Home > Trip > Dispatches > Local Dispatches > Local Dispatch #148

May 5, 2012: School’s Out for Summer

I’ve never been a big Alice Cooper fan, but this song was rolling around in my head as yesterday afternoon, I walked out of the Mat Su College biology lab. All I could think was “I did it.” I ventured outside the secure confines of my discipline, English, areas of specialization creative nonfiction writing and composition, and into the less secure confines of the discipline of Animal Science, area of specialization large animal behavior.

I took this class on because I saw this as a rare opportunity. Few ever get the chance to teach a course in a different

Bill Schmidtkunz made this chair

field. As I thought then, what a wonderful opportunity. And, in an odd way, I was qualified. For the past twelve years I’ve been obsessed with learning as much as I can about animal behavior. It began when I enrolled Rainbow (our dog) in a Butte, Montana agility course. This lead to my reading as much as I could about small animal communication. Acquiring other animals, most notably three horses, pushed me to move into the realm of large animal communication.

I attempted to put to use what I’d learned as a teacher, and integrated writing to learn and writing to communicate into the mix. I also attempted to put what I’d learned about animal behavior into the mix.

It wasn’t easy. I knew from the get go that as a teacher, that I’d be bucking the trend. Most science teachers lecture and give multiple-choice tests. This complements the notion that science-based knowledge is quantifiable. Students of course buy into this because it’s time efficient. If you’re good at memorization, it also gets you high grades.

There were also other related logistical challenges. I had two days to come up with a syllabus and prepare for the semester. VTT. 123 was a two credit course, so there were time constraints. And the students were of varying levels of ability. There were also no VTT faculty or advisory board meetings, so I didn’t know if the material that the other faculty was teaching coincided with what I was teaching. Quite often, I relied on student input.

And it was easy. This was mainly because the students had a vested interest in the subject matter. All enrolled in the course because they had an interest in working in an animal related profession. It was also a good mix of older and younger students. And the chemistry was right – they enjoyed working together. Thus, they took to group work, and as well, to doing close readings of the text. In the end, we covered a lot of material in a short amount of time. And no work was crammed down their throats.

My experience, which was primarily positive, makes me wonder about the validity of undergraduate writing courses. These days, the subject matter is arbitrarily decided by the teacher. I was for a while enthused about the subject of writing classes being writing, but I have since come to realize that this is no more relevant than literature-based writing classes. Students, as they have for some time, are coming out of these classes seeing writing as an insular and rote-driven activity. Time marches on, and teachers and students move in lockstep. The best continue to succeed and the worst fail.

I’m now totally convinced that writing across the discipline is the answer. I think that across the board, undergraduate composition and rhetoric classes should be abolished. Colleges and universities should instead promote and implement discipline-specific writing programs. This can be done, yes, even in math courses. Those who previously taught composition and rhetoric classes could then work alongside faulty, both on course and assignment design.

I’m not ahead of my time on this. I’m ahead of my time on this at Mat-Su College. You never know, though, what might happen. All it would take would be for one faculty person to raise their head out of the sands of academe, and say “You know, this is a good idea. Let’s give this a try!”

Next: 149. 05/6/12: Terminal Landscapes