• Discover an Author (and more . . .)

      Schmitt, P. Bernie; Schmitt, P. Bernie
      The issue: Many of my freshmen college students at Vincennes University do not have a foundational knowledge of major literary works, authors, or how writing and writers affect culture or history. I wanted to expose them to important ideas and the people who created them. But, English 101 is a gateway composition class, not a literature course. The challenge: Create a writing assignment that would engage students with research, reading, writing, speaking, and critical thinking. AND expose them to authors and ideas. AND work it into an already crowded course curriculum. The course: English Composition 101 is a course in critical reading and writing. The course develops one's ability to think, organize, and express ideas clearly and effectively. Students must also be able to make their own discoveries via research, articulate those findings, and properly document their work. This assignment does that and more. The assignment: Students are to research an assigned author and write a two-page (no more, no less) summary which invariably will include biographical information, but which focuses on the author's contribution to literature and/or culture. Adherence to strict guidelines is required. Students must prepare a 4 to 5-minute, informal, verbal presentation, with a visual aid (typically a PowerPoint), that informs the student audience about the author and his or her important works and ideas within them. (We have fun on presentation day!) Research: I have yet to find conclusive, peer-reviewed research corroborating my experiences with students on this subject. (The research is ongoing.) It may well be localized, as students from different high schools in Indiana have very different experiences. But, in her book Teaching Unprepared Students, author Kathleen Gabriel cites a national Chronicle of Higher Education survey in which 44% of college. A contributing factor in this, I suspect, could be that students not having a general understanding of the range of significant literary figures or their works, especially with how said people or work fit into a basic timeline of history.  My polling of students the last 5 years shows that many of my students have not read, or know about the titles or authors listed on the College Board Recommended Reading List for college bound students. Most have no frame of reference for an "Orwellian concept," for instance. They don't know about Hemingway, Faulkner, or Steinbeck. In seeking a two-year degree in many of Vincennes University technical and academic programs, over 60% of first-time freshmen required remedial, or developmental, coursework (2015 to 2017 school years). While this number is based on “basic skills,” one (me) can assume that students may not have the basic literary-cultural knowledge they ought to have when entering college. This bears out with the classroom polling / testing / teaching done in the past five years. Thus my assignment for English 101. However, much more research – perhaps on my part – must be done. Lessons learned: Positives: Writing/research skills are challenged. 86% of students pass assignment with B average (six semesters) Students learn how to cite outside sources in their papers. Students learn and get practice in paraphrasing and quoting information. Students make connections between ideas, authors, history, and culture, and build contextual knowledge. Students blossom with a new-found interest in authors and ideas. Some students actually read a book by their assigned author. Students have a frame of reference from what they've learned and connect it with daily life or something discussed in another course. Negatives: Some students dislike the presentation aspect. Some wait too late to begin (it's only 2 pages!), and miss discoveries learned in research. Presentations can burn up classroom time.