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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Ponder College Letter Assignment

On this date on Round and Square's History 
Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Assignments"

INIT 100
Autumn 2015

Midterm Writing Assignment:
Pondering College...And Teaching It To Someone
By choosing the letter format for your midterm assignment, I am asking you to build upon the skills you have already begun to develop in analyzing (and providing examples for) the ways that American liberal arts colleges "work." You have already reached a point where you have some experience with the structures and details of colleges—from the Board of Trustees and the office of the president down to teachers and students in the classroom. Your job will now be to explain it "all" to intelligent non-specialists.

Teach them, really.
Letters from “the field” (imagine yourself, as I have encouraged from the beginning, as an ethnographer) are a good way to refine your thoughts about education. They are also a useful medium for beginning the intellectual “framing process” that will accelerate as we move through the next half of the course. 

The letter writing exercise is especially useful while studying source materials such as ours. The nonfiction writer John McPhee explains to his students that a letter is often precisely the solution to problems of interpretation or clarity—when in doubt, write to mother, he says. In this case, it is not a plea of “send money” that the letter contains, but a reworking, rethinking, and contextualization of your work. You need not limit yourself to kinfolk, but you need to think about who the recipient will be (ideally someone who will welcome a letter about “studying sources”).

You owe it to yourself to listen to this long interview with McPhee. At the very least, listen to the first two minutes. It is the very purpose behind this assignment.

Now start writing. Toward that end, you should pay attention to the following issues.

[c] I said, "start writing" RF
1. The letter needs to be “long enough” to get you deeply into several issues regarding the operations of colleges. There is no absolute upper limit, but I am going to make a lower limit of 3,000 words (about ten pages). Even if you are a very efficient writer, you will need this much “space” to give your reader a good picture of your work. 3,000 words is just about right. Include a word count at the end of your letter (e.g. “3,245 words” or Word Count: 3,245).

2. I am asking you to connect with a very specific reader, and to explain "college" in a level of detail that she will find satisfying. You are the expert, and your “audience” is the person who will be reading your letter (I will, of course, be reading over her shoulder). I have found that this kind of assignment helps students to explain even abstruse matters, because the personal relationship they have with their readers demands an attention to patient explanation that is often lacking in more “academic” forms of writing, in which they assume that a professor already knows what they are writing about.

3. Your letter must address the "ways of the tribe," and you must spend at least a bit of your letter describing the Chronicle of Higher Education. What makes "the tribe"..."tick?"

4. You must have at least one illustration that highlights something you find interesting about college life. This can come from any source (from drawing your own to using Internet images). Just cite your source (this isn't going to be published, so you won't get into trouble).

5. Your letter must discuss your readings from the course, but especially the books that we are reading in Weeks IX-XI (Patrick Allitt's I'm The Teacher, You're The Student, and William Chace's One Hundred Semesters).

6. You may approach your materials from any angle that you like, but you will need to “cover” at least the following items, no matter what order you choose.

          a. You must discuss the "what is this course about?" question. In other words, 
               explain what you think we are studying.

          b. Give your reader a sense of what you have learned up to this point about 
              how to interpret and analyze college life through a wide array of source 
              materials, from memoirs and lectures to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

          c. You must discuss give several specific examples from your own fieldnotes.

          d. You must discuss what it is like to "do ethnography" by watching the way people
               think and act in their everyday lives on campus.
         e. Finally, give your reader some sense of what it is like to learn about the
             "business" of colleges (how colleges work) while (at the same time) learning 
             to be a student.
7. The best way to approach the writing process is in three parts (this is a friendly suggestion). First, jot down some notes for each of the “sections” of your letter. Second, using those notes as a guide, write a rough draft of the whole letter. Third, revise, polish, and refine. 

Voilà you will have something that will become the solid foundation for all of the rest of your work this semester.

You get the idea. If you don't, just raise your hand and ask me (or send me an e-mail message). I'll be happy to help.

You will have three weeks to prepare this assignment, and there will be weekly "tune-up" assignments to get ready (due each Friday by 5:00, as usual).

Letters are due (in hard copy form) outside my door 
by 10:00 p.m. on Sunday, November 15.

Add the word count and your box number to all papers!
[e] And then you may rest RF

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