Full Course Title: Composition & Rhetoric II: Research Writing.
Designed and taught with the approval of Yeshiva College English/Composition & Rhetoric Department. Syllabus available in PDF format in the image above.
As this is a course in research writing, you will pick a topic, research it, and write a series of “mini” essays on your chosen topic, which together will culminate in a longer term paper. All the course readings will focus on the study of the Batman phenomenon, from the character’s inception in 1939 to his most recent appearances in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Your topic can (but does not have to) be Batman-related, but it must center on comic-book iconography in pop culture. We will also read essays on how to approach research writing, as well as research writing about a variety of topics and in a variety of styles in order to analyze and interrogate different authors’ ability to formulate claims and arguments, summarize sources, paraphrase them, cite, analyze their own and others’ ideas, argue, and persuade. This course is geared toward helping you work on all these skills and continue to strengthen your voice, style, and grammar. By the end of Composition & Rhetoric II, you should be able to: recognize and generate interesting ideas; think and read analytically and critically and use these skills effectively in your writing; refine your arguments and use supporting evidence; write with authority and with a purpose; consciously employ an appropriate voice and tone; understand what plagiarism is and how to avoid it; write to a specific audience; response effectively in writing to views that are different from your own; recognize and produce standard written English; recognize and produce clear and effective sentences, transitions, and paragraphs; recognize and produce clear and effective organizations and structures; identify and use conventions of different kinds of expository writing; use a standard academic style in documenting sources (e.g., MLA, APA); draft and revise work making use of self-evaluation as well as comments by the instructor and, when appropriate, by peers; edit and proofread final drafts; locate, evaluate, and synthesize various kinds of evidence through research; integrate, engage, and acknowledge sources within your own writing while responding to arguments different from your own; demonstrate the ability to maintain the writing process through completion of a research paper.
LEARNING OBJECTIVES: The department asks for three essays, one of which can be expanded into the final research essay. Courses were thematic, so I opted to theme this course around comic books, specifically the Batman universe, to galvanize student interest and illustrate different ways of reading. This course employed a version of the “seed text” method, taking Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns as our point of departure. In tandem with formulating arguments about both the Batman universe and the social significance of a particular character, students “branched out” to other texts, including but not limited to Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum, Neil Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, Jeph Loeb’s Hush and The Long Halloween, Doug Moench’s Knightfall, Mark Waid’s Superman: Kingdom Come, and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. As they developed their arguments, students learned to find, classify, and utilize scholarly essays on comics in general, the Batman universe specifically, and social issues such as gender depictions, trauma and coping, war and terrorism, age, and psychopathology.
The first essay asked students to broadly consider the significance of The Dark Knight Returns in comics history and in a sociocultural sense: that is, why is it considered the “rebirth” of Batman, and what, ideologically, is at stake in the work? The second essay asked students to close-read a contained section of The Dark Knight Returns, formulate an argument about it, and support that argument with minimal outside research performed on their own. In these essays, students discussed ageism, Reaganism, hypermasculinity, and “Othering” and cultural views on war; they learned to examine the tensions in visual and verbal juxtapositions in order to support their arguments and practiced using databases such as JSTOR, Project MUSE, and EBSCO Host to find scholarly resources that furthered and lent credence to their arguments. Most of the students developed one of these two essays into their culminating project, although some leaped at the opportunity to create an entirely new project.
Students conducted their research in groups, following the “BEAM” taxonomy of texts used in Columbia University’s University Writing Program: Background; Exhibit; Argument/Assessment; and Method. Each group was assigned a particular type of source and gathered scholarship pertinent to that type of source: for instance, students assigned “background” brought in sources explicating the DC universe and Batman’s history; the “argument” group presented sources on visual culture and sexuality, violence, trauma, and mental illness; and the “method” students found sources on multimodal reading practices, semiotic analysis, and under-language. Students presented their research to the class and compiled a comprehensive list of resources to turn to while working on their final projects (although they were not limited to the listed sources). To ensure that students were using scholarly sources only, I approved or vetoed sources as necessary.
WHAT I LEARNED:
This course was extremely challenging given that it was composed of students used to a non-secular experience of education, and the course material itself frequently verged on graphic and explicit. Most of my students had progressed from the composition course I taught in the previous semester and therefore knew what to expect; still, I had to take care in selecting excerpts and had to avoid in-class analysis of certain scenes that depicted sexuality, such as the above panels from Catwoman: When in Rome, wherein Selena Kyle is complacently aware of her sexual power, an attitude that later backfires on her drastically. I included warnings along with my syllabi and allowed students both “NSFW” and “SFW” options. Ultimately, I was surprised by students’ choices, as some of my more orthodox students deliberately selected works that forced them to grapple with and argue for their beliefs alongside formal arguments about the comics themselves and the ideologies at stake in them. More unpleasantly, I was occasionally surprised by their strong (and strongly politicized) responses to material I had assumed was SFW, such as the scene in The Dark Knight in which the Joker opens his coat to reveal a series of grenades, implicitly likening himself to a suicide bomber.
The course was also occasionally difficult to manage, as students were overly excited by the material. Class discussions tended to devolve into small group debates, particularly amongst students who considered themselves “comics geeks.” I dealt with this problem by assigning free writes and focused group debates that were presented to the class once a consensus had been reached.
My single regret about this course was that I did not sufficiently constrain the course material. While this ended up being fine for the students, it made extra work for me, as I had to approve paper topics and sources for approximately 60 students, few of whom overlapped in their areas of interest. If I taught this course again, I would narrow down the list of outside exhibit sources and perhaps introduce a scholarly essay as a seed text for research. At the time, there was also surprisingly little scholarship on the Joker; as such, I should have spent more time in class demonstrating how to extract ideas from essays about similar characters and apply them to the Joker.
This work by V. Manivannan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.