Prospect Magazine: Cool Classes

The Write Thing

Learning the rules of grammar (and life)

For a second, you fear you’ve wandered into the wrong classroom. You were looking for a freshman composition course, but you seem to have found something else altogether. A couple dozen students arranged in a circle around a classroom in the computer science building are arguing the ethical dimensions of case studies involving the clash between individual rights and workplace responsibility. It appears you’ve come upon a business ethics or philosophy class, or maybe a seminar on the legal system.

But, no, this is indeed the freshman composition class you were looking for—only it is a comp class with a difference. It is an honors seminar called Social Responsibility, a hybrid class designed to teach the usual lessons of freshman comp—clear writing and critical thinking—while also prodding students to consider their obligations as responsible citizens.

“This is a class that wears several hats,” explains the instructor, Mary Kay Mulvaney, an assistant professor of English. “We want to challenge students’ understanding of social responsibility, whether it’s in the workplace or community life or the legal system. At the same time, we want to do what’s always been done in freshman comp, developing college-level reading and writing and reasoning skills.”

The class’s focus on social responsibility is reflected in an eclectic reading list that ranges from Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience to Plato’s Crito to Tom Morris’ If Aristotle Ran General Motors. It is also evident in the range of out-of-class activities, including field trips to federal court and a service project in conjunction with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

Still, at its heart, this remains a composition class, one with a strong focus on writing assignments. “We’re very writing-intensive,” Mulvaney says. “We function at times as a small-group peer-review writing workshop.”

The class is for first-year students in the Honors Program, open by invitation to high-achieving students. It is the first in a sequence of seminars for honors students, offered each term from their first to fourth years. Others cover disciplines ranging from history to natural science.

Like all freshman composition classes at Elmhurst, this one meets in a computer lab, and students are asked to bring a computer disk with them to class each day. In addition to longer research papers, the students complete in-class writing assignments, which they turn over to classmates for instant electronic comments.

Students also use the computers to do online research—they have checked out the resources available at the Web site of the College’s Institute for Business Ethics—and even to conduct online class discussions.

Of course, there is also time for class discussions of the more old-fashioned kind, featuring lots of raised arms ready to add their opinions and insights to the mix. “They’re eager to participate,” Mulvaney says proudly.

That’s one social responsibility met.

Mary Kay Mulvaney teaches an innovative version of freshman comp.
Photography by Paul Elledge

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