composition assignments & lessons


teaching rhetorical choices with 'Adam ruins everything'

click to view assignment
click to view assignment

TruTV's comedy walks a tough rhetorical line by making smart choices.

Each episode of Adam Ruins Everything is a persuasive essay where host Adam Conover works to convince his audience that their commonly held beliefs are wrong and he is right. It's a terrible premise for a TV show, as the show itself admits in the first episode, especially in this era of ideological and filter bubbles. If Adam offends or insults his viewer, they can change the channel.

 

Nevertheless the show has been well received because Adam has audience awareness and makes smart rhetorical choices.  In this assignment, students watch two episodes and identify all of Adam's rhetorical choices, from his clothes to the way he cites sources, as a way to introduce and define rhetoric. 


the undergraduate term paper

click to view assignment
click to view assignment

Prepare your students for end-of-semester research papers.

The ubiquity of the term paper is the rationale for mandatory freshman composition. If students did not write end-of-semester papers, freshman composition would not exist. Training comp students to master this genre should be every comp instructor's top priority but the term paper is not a monolithic genre. There are conflicting APA and MLA formats and different departments have different expectations. English graduate students do the bulk of the teaching and they are usually not familiar with conventions outside English. Its not easy for comp instructors. A good assignment and related lessons help.


the op-ed — America's persuasive essay

click to view assignment
click to view assignment

The op-ed is the mostly widely read essay type but is rarely assigned in college.

Every day thousands of essays are published by newspapers large and small across the country. They drive conversation about current affairs and their influence on public debate cannot be overstated. Debates on talk radio, cable news, blogs and social media are usually in response to op-eds published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other national newspapers. And they are not the exclusive province of professional pundits — anyone can submit an op-ed to a newspaper. Despite this significance, students are rarely asked to write an essay in the op-ed form, which is shorter than a typical college paper but longer than a social media post. An op-ed assignment should be in any composition course themed around public discourse.


the call to action — a persuasive essay for the social media age

click to view assignment
click to view assignment

To solve a problem, students convince readers to take concrete action.

Whether a petition on Change.org acquires enough signatures to succeed or not depends largely on the strength of the essay that accompanies it. Circulated primarily through social media, these essays must be persuasive but also brief. A few short paragraphs must  convince readers of a problem's significance, the petitioner's authenticity, the reader's agency, and the petition as a remedy for the problem. In this assignment, students write a call-to-action in the style of a Change.org essay that tries to convince readers to take concrete action to solve a problem. 


a Rogerian-style open letter

click to view assignment
click to view assignment

This rarely assigned essay emphasizes common ground over proving a point.

The ubiquity of the thesis-driven, Aristotelian essay implies it is the only way to persuade someone. However a thesis-driven essay is combative. Its "they say, I say" structure means it spars with opponents. Its goal is to win, to defeat the opposition, to prove that its thesis is right, and alternatives are wrong. But what if being right is irrelevant or impossible?

 

Public, political, and social problems are often about people's conflicting interests. Solving these problems is not a matter of proving who is right or wrong, it is about balancing those interests, compromising, and finding common ground. The classic thesis-driven essay is not up to this task, but there is an alternative, the Rogerian Essay. Popularized in the 1970s but largely ignored today, this essay is an excellent assignment for a composition class themed around public discourse. 


the political compass test  — students reflect on their values

click to view assignment
click to view assignment

To persuade readers with their values, students need to know what those values are.

In public discourse, facts alone are not enough to persuade others. You need to explain why those facts are significant and meaningful in light of your values. When I assigned persuasive essays, my students often submitted drafts that were expository. They were comfortable explaining the facts surrounding an issue, but not why that information mattered.

 

This was often because they didn't know what their values were, or at least could not articulate those values. So I created an assignment to help them reflect upon and articulate their beliefs about public policy, governance, and society. In this assignment students take the Political Compass Test and write a reflection essay about the results. 


How to Write an argumentative Thesis Statement

click to view lesson
click to view lesson

Writing a great thesis statement is easy if students follow this process.

After years of writing expository essays in high school, my students struggled to craft argumentative essays. After seeing the same problems in their thesis statements appear over and over again I created a worksheet to help students develop their ideas into a robust, multipart, argumentative thesis statement. Relevant for high school or college students, the strategy can apply to academic and non-academic essays alike.


eliminating subjectivity & value judgments from research questions

click to view lesson
click to view lesson

Before students begin academic research they need to purge subjective perceptions and value judgments from their line of questioning.

While the thesis statement is often called the foundation of an essay, the real foundation of a term paper is poured when the student begins their research. If they pursue a flawed line of questioning, the paper will be flawed. In academic writing, subjective concepts and value judgments distort the research process and produce lousy scholarship — but they are so natural to our way of thinking students have a hard time seeing them. This lesson is meant to teach students how to identify subjectivity and value judgments in research questions and eliminate them. It also teaches key features of a college-level research question. 


solve passive voice by eliminating "to be" verbs

click to view lesson
click to view lesson

A "to be" verb can make a sentence passive. Hunt them down and replace them with this activity.

"The man was hit by a car" is a passive sentence while "A car hit the man" is an active sentence. The "was" in the first sentence makes it passive and by removing it and revising the sentence accordingly, the sentence becomes active.

 

While not every "to be" verb indicates a passive sentence, checking a text for "to be" verbs and eliminating as many as possible is a simple, straightforward, easy-to-remember exercise that solves a great deal of passive voice problems.


A Visual Guide to Prepositions for English language learners

Pictures help ELL students learn, remember, and choose prepositions.

The last things English language learners master are articles (a, an, the) and prepositions. I struggled to explain to ELL students why they should use one preposition instead of another until I realized that since prepositions explain the spacial or temporal relationships between objects in a sentence and I could draw them a picture.

 

I searched online for visual diagrams that could explain these spacial & temporal relationships but didn't like the ones I found. As a result, I created this visual guide to prepositions.