composition assignments & lessons

using Frontline's "League of Denial" to introduce discourse concepts

It's a good conversation starter in comp classes themed around discourse genres

Having students watch Frontline’s investigation into the NFL’s concussion crisis, “League of Denial,” at the beginning of the semester is good way to start freshman composition if your class focuses on genres of discourse. The two hour piece is a demonstration of academic discourse, public discourse, and how the two intersect and relate to one another.


The first half of the film is about the medical debate surrounding head trauma that took place primarily within academic journals. Afterward, the film transitions to the public debate about player safety, NFL culpability, and how to solve the crisis. In other words, during the first hour scientists debate "what is" and during the second hour the public debates "what should be." The first hour is about facts, the second hour about values. read the entire post

teaching rhetorical choices with 'Adam ruins everything'

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.  view the assignment

the undergraduate term paper

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.  view the assignment

the op-ed — America's persuasive essay

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.  view the assignment

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

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

Whether a petition on 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 essay that tries to convince readers to take concrete action to solve a problem.  view the assignment

the Rogerian essay — a unique persuasive essay

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.  view the assignment

the response essay — college's hot take

This deceptively simple assignment is rarely done well.

Professors across all departments assign response essays as a way to make sure students are doing the assigned readings. Often the assignment guidelines are open-ended and a professor might say something like, "I'm just looking for critical thinking and evidence you did the reading." It should be a simple assignment, but so many students get it so wrong by either summarizing the reading or writing about something else entirely. This assignment description spells out precisely what is expected from a response essay and provides examples.  view the assignment

the political compass test  — students reflect on their values

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

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. I discovered that 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 their results.  view the assignment

solve passive voice by eliminating "to be" verbs

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. In this lesson, students hunt for "to be" verbs and eliminate them.  view the lesson