I was lucky enough to teach a first-year composition course in the mid-80s that focused on the rhetoric of war. Admittedly, the topic was not one I had any deep ties to. It wasn’t one I would have chosen on my own. I took on two sections of the specially themed course as a favor.
I was not an authority on the topic. I hadn’t even reviewed all the texts for the course before I began teaching. I had to work to keep up with the readings and the films that the class watched. I designed the usual kinds of assignments and activities, which I have documented in a List of Ten and in my blog post Assignment: Naming and the Rhetoric of War. Frequently, the students in the classroom knew more than I did about historical battles and current military events.
Despite all the reasons the course could have gone wrong, I found myself with some of the most engaged students I have ever taught. Their personal interest in the topic made all the difference. Students had signed up for the course because they were interested in exploring the topic, so they came into the classroom ready to dig into the texts.
By contrast, the overwhelming majority of students signing up for first-year composition courses had no details on the courses they were choosing. It’s much harder in this more typical unthemed composition course to create contexts that will lead to personal connections for students.
You can read the list of possible contexts for a generic composition course and my ideas on how to align composition with student interests in my post on the Bedford Bits site.