In his Writing 2-3 course, Professor Donald Sheehan's primary goal is to encourage his students to develop their critical thinking skills by moving them through some cognitive or ontological shift. In this course, students are initiated not only into the conventions and expectations of academic writing, but also into a new way of thinking about themselves and their world.
Professor Sheehan's Writing 2-3 is a theme-based course with a theoretical bent. The theme of the course is violence, and the theoretical basis belongs to René Girard. Professor Sheehan has chosen violence as his theme because he feels that it is one of a few topics that can move students to think and feel deeply enough to bring about a shift in their understanding of themselves, the texts they read, and the world around them. He has chosen to teach this theme according to Girard's critical perspective because he wants to provide students with an objective, analytical lens through which they might view both the texts and their own personal experiences.
The power of violence to unsettle students, both personally and critically, is important to the writing instruction that takes place in this composition classroom. Professor Sheehan believes that this "unsettling" is a necessary step in turning students into writers: "Students need to think far more deeply, and bravely, and 'riskily'... in order to write ... Every part of your being is involved in writing; [to do it well,] there have to be changes on all levels." Professor Sheehan's course is designed to effect these changes.
Of course, to lead students to this sort of cognitive shift, a professor must manage a student's progress from the personal to the analytical. He must pay careful attention to the ways in which he's accessing the personal, and to the larger academic purposes that the personal will serve. Professor Sheehan has carefully considered this movement, planning in detail the cognitive experience his students will undergo in his course. Because violence is a risky topic, Professor Sheehan does not begin his course by asking students to explore their own experiences. Rather, he asks them to read Peter Maass' Love Thy Neighbor, a book that chronicles the Bosnian experience with violence. This book locates violence "out there, in the world," and so offers students an opportunity to have an initial look at violence in a context that is not threatening to them.
After they have some context in which to begin thinking about violence, Professor Sheehan asks students to write two personal essays: the first a narrative of violence that occurred in their own families in the previous generation, and the second a narrative of violence in which they themselves participated, either as victims or as perpetrators. When the students have completed these two essays, Professor Sheehan asks them to gather the two narratives together and to write both an introduction that finds a common theme between the two episodes and a conclusion that explores the causes and consequences of violence. In this way, Professor Sheehan asks students to analyze personal and family experiences with violence, with the dual aim of enriching their understandings of themselves and of deepening their perspectives on the topic at hand.
Throughout his two-term course, Professor Sheehan moves students back and forth between the personal and the analytical. In Writing 3, students begin the course by reading excerpts from Violence Unveiled, by Gil Bailie, who was a student of Girard's. These excerpts give students' their first opportunity to read critical theory. According to Professor Sheehan, students have explored violence in their own experience; now they are asked to consider it "within a deliberate intellectual construction."
Students are also required to write an essay that reconsiders Peter Maass' book in light of the Girardian theory they are reading. In this assignment, students are asked to consider those moments in which Maass finds himself unable to explain the violence he is witnessing in Bosnia, and to apply Girardian theory in an attempt to articulate an explanation. With the theory in hand, then, students are asked to "complete" what seems incomplete in Maass' understanding of violence.
This exercise in revisiting Maass also serves to provoke students to understand the incompleteness of their own intellectual positions. Furthermore, it prepares students to reconsider their personal experiences with violence: at this point, students write another autobiographical essay about an incident in which they averted or succeeded in "unmaking" violence. At the same time, they read a short passage from an essay by Girard—the first and only encounter they will have with Girard's own writing. The passage they read is dense, but it gives students a model of how the personal and the theoretical might intersect in academic work.
The final paper for Professor Sheehan's course is a long academic paper requiring research on Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov. The novel, as Professor Sheehan understands it, "takes all of our sociological and anthropological and personal and theoretical reflections and grabs them in a fictional framework...[allowing students to explore] a Christian theory of resolution [of violence]: that you don't resolve the problem; you endure it. You suffer."
In their final papers, in which they are encouraged to choose any one of the novel's complex ideas and to explore it more fully, students are asked to do more than simply synthesize what they have learned in the course. By working closely with Professor Sheehan and the course tutor to review, rethink, and revise their ideas, students continue to create shifts in their ways of knowing.
Professor Sheehan expects that the cognitive process that he has initiated in this course is far from finished, and that students will continue to deepen their understanding—both personal and academic—through the models for thinking, reading, and writing with which he has equipped them in his course.
Last Updated: 8/10/08