Phased Assignments in a Quarter-Long Argumentation & Research Course with a Sustainability Focus

Don Foran, Centralia College and The Evergreen State College

Summary

Sustainability is clearly the guiding principle in this course; and, upon completion of the course, the student [also] will be able to make a claim and defend it in clear, effective prose; he/she will be able to analyze arguments, win respect for ideas supporting a taken stance, know an array of library periodicals, reference books, and websites, and be able to do substantive research both collaboratively and individually. Finally, each student will have produced a research paper (minimum 8 pp of content) in which he or she supports a thesis or claim using published books, journals, and articles documented in the MLA format.

Learning Goals

"Curriculum for the Bioregion" definition:

"Sustainability involves learning to make decisions that provide for the needs of the world's current population without damaging the ability of future generations to provide for themselves. Sustainability encompasses the intertwined ideals of viable economics, equality and justice, and ecological integrity."

This is clearly the guiding principle in this course, but, as my attached syllabus states: Upon completion of the course, the student [also] will be able to make a claim and defend it in clear, effective prose; he/she will be able to analyze arguments, win respect for ideas supporting a taken stance, know an array of library periodicals, reference books, and websites, and be able to do substantive research both collaboratively and individually. Finally, each student will have produced a research paper (minimum 8 pp of content) in which he or she supports a thesis or claim using published books, journals, and articles documented in the MLA format. I will provide models of effective argumentation and research, and a checklist for rough draft and final draft.

Another "big idea" is the reality that a good claim based on research will always have valid conflicting claims since issues are seen through the lens of the one considering them.

The class time devoted to the progression of sustainability work is close to 80 % of the course. Only instruction in databases per se, logical fallacies, and review of some grammar skills and writing strategies could be considered separately from the inculcation of sustainability ideas and understandings.

Context for Use

This is the only course in the curriculum which has a major assignment (creation of an 8 - 10 page research paper in MLA format) which must receive a passing grade if the student is to pass the course. Thus, it is a high-stakes class. The rationale for the sustainability focus stems from my involvement in our college sustainability course and my adding the sustainability focus formally into the course outlines for the college Introduction to Philosophy and Introduction to Ethics courses. I see this argumentation and research emphasis as contributing to an eventual department-wide use of sustainability themes in most, if not all, English 102 courses in the future. This is making the abstract commitment to sustainability on campus as real as the recycling program and reducing our carbon footprint at the college. It is a consistent ethic I'm interested in.

Possible Use in Other Courses

I have taught this content in conjunction with Social Psychology (with shared two hour seminars with both professors present); this "Learning Community" approach has been done by others at University of Washington, Bothell, for instance. I have also used some of the readings (eg. The Land Ethic by Aldo Leopold and the sustainability theme in general in introductory philosophy and ethics courses.

Description and Teaching Materials

A phased process for developing a credible sustainability component in an Argumentation and Research course (English 102) at Centralia College:
  1. a "Letter to the Editor" regarding an article on E-waste
  2. a "Sense of Place" assignment
  3. a group "Research Analysis" project that focuses on a product grown or manufactured all the way to its consumption or discarding. Four students creating three pages of text, one page of "Works Cited" including a peer-reviewed journal article
  4. a "Letter to the Editor" assignment on student's individual research claim and support on a sustainability topic
  5. a rough draft of an 8 - 10 page "Argumentative Research" paper (MLA Format)
  6. a final draft of said paper
  7. a two - three minute report to the class on the topic, claim made, and principal support for claim
In addition, all readings in this course are from the anthology, Listening to Earth (Hallowell and Levy). This means that each student is reading Hogan, Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, Michael Pollan, E.O. Wilson, Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson, et al. while crafting their writing assignments.
  • Listening to Earth (Hallowell and Levy, Pearson/Longman isbn: 0-321-19515-9 2005)
  • SF Compact (Ruszkiewicz, Friend, Hairston) 2nd edition, Pearson/Prentice Hall isbn:978-0-13-157697-1 2008.
Note: "Destination of 'recycled electronics may surprise you," an article first appearing on CNN site, seems to be off the web now except in truncated form. I suggest focusing on this issue early in the course (see my attached syllabus). It definitely does shock many students into thinking about where discarded electronics go.

The essays in Listening to Earth are excellent and broad. Individual professors may select other essays than I did; I think eight or nine essays discussed is an adequate number since students do both group and individual research throughout the course.


A Sense of Place Assignment (Microsoft Word 27kB Nov2 11)
Check List for English 102; Rough Draft and Final Research Papers (Microsoft Word 31kB Nov2 11)
Examples of Student Work (Microsoft Word 90kB Nov2 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips

I think it is wise to wait a few weeks for students to identify their individual research topics. The periodical exercise, the data base orientation, group collaboration prior to submission of a tentative claim for an individual paper, all of these prepare the student to make a good choice, a better, more limited choice of topic. In general the best papers are not on huge subjects (ie. global warming) but on limited subjects like The Case for Preserving the Philippine Eagle or Hazards to "Ship Breakers" in Malaysia.

Assessment

CENTRALIA COLLEGE ENGLISH DEPARTMENT


Note: I find that the 25% concept of splitting up criteria works best if a student sees Content, etc. as being worth one (1) full grade point. In other words, a student who had the highest percentage in each of the four categories would score 4.0, the highest A on a four point scale. Average might mean .7, .7., .7, .7 = 2.8 on a four point scale!


EVALUATIVE CRITERIA for ESSAYS CRITERION % SCALE EXPLANATION

Content 25

High fully developed thesis supported with specific evidence
Avg under-developed thesis with generalized support
Low unclear thesis and/or lack of support
Organization 25
High obvious structure with coherent focus and effective transitions
Avg inconsistent structure and focus with some effective transitions
Low undetectable structure with lack of focus and transitions
Style 25
High fluent sentences, college-level diction and strong author's voice adequate fluency and diction but little
Avg sense of author's voice
Low inadequate fluency and simplistic diction with lack of author's voice
Conventions 25
High mastery of standard American English
Avg adequate standard American English
Low errors interfere with readability

References and Resources

Additional resources (beyond the texts for the course) are Richard Louv's The Last Walk in the Forest, your college sustainability committee, your college's student programs, especially and eco club if you have one. The students themselves are the biggest resource for one another:
Students will choose and array of individual research topics (eg. permafrost, carbon sequestration, Ugandan gorilla habitat, penguin population woes, pollution in rivers and streams, pollution in oceans and sounds, bottled water controversy, sweat shops, environmental racism/injustice, electronic waste disposal, etc. When, at the end of the quarter, we have two to three minute reports on what students researched and wrote about (see attached syllabus), there is great interest among all of the students, far more than when I've taught the course not using the sustainability theme.

Evergreen State College