ENG-W 210: Literacy & Public Life

I have taught two iterations of this course: the first was a survey of the American dream and the second was a course on the multinational corporation in US culture. Both of these courses were quite popular with students, and the focus of each course is on critical literacy: what do students already know about the American Dream or the multinational Corporation and what do they need to know? Both of these courses are also interdisciplinary by nature: students read and view nonfiction books, histories, novels, short fiction, and films that draw upon disciplines as diverse as American history and cultural studies, philosophy, and sociology. Based on the popularity of the American Dream course, I then developed another version of this course built around an examination of the US multinational corporation and how it influences so many aspects of our lives. I plan to develop and teach a completely new theme each time I teach this course based on current events and student interest. In fact, in the Fall of 2017 I will teach my third iteration of ENG-W 210: an exploration of the contradictory phenomenon of “fake news.” Again, the guiding pedagogical theme of this course is on critical literacy—what does an educated person need to know about fake news in order to make sound decisions and participate effectively in our democracy?

When I first had the idea to revive the long-defunct ENG-W 210: Literacy & Public Life as a literacy course centered on the concept of the American dream, I could not have known how successful (and enjoyable) this course would turn out to be. I suppose what really surprised me the most was the fact that from the start of the semester students took so readily to the idea of discussing, analyzing, and even critiquing the concept, the history, the images, and the mythology of the American dream, from the Great Depression to the rampant economic inequality of our own era. Rather than having to sell students on the idea that the American dream is worthy of critique and interpretation, in other words, students jumped at the opportunity to spend a semester doing just that and more. This built-in enthusiasm made teaching this course easily the most enjoyable experience of the semester; I underscore the students’ enthusiasm in this narrative because I think it could be interpreted as a compelling indication of the types of courses our students aren’t (or weren’t) getting and are interested in taking at IU Kokomo.

The student comments that emerged from this course were, as I expected, quite positive. The most prevalent theme that emerged from the students’ remarks was that the course taught them to think critically and to interrogate myths and ideas that have become ossified in American culture and society. One student, for instance, wrote the following:

As always with Dr. Cook, the things he teaches are relevant to the outside world [cf. my Teaching Philosophy] and cause you to stop and think about things. This class used a variety of interesting texts and you can tell that Dr. Cook puts a lot of thought into what he teaches. . . . The most valuable thing I learned in this course would be to think critically about things I have often taken for granted.

Another student opined that the most valuable take-away from the course is that s/he learned “How America really is. I experienced a hard-core dose of reality, and I’m much smarter and better prepared for life outside of college after taking this course.” Another student remarked that the course “made me think about things I haven’t before.”

On the issue of multimodality and using a variety of texts and readings, several students made comments such as “I liked the material we covered in class. Some pieces were contemporary, and some weren’t [and] that was cool. I like that we had good discussions consistently.” Another student wrote that the use of “visual aids” and “various media” made the lessons more enjoyable and interesting. Other students were slightly more sanguine about what they learned (such as the student who wrote, forlornly: “Finding a job is going to be difficult”), but overwhelmingly the student comments indicated that the class found the sometimes-difficult lessons about American culture, history, and the American dream to be valuable for their educations and relevant to their lives.

The few comments and observations that were critical of the course indicated that the weekly discussion forum posts were too frequent, and I have come to agree. In fact, when I taught ENG-W 201 in Spring 2015 as a course on corporations and corporate culture, I decided to make discussion posts less frequent (i.e., bi-weekly), but also more substantive (e.g., students are often asked to incorporate outside research or write longer, more analytical posts).

What I most want to celebrate about ENG-W 210 is that in Spring 2014 nine students (roughly 93% of those who left written comments) made remarks to the effect that they found the course thought-expanding and generative of critical thinking, as well as compelling and clearly relevant to their lives as students and citizens: “this course really generates critical thinking and new ways to analyze the things we are exposed to in this country. Overall I really liked this course and the instructor.” The quantitative evaluations for Spring 2014 were as close to perfect as I’ve received in a course to date; there were no categories in which the mean score was less than 4.00 (“Agree”).

Learning Outcomes (Spring 2014)

  • Develop a broad sense of literacy, which in this course means the capacity to think, read, and write about complex ideas and their historical, socio-cultural, and political dimensions;
  • Apply your developing literacy to public life and what it means to be an engaged citizen of a democracy;
  • Speak and write intelligently and confidently about the historical, cultural, economic, and political development of the concept of the American dream;
  • Develop and support a compelling argument concerning the vitality and richness of the American dream as an idea in your own experience and research;
  • Recognize and understand the multidisciplinary nature of a concept like the American dream and how it has been shaped by multiple and diverse forces;
  • Recognize and understand how an idea as complex as the American Dream must be approached through a multidisciplinary lens (history, cultural studies, literature and language, economics, political science, etc.);
  • Read and understand challenging academic texts such as scholarly articles and monographs.

Learning Outcomes (Spring 2015)

  • Gain a better understanding of corporate culture, influence, and power;
  • Develop a broad sense of literacy, which in this course means the capacity to think, read, and write about complex ideas and their historical, socio-cultural, and political dimensions;
  • Identify the pros and cons of corporations and their effects, as well as examples of positive and socially-responsible corporate culture;
  • Apply your developing literacy to public life and what it means to be an engaged citizen of a democracy;
  • Speak and write intelligently and confidently about the historical, cultural, economic, and political development of corporations in the US and abroad;
  • Develop and support a compelling argument concerning corporations in your own experience and research;
  • Recognize and understand how an institutional entity as complex as the corporation must be approached through a multidisciplinary lens (history, cultural studies, literature and language, economics, political science, etc.);
  • Read and understand challenging academic texts such as scholarly articles, monographs, and theoretical texts.

Course Evaluation Summaries (Quantitative)

The highest possible score in each category is a 5.00 = “Strongly Agree”; the lowest possible score is 1.00 = “Strongly Disagree.”

ENG-W 210: Literacy and Public Life Spring

2014 (34234)

Spring 2015 (14969)
1.)   The course was well organized. 5.00 4.70
2.)   The course objectives were clear to the students. 4.92 4.33
3.)   There was general agreement between announced course objectives and what was actually taught. 5.00 4.33
4.)   The instructor explained the subject clearly. 4.69 4.30
5.)   The instructor summarized the major points in lecture or discussion. 5.00 4.30
6.)   The instructor made effective use of class time. 4.85 4.50
7.)     The instructor was well prepared for class meetings. 4.92 4.70
8.)     The amount of reading was appropriate for the course. 5.00 5.00
9.)     In relation to other courses of equal credits and level, the workload in this course was appropriate. 2.31 4.50
10.)  The amount of material covered in the course was reasonable. 4.54 4.17
11.)  The course required more time and effort than others at this level. 4.77 4.33
12.)  The grading system for the course was clearly explained. 4.54 4.50
13.)  Grades were assigned fairly and impartially. 4.69 4.17
14.)  The instructor collected enough evidence for valid grading. 4.77 4.33
15.)  The exams accurately assessed what I have learned in this class. 4.62 3.30
16.)  The instructor showed a genuine interest in students 4.62 4.00
17.)  The instructor was readily available for consultation with students. 4.92 4.70
18.)  The instructor stimulated my thinking. 4.08 4.17
19.)  The instructor stimulated class discussion. 4.00 4.50
20.)  The instructor promoted an atmosphere conducive to learning. 4.38 4.50
21.)  Compared to other instructors I have had, this instructor is outstanding. 4.23 4.00
22.)  Compared to other courses I’ve taken, I learned more in this course. 4.67 4.00

Course Evaluation Summaries (Qualitative)

Spring 2014

“I liked the material we covered in class. Some pieces were contemporary, and some weren’t, that was cool. I liked that we had good discussions consistently.”

“I least like the forums every week. It was hard to remember when they are due and make sure they were up to par.”

“I learned that the American Dream can be what a person makes for themselves—or the country makes collectively. The Dream is relative.”

“[What I liked most about the course was] structure.”

“The course made me think about things I haven’t before.”

“The amount of reading and the forum posts [were my least favorite part of the course]. It was all too much at the same time.”

“Finding a job is going to be difficult.”

“I liked the use of visual aids of various media to explain the lessons.”

“I did not like the weekly forum posts very much.”

“I learned to read actively and critically think over the topic at hand.”

“Dr. Cook gave us a variety of books that showed different aspects of one topic.”

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—personally I hated it, even though I could see its merit in this course.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this course is that] the American Dream is whatever I want it to be.”

“The required reading complemented the theme of the course well and prompted me to pursue other works by the authors outside of class.”

“Nothing comes to mind [regarding my least favorite part of the course].”

“My disdain for the corporate life of America is shared by many people.”

“[What I liked most about the course was] the Bait and Switch book.”

“[What I liked least about the course was] The Fear and Loathing book/movie—thought this book was vulgar. The language and vulgarity distracted from the content of the book.”

“I learned about myself and grew as a person.”

“It was extremely insightful, and the instructor facilitated relevant and compelling classroom discussion.”

“[My least favorite part of the course was] that it only lasts for an hour and fifteen minutes.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this course was] how America really is. I experienced a hard-core dose of reality, and I’m much smarter and better prepared for life outside of college after taking this course.”

“As always with Dr. Cook, the things he teaches are relevant to the outside world and cause you to stop and think about things. This class used a variety of interesting texts and you can tell that Dr. Cook puts a lot of thought into what he teaches.”

“The most valuable thing I learned in this course would be to think critically about things I have often taken for granted.”

“I like the exploration of the topic. It’s something I have thought about before, and I’m glad the topic was discussed openly and thoroughly.”

“Nothing comes to mind [regarding my least favorite part of the course].”

“[The most valuable thing I learned was how] to analyze data and not believe things at face-value, but question and make my own decisions.”

“[What I liked least about the course were] the forum posts.”

“The course really generates critical thinking and new ways to analyze the things we are exposed to in this country. Overall I really liked this course and the instructor.”

“The subject was interesting.”

“I hate the buzzing A/C.”

Spring 2015

“Dr. Cook is young, fun and enthusiastic.”

“[What I liked least about the course was] NO ROOM FOR CREATIVITY!”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this course was] the inner workings of Corporate America. I also learned how to be more efficient.”

“[What I liked most about the course was] not worth my time.”

***

Click here for Spring 2014 Course Syllabus and here for the Spring 2015 Course Syllabus. Click here for the Fall 2017 Course Syllabus.

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