“Why Are We Reading This Stuff Anyway?” Using Keystone Essays to Integrate Reading and Writing in the Composition Classroom
Reviewed by Jillian Skeffington
- David Marshall, Cal State San Bernardino: “What is a Keystone Essay?”
- Celia Rasmussen, Indiana University: “Why These Readings?: Bridging the Gap between Course Content and Rhetoric in the Composition Classroom”
- Miranda Yaggi, Indiana University: “Teaching Teachers: The Keystone and New-Instructor Training”
- Richard Johnston, Indiana University: “The Big Picture: Keystone Essays and their Impact on Student Reading and Writing”
I’m not sure why this session title caught my eye, but I’m glad that it did. This panel discussed the FYC curriculum that was implemented at Indiana University. The panel members had handouts, but the room was packed, so I ended up not getting a copy. However, their “Keystone Essay” idea is worth checking out.
The speakers all discussed different aspects of the program. To start with, David Marshall explained what exactly they mean by keystone essay and why they went there in the first place. A keystone essay is a single, fairly long, academic essay that is used as an anchor for the course. The idea was to redirect the FYC course from its tendency toward becoming “cultural studies lite.” Using an FYC text on argument combined with a set of related essays seemed to be a way to bring meaningful reading and writing together. The details and benefits of the program are actually most easily addressed in bullet form.
- Instructors may choose their keystone essay, as well as the six shorter pieces (some visual) that will accompany it. This puts an emphasis on whole-course planning at the beginning, encouraging new TAs to think of their course as a coherent unit, rather than piecemeal; an aspect of pedagogical training that is often overlooked.
- Despite the different readings, all of the written assignments follow rhetorical and analytic lines. This demonstrates to students and teachers the rhetorical aspects of different reading and writing tasks. The presence of a text on argument helps with this.
- Groups of TAs work together with a supervisor to norm essay grading. This shows how different readings/topics/themes still lead to the same outcomes. New teachers are able to both engage in a theme that gives them authority, yet avoid teaching that theme as content.
- Students are exposed to longer, more complex arguments that consist of several well-developed claims. They are given shorter pieces to help them gain access to this longer writing, but in the end must wrestle with the longer piece. This teaches valuable reading techniques to first-year students.
These were the highlights of their system as I saw them. The presenters provided samples from student papers, comments from TAs, and their own sense of the rationale behind this curricular decision. They provided good food for thought, and I’d encourage anyone in the midst of a curricular shift to look up their program.