assignment:  biographical sketch (5%) or speech (20%). 
Homework:  Complete an appropriate number of interventions according to our new options for the remainder of the semester:  4 interventions as we've been doing them thus far; 2 analyses of the efficacy of articles in the newspaper; or 2 traditional interventions and 1 analysis of efficacy.  I will continue to use the word "intervention" as shorthand for these options.  Please note that since I am considering 2 analyses roughly equivalent to 4 traditional interventions, your effort should be roughly equivalent as well. 

Week 12

Interventions due.  Discuss Warner (in packet). 

In small groups, discuss progress and review drafts of analyses of rhetorical situation. 

Week 13

 Interventions due.  Peer review of analyses and sketches/speeches. 

Introduce fourth public writing assignment:  press release (5%) or press kit (20%). 
Homework:  Read WOJ Ch. 4, "Press Releases and Press Kits."

Week 14

Interventions due.  Workshop:  Press releases and press kits.  Guest speaker:     Mimi Cunningham, UNCW Assistant Vice Chancellor for University Relations. 

In small groups, discuss progress and review drafts of analyses of rhetorical situation. 

Week 15

Optional conferences in my office or time to conduct research. 

Week 16

Peer review of analyses and press releases/press kits. 

Mock press conferences.  Review expectations for theoretical synthesis essay and begin generating concepts as a class. 
Homework:  Watch at least one episode of network news and at least one of the following:  talk show (e.g., Oprah), newsmagazine (e.g., Dateline), or "tabloid news" show (e.g., Hard Copy).  Take notes. 

Week 17

Discuss Carpignano et al. (in packet) and apply to television texts. 

In small groups, continue to discuss theoretical readings and/or review drafts of synthesis essays. 

Week 18


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