This week my students had a thesis statement due for their first written assignment. As a primer for their argumentative experiments we read Catherine Savini’s “Looking For Trouble: Finding Your Way Into a Writing Assignment.”
Savini offers many example prompts in her texts, and one of them (though slightly modified) became my students’ first assignment in our course:
Identify and examine a human rights topic about which you would like to know more. You should use internet, library, and other sources to gather information on this topic; this is not a full-scale research paper, so you need to find a small number of adequately comprehensive sources. Your essay should (1) identify the issue; (2) describe its scope and frequency in geographic, regime-type, temporal, socio-demographic, or other terms, as appropriate; (3) identify the sense in which it is a human rights violation (of what article of what covenant, or with respect to what norm); (4) tell us what you have been able to learn about its causes, and (5) identify political, social, cultural, economic or other factors that appear to contribute to its increase or decrease. You should critically assess biases or shortcomings in the information sources you used to research your topic.
In order to answer their prompt, students are required to present a clear, original thesis, 6 sources (2 book, 3 journal, 1 article). I encouraged them to visit the Human Rights Watch website for ideas: https://www.hrw.org/topics.
This prompt was good for discussion and promoted thoughtfulness among students: how many policies are created in support of human rights versus the support of non-human entities: the economy, corporations.
With Savini we were also able to discuss leadership competencies. Savini brings out that leaders need to practice integrative thinking: holding multiple thoughts at once in order to discover solutions. For instance, a college will have certain lines of thought carried over from family, friends, former teachers. Their job, as integrative thinkers, is to examine those long-held ideas, look at the new ideas, and discover the answers for themselves based on their own research. Leaders do this and act accordingly, but it is a way of thinking that is learned. I remember grappling with this set of practices when I was a college student. This is why college is a valuable experience.
Song: Bjork, “Human Behavior”
Students examined Bjork’s “Human Behavior” and picked out: the elements of fairy tale storytelling (Alice in Wonderland, Goldilocks), ecocriticism, Biblical references (to Jonah and the Whale), and imaginative style. They also cited a lot of lyrics in the song finding significance there.
Song: Earth, Wind & Fire, “That’s the Way of the World”
Earth, Wind & Fire was comparatively a relaxed analysis, compared to Bjork, in some ways. Some of the students pointed out the deep message of the song was obscured by accompanying music that lulled many of them into submission. We also looked at the glyphs on the single’s cover art: eye of Horos, an ankh, Saturn, a manora, Jupiter, a crucifix, a caduceus, and the star of David. As I learn more about my Jewish ancestry I had fun explaining the “evil eye” and why people wear symbols of protection in Jewish lore.
Savini asks students to “locate a problem” to get interested in an assignment. She listed the problems students face every day and showed them, whether they realize it or not, they are always negotiating problems.
She suggests these steps:
2. Articulating a problem and its details;
3. Posing fruitful questions;
4. Identifying what is at stake. (56)
These are skills students will use every day in any personal problem or career–certainly for the rest of their college career.
Savini also suggests:
1. Juxtapose texts from the same genre or on the same topic and identify tensions or contradictions in terms of their ideas and/ or definitions of key concepts.
2. Identify conflict between your own experiences and the theories or arguments offered by the text.
3. Identify troubling assumptions that underlie the central arguments/ideas of a text.
4. Note a gap or something relevant the text overlooks.
Though this was a longer read for a Composition II class, Savini will be invaluable to students moving forward. I’ve learned from her as well: always a good sign when selecting a text. One of my favorite parts about Savini’s text was her strategy of asking students: “What’s your problem?!” As in: why does your project matter?
I can’t wait to read the final drafts of my students for this assignment: they’ve picked nuanced arguments they care about. In terms of subject matter, it’s great to see them all concerned with what it means to be human, who is allowed to be more human than others, and how human beings interact within society, nature, and limitations.