An Appetite for English

By: Jenny Agnew

During the Fall 1, 2012 term, I had the opportunity to teach an English 150 class (“The Process of Composition”) in The Learning Studio as an Innovative Teaching Fellow.  The high-tech room—with its wall of screens, moveable furniture, and available tablets and iPads—is reason enough to want to teach in the space.  An added bonus includes collaborating with an instructional designer from the Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning; I was fortunate to work with Michaella (Kella) Thornton, the Assistant Director of Instructional Design.

English 150 is often one of the first courses a student takes at SPS.  Some students have been out of school for a while and may not have written a formal essay in many years.  With these considerations in mind along with the potential of The Learning Studio, it was decided that I would pilot a special section of the writing course as theme based, wherein everything we read and wrote about would be related to food.   I had taught a similar course several years earlier while working at another university and had experienced the benefits of such a curriculum.  Not just something we  all must eat every day to survive, food offers a lens through which to examine politics, gender, class, race, identity, heritage, health, sustainability, agriculture, literature, film, and culture, to name only a few related concepts and disciplines.

As we prepared for the course, Kella and I determined that we would ask the students to participate in a course blog and Twitter.  I had never blogged before and had my doubts about Twitter, but since I was going to ask the students to be involved in these activities, I concluded that I needed to know how they worked.  Several months prior to the course’s start, I therefore started posting to a blog about food-related topics in and around St. Louis (I wrote about food years ago for CitySearch and often focus on how food and literature intersect in my academic writing, so this was not a new topic to me).  I also opened a Twitter account and started tweeting.  Shortly after I began tweeting my blog posts, George Mahe, St. Louis Magazine’s Dining Editor, contacted me about writing for the magazine.  I quickly changed my mind about Twitter ‘s usefulness.

The connections I made through writing for the magazine proved invaluable for the course.  I invited three members of the local food community into the class as guest speakers.  All three guests—Reine Bayoc, chef-owner of Sweet Art ; Maude Bauschard, owner of Maude’s Market; and George Mahe—spoke not only about food but also about writing, particularly how important effective communication is regardless of one’s job or major.  Bayoc, for example, is currently writing a memoir, so her appearance during our food memoir unit made perfect sense.  At the time, students were working on their own remembered person/event paper in which the memory had to be connected to food in some way.  Thanks to The Learning Studio’s design, we recorded all of the guest speakers’ presentations.

Academic writing can sometimes seem arbitrary, particularly in entry-level courses.  Students often wonder what the larger purpose of an assignment is and approach the course as something “to get out of the way” before moving on to their major courses.  The practice of writing in and of itself provides a great means of improving one’s skills, and that’s the implicit understanding often made explicit to the students.   When writing is tied to a larger purpose, however, and the instructor and members from the outside community participate in writing on a regular basis and reinforce the need for deliberate practice, the students come to understand how important writing is well beyond the classroom; ideally, they also come to value how a basic composition course can help to launch their studies.

For an overview of the course, click on this link to see a presentation outline that Kella and I used when we presented at the Focus on Teaching & Technology Conference at UMSL last November.

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