What Is R&C About?
The shape of a Reading and Composition (R&C) course is influenced by multiple agents: the College of Letters and Science (L&S), which created the requirement; the department or program in which you are teaching; the individual instructor (and the intellectual project you design for the course); and the students whose learning needs your course must address. These influences are addressed in this section.
With one or two majors as exceptions, all undergraduates are required to take two semesters of the course (A and B), though some satisfy the A course requirement through Advanced Placement (AP) or other testing. Through these courses students move beyond high-school models for paper writing (five-paragraph opinion essays with a funnel introduction) to become skilled college writers mastering critical analysis, interpretive arguments, longer and more sophisticated papers, and some research skills.
It is intended that students take these courses, in A-B order, as freshmen and sophomores, to enhance their learning and performance in upper-division courses later on.
If you are devising a syllabus for an R&C course for the first time, you are likely to think the most about choosing readings and defining an overall narrative for your course. These are, of course, exciting and essential. As you draft or re-draft your syllabus, though, you also need to consider how your course fits into the larger picture within your department and the University.
The College of Letters and Science (L&S) sets the basic policy for Reading and Composition courses. The Reading and Composition Curricular Goals and Guidelines (pdf), newly approved by L&S in 2011, is based on the Reading and Composition Committee report of 1989 (pdf), which proposed the R&C requirement and described its intended practices and objectives.
The Reading and Composition Curricular Goals and Guidelines (pdf) is an essential document for R&C GSIs to be familiar with, though the 1989 report remains important. In relation to the 1989 report, the 2011 Goals and Guidelines document gives more explicit information about the differences between the first-semester and second-semester courses, updates the guidelines for reading lists, and gives new rules about the nature and due date of the final paper or project for the courses. GSIs should become familiar with it as they prepare to teach an R&C course.
The following are highlights from the 1989 report (pdf) and discuss a number of principles underpinning design and instruction in R&C courses.
- The aim of A and B is to improve the student’s ability to write clearly, effectively, and accurately about subjects of intellectual complexity.
- Such writing — and the kinds of thinking that make such writing possible — is both a practical necessity for college students and a significant step in the life of the mind generally.
- The major emphasis of A and B will be on practicing the enabling skills of writing and reading, both in class and out of class.
- A and B should be designed to encourage students to write frequently and attentively enough for them to experience how writing extends thought.
- Through frequent writing, class discussions, and conferences, A and B will introduce relatively inexperienced writers to the process, pleasure, and discipline of composing.
A number of skills are advanced as essential to students’ effective writing and reading:
- Recognizing in their reading, and being able to express in their writing, a full and balanced presentation of ideas.
- Moving from concrete to abstract and vice versa; engaging the mind of the reader and involving the reader progressively in the development of the writer’s idea.
- Practicing the distinction between observation and inference; replacing unsubstantiated opinionating with original perception sustained by pertinent evidence. This also trains students to establish increasing intellectual independence.
- Practicing rewriting: discovering ways to open up and clarify what is in their idea; knowing how to spend time reworking an idea until they make it their own — until, that is, they establish authority over it.
- Practicing rereading: cultivating the expectation, parallel with that of rewriting, that texts other than their own will provide a fullness of understanding and that students will discover and appreciate new dimensions of that fullness through rereading.
In addition to L&S, several other stakeholders are involved in the shape of an R&C course.
Each teaching unit offering R&C courses will express its own disciplinary orientation in the guidelines it generates for choosing readings. The diversity in orientations among disciplines enriches students’ choices in fulfilling a course requirement; it also allows the participating departments an opportunity to introduce undergraduates to their disciplines.
Many of the larger R&C teaching units have written guidelines. Some do not have formal documents but will give helpful examples and offer comments on your proposal. If your department has a 300-level pedagogy course for R&C GSIs, that is the ideal source of this information. Consult with the instructor of record, the faculty member serving as GSI coordinator, the pedagogy instructor, or other R&C instructors in your teaching unit for guidelines and guidance. Further, the student affairs officer in your department may have a file of past R&C syllabi to look at.
The intellectual project you design is an exciting aspect of teaching an R&C course: leading a group of students through a set of visual or verbal “texts” you have already enjoyed, helping them make new conceptual connections. It’s an important part of your formation as an academic professional, as well, and in that sense it’s helpful to think of your job as translating your intellectual interests into a sequence of learning experiences for students. The payoff for students is that your enthusiasm for the material makes your teaching especially interesting and effective.
Some GSIs dislike guidelines that require them to teach genres and works that are outside their research specialties and would rather keep to what motivates them the most. It’s important to remember, however, that your intellectual and professional formation are constantly enriched through teaching less familiar or perhaps (to you) less scintillating works. Think ahead to the teaching repertoire you will be able to show off to prospective employers when entering the job market. Many institutions may be interested in your range as well as your depth.
GSIs teaching R&C need to keep in mind that Reading and Composition courses are, above all, courses that teach undergraduates important skills of college-level writing, critical reading, and, in the case of 1B, incorporating research into writing. While your own interests may help define the topic and texts for the course, you must make sure that the course is helping all your students develop the academic skills they need to succeed at Berkeley.
Coming from a variety of backgrounds, students will display a wide variety of assumptions and skill levels. As R&C instructors we need to address both — what the students initially believe about adequate reading and good writing, and their actual practices as they go about developing them.