400-Level Urban Geography (Writing-Intensive)

WRITING AND THINKING CRITICALLY ABOUT THE CITY


There's a significant rate of improvement from the drafts to the final copy. And I guess that's what it's all about, just trying to get them to improve. You could take it to the extreme and have them doing first draft, second draft, third draft, fourth draft, and the improvement would be even greater, but then at some point you have to say, "The writing is important, but the content is also important." And you try and get writing exercises that teach content. That's a form of compromise. But ultimately you can't just do writing for writing's sake. That needs to be done in a different kind of class.— Professor Jon Goss

COURSE GOALS

Students gain knowledge of the city and the process of urbanization using the methodological and theoretical approaches of urban social geography. The course also has a practical focus in that the students and the instructor explore the concept of "city" together, thinking about and applying abstract concepts to the local context of multi-ethnic Honolulu. Students research and test theories using urban data sources, with special emphasis on access to housing. The end result of the research will be a publishable document. Students further apply what they have learned about local urban geography in practical writing formats and styles, such as letters to politicians and in statements policy recommendations.

WRITING ACTIVITIES

The professor gives students first draft due dates and final draft due dates for the five assignments listed below. He returns each first draft to students with comments at the end of the paper. The students use the comments to help them improve their papers before submitting a final draft. In the syllabus, the professor writes, "You may (are encouraged to) submit your individual assignments anytime before the due date and to resubmit them if you feel you can improve your grade." He also suggests that students have a friend or classmate read and respond to their drafts to help them have a sense of audience and focus on communication rather than on simply getting a grade.

When grading a written assignment, the professor weighs students’ knowledge and critical reasoning more heavily than their spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Students receive detailed written instructions for assignments 2 - 5.

To be fair to multiple-choice objective-type courses, you're learning facts which you can then use to support a point of view. You have to have the facts. But the facts by themselves don't mean anything until you write them down or until you talk about them, until you try and use them to convince somebody. So I think that's the point [of WI classes]. The point is to try and teach or to get the students to apply what they learn. And writing it in the classroom for papers is the first step."--Professor Goss

1. A PERSONAL RESPONSE TO URBAN ISSUES

The assignment sheet for the first paper reads:

This assignment is intended to get you thinking and writing on the conceptof the city, that is its meaning, whether as a physical object, a sign and symbol, or a sphere of interaction that might define a "way of life." You are not required to review or cite any literature and are asked to write an original and personal piece. You should write a minimum of two pages (typed and double-spaced or equivalent) to be submitted by [date].

You are asked to critically interpret (and agree, disagree, support with evidence, expand upon, illustrate, etc.) one of the following quotes by more or less famous commentators. Do not be afraid to express yourself in whatever form and style you wish—that is what this freestyle assignment is all about—and do not be afraid to take issue with these authors. Points are awarded for engaging, creative and imaginative thinking, as well as the usual concern with form and content. If you wish I can give you citations for the selection of quotations.

Critically discuss only one of the following:

"You know, I see everybody worried about the homeless these days asking, ‘Oh what can we do about the homeless?’ But the police still come and harass us all the time. And the government doesn’t make it very easy for us. And no one wants to hire homeless people. Like here, in the industrial section, there are always trucks that need to be unloaded or things to be hauled about. And there are men here who want to work, who would work and could use the money. But no one'll hire them."— Tom, homeless in Hawai‘i.

"The city is a moral universe in which helpfulness is extended beyond kinsfolk to strangers. In a modern city, public institutions aspire to provide solace or uplift to all, often with cool efficiency that is rewarding in its way as is the warmth usually credited to small communities. A close reading of the city scene reveals inconspicuous artifacts of consideration such as telephone booths and wheelchair ramps on sidewalks that symbolize the principles of communication and access."— Yi-Fu Tuan, geographer.

Students have about fourteen quotes to choose from. After completing a first draft, students meet in feedback groups and respond to each others’ papers following peer review guidelines provided. Before submitting the first draft to the professor, students can use their peers’ comments to improve their draft. The instructor reads and comments on the second draft. Students have another chance to improve their draft using his comments.

PURPOSE: This short assignment helps students think critically about urban issues—the quotes are somewhat controversial and some contradict each other—and to be creative. The instructor uses this assignment to diagnose students’ writing strengths and weaknesses and to introduce them to peer-group conferencing/editing. The assignment also gets students excited about the course content.

2. ANALYZING RESIDENCY PATTERNS

The instructor provides population data on a computer disk and step-by-step instructions regarding the use of the software and its calculation and cartographic functions. Using the data, students calculate indices to determine the extent of residential segregation in Honolulu among various ethnic and national groups defined by the U.S. Census of 1980. Students are required to obtain additional raw data from the census volume available at the library.

Students then apply statistical techniques to the data, calculating the "Index of Dissimilarity" and "Location Quotient." Referring to their matrices, students posit hypotheses about the nature of segregation and write an analysis and explanation of the results of their data. On the assignment sheet, the instructor lists specific questions for the students to answer such as,

  • "What do the data tell you about the segregation and the possible nature of interaction between ethnic Japanese and others?"

  • "How do Japanese and Koreans differ in their IDs with other groups and what might explain this?"

Finally, students select two ethnic groups, map the data for each on two census tract maps, compare the maps, and explain the different patterns for each group. Students may do further analysis beyond the required analysis for bonus points.

PURPOSE: This writing activity builds student confidence and introduces research techniques and a computer cartographic program. Students also demonstrate their analytical skills and the technical knowledge gained in class when they combine the historical, economic, social and geographic data, develop reasonable hypotheses and support their explanations.

3. GEOGRAPHY REVIEWS OF POPULAR BOOKS

Students chose a book that relates to the course content, either fiction or non-fiction, and analyze its geographic aspects. The instructor encourages the students to choose fiction so they see how theories they study in class can be applied to everyday life. They may read, for example, Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities and examine the ways racial, gender, or class conflict contribute to the social constriction of New York neighborhoods. The instructor gives students "a letter from a journal editor" requesting a book review and explaining the format for the review: not to exceed three pages (double-spaced), direct quotes single-spaced and indented on the page, references and notes at the end of the text, etc.

If students submit incorrectly formatted reviews, the instructor "rejects" the reviews and requests properly formatted revisions. The instructor also provides a two-page handout on "Principles of Book Reviewing" that briefly explains the purpose of a book review and covers the various parts of a review: text/author introduction, description of the text, critique, evaluation.

PURPOSE: Students practice critical reading skills and applying theories they learned in class to a text with a realistic setting. This assignment also introduces them to writing in a tightly controlled format often expected of published reviews.

4. GROUP FEASIBILITY STUDY AND CLASS PRESENTATION

Students work on this group project throughout the semester. The instructor breaks it into manageable stages for the students:

  1. Form groups of 2 or 3 (in-class)

  2. Identify common interest and topic of concern (in-class)

  3. Formulate research questions

  4. Conduct "feasibility study"

  5. Determine research design

  6. Collect data

  7. Analyze data

  8. Prepare class presentation

  9. Write personal statement.

Each stage is described and examples of "thinking" are provided in a handout. Under stage 4, the instructor writes, "Example—Let’s suppose you are interested in knowing to what extent Chinatown is owned by Chinese nationals or those of Chinese decent. Is data on land ownership available? How are you going to get it? Can you distinguish Chinese ownership by name on the land title? What problems might be encountered? Could the error incurred be estimated using a sampling procedure?"

The group makes a 25-minute presentation of their project which includes background information, literature review, statement of hypothesis/research question, research design, data, analysis, and conclusions/policy recommendations. Students comment on and grade each groups’ presentation (a common evaluation form is used).

Each group submits one folder containing all the research materials plus a personal statement from each group member. In these statements (four pages in length) students critically discuss the research in their own words. And they indicate what insights the research provided, how it is limited, and how it might be extended. Finally, they state what they have personally gained from the assignment (if anything).

PURPOSE: This assignment allows students to develop a research project on a topic they are interested in. Unlike the second assignment, the data and methods are not provided for them. They learn how to formulate a research question, develop a suitable method, collect data, and draw conclusions. It also gets students to practice writing and presenting in an academic style.

5. LETTER TO ELECTED REPRESENTATIVE

Students write a letter (three pages minimum) to a politician regarding an issue of urban governance or policy. The letter requests attention and realistic specific action by the government. The letter must be in layperson’s terms, informative, persuasive, and contain evidence and cite studies that support the student’s arguments.

PURPOSE: In writing the letter, students apply the theories and knowledge they've accumulated through the course, as well as exercise a practical and important mode of writing.

RELATED WRITING ACTIVITIES

1. JOURNALS

Students log their learning experience, pose questions to the instructor, and develop proposals for papers and assignments. The journals are informal, may be personal, and are collected weekly, but are not graded.

PURPOSE: The instructor found that journals help students develop ideas, are useful to students when they work on other writing assignments, and increase the amount of communication between him and the students.

2. EXAMS

As part of both midterm and final exams, students choose two of four essay topics.

Professor Goss comments on his class (excerpts from an interview):


The first draft gives them the tools to edit, basically teaching them about the whole concept of writing drafts. But they don't understand that unless they have had a writing-intensive course before. So one of the best ways to introduce the whole concept of writing is to introduce your own experience and to bring a paper to tell them, to show them how many times your paper has been revised before it gets published. They get the idea that what they write to start with isn't perfect and they need to get their peers, their parents, their girlfriends and boyfriends or whoever it is to look at it, and ultimately myself too, to look at it and give it back with some comments, and then they can go and improve on it.

The final assignment was a letter, a letter-writing assignment. And as it turned out, this was done for extra credit. That was negotiated in class because they decided they had too much work; and I agreed, because a lot of it was difficult and had taken a long time. So instead of requiring this it became an extra-credit assignment which half the class did. Sometimes they did get peer comments on their drafts, sometimes they didn't. And I'm toying with the idea of making that required so they have to be able to [prove] that it has been reviewed by a classmate. That gets to be again difficult because of the coordination among the students. And ultimately I think if you want to be able to do this effectively, you're going to have to set up a period of time where in class they have to review each other's papers, because otherwise they come with excuses.

What I have in mind is an alternative to having 15% of the course grade as participation. What I would do is to break that up and have 10% participation in class, and then 5% editing participation. I thought I'd have students hand in drafts, reviewed by a student editor who signs on the bottom, and then I grade the editor with points, or bonus points. So the editor actually gets some benefit.

The idea of the book review is to get them reading — students don't seem to realize that what they learn in this course is true, actually, applied to everyday life. It's not supposed to be a bunch of abstract concepts you put in your closet when you leave school. So the idea then is to get them to think about how the abstract academic concepts they learn can be applied to the real world or to the fantasy world of fiction. It's a surprisingly enjoyable assignment. I think they get a lot out of doing that.

What we have in the range of assignments are five different types of writing. And I think it's important to recognize, if you're doing a writing-intensive course, that there is writing for specific purposes, that there are different styles of writing and each one is valuable. Letter-writing, I know, is probably something that people don't think about doing in class as being an effective way of teaching content or actually you spend time teaching with. But when you think about it, letter-writing will probably be the main form of writing that most people are going to be doing. Professionals will be writing reports and stuff like that, I guess; probably for most people the most writing they do is when they write a letter. And if they can craft good letters and make persuasive arguments in their letters, good for them because then their letters will be taken seriously by people that matter.

Writing is a means of mastering, to practice in mastering the content of the course. The kind of knowledge that you get through a non-writing class, which is tested through objective-type tests, multiple-choice-type tests at the end of the semester, is impractical. It doesn't apply to anything else but multiple-choice tests at the end of the semester. Basically you are spending the whole semester learning material in order to take a test, whereas if you teach a writing course, what you're teaching, or what you're giving the students, is the ability to go out of the classroom with a tool — writing. To be fair to the multiple-choice objective-type courses, you're learning facts which you can then use to support a point of view. You have to have the facts. But the facts by themselves don't mean anything until you write them down or until you talk about them, until you try and use them to convince somebody. So I think that's the point. The point is to get the students to apply what they learn. And writing it in the classroom for papers is the first step. I mean it is artificial . . . even the letter and the book review were artificial in the sense that I was telling them to do them. But those kinds of things are practical. They can take those out of the classroom and use them in their everyday life. They can write letters to congresspersons or whatever, and they can critically read books and they can write about them as well.