Sunday, October 1, 2006

Sometimes I wish I were teaching composition...

...because I often find inspiration for assignments from my daily experiences.

For example, today on my long run I came up with two ideas, one for a paper topic and one for an in-class discussion (small groups or full class - your choice). For preparation for the paper topic, students would look at map of my working-to-middle-class neighborhood in Rust Belt, with its easy-to-navigate N-S and E-W grid, and compare it with a map of Rust Belt's version of Beverly Hills, where the streets wind and curve, double in on themselves, and have confusingly similar names. (I mean, really, *must* Riverview and Riverside cross each other?!) And then, after that part of the excercise, they would go to each of these neighborhoods and catalog the physical properties of the streets (wide or narrow? sidewalks or not? where are the street signs? How easy are they to read?), the landscaping and lots (size and character), the houses, the proximity of the houses to the road and each other, the number of cars parked on the streets, and the visibility of the garages. Then they'd come back with all of that and do a semiotic reading of the two neighborhoods' geography, planning, and architecture in light of class and power.

Yes, this is really what I do with my time when I run. Can you tell, btw, that I got a little lost?

The other idea came more suddenly, less leisurely. In this assignment, students are first given a "case":

A woman runner is waiting at a corner for her crosswalk light to say "walk." The cross-traffic has an increasingly stale yellow light and she's getting ready for her turn to go. Just as that stale yellow light is about to turn red and her light turn to "walk," a guy in a beat-up muscle car hits the accelerator to "make" the yellow, honking at the woman and whistling at her through his open window at the same time. She mutters "Asshole!" and continues on her run after the guy has cleared the crosswalk and gone through the now-red light.
First, students must discuss how many signs are involved in this "case" and how they signify to each of the parties concerned. Then they are to debate whether the two parties' interpretations of those signs are "correct." Who or what determines what's correct in each case (law, social mores, ethics, common sense, etc.)? How might some of these signs have multiple meaning from different points of view? If the driver had good intentions (warning, not catcalling) might the runner still have the right to think he's an asshole?

Te-hee. Yes, I *do* see my life in terms of a series of "teaching moments," why do you ask?


S. Worthen said...

I just started teaching composition, and it's given me a whole extra interest in your past few posts.

What Now? said...

A colleague of mine did a similar exercise to your first idea. The students read various and sundry works on suburbia, pedestrian-friendly spaces, and the like, and they also had to map out the neighborhood they grew up in for things like absence or presence of sidewalks, crosswalks, whether houses have driveways or back alleys or street parking, where the parks and schools are, etc. It was a great project, although she told me that her conversations about the topic on the hall with her colleagues wound up being more interesting than what her students came up with. But ever since then, I've been kind of wanting to teach a comp class so I could do something similar.