Writing 101 course content veers toward the unexpected

Duke prides itself on offering a wide variety of Writing 101 courses, with topics ranging from new fad diets to rock documentaries. First-year students are able to improve their writing skills not only through essay writing, but also through making blog posts, creating websites and examining archives—and this year is no exception to the trend of highly specialized subjects. Sections of "Music in Science Fiction Films," "Islam is Not ISIS" and the perennial favorite "Decoding Disney," were all options to freshmen this Fall, as well as other topics inspired by professors' pursuits.

“The Biocultural Nature of Childhood" is one such seminar this semester with an unusual topic. Taught by Adam Boyette, a lecturing fellow in the Thompson Writing Program, the course examines childhood in both the contexts of being a universal biological phenomenon and also differing from culture to culture.

“What anthropology gives people is a way of thinking outside of themselves and questioning what is both unfamiliar to them, but also what is familiar to them,” Boyette said.

Boyette has been conducting his own research project on fatherhood, studying two different cultures in the Congo. He has found that he has been able to incorporate his own experiences into class discussions. Beyond basic writing skills, Boyette hopes that his students will gain the ability to think critically about the world around them, and that students can take their new perspectives and use them in whatever discipline they decide to study further.

“It really stems from my own disciplinary interests in biological and cultural approaches to the anthropology of childhood,” Boyette noted.

In the course, students are required to complete three major writing assignments. One assignment, described by Boyette as “a study of gender socialization by looking at material culture,” allows students to study how society defines boys and girls in terms of marketing aimed towards children. Students collect data, looking at places like toy stores or educational centers and analyze how the different genders are perceived and categorized by the market.

“Stranger than Fiction”, a course taught by Kevin Casey—also an instructor from the Thompson Writing Program—looks at three texts and analyzes how the works of literature intersect with real and present problems in society. Casey has always had an interest in speculative fiction, but he wanted to focus on how these novels conveyed truths about current problems, like gender inequality, racism and violence. 

All of the stories discussed in class have been written in the last couple of decades, and Casey finds that the texts still provide relevant parallels to issues faced by society today. The course focuses on Cormac McCarthy’s "The Road," Margaret Atwood’s "The Handmaid’s Tale" and Colson Whitehead’s "The Intuitionist."

“Stories like these feel familiar, but do something brand new, or unlike anything we’ve seen before, and in the process of doing that they become much more than we even probably want,” Casey said.

Casey hopes that his class will create a space for his students to think and form their own ideas on challenging texts and subjects, often exploring areas outside of their comfort zone. He also hopes that the skills learned in his class can translate into interacting with other literary works or other areas of study.

“I want my students to leave the class with more confidence when engaging with the work of other people,” Casey said.

He already has received positive feedback from the class, especially in terms of discussions taking place. Casey described a writing exercise he had his students ponder how genres could cause problems. Many reached the conclusion that genres could be limiting or suppressive, and could also contribute to biases.

“I think that all 101 courses at Duke are unique, and that’s exciting for students, to be able to write about really compelling topics that you might not otherwise engage with,” Casey said. 


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