11.016J | Spring 2015 | Undergraduate

The Once and Future City

Instructor Insights

Structuring a Communication-Intensive Course

In this section, Anne Whiston Spirn shares insights about structuring and supporting students’ development as writers in a communication-intensive course.

"Having a writing advisor for students is absolutely critical when teaching this communication-intensive course."
— Anne Whiston Spirn

Having a writing advisor for students is absolutely critical when teaching this communication-intensive course. A good writing advisor will hold workshops to help the students think strategically about how to approach each assignment and how to write a paper in which they are asked to investigate an urban site using old maps and on-site observations, which they then document with their own photographs. Some years ago, I had a particularly wonderful writing advisor who drafted a guide for each assignment, beyond what I had in the syllabus. She came to all of my classes. And she would say to students, “Here are different ways you could structure this paper given what the professor is asking for, pay careful attention to what she’s asking for, and you’re being asked to do this, etc.” It proved to be really helpful to the students, most of whom never had been asked to write a paper on a topic like this before. Some of them were at sea about how to formulate a thesis, and how to find significant details, and how to use significant details as evidence to use in formulating an argument.

I urge students to start with their own observations, and to use the required readings as reference texts to test their own hypotheses about why things are the way they are, and to find reasons that particular changes happened on their sites when they did. For example, in the third assignment, which asks them to investigate how their site changed over time, students can use the text for the class, Crabgrass Frontier by Ken Jackson, to look up a particular time period and see what was going on in the nation at that time, and come up with an event or policy that they can tie back to their observations.

It’s also important to break down the writing requirement into several assignments. I require the students to write a certain number of words over the semester, in one short and three medium-sized papers. I think this is a good strategy because it gives the students time to get feedback on an assignment, and then to take that feedback and use it in the next assignment. I also require the students to revise one of the four papers, and I advise students to pick the assignment in which they feel their performance was low; or, to pick the one they’re going to have the most fun rewriting. Generally, students have an eye to their final grade, so they’re looking to convert the lowest grade to a higher one.

The students’ papers (which all are posted on the class website) are required reading for the entire class. There are three presentations, and four assignments. Everyone presents the first assignment. Then, one-third of the class presents their findings for one of the last three assignments. The class knows ahead of time which sites will be presented, so the required reading for that class session includes the papers of those students who are presenting. The students’ task is to comment on the presentation of each site by making comparisons to their own sites, and what they found there, so each of these presentations generates a comparative discussion. By the end of the semester, everyone knows everyone else’s site.

The class website is critical to the success of the course. The website includes the syllabus, assignments, videos, and links to resources. Each student maintains their own website, which is linked to the class website.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2015
Learning Resource Types
Other Video
Projects with Examples
Written Assignments with Examples
Instructor Insights