Dr. Daneryl Weber struggled to get her English Composition students to engage with research—and then the 2016 election happened.
Associate professor of English, SUNY Sullivan Community College in Liberty, NY
PhD in English with a concentration in Rhetoric and Writing, MA in English, BA in Elementary Education
Every instructor has had to work with students who are at times … disinterested. Since training with the Indiana Writing Project in graduate school, Daneryl Weber, PhD, has been teaching writing for years—at a local prison facility and at three universities before coming to SUNY Sullivan Community College. And in that time, one thing became clear to her: Composition I students are especially tough.
For many, the course is a requirement that they initially do not value, says this associate professor of English. These students may not have had the best experiences with previous writing classes, and many do not think the lessons learned will apply to what they will be doing in the future. In particular, the topics of researching and finding primary sources, which many viewed as simply “sifting through texts” in the library, were met with glassy (or downcast) eyes.
Then the 2016 presidential election came along, and Dr. Weber realized that this event—and the news cycle that came after—presented her with the opportunity to reach, and inspire, the most disengaged of students.
Students are not interested in the class, writing, or research
For students who are predisposed to be disinterested in a classroom, a traditional lecture will not do. Weber was looking for a way to get them to disengage from technology, engage with each other, and find something they cared about that would inspire them to do research for class projects.
Use fake news to pique real curiosity
Weber created a research project for which students need to research both sides of an argument of their choosing, with sources of their choosing. The trick, she found, is to get them to choose something they care about—or something that they can be extreme about.
“As a former professor of mine used to say, research is life. In order to make decisions or judgments in the world, [students] have to find something out. That’s research. That’s our starting point for everything. When we write using research, we are building a bigger understanding of the world.”— Daneryl Weber, PhD
Course: ENG 1001 Composition I
Description: This is a writing-intensive course in which students draft and revise college-level essays. Students study the conventions of academic prose, examine various methods of organization and development, and learn research skills.
See and share lecture notes, practice tests, and teaching materials.Get access now
Using “fake news” to spark interest in research
Dr. Weber came up with a lesson she calls Spy vs. Spy, named for the Mad magazine comic strip: In it, students must look at two different pieces of source material with opposing viewpoints on the same subject. “The impetus for this assignment was really all the discussion around fake news,” she explains.
“We brainstorm about what’s going on in the world. [Each student brings] in an article, video, web page, or any source they choose, about anything that’s happening, and then we analyze [them],” she says. By examining one issue from varying points of view—and diverse sources of information—students widen their worldview and their ability to locate and evaluate source materials.
What makes this assignment both fun and effective? “The article doesn’t have to be a credible source—it can be goofy,” says Weber. “Sometimes it’s fun for them to find conspiracy-theory or extreme right- or left-wing examples, so they can learn what’s credible and what isn’t.”
How to teach Spy vs. Spy, step by step
At first, Weber says her students are about as enthusiastic about researching politics as they are about taking Composition I. “They say they’re not interested [in politics], but I know they really are, and so you do have to go in and make a point to get their attention in some way,” she says. “I tell them, ‘This affects your money, this affects your future, this affects your kids in school—everything.’”
With that in mind, Weber takes the following steps to get the research rolling.
Offer a startling example (and sources)
In 2018, Weber presented the class with the story of “alt-right” political activist and Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos.
“We started talking about who he was, and I showed the students a clip of a speech he gave at [University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee] where he was calling out a transgender student,” Weber explains. Afterward, there were riots at the University of California–Berkeley, which precipitated the cancellation of Yiannopoulos’s speaking engagement there. “We talked about whether or not he should be allowed to visit the Berkeley campus,” says Weber. (Lawsuits were filed based upon claims that the cancellation violated the First Amendment rights of conservative students.)
Prison Break: Taking Her Courses off Campus
Dr. Weber teaches several courses at the Sullivan Maximum Security Correctional Facility, including Comp I, Creative Nonfiction, several literature classes, a class about the Holocaust, and History of Comedy. “I really love teaching there,” she says, explaining that the students are the most challenging she has—but not for the reasons people might think. “Their library resources are limited, and they generally have no access to the Internet,” she explains. This makes research more difficult for them, but she says they rise to the occasion.
In fact, she says, “‘Inside’ students are often more interested, curious, and motivated than my less enthusiastic [college] students, and they see the bigger picture of what they’re doing and why. Some of our most brilliant minds are behind bars, unfortunately, and it’s a pleasure to work with students at that level. The two populations provide a good balance for me as a teacher, and I love the very different challenges posed by each.”
“I always mix video clips, TED Talks, and articles to show various sides of the argument,” says Weber. “This lays the groundwork, and then they can go off and find an article of their own and bring it in.”
Do not limit them to the library
Though Weber always recommends that students use library resources, she knows that her class is a tech-savvy crowd. “So, instead of limiting them to the library, I got them to look on the Internet to start evaluating the things they see there,” she says. “We spend a lot more time on the Internet than in the library databases.” Two sites she recommends are Opposing Viewpoints in Context and the Media Bias/Fact Check site.
Give them resources to evaluate the sources
Weber uses the class’s online learning management system to post links to sites covering media bias (such as the Media Bias Chart) and fact checking, as well as the assignment description and rubric. Students can enter any news source or media outlet and learn about bias in their reporting.
“On these sites, the sources are evaluated on political bias and how factual the reporting is,” she explains. As the students explore both the articles and their own beliefs, Weber recommends two “fun resources” to help them think further about issues: The Political Matrix and The Political Compass. “This gets them engaged and is a really good way to get them thinking about different sources.”
Have them review articles in groups
Weber often breaks students into groups to review the articles they bring in.
Weber’s rule is this: You can disagree with another student, but if you do, disagree respectfully. Interestingly, she says her students are more likely to shut down than to argue with too much passion (so she has also talked to them about learning to disagree productively). The group work, however, helps engage more student interest and participation. She assigns specific roles within the groups: discussion leader, timekeeper, note taker, presenter. Each group ultimately reports back to the class about their discussion.
Remember: It is still a writing course!
The final deliverable is a 1,000-word paper that outlines the overall topic, the contrasting points of view, the students’ assessment of the trustworthiness of the sources, and their own conclusions. Weber always lets them choose the topics themselves: “I stress often and loudly that they should find things that actually interest them. If they don’t care, why should anyone else?” she says.
“The biggest challenge for this assignment is definitely that they gravitate toward the standard argument paper they wrote in high school,” she adds. “Getting them to see this as a source evaluation paper rather than another persuasive argument is not always easy.” She coaches the class in peer response, gives them guiding questions about theme and structure, and gives feedback on first drafts.
Papers must contain at least four direct citations (in MLA or APA format) and be in polished form when they are handed in. “It’s actually a focused comparative rhetorical analysis that they end up doing,” Weber says. “The more criteria I give them for the evaluation, the better they do.”
Weber says that Spy vs. Spy has had a positive impact—on both her and her students.
“It’s forced me to think about breaking the research into more accessible bits, and that’s one reason why I particularly like this assignment,” she says. “When you see an academic article in a library database, it can be so overwhelming. And so this project helps to build the vocabulary for researching and breaks it into steps.”
Weber says the assignment has another advantage: “I think it’s a good way to get students to do the academic piece and to make connections to other parts of their lives. I always tell them, ‘Research is life.’”