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Composition Forum 19, Spring 2009

Writing about War: Assigning and Assessing a Moving Target

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Dan Fraizer

Abstract: This essay challenges writing teachers to consider anew the assigning of politicized or controversial topics in the composition classroom. The author describes his use of writing assignments related to the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars/Occupations from 2003 to 2006. Although some writing teachers embraced war-related topics in their classrooms during this time period, others seemed to avoid them out of fear of reading cliché-ridden “blinding binaries” arguments or of facing a hostile student environment. The author argues that the time was right to engage students in critical inquiry into the many war-related topics so as to pursue the truth-seeking mission of higher education. Necessarily, as the questions and issues related to the wars evolved, so too did assessment strategies. The assignments and student writing during this time period also show the value of this writing as a form of social action for students in their communities.

WHEREAS in our best moments we have relied on the power of rhetoric to mediate disputes, and in our college classrooms we teach students to understand one another, respect their differences, and resolve their disputes through discourse;

BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED that we encourage teachers of writing and communication at colleges and universities across the country to engage students and others in learning and debate about the issues and implications of the Iraqi war and any other acts of war perpetrated by the United States of America.

—Resolution 3 of the Executive Committee of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, March 22, 2003, New York, NY.

I remember feeling distracted in New York City in March 2003, at the 4Cs Conference. A few blocks away from the hotel, a mass protest against the Iraq invasion was set to begin in Times Square. The country was on the verge of war, and yet—although a couple of informational tables had been set up for conference participants—in the end, the conference went on as though nothing unusual was happening, a harbinger of things not to come. At first, it seemed as though, as a profession, compositionists would seize the opportunity to engage students in one of the most thought-provoking national conversations to emerge in a long time. Diana George used the occasion to enthusiastically call for a return to bringing such “hard topics” as war into the classroom and to ask tougher “problem-posing” questions about those topics. Ira Shor called for first-year composition assignments that questioned the most common media assumptions presented during the early phases of the wars and invited teachers to engage in problem-posing pedagogy meant to invite student debate in an open, non-threatening way. NCTE President David Bloome railed against a national atmosphere at the time that kept us all “in our place” instead of engaging in “conversations about composition, communication, and education that are “out of place” (“Interchanges” 343-47).

As an opportunity for teachers of writing, in the end none of it seemed meant to be. My effort here is to first describe how past arguments in composition studies over assigning politicized topics in the classroom and critical pedagogy in general ensured that relatively few teachers would invite their students to write on topics related to these politicized wars/occupations. Then I will bridge theory and practice by describing some of my own first-year composition writing assignments during the war years that I felt were in the interest of making students both better writers and more committed and informed citizens. My purpose will be to use these examples to argue that some assignments transcend the sort of reductionism present in so many past discussions of politicized writing topics.

The wars/occupations gave composition teachers the opportunity to invite students to write about topics that affected them in both their communities and in their personal lives vis-a-vis the larger, publicized global conflicts. The occupations were (and are) clouded by uncertainty, suspicion, and misinformation, but opportunities emerged regularly during the war years to both inculcate good writing habits and further the truth-seeking mission of higher education. The immediacy of writing grounded in both local and global contexts as they are happening is both exciting and difficult, since as teachers we may need to re-evaluate what we read based on who is writing, why they are writing it, and what information is available. I began with the assumption that my assignments would be works in progress. I assumed I would modify both my teaching strategies and my assignments in response to students’ needs and the world they brought with them to the classroom.

The Debate: Politicizing the Composition Classroom

The arguments against assigning “politicized” topics in the composition classroom are not new. Maxine Hairston perhaps paved the way for these conflicts when she argued in 1985 for a psychological “break” from literary critics who had long influenced much of the curriculum in writing courses. She argued for more of a focus on students and their writing that would enable the creation of a distinct writing identity and discipline. But these were also the years when many early compositionists took up race, class, and gender issues, especially in relation to language, which Hairston most certainly did not endorse. The emerging conflict between politicized vs. non-politicized writing curricula was illustrated most publicly at the University of Texas at Austin in the early 1990s with the controversial use of court cases involving race, class, and gender in an English course. Linda Brodkey’s response to this debate emphasizes that the source of the conflict was more a matter of disciplinary boundaries than politics, but the course became a flashpoint for voices representing a backlash against political content specifically and critical pedagogy generally. Hairston, in response to the University of Texas at Austin debate, argued in 1991 that writing courses should focus on writing that students care about, but not about social problems that are too complex for students to understand and for writing teachers to teach. Criticism of this sort helped pave the way for those who would probe the vulnerabilities of critical pedagogy in composition classrooms. The main area of concern became the teacher-student relationship, with critical pedagogues being blamed for intimidating students with their own political agendas and not respecting student interests or goals. Elizabeth Ellsworth was one who led the charge against the “repressive myths of critical pedagogy” in 1989, arguing that critical pedagogues rely on “rational deliberation” to teach about political topics, thereby excluding “others” whom the world of rational thought has minimized in order to conceal teachers’ progressive political agendas. Critical pedagogy wore the trappings of rationality, but concealed its own political agenda. She argued that the use of the word “critical” itself prevented open discussions.

Others more sympathetic to the goals of critical pedagogy began to weigh in on the ways critical pedagogy failed when actually put into practice. Victor Villanueva, for example, lamented the reductive multicultural approach that was meant to illuminate inequality but didn’t, John Ruszkiewicz argued that politicized classrooms close down student inquiry and disagreement, even though “locating writing courses within the public square and preparing students to be articulate and powerful citizens are sensible, responsible goals for writing instructors,” and David Seitz argued that the political goals of instructors blinded them to the local issues students bring with them to the classroom. Others adjusted their pedagogical priorities and process. Russel Durst cited the career-oriented goals of students as a reason for promoting a “reflective instrumentalism” in which teachers honor students’ more skill-oriented objectives first and complicate their lives with cultural critique later. Bruce McComiskey differentiated between “social-content” courses that emphasize critique only, and “social-process” courses that integrate rhetorical inquiry and writing instruction into political themes, thus giving students a reason to write based on hopeful and purposeful action. His analysis situates social-process pedagogy within a postmodern heuristic that “provides options for rhetorical exploration within social contexts, and . . . as these contexts change, so too must the heuristics we use to guide us and our students through the critical writing process (4). Durst and McComiskey’s texts seem to discourage or at least limit the use of critical pedagogy, but are foundational to my argument in this essay, since I often reassessed how, when, and if to insert critical analysis into the classroom discussion of war-related topics.

Others who lamented the imperfections of critical pedagogy in the classroom would tinker with their teaching methodologies, offering alternative pedagogies meant to sensitize teachers to the risks of teaching from a critical perspective. Karen Kopelson offered teacher “neutrality” as the antidote to perceptions of political indoctrination in the composition classroom. She argues that since students believe any bias in education is undesirable, they want their teachers to keep their opinions to themselves. Kopelson proposes an “alternative critical pedagogy” that makes use of the Greek art of mêtis, which she defines as “cunning” so that students are enticed into critically analyzing race, gender, and sexuality even as they perceive the instructor to be neutral. Julie Lindquist, one of the only composition scholars to write about her experiences discussing the wars/occupations in a composition classroom, moves beyond the appearance of neutrality by describing how her students needed her to “be honest” without “forcing my opinion” on them. They wanted to know her opinion about the wars but give them space to “voice their views” (203). She needed to be “strategically naïve” when soliciting advice about how to conduct discussions about the war and when she was “communicating empathy for their positions as affective responses” (204; emphasis in original). Lindquist focuses on what she calls the “paradoxes of strategic empathy,” which is most interesting to me as an effort to adapt to and respect what her students do and do not know.

As it is Happening: The Effectiveness and Relevance of Politicized Assignments

Student-centered approaches seem especially appropriate when instructors engage students in thinking and writing about a topic as it is happening, a characteristic that sets the wars/occupations apart from more historically far-reaching and politicized subject areas related to race, class, and gender. During the initial war years, less time existed for war-related topics to gain legitimacy as researchable topics within academe, so I was sometimes as uninformed (or newly informed) as my students, leading to a more collaborative truth-seeking atmosphere in the classroom with, I believe, less potential for student intimidation. In my own experience, this was especially useful when students were writing about topics such as Abu Ghraib, or Guantanamo, or insufficient body armor, or the Downing Street memos, or, especially, weapons of mass destruction. Seitz might call this sort of critical writing pedagogy “seeking out places to intervene in students’ composing processes of the status quo through reading and writing” (5), a riff on Nancy Sommers’s familiar call to make composition teaching an intervention into the composing processes of students. I saw it as undertaking, a journey in search of many truths with my students, a journey in which they learned more about what was going on in their own and others’ lives through a process of reading and interpreting a wide range of texts.

Trying to implement the teacher-valued goals of critical inquiry in a potentially hostile student environment is not new and continues to be difficult. Students usually aren’t used to having too much power. Shor was the first to adapt Paulo Freire’s “generative themes” approach as a way to engage students in issues they identified as important and cajoling them into taking more control of their education. Donald Lazere adapted Gerald Graff’s “teaching the conflicts” approach to writing, focusing on rhetorical concepts such as semantics and bias in order to defuse overt teacher authority. And William Thelin unapologetically argues that teacher “blundering” in critical classrooms is one of the sometimes unavoidable but worthwhile consequences of critical pedagogy as students are given more of a voice in the curriculum than they are used to having and as teachers struggle to anticipate and respond to conflicts. “Blundering,” or perhaps uncertainty, was common in my classrooms where both the teacher and the students were trying to understand what was going on both in other parts of the world and here at home. We relied on breaking media stories and both official and unofficial reports of what was going on, provided mostly by me, especially between 2003 and 2006. The quality of classroom discussion of the original Downing Street Memos or the Iraq Study Group Report was sometimes unpredictable. Often I got the sense that students needed time to process what it all meant. I had to learn to give all of us that time.

I often felt I was in uncharted waters as I asked students to write about wars in progress. The number of publications focusing exclusively on Iraq/Afghanistan war-related writing assignments is still seemingly nonexistent. Robert Samuels describes teaching about the Holocaust in a post- 9/11 world using popular culture and focusing on “overcoming student defense mechanisms” by creating “an interactive learning environment that values participation and critical analysis” (3). Shane Borrowman’s collection takes a more psychological approach focused on the teaching of writing in response to national “traumas” such as 9/11, which include but are not limited to writing about wars. But neither approaches the teaching of writing in response to the current wars/occupations or to conflicts in progress. These texts don’t directly address how writing can help writers to process specific on-going public events and respond to what is going on in their personal lives and communities. Michael Berndt and Amy Muse have argued that “[t]he writing classroom is an ideal place to cultivate a healthy civic life. Here you can learn critical thinking, reading, and writing—the civic skills central to both academic success and effective democratic participation” (xix). But they illustrate their own inquiry-based approach to teaching with a broad range of assigned readings meant to illuminate various fixed “communities” they choose to emphasize. In other words, they seem to start with a pre-existing curriculum and add readings as examples of something. I needed to re-examine my curriculum each year in such a way that preserved my rhetorical goals (to help them become competent college writers) while adapting to the changing national climate and war-related public texts as they became available.

My initial inquiry-based goal was to invite students to patiently consider both why and how our country became involved in these wars and the implications of that involvement (or lack of involvement) for us all. But as time went on, I was more inclined to invite students to consider how the wars/occupations were affecting us as a nation based on their exposure to texts that became available to the public. I wanted students to develop as more skilled writers while they simultaneously became more engaged in an historical era as it was happening. I revised my assignments over the course of three years for other reasons, too—to sharpen their focus or invite fewer clichés. But I mostly revised the assignments because of the changing nature of the wars themselves and the rich range of questions and topics that emerged from this zeitgeist of a writing context.

In the early years of the occupations (2003-2006), the extremely controversial nature of the wars surely scared many writing teachers away. But so, too, did the arguments over politicized classrooms I’ve described. Many compositionists are devoted to the idea that they should never “assign” any writing topic because students will be too intimidated. Others see this as one of the “blinding binaries” like abortion or gun control that would lead to clichés and generally weak writing. And some also believe that instructors would not be able to be “objective” in their assessments of student writing if it didn’t accord with their own views.

All of these arguments were in evidence in a discouraging 2005 Writing Program Administrator listserv discussion (Iraq War Writing Assignment Ethics). Writing about war-related topics, many said, would be too difficult, too intimidating, and would, of course, distract from teaching writing. But these objections oversimplified how war-related topics were assigned and assessed. For example, to assume that writing about the war is a matter of either arguing for or against it, and hence would lead to an intimidating classroom atmosphere, implies that it is impossible to narrow and frame assignments in ways that lead to a greater range of multiple and focused war-related topics and ask broader, more difficult “why” questions of the type Diana George proposes. Writing about these wars was and is not a single for/against topic, but a series of complex and related topics, all of which can be addressed individually by particular students for particular reasons in particular assignments. Teachers can assign reading materials that impress upon students this complexity and thus avoid discussion or writing situations that lead to oversimplification.

Students can also be given the opportunity to write about war-related topics they find meaningful because of their own experience or interest, and engage in more complex topics gradually as more sophisticated demands are made on them. Teachers can initiate discussion using appropriate and thought-provoking resources and help students to discover such resources themselves as part of library-based research assignments. Students can be given the choice to opt out of a war-related topic with the teacher’s approval of an alternative. They may be intimidated by the topic of war or need a break from the subject. They may also have a non-war-related topic they really want to write about that continues to fulfill the requirements of a particular assignment.

The Assignments: Writing about War

I assigned topics and made use of the tenets described above in my own first-year composition classes during three fall semesters (2004, 2005, and 2006) of wartime occupation. The wars/occupations struck me, as a teacher, as an opportunity, not a liability. I describe here some of what I assigned, how students responded, how I evaluated some of their writing, and what changed from year to year. These war-related assignments represent a fraction of those possible. They do not include, for example, opportunities to focus on the language of these wars or the representation of the wars in the media. The assignments were a work in progress, but I do not regret assigning them, despite the fact that my teacher evaluations were not as high as they might have been due to student resistance or fatigue. I attribute this at least in part to the national climate in general, a time when Americans were more interested in striking out against a perceived enemy than understanding the conflicts. But when I look back at this historic era, I have no regrets, despite the price I paid as a teacher. For me, this was a form of “tough love” critical pedagogy, a time to challenge rather than coddle students even if I had to suffer the consequences on my teacher evaluation forms.

Let me say from the start that my approach was not an entirely “democratic” pedagogy as practiced by Shor, Thelin, and others using “generative themes.” But it was not an autocratic approach either. I wanted to give students choices in terms of what they were writing about, broad choices that included both war-related and non-war- related topics. But I did ask all students to write in the same genre, so whether the topics they ultimately chose were war-related or not, students during the fall semester wrote a letter, a memoir, a commentary, a short report, and a research paper. I also chose the reading assignments with the exception of the report and the research paper. By then, students were choosing their own web-based and library sources. So, in a sense, I took advantage of my authority as the teacher and students’ expectations that I would be the authority by assigning the readings and the framework of the assignments. Given that this was an first-year composition class with most students in their first semester of college, my goal was to give them choices and some control, but not so much that students would perceive the classroom to be chaotic and out of control, and not so much that I would not be able to pose critical questions based on the reading I wanted to assign. I spent a considerable amount of time assuring students that I would not evaluate their writing differently if they chose a non-war-related topic, and I included non-war-related topics in my list of options discussed in each writing assignment. I put most of the evaluative emphasis on students meeting the expectations of the genre, and the reading served as much as a model of the genre as an invitation to think critically about the wars/occupations.

I also shifted authority away from myself by taking advantage of the college summer reading program, which, three years in a row and by chance, asked first-year students to read war-related books the summer before their first semester. Students would have come into my class having just finished In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason (assigned in 2003), The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (assigned in 2004), and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (assigned in 2005). In part as an exercise emphasizing audience and purpose, I asked students to write letters as one of their first writing assignments; sometimes they wrote letters to the author of the book, sometimes to a character in the book, and sometimes to members of the college committee who chose the book. Students could, if they chose, also use this as an opportunity to write about how they were personally affected by the book, which gave them the chance to begin to explore their feelings about the effects of war. If students didn’t want to write about the assigned books, I also gave them the opportunity to write directly to real or “unknown” soldiers fighting in the Iraq or Afghanistan conflicts, a writing invitation that was fairly common, especially in high schools during these years (Bigelow). Letters written early on tended to focus on praise and gratitude to these soldiers, or expressed curiosity about the conditions soldiers were fighting under. Later, as the conditions under which soldiers were fighting became better known in the media, I incorporated reading assignments that helped students learn about, for example, the lack of body armor, and work that into their letters to soldiers. I evaluated these letters based on the evaluative rubric used by all first-year composition teachers in my department—a rubric that emphasized widely agreed upon standards such as focus, organization, use of details, and control of errors. Therefore, I might give equally high marks to a letter that challenged soldiers to explain whether they thought the wars were worth it and to a letter that praised a soldier making the best of a difficult situation, if the letters had a clear purpose, were well-organized, and used details to support their assertions. In other words, sometimes I challenged students to think less critically if the personal or political context wasn’t right. And I tried to wait patiently. Some of the most impassioned letters were written later on during this time period, as students brought their own direct experiences to bear. The less than ethical tactics used by military recruiters became a common thread of discussion in the letters, as did the low morale of family or friends serving in the military.

I also asked students to write a memoir that may or may not have been war-related in its focus but was meaningful to them. Some students wrote about parents or relatives who had served during World War II or the Vietnam War, while some wrote about those fighting in the current wars. Often the stories were tragic, but they focused on the strength of individuals to overcome adversity. Other times the memoirs were an opportunity to come to insights about the futility of war. I also assigned selections from Iraqi war memoirs, including Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead and John Crawford’s The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell. The first is a memoir of Operation Desert Storm, the second of the current Iraqi occupation. Crawford, especially, conveys the horror and details of day-to-day life in a war zone and personalizes the war for students in the same way the letters did.

These memoirs also served as models for what good memoirs do—draw readers into a world and make it come to life so that we have some appreciation of what really happened instead of idealizing the past. As each year of occupation passed, the memoirs students wrote were enriched by the growing number of actual stories being told about the current occupations. My criteria for evaluating their memoirs evolved as the wars themselves evolved. For example, as criticism of the current wars/occupations increased, it became less acceptable to write memoirs of the righteousness of their grandfathers’ battles in World War II without noting the differences or similarities to the current wars. By fall 2006, it was much less socially acceptable to write war memoirs in an idealized way that glorified war in general.

I also asked students to read some short commentaries about the war and write a commentary of their own that could be war-related or not. I used this assignment to introduce students to basic rhetorical concepts in arguments, such as making and supporting claims. Students began the assignment by reading available newspaper commentaries on the war. These commentaries served as useful models of comparison (is Iraq like Vietnam?) or process (how will we ever get out of Iraq?) or definition (what is a just war?) or cause/effect (what will happen if we just pull out?).

The topics they chose are significant for two reasons. First, they were not simply pro- or anti-war in their focus. Topics tended to focus on more manageable war-related issues. These issues changed from year to year depending on the changing political and social contexts. For example, when the war started, students were more concerned with the process for legitimately starting a war or whether WMDs were present in Iraq. Topic choice was often determined by the extent to which students felt personally threatened or affected by the war. For example, just as students ultimately began to write letters to soldiers based on their own personal contacts with friends or relatives who had been sent to fight, students also began to write commentaries based on their experiences with military recruiters and their own sense of being threatened by a possible draft.

As one might guess, young college students usually argued strongly against a draft, but in different ways predicated on differing assumptions. For example, writers argued that 18-year-olds are too immature to fight in a war, that at that age they have no rights as adults, so they should not have the responsibilities of adults. The more personal approach to argument was more common than a socially conscious argument—that, for example, a voluntary army targets the poor so we should not have a draft. The actions of military recruiters similarly proved to be a rich topic for young writers. Students wrote about the legal battle between universities and the military to allow recruiters on campus given the claim of discrimination in the military against gays and lesbians. They also wrote about the No Child Left Behind clause that threatened the loss of federal funds if schools did not provide recruiters with lists of student names, and especially the methods used by recruiters to try to convince students to enlist.

Not surprisingly, students tended to be more supportive of the war before the draft and recruitment became topics of conversation. By fall 2005, however, the collective tone had changed. Students often felt betrayed and war-weary. My sense was that what students chose to write about had a lot more to do with what was going on in their lives and in the news at that time than whether I intimidated them with my opinions. As the character and quality of the occupation in Iraq in particular changed from year to year, and as the on-going drama unfolded, so too did the kinds of writing change. But the opportunity to engage in discussions germane to teaching academic writing remained. For example, when a writer argued that the draft violated his Constitutional rights, I challenged him to find the evidence that suggests which rights are being violated. When another writer ranted in what was supposed to be a reasoned commentary to a general adult audience that “the war in Iraq is a pointless war” and that “there is no reason to die over Bush’s mistake” without sufficient explanation, I could take the opportunity to help him develop or question his claims and offer a lesson in appropriate tone. Just as my evaluation of student letters changed over time in light of the information available and the political climate, so too did the evaluation of the commentaries change over time. For example, in fall 2005, after the Downing Street memos had become available to the public, students were better able to support claims that Bush wanted to invade Iraq before the debate over WMDs. In fall 2004, before such evidence was widely available, I would have counseled students not to make such a claim.

I asked students to complete two research-based writing assignments. The first was a short “report” on a topic of their choice, which partly served as an introduction to working with sources and partly as a warm-up for the second, more formal research project that completed the work of the semester. The purpose of these assignments was not to “compile quotations in correct form” as Edward White has criticized (22), but to facilitate multiple goals, including those now associated with what has come to be called “information literacy.” For the report, students defined an audience who would benefit from particular information for a particular reason, and then gathered information from mostly (appropriate) internet sources. For the research paper, students developed a research question related, if possible, to the wars/occupation and narrowed and refined that question through weekly conferences and reports. War-related discussions during the semester made choosing a topic somewhat easier, because students generally understood at an earlier stage in the process what issues mattered to them and what sorts of topics might be researched. Some students expressed “battle fatigue” by the time the research essay was assigned, but may have been weary of any topic at that point, especially in a theme-oriented writing course. Most students, however, felt satisfied with their topics by the time they turned in the papers.

Because students gathered, read, and interpreted sources of their own choosing, their thesis statements were more likely to be “working” statements, evolving and becoming more complex and nuanced as they went through a process of their own making. For example, one student writing in fall of 2004 started with this tentative question: “How will the Iraqi War lead to Iraq becoming a stable democracy?” But by the time she had read some of the history of Iraq and U.S. involvement in Iraq, along with sources from the Economist on WMDs and a piece from the Economics Affairs Bureau arguing that oil was the reason for the war, her tentative thesis became “How does the war intimidate Saddam and show the rest of the world that the U.S. is still the most powerful nation?” Although this thesis would qualify as an overgeneralization by most standards, including the ones used for this assignment, I as the teacher did not advise her to create this thesis by browbeating her with my opinions about the war, nor did I advise her to focus on politics; she created her thesis on the basis of the reading that she located through the research process, a process grounded in standard searches through library databases.

A number of tentative theses and/or research questions went through similar transformations. Another example is the student (fall 2004) whose first tentative thesis before library research was, “The way George Bush is dealing with the war is good; there are going to be some good and bad times and he needs to stick to his guns as he is doing.” But as he researched how the war was going, he became interested in the costs. He researched the specific line item for the increased defense authorization figure, then $87 billion, and the projected costs of rebuilding the country with projected deficit figures for the next decade in the U.S. He compared these costs to the costs of other domestic expenditures, such as college tuition. His thesis statement became “We, the U.S., should hand the control and power over to the United Nations so we will not have to be paying solely for the costs and using our own soldiers.”

In each case, evidence played a key role in shaping student thinking and writing. Many were solution oriented, focusing on policies that would address particular problems and/or analysis of complex issues. By fall 2005, there was also a noticeable change from research that focused on what should have been done to ensure victory (i.e. garner more U.N. support) to a focus on the effects of the war, whether it be on Iraqi children, gas and oil prices, media coverage, U.S. prestige around the world, or veterans. The shift in topics also made me more aware of how my evaluation criteria should change over time. By fall 2006, instead of evaluating students on their ability to interpret what might have been done by U.S. authorities (as was often the case in fall 2004), I was evaluating them on what U.S. authorities had actually done. In retrospect, arguing what should have been done was probably more difficult than explaining what actually had been done and what that meant. As the wars/occupations continued, more evidence became available to student researchers and the wars/occupations became richer research opportunities.

Some might interpret my experiences as yet another reason to wait patiently until things have “settled down” before assigning “controversial topics.” But how long do we wait? If we wait too long, our students may no longer see the topics as relevant to their lives and believe that their instructors are assigning yet another paper that is “ancient history.” Rather than wait until topics have been “covered” by “great writers” and given the academic stamp of legitimacy, writing in the public sphere necessitates that we move faster in the first-year composition classroom. Technologically accessed sources enable us to do that, as long as we work within the limits of what we and our students are able to do with particular topics. This is the sort of writing our students should be producing if they are to become what Lazere has called “responsible global citizens” and if our classes value “critical civic literacy” (194). The length of the wars/occupations also enabled me to assign these topics over a period of several years, allowing for a collection of student writing that documented a knowledge base of evolving questions, opinions, and arguments. I was able, with students’ permission, to show my students in 2006 what the students in 2004 and 2005 were thinking about. Students used writing to learn from their own experiences, from the world around them, and from each other, and I learned a way to teach writing to young people for a new world of reasons.

Works Cited

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Thelin, William H. “Understanding Problems in Critical Classrooms.” College Composition and Communication 57.1 (Sep. 2005): 114-141.

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White, Edward M. Assigning, Responding, Evaluating: A Writing Teacher’s Guide. New York: St. Martin’s P, 1995.

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