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101: Getting Started … “When in the real world am I ever going to need … the English language?”

Classes started yesterday at VMI (on Thursday – January 12, 2012). To start things off, of course, I went over the Syllabus with my students: explaining class and Institute policies as well as the grading system, etc. (See this post for more detailed information.) My students will write four major essay assignments: essays I will discuss as my students begin working on them. For now, I want to explain what will happen on Tuesday (I am obviously teaching Tuesday/Thursday classes this semester. At VMI, these classes are 75 minutes long). 

This is when I will bring in the “fun” stuff (or at least, the “more fun” stuff – we all know talking about the syllabus is relatively boring once we move beyond the grading details).

A quick aside: over the summer I started using the website (and presentation tool) in my courses on a very simple level. The presentations are mostly text-based and serve as a visual tool to help my students, especially when I am asking questions (for them to either discuss or write responses to) and when I share quotes and things I’d like them to really remember. Additionally I use them to show images for discussion and the occasional YouTube video. I do not, however, use it as a purely lecture tool. My course, as mentioned in the syllabus, is a discussion course.

The neatest thing about these Prezi presentations, in my opinion, is that they are online, and as such I can share them here very easily (I hope!). I am constantly tweaking and updating the Presentations, but they serve as a foundation and guideline for my discussions in class. I definitely elaborate on them when I use them in class (I have never been one for standing still and reading from a screen), but still, I will share them here when I think it is necessary. Remember: a guideline only. Nothing more.

Now: back to class this upcoming Tuesday.

To transition from the syllabus discussion from yesterday and into an Introduction to the fantasy and science fiction genres and WHY I will use them in my course, I will share this quote with my students, using this Prezi:

English is a complex language; a hybrid of many different influences, much like the culture it represents. To understand it is to gain an insight into that culture and the process of integration that created it.

I will spend a moment discussing why I have chosen this quote on the English language as a guideline for MY course – understanding culture ties everything in my course together. This is one of my main aims for my 101 course, since I believe it is vital to understand the deep ties linking language and culture (any language and culture) together.

After I introduce the idea of using elements of popular culture in my course, I will discuss why I will bring in so many varies elements throughout the semester. Next, I will share a few quotes from notable fantasy authors JRR Tolkien and Terry Pratchett to introduce the genres and discuss how these genres will relate to our course. Finally, I will wrap up this discussion by bringing in a few quotes from the genres for my students to discuss.

To open this discussion, I will use a quote spoken by an alternate reality Dr. Daniel Jackson from the Season 8 episode 19, “Moebius Part 1,” of Stargate SGI: 

English is a complex language; a hybrid of many different influences, much like the culture it represents. To understand it is to gain an insight into that culture and the process of integration that created it.

While I imagine some of my students might stare at me blankly, much like the ESL students Dr. Jackson is teaching in the alternate timeline, hopefully some of them will realize it is in fact the same quote I used to start the discussion (then left uncredited). I plan on again discussing this in some detail with my students – focusing on the relation to culture, one of the main themes of my course.

Then … Buffy. After a small disclaimer about the title of the show, taken from an interview with James Marsters (who played the  vampire Spike) I will share with my students a roughly 1 minute clip from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BtVS) Season 2 episode 21, “Becoming, Part 1.” While the SG1 excerpt is a new addition to my plans, I have conducted this exercise several times with great success.

14 minutes and 38 seconds into this episode, Willow is helping Buffy study for an upcoming test, without having much luck. Buffy, a chronically “bad” student due to the constant distraction of her Slaying duties, asks Willow,

When in the world am I ever going to need chemistry or history or math or the English language?

While the first part of her question is asked in frustration, due to the strong verbal clues in Sarah Michelle Geller’s delivery, the audience realizes that she has answered her own question by the time she finishes asking it. I then plan on giving my students a set amount of time to answer that question for themselves, on paper – something we will then spend time talking about. Since I don’t require my students to focus solely on the “English language” part of that question, this provides an excellent opportunity for my students to talk about the myriad number of ways they truly will use their education – even the basics – in the future. Answers range from calculating trip milage and gas costs, to cooking and baking (a good mix of chemistry and math), to planning a battle based on previous ones (I teach at a military school, after all – a number of my students plan on commissioning in the US Armed Forces), to recording history, and finally, to communicate and express feelings.

This discussion serves as a wonderful way to get my students talking: after all, there is no wrong answer. This exercise is also a wonderful way for me to demonstrate that fantasy and science fiction (which will occasionally be abbreviated to SFF) doesn’t always mean aliens, magic, or vampires. Sometimes, SFF has people doing normal things, too (which in my mind is one of the most important and fascinating things about the genre: if you take away the fantasy or the science, you get us).

This exercise also serves as a wonderful buildup to the first major essay assignment, which I will be discussing here shortly.

Additionally, we will also discuss their homework assignment: to read the first 15 pages of the Introduction of the textbook I teach from, which I will also talk about here in the near future.

Posted in WR 101.

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WR 101: Syllabus

The first day of class is often the most boring, as far as I’m concerned. Yup. Syllabus day.

Here at VMI, that means reading every word of the Syllabus out loud to my students – and, more importantly, the Work for Grade policy. Needless-to-say, this day is no where near as fun as some others. Like next Tuesday, when I will talk with my students about fantasy and science fiction (post about this soon!).

The two main courses that I teach, WR 101 and 102,share a syllabus, course goals and textbook regardless of instructor, although the individual assignments and essays we teach are up to us. In 101, our course description and goals are as follows:

In WR 101, you will study the fundamental principles of rhetoric, develop the ability to think, read, and write critically, and refine your writing strategies and behaviors.  You will be introduced to writing as a process, including such essential practices as invention, arrangement, and revision.  You will write primarily expository essays to practice advancing ideas logically to a particular audience for a specific occasion to achieve a clear purpose.  By defining these elements of the rhetorical situation for writing, you will cultivate a clear voice and presence in your writing as you strive to communicate your ideas to others.

As part of the core curriculum, first-year composition courses encourage active learning and are conducted as writing workshops in which you will regularly meet in small groups to discuss and respond in writing to challenging readings, as well as drafts of one another’s essays.  In addition to participating in these workshops, you will frequently meet with the instructor in individual conferences to discuss your writing at various stages of the drafting process.  Such training helps prepare you not only for successful academic and professional lives but also for full participation in your lives as educated citizens.

The goals of the first-year composition sequence are:

  • Analyze the audience, occasion, and purpose of a rhetorical situation in order to formulate a response to an idea or problem.
  • Generate ideas through both discovery and consultation of a variety of sources.
  • Develop ideas fully, offering compelling support and evidence for assertions or conclusions.
  • Organize ideas coherently, integrating sources effectively and documenting them appropriately.
  • Edit writing for clarity, precision, and stylistic effectiveness.
  • Proofread writing to ensure grammatical and mechanical correctness.

After explaining (and reading) this information to my students today, I then shifted into a discussion of an Institute policy: the Work for Grade policy.

At VMI, the Honor Code is very simple:

“A cadet shall not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those who do.”

Things are never as black and white as they might seem, however, and since VMI operates under a “one strike and you’re out” system, the faculty has adopted an academic policy to help explain and abide by this Honor Code. I will include it here for anyone interested, since my own course must fall under these boundaries and within these rules. (Plus, I just read this four times in one day – I feel like sharing).


VMI Work for Grade Policy, 2012:


Development of the spirit as well as the skills of academic inquiry is central to the mission of VMI’s Academic Program. As a community of scholars, posing questions and seeking answers, we invariably consult and build upon the ideas, discoveries, and products of others who have wrestled with related issues and problems before us. We are obligated ethically and in many instances legally to acknowledge the sources of all borrowed material that we use in our own work. This is the case whether we find that material in conventional resources, such as the library or cyberspace, or discover it in other places like conversation with our peers.

Academic integrity requires the full and proper documentation of any material that is not original with us. It is therefore a matter of honor. To misrepresent someone else’s words, ideas, images, data, or other intellectual property as one’s own is stealing, lying, and cheating all at once.

Because the offense of improper or incomplete documentation is so serious, and the consequences so potentially grave, the following polices regarding work for grade have been adopted as a guide to cadets and faculty in upholding the Honor Code under which all VMI cadets live.

A Cadet’s Responsibility:

Work for grade” is defined as any work presented to an instructor for a formal grade or undertaken in satisfaction of a requirement for successful completion of a course or degree requirement. All work submitted for grade is considered the cadet’s own work. “Cadet’s own work” means that he or she has composed the work from his or her general accumulation of knowledge and skill except as clearly and fully documented and that it has been composed especially for the current assignment. No work previously submitted in any course at VMI or elsewhere will be resubmitted or reformatted for submission in a current course without the specific approval of the instructor.

In all work for grade, failure to distinguish between the cadet’s own work and ideas and the work and ideas of others is known as plagiarism. Proper documentation clearly and fully identifies the sources of all borrowed ideas, quotations, or other assistance. The cadet is referred to the VMI authorized handbook for rules concerning quotations, paraphrases, and documentation.

In all written work for grade, the cadet must include the words “HELP RECEIVED” conspicuously on the document, and he or she must then do one of two things: (1) state “none,” meaning that no help was received except as documented in the work; or (2) explain in detail the nature of the help received. In oral work for grade, the cadet must make the same declaration before beginning the presentation. Admission of help received may result in a lower grade but will not result in prosecution for an honor violation.

Cadets are prohibited from discussing the contents of a quiz/exam until it is returned to them or final course grades are posted. This enjoinder does not imply that any inadvertent expression or behavior that might indicate one’s feeling about the test should be considered a breach of honor. The real issue is whether cadets received information, not available to everyone else in the class, which would give them an unfair advantage. If a cadet inadvertently gives or receives information, the incident must be reported to the professor and the Honor Court.

Each cadet bears the responsibility for familiarizing himself or herself thoroughly with the policies stated in this section, with any supplementary statement regarding work for grade expressed by the academic department in which he or she is taking a course, and with any special conditions provided in writing by the professor for a given assignment. If there is any doubt or uncertainty about the correct interpretation of a policy, the cadet should consult the instructor of the course.  There should be no confusion, however, on the basic principle that it is never acceptable to submit someone else’s work, written or otherwise, formally graded or not, as one’s own.

The violation by a cadet of any of these policies will, if he or she is found guilty by the Honor Court, result in his or her being dismissed from VMI. Neither ignorance nor professed confusion about the correct interpretation of these policies is an excuse.


Department of English and Fine Arts Statement of Policy Concerning Work For Grade:

The following points apply to work done for courses taught in the Department of English and Fine Arts:

  1. 1.     Tutoring

Unless directed otherwise in writing by the instructor, Cadets may receive critical comments* from tutors on written assignments provided they explain the exact nature of this assistance in their Help Received statements. Cadets may seek assistance from tutors in both understanding course material and preparing for tests, and they do not need to cite this help in their Help Received Statements.

  1. 2.     Peer Collaboration

Unless directed otherwise in writing by the instructor, Cadets may receive critical comments* from peers on written assignments provided they explain the exact nature of their assistance in their Help Received statement. Cadets may seek assistance from peers in both understanding course material and preparing for tests, and they do not need to cite this help in their Help Received Statements.

  1. 3.     Computer Aids

Cadets may use electronic spelling, style, and grammar checkers, and they do not have to cite this assistance in their Help Received statements.

  1. 4.     Documentation Format

Cadets must use the MLA (Modern Language Association) documentation format when writing essays for courses in this department.

*Definitions from the VMI Work for Grade Policy:

“Offering critical comments means giving general advice on such matters as organization, thesis development, support for assertions, and patterns of error. It does not include proofreading or editing.

Proofreading means correct errors (e.g., in spelling, grammar, and punctuation). It is the last step taken by the writing in the editing process. It addition to the corrections made in proofreading, editing includes making such changes as the addition, deletion, or reordering of paragraphs, phrases, sentences, or words. A cadet may not have his or her work proofread or edited by someone other than the instructor.”

This last part has been a bit challenging as a teacher, but the idea behind it is solid: our students should learn to proofread correctly on their own, without relying on others to do it for them.  For me, this final clause means that my students can’t let someone else proofread their essays (except me, of course), but if they want to have someone teach them about a common splice, sentence fragments, or there/their/they’re etc., that is fine by me. As long as they are learning skills they can utilize next time and making the physical changes themselves, I believe my students fall well within this policy.

Now … the next post will be more fun! (In the same way our next class meeting will be more fun – with a lot less me talking).

Posted in WR 101.

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A Foundation

For now, this blog will serve primarily as a record, both of things I think might work in my courses and things I’ve actually used (taught, discussed, etc.). Additionally, I will use this as a forum for sharing my own ideas about the fantasy and science fiction I love. As time progresses the content will become more varied and detailed, but everyone must start somewhere. I’m starting now.

This upcoming semester, I will teach both sections of Freshman Composition – WR (Writing) 101 and 102. So far, I have only used clips and selections from fantasy and science fiction TV shows, movies, books etc. in my WR 101 courses at VMI. As of now, I haven’t given much concrete thought to bringing this element into the research based course (102) but if an opportunity arises, I will most certainly take it. Already I have scattered ideas about how effectively Buffy and her gang use research to save Sunnydale and the world time and again …

Still – I’m not starting there. I’m starting here.

In this course, and in this blog, I will primarily focus on the fantasy and science fiction books, shows, and movies that appeal to me the most. A short list would look something like this:

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and perhaps references to the spinoff, Angel)
  • Battlestar Galactica (the reimagined version)
  • Stargate SG1 (with perhaps references to the spinoff, Stargate Atlantis)
  • Farscape
  • The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (books and movie)
  • How to Train Your Dragon (book and movie)
  • Independence Day
  • Star Wars
  • Star Trek
  • “The Red Pyramid” (children’s fantasy by Rick Rioridan)
  • “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe” by CS Lewis
  • Harry Potter series (books and movies)
  • Etc.

Short list, huh? Ok – maybe not. Regardless, I have already used some of these in my 101 courses, and I have plans for many others. To date, I have primarily used these elements of popular culture in a visual medium – bringing in clips (and one entire episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – to be discussed at a later date in this blog) and references to books. This upcoming semester, I plan on branching out even more.

In the past I have been unable to develop some ideas as fully as I would like, so my main goal this semester is to do just that: to extend my discussion of popular culture throughout the whole course (rather than simply the first half) and to bring in more variety – including some excerpts from printed materials. This is in part a reading course, after all – more reading can’t hurt.

Over the next few weeks, I plan on sharing some of the things I will do (and have done) early on in my WR 101 course, including (potentially) reactions from students and anything else that I feel will benefit this record.

That is one of the main purposes of writing, after all, as my students always tell me when forced to discuss that topic: to record. So record I shall.

Posted in Pedagogy.

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About Fantasy in Composition:

In his famous essay entitled On Fairy Stories, J. R. R. Tolkien tells us that “Fantasy is a natural human activity.” Mythologies and fairy stories have accompanied human evolution very closely, and even in the 21st century the Fantasy genre continues to provide entertainment and education to the masses. The Fantasy genre encompasses many things to many people: stories with vampires and werewolves are common, but fantasy often involves ghosts, demons, and other aspects of the supernatural. Magic is common, and the rules of the universe are often different. Science fiction is often closely linked with the fantasy genre. Giving us a broad definition of the genre, Terry Pratchett tells us in his essay Let There be Dragons that

I now know that almost all fiction is, at some level, fantasy. What Agatha Christie wrote was fantasy. What Tom Clancy writes is fantasy. … But what people generally have in mind when they hear the word fantasy is swords, talking animals, vampires, rockets (science fiction is fantasy with bolts on) and around the edges it can indeed by pretty silly. Yet fantasy also speculates about the future, rewrites the past, and reconsiders the present. It plays games with the universe.

Silly or not, I am a firm believer that Fantasy teaches us what it means to be human.This blog will seek to document how I explore this idea within the framework of Freshman Composition.

Composition is all about writing. I teach Freshman Composition at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, VA. VMI is a four-year, degree-granting, public college that offers training in both military and civilian sectors. I have been a faculty member here since 2009, and my duties involve teaching freshman about the importance of writing in both their professional and personal lives.

So, then, what do Fantasy and Composition have in common?

This title refers to a variety of concepts and ideas that I will explore with this blog:

  • Teachers often believe it is a fantasy about teaching composition that our students will leave our class with an understanding and appreciation about why writing is important in both their personal and profession lives. (I believe this fantasy can be made into reality.)
  • Other faculty have a fantasy about our classes as well: that we alone will teach our students everything they will ever need to know about composition. (I disbelieve in this fantasy.)
  • Students often believe it is a fantasy to receive an “A” on an English paper, either in a composition class or a literature class. (I disbelieve this one, too.)
  • And most importantly, the fantasy genre and science fiction sub-genre (in books and on television and the big screen) offers insight into all of the things we value in a composition classroom: language, communication, technology, culture, social awareness, and writing.

While there are many elements of classic fantasy I wish I could explore with my students, I am currently going to focus on contemporary fantasy – especially in television shows and movies. I do this for several reasons:

  • I believe that contemporary popular culture is important to my students and will therefore allow me to connect with them.
  • I believe there popular culture allows students to understand and relate to the world around them.
  • I believe that asking and requiring my students to think about popular culture as more than mindless entertainment teaches new ways of thinking that will be useful to them in their professional and personal lives.
  • I believe that the themes of many contemporary fantasy and science fiction television shows and movies contain the same themes of the classics we value: race, gender, class, religion, culture, war, death, morality, love etc.
  • I believe studying contemporary popular culture allows us to ask insightful and necessary questions relating to our culture and our cultural values.
  • Finally, I just love the genre and I know that if I teach what I love, I am more effective.

This blog will attempt to explore how I incorporate the fantasy and science fiction genres into my Freshman Composition courses at VMI. I hope to share things that worked well and things that didn’t and I also hope to share my own insights into why fantasy, especially in contemporary popular culture, is so important.


Posted in Pedagogy.

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