Examining a local issue — a series of readings, discussion posts, and writing tasks leading to a writing project

from ENGL110: Civic Engagement and Youth Imagination - General Section themed around civic engagement, Online, Synchronous  -- Shailen Mishra -- See full syllabus here. 
These are a series of discussion posts, readings, and writing tasks that lead up to students writing their own first major writing project for a course themed around civic engagement and youth imagination. In this project students focused on understanding and analyzing a problem in their chosen chosen community.  While the writing project was not explicitly about race or racism, the social justice course theme and the invitation for students to reflect critically on their own local community works towards building a literacy around social justice. Moreover,  the specific example used by the instructor of a problem in his community focused around segregation in Chicago helped also invite students to reflect on race and systemic racism. Reflects Shailen: "My chosen community was Chicago's South Side and the problem was the compounding nature of the segregation crisis and the multiple overlapping causes. I was trying to model for students how they should analyze their own problem and approach their own community with empathy. Some of my students chose to talk about segregation or the housing crisis in their hometowns. Some chose to write about the racism problems in fields of interest such as the rowing community, healthcare, etc. But also a lot of papers were not about racism. Nevertheless, the class discussion on assigned readings for Chicago generated very thoughtful conversation, some frank acknowledgements on part of a few students about their racial biases, and more importantly to understand the systemic nature of the racial animus in our society."
We have included the project one writing prompt and also several of the discussion post prompts students had to complete as a way of building social justice literacy that they could then bring to their own projects. The assignments build literacy around social justice while also building critical reading and writing skills.

Project One: An Argumentative Essay about an Issue in Your Community – Writing Prompt

The first project will be based on a community problem that you will select. The problem should not be broad and generic; rather, it should be specific enough and highly focused. You’ll dissect and probe the roots of the problem. Necessary help will be given to you to select the issue you deeply care about. The genre of this project will be an argumentative essay.

What do I mean by the argumentative essay? It means that your essay must have an argument or claim, which you want to corroborate by employing evidence, research, examples, and deep analysis. A few examples of argumentative essay genre are academic research essay, research analysis paper, podcast, video essay, etc. But for this project we will select the academic research essay genre (though you’ll have the option to add image, video, charts, etc.), which is the genre you’ll most likely write over your college career. For better understanding of what I mean by argumentative essay, check this article .

Here are the salient features of the project:

  • Word count: 1600-1800 words; you can go over the max word limit if you want to.
  • Grade: 35% or 350 points
  • Theme: Focus on the PROBLEM for this essay; you’re not required to suggest a solution which you’ll write about in project 2
  • Evidence: You will have the option to incorporate a wide range of evidences in the form of personal story, stats/data, scholarly insights, charts, archival material, interview, multimedia (audio, video, images, etc), or social media content.
  • Minimum required sources: 10 credible sources and at least 2 of them needs to be scholarly; to learn the difference between popular and scholarly sources please use the guidelines provided by UC Berkeley’s library .
  • Citation style: You can use MLA or APA citation style in your paper. Make sure that you add BOTH in-text citations and a properly formatted bibliography to your paper. By in-text citation I mean the sources you mention in parenthesis in the body of your essay and bibliography is the “Works Cited” section at the end of your paper. For MLA citation, this guide  can be very useful. For APA citation, use this guide .
  • Submission: All submissions will be done via Canvas.
  • Avoid long direct quotes UNLESS ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY. Use paraphrasing  instead.

This major writing project carries 350 points or 35% grade value, which is distributed among different components as follows. In the bracket, the deadline is mentioned.

  • Topic idea: 20 points (Sep 27)
  • Preliminary research: 30 points (Oct 4)
  • Genre Analysis Sheet: 50 points (Oct 11)
  • Rough Draft: 75 points (Oct 18)
  • Peer Review: 50 points (Oct 21)
  • Final Draft: 125 points (Nov 1)

Learning Outcomes

  • Reading skills: What ways your reading approach was different for this project? Which assigned reading stimulated your interest the most and in what ways? How the reading helped you develop genre awareness?
  • Writing skills: What writing skills are required to successfully complete this project? What new skills you learned or acquired? What ways your mental and emotional approach for the project varied? What influenced or inspired your writing process for this project? How did the drafting and peer review process impact your own writing process?
  • Rhetorical knowledge: Who is the audience for this writing? What sort of audience knowledge is required? What’s the purpose of this genre? Which social, political, and cultural contexts this writing applies to? How did you apply ethos, logos, and pathos to make your argument more persuasive?
  • Civic engagement: Were you able to engage with issues pertaining to social justice through your reading or writing for the course of this project? Is there any personal assumptions/beliefs of yours challenged challenged? Did you engage with views/opinions ideologically different than yours and how did you process that new information?
  • Metacognition: What did this writing experience teach you about writer and writing? How does this writing genre’s requirements shape a writer’s thinking and strategies? What writing skills can you transfer to the types of writing you’ll do in your major, and what skills you need to adapt?
  • Multimedia literacy: What types of multimedia content (audio, video, image, etc.) did you use for this project? Did you create any multimedia content on your own? How was our experience? How did the multimedia contents complement the textual part of your essay? Do you think this genre is welcoming to all sorts of multimedia content or are there restrictions?
  • Research: How did your research process diverge (if at all) for this project? How did you evaluate a source and establish its credibility and usefulness for your topic? How did you find and distinguish between scholarly and popular sources?

Developing Project One – Considering the case of segregation in Chicago’s South Side – A series of readings, reflection and discussion posts (We have just highlighted a few moments in a progression that took about a month)

Week Three — Identifying a topic and a focus (Developed over CANVAS modules)

From discussing about the writing process, we will now switch to developing a topic idea for you for Project 1. Remember this topic idea you develop will be your research topic for the semester. This is the topic you’ll write about in project 1 and project 2. In this and the followup pages I will share my experience of how I came up with a topic idea to research. My hope is that my search for the topic idea and the steps that I followed will help you come up with a topic idea of your own.

My topic idea (which will be our focus for next three weeks) is the housing crisis in Chicago’s south side. This topic idea has some personal relevance for me, because I used to live in Chicago. I lived there for four years (four memorable years of my life, in a way). Though I didn’t live in the south side (I used to live in the lower west side neighborhood), I was keenly aware of the problems and perception of the south side. But first, there are a few things I observed about Chicago in relation to housing crisis. These observations relate to the entire city in general: 
Chicago is deeply segregated; in fact, its segregation tops the chart according to one source. Chicago is also a very diverse city, when considering its overall population. But at the neighborhood level that diversity disappears. While the north side of Chicago is overwhelmingly White, the south side is mostly Black and the lower west and north-west are primarily Hispanic. 
Chicago’s north side is prosperous and expensive to rent, while the south side is often looked down upon and the neglect it suffers is hard to miss.
Chicago has a significant homeless population; not as high as the west coast cities or NYC, but still, it’s widely visible.
Rent rises rapidly in Chicago.
Rent rise is often coupled with gentrification. I witnessed this firsthand in my neighborhood in Chicago. As more middle income families moved to the neighborhood, the housing demand shot up and the rent kept rising. Slowly, lower income and working class families, who had been living in that neighborhood for decades or even generations, were priced out. Many had to move.

We often think that once we have a topic idea we can run with it. We can start doing research and writing. In fact, topic selection is not done yet. You’ve merely begun. You need to explore and query the topic even more to develop a focus or a line of inquiry. Your professors at the college level want you to be good at developing focus, which increases your chances of saying something thoughtful (if not new) on a topic. Remember, your teacher have read hundreds or thousands of papers already. Most of the topics you’ll choose to write about may have been written on already. So your best hope to say something interesting or refreshing in your chosen topic is to identify one specific aspect of the topic or (in other words) one focus area. With a carefully selected focus area, you won’t be all over the place in your paper. A carefully selected focus area helps immensely with organization.
You may find this video from Kansas State University helpful in narrowing your topic and developing a focus.

Once you start to develop your focus, it’s important to generate relevant questions. This is where my earlier suggestion of following the trail of questions comes handy. You see, your focus won’t be a set thing. It will shift as you inquire, research, and write. If you let your natural curiosity and reasoning lead your inquiry in your area of focus, you’ll come to know the complexity of your topic and how you need to keep tightening or shifting your focus to arrive at something refreshing to say on your topic.

In case of my topic on segregation in Chicago, I decided that my focus area will be this question: why Chicago’s south side is so neglected and what are the reasons for its current crisis? As I will show in the next page, this one question led to more research and reading, which in turn led to more questions. And each of these new questions turned out to be complex topics by themselves. So my point is that it takes time to decide your focus area and you should be prepared to keep narrowing your focus area as you proceed through drafts.

Task 1: Like the way I've identified Chicago as a subject of my inquiry, identify a community whose issues you're drawn to. Think of a community you care about, have close association with, you're emotionally/intellectually invested in, you want to see improve, or you're curious about. The "community" could be a geographic place, specific demographic, workplace, social affiliation, cultural connection, academic affiliation, virtual community, etc. Make a list of all possible communities which you would be interested to write about.

Task 2: From Task 1, identify one specific community you want to write about in this course. Follow your instinct at this stage. Answer briefly: Why did you pick this community? Does this community have specific issues that compelled you to pick it? Make a list of all possible issues in this community. From this list highlight a few that make you the most curious and pushes you to ask why this problem exists. Once you're done selecting discuss in 100 words or more if you were to write a 5000-word essay on any one of these issues will you be able to stay interested and why

Week Five: Discussion based on readings, Meta-reflection on writing, Finalizing a topic

Discussion post:

We’ve had a brief overview of how segregated Chicago is. These two articles below will extend/expand your understanding. Please read the following two articles and discuss what’s your understanding of how complicated the problem of Chicago’s segregation is. Is there anything that upset, surprised, puzzled, or angered you about the issue? Do you disagree with the characterization of segregation in our readings so far? Discuss your thoughts. Also, if you were in charge of finding a magic answer to ending the disparity, what factor or cause will you tackle first?
The most American city: Chicago, race, and inequality

Racial segregation is still at the heart of Chicago’s ills… and America’s too

Your response should be minimum 200 words long. Also, respond to two peers’ posts, where each response should be at least 75 words long.
Rankers (who would rank others’ posts but won’t post themselves): Three students in the class

Discussion Post:

The next article you’ll read is titled “Chicago’s Awful Divide.” But before you start reading this article I want to contextualize this article and share with you some reading strategies which will be helpful to you in this course, for your writing, and at the college level.
The article “Chicago’s Awful Divide” appears in the esteemed and popular magazine, The Atlantic. The genre of this article will be an essay. It’s not an academic or scholarly source rather it’s a popular source. Nevertheless, there are a lot of writing skills to learn from this article which will be helpful to your writing. Though you’re writing an academic research paper for project 1, this essay still offers guidance in terms of:
how to present an argument clearly and emphatically
how to navigate a complex subject matter without reductive reasoning and simplistic assertions
how to analyze an issue in depth
how to back up one’s argument in a systematic and sophisticated manner
how to go deep in one’s research
When reading this article, please keep the above five things in mind.

In the articles that were due on Monday, you got a general sense of how divided Chicago is and how the south side is characterized as “violent” and deemed in other negative light. Natalie Y Moore tells us that indeed there are deep problems in the south side but it’s not all the faults of the community members and there are quite a few positive things about the south side. So while we are trying to understand the reasons behind the marginalization of the south side, this doesn’t mean that we should reduce the south side as a “dangerous” or “bad” place. Later in the course we will read Moore’s article “We are not Chiraq,” in which she attempts to destigmatize the south side.
In this discussion post we’ll look at the economic factors (historic and contemporary) that have contributed to the impoverishment of Chicago’s south side. Read “Chicago’s Awful Divide” We’ll go over this article in two stages. For this discussion post read only the first three pages of the pdf. Respond to both the points (1 & 2) below.
1. Draft a response of 100 words or more discussing any one of the following questions:
Why is Chicago mentioned as one of the “Cities of Opportunities”? What’s the purpose of that paragraph in the light of the essay’s central argument?
How does Brastell Travis’s story work as evidence to forward the author’s argument? At what point doesTravis’s example get generalized into the problem of the entire neighborhood?
Why does this essay open with the rural vs. urban economic divide when Chicago is the main topic? Where else in the first three pages does the author return to the theme of urban vs rural economic divide?
What’s the purpose of asking this question: “Why are large swaths of Chicago’s population unable to get ahead?”
2. After reading the first three pages, what do you think? Do you want to keep reading this essay? Why or why not? Back up your response with a clear rationale. 100 words or more.
Also, please respond to any two of your peers’ posts. 75 words or more.
Rankers (who would rank others’ posts but won’t post themselves):

Meta-reflection Task:

You have read the first three pages of the article “Chicago’s Awful Divide” and you’ve completed the discussion post. Copy and paste here any one writing skill that you learned from the first three pages. Cite the line(s) from the article first and mention the skill that you learned. There are twenty-two empty boxes below. Choose the one that’s not taken.

Discussion Post:

You would have discussed by now about your topic idea with me (your instructor) and peers. Make sure that your topic idea meets the following checklist:
It's about a particular community
It's about a particular issue within that community
It pertains to a specific focus area (research question) within that issue
In some cases, your topic idea might not meet all the three criteria. In those cases, you would have checked with me about that or gotten permission from me to go ahead.
Mention your topic idea. And discuss in 100 words or so why you feel committed to it.
20 points.

Week Seven: Wrapping up the discussions, Rough Drafts

Discussion Post

We discussed in last four readings about the south side’s systemic economic and housing issues. Also, we learned that its stigmatization is not easy to escape even when its residents cross the state line. However, Chicago’s south side is much more than its violence. We return again to the reminder with which we started this course: Chicago’s south side despite its bad reputation is still a community capable of love and resilience. So we will look at two different texts as we wrap up this topic.
1. The first text is actually a video, in which the south side youth activist Ja’Mal Green talks about his personal story, hope, and activism.

2. The second article comes from the book The South Side by Natalie Y. Moore. We started our reading on Chicago’s south side with an opinion essay by her. “We are not Chiraq” is a chapter in her book.
Citing a quote or argument or insight from each of the two texts, provide a combined response of how Chicago’s south side residents work to uplift their community and resist their stigmatization. Please post a video response rather than a written response. Keep the video around 2 minutes.
Posting a video response in Canvas is easy. Here is a tutorial that explains the process.

Respond to a couple of posts by your peers. You can do a video or written response.

Rough Draft: 75 points
The Rough Draft should be at least 1,500 words long.
The emphasis will be on the thrust of your idea, preliminary research, audience awareness and rhetorical skills (the broader writing goals) than grammatical correctness or proper citation standard.
A Rough Draft submitted with many typos may face penalty of losing 50-75% points.

You will go over your rough drafts in conferences with me (your instructor) next week.