What Makes a Good Course Text?

I’m in the process of choosing texts for my course, and I’m reminded of all that goes into those choices. Our course is a course in academic writing, which means that students are coming to terms with what it means to use writing in academic contexts. I don’t think this means that they are learning specific forms of academic discourse because these forms are so various and our experience with these variations, as instructors, is so limited. Rather, I see the course as engaging with academic work as a complex practice or habit of mind. Academic work isn’t a written genre. Rather, many written genres exist to best accomplish, enact, and extend academic work. We must choose readings (and craft assignments) that catalyze our students’ attempts to do that work.

It makes sense to show students academic writing, which, of course, is the truest demonstration of the subject. But, again, the point here is not to absorb discernible rules for writing. And, alas, much academic writing is famously indifferent to the needs of novice readers. Some first-year writing courses in academic writing include pieces written by journalists, who may draw on academic research but who do not write like academics. Malcolm Gladwell is probably the reigning example of this ‘translation’ approach, but Stephen Berlin Johnson, Kathryn Shulz, Rebecca Solnit, and Joshua Foer are other familiar examples of writers outside of academia who nevertheless pursue the kind of extended inquiries that look, especially to the lay reader, like academic arguments. It could be argued that what is lost—disciplinary specificity and the authority of peer-reviewed publication—is recouped by the greater attention to audience. These writers can also afford to be more essayistic, to leave questions unresolved and make wider connections to contexts outside of their expertise.

Our program has always used literary texts (and, really, any kind of cultural material, including films, advertisements, and songs) as a way to get out from under the presumption of certainty and finality that students often see in academic argument. Although I will use the occasional journalistic piece because of its readability (Foer is on my syllabus), I tend to favor the literary and the strange as a better way to stage an encounter with material that, in its complexity, requires response and reshaping (and writing). A colleague of mine has just finished teaching a course that uses the 2010 documentary film, Marwencol, as one such text. That film recounts the story of Mark Hogancamp, who is recovering from a serious brain injury by restaging similar violent and traumatic events with dolls in a miniature 1940s Belgian town he calls ”Marwencol.” This unusual portrait of the complex intersection of memory, trauma, and creativity offers no plain argument about what we’re seeing here. But, in a course that uses texts to foster academic work (and not necessarily demonstrate it), Marwencol makes great sense.

Nevertheless, I think it best to include some academic writing on the reading list. This time, I’m considering using a piece by Donna Haraway called “Crittercam: Compounding Eyes in Naturecultures,” from her 2008 book, When Species Meet. I’ve written before about the great value of theory in a FYW course, as theoretical texts are, in their rich but recalcitrant discourse, almost like literary texts—available for close analysis, interpretation, and suggestive appropriation. Haraway is indeed a theorist, and her academic affiliation is apparent in every sentence of this difficult short chapter. She begins by quoting Don Ihde—”We are bodies in technologies”—as a way into her dense, provocative account of National Geographic’s show and website, CrittercamCrittercam provides a glimpse into “critter” life through cameras attached to animals, but its signature gesture, a removing of the human from the finished video (except as a foreign, external agent) raises questions about what we see when we watch the videos from what is supposed to be the eyes of the critter. Far from simply endorsing the program as a window into understanding animal life, Haraway explores this imposition of cameras as a marker of the porous boundary between the body and technology;

So, the compound eyes of the colonial organism called Crittercam are full of articulated lenses from many kinds of coordinated, agential zoons—that is, the machinic, human, and animal beings whose historically situated enfoldings are the flesh of contemporary naturecultures. (261)

This isn’t easy. It might be accused of being “indifferent to novice readers.” I can’t expect students to possess (or obtain) the knowledge in biology, technology, history, theory, and more that it would require to master Haraway’s text. But, again, the goal is not a restating of Haraway’s project but rather the creation of a new project that makes use of Haraway but extends it, a process I’ve been fond of calling “linking outwards.” Haraway’s text is intentionally distant from a worked out thesis.  And, in my course, it comes alongside other texts, including Foer’s essay on the technologies of memory extension, Susan Orlean’s essay on bot tweeting, and N. Katherine Hayles’ definition of posthuman embodiment. My hope is that this stew of elements, including Haraway’s provocative and conceptually-driven formulations (and her use of words like “zoon”), can create a context appropriate for academic writing without quite presenting itself as a readymade template for academic writing.