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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.

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