To My Students

Although it may seem counterintuitive, a student at city college has the advantage of living and working in one of the most ecologically advanced locations in the world. People who live in cities such as New York, sharing public transportation, pooling heating and shelter needs in apartment buildings, and living in harmony with large numbers of other humans use fewer resources and use them more effectively than do those who live in suburbs or in rural places. Although New York City is not considered the most environmentally progressive city in the United States, it is still better for the environment for you to live here than for you to live just about anywhere else on the continent. But the city does still have a long way to go toward reducing its carbon footprint, protecting its streets, houses, and infrastructure from the effects of a hotter planet, and improving the quality of the lives of its 8 million inhabitants.

In this course, you will undertake a series of writing exercises meant to help you prepare for the types of writing situations you will probably encounter in college and afterwards. In these exercises you will write about an aspect of the New York City environment that interests you. Using the WordPress platform on the CUNY Academic Commons, you will compile a digital portfolio (literally, a web site of writings) gathering together the writing exercises you have completed on your topic. Intended to introduce and reinforce concepts of rhetorical knowledge and genre knowledge, these exercises will help you better understand these ways of thinking and make sure you are able to use them when you read and write in different ways across the curriculum and outside of school. As part of this effort, I will ask you to reflect regularly on your writing and assess for yourself how well you think you have understood the concepts and incorporated them into your work. These shorter reflections will culminate in a long self-reflective essay–a key part of your digital portfolio–in which you will review your writing from the semester. Reflections after every assignment, this graded, end-of-term self-reflection, and the digital portfolio are required components of the course.

Rhetorical Principles
We all come to writing from different places and practice it for different reasons. In college, a primary reason to write is to compose research essays for classes. But college students also send out e-mails to professors and friends; compose grant requests, fellowship applications, job letters, texts, and posts on Twitter and Instagram; create multimedia presentations in Powerpoint and WordPress; and, in creative writing classes, write poems, stories, novels, and creative nonfiction. In each of these different forms of communication (which we call genres), the same basic principles operate. We call these principles rhetorical because they are the elements that, over time, humans have identified as present, to one degree or another, in all forms of persuasive speech or writing. The rhetorical principles I am going to introduce this semester, and that we will discuss and put into practice in the exercises, are:


Since each of these elements is present, to one degree or another, in every form of writing, learning to identify them, in your own writing and that of others, will help you think about, revise, and discuss what you are working on. In addition, learning about these principles, and practicing them in different genres, will help you become more nimble and effective at responding to new writing situations as they arise.

Focus on the Urban Environment
I have chosen to focus this class on subjects related to the environment in New York City partly because I have some background in the area (I worked for the New York City Parks Department for 13 years) but mainly because I think the issue of the urban environment raises important questions worth writing about. If cities are, as Eric Sanderson writes, ”     ,” how well is New York City doing toward reaching such a lofty ideal? Are there specific steps, such as congestion pricing, building more bike paths, instituting universal composting, requiring the replacement of aging oil-burning furnaces, that the city government could take to make New York City a healthier place to live while reducing the city’s carbon footprint? Are there steps that the private or not-for-profit sector could take? Does the city allocate a sufficient share of its annual budget to its 1,700 parks and 5.2 million trees, and how well is the Parks Department doing in caring for these resources? Are parks distributed fairly among the city’s neighborhoods, and park maintenance as well? Are there links that can be made between environmental improvements and improvements in social justice? These are some of the types of questions you might consider as you choose a topic or topics to write about in your assignments.

Assignment Overview
To help strengthen your responsiveness to the different writing demands you will encounter, both in college and afterward, this course will require you to prepare, workshop with your classmates, revise, and, sometimes, revise again, five distinct pieces of writing. The semester will be devoted to preparing these five pieces, and it is primarily on these five pieces that I will base your final grade:

Source-based essay
Inquiry-based research essay
Composition in two genres
Discussion Posts
Theory of Writing

In preparing each of these (except the discussion posts), you will go through the same basic steps; repeating these steps will improve your flexibility and self-knowledge as a writer:

workshopping/peer review
review by teacher
revising and preparation of final draft

Peer Review
Of these steps, one of the most crucial and helpful–and one that can make students nervous before they try it–is workshopping, which in this case means peer review. You will break up into groups of three or four, each of you will read aloud what you have written, and everyone in the group but you will discuss it and decide whether and how it fulfills the assignment. Then you will have a chance to respond.

Students who participate in peer review report finding it helpful as much for what they learn from other people’s writing as for what they learn about their own. Exposure to other responses to a writing problem can expand your own arsenal of responses and refine the ones you already have. In this class most pieces will go through two stages of review, the first by peers and the second, after a revision, by me. By the time you are ready to hand in your final draft, therefore, you will have had several chances to improve your paper. Writers are made, not born, and it is in the nitty gritty effort to improve your work through revision in response to constructive criticism that you will become a better writer.

A word about language: reading out loud
Among the fears often facing students about college writing is the idea that writing requires a different language than speaking. In fact, writing is speaking, but with the words put down on a page rather than launched into the air. Because writing takes longer than speaking, and because, therefore, you have more time to figure out what you want to say and how you want to say it, generally what you write ends up sounding just a little bit better than what you speak–a little less hesitant, just a little cleaner–closer to what you would say if you had time to think about it and prepare. It is for this reason that I encourage all of my students to read their own words out loud to themselves as they are writing (tell your neighbors to put on headphones), and, as much as possible, before pushing the send button on assignments, to read the work aloud to a friend or family member.

If English is not your first language
If you did not start out in life speaking English, and find the English language difficult (as it is), trying to write as you would speak aloud to a friend is especially helpful. Since the purpose of writing is to communicate with a person or persons not present, and the primary job of the writer is to transmit meaning, even if a sentence or paragraph is not grammatically perfect, if it forcefully communicates an idea much of its purpose will be accomplished. My goal in this course is to help you figure out ways to transmit meaning as clearly and forcefully as possible. If peer review and my own comments prove insufficient to make you feel you are communicating effectively, please e-mail me or come to my office hours so we can devise a plan to help you overcome your obstacles. I can help you, for example, figure out how to make the best use of City College’s excellent Writing Center.

[This letter is unfinished]

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