Anarchist Nonfiction Across Genres

Anarchist Nonfiction Across Genres #

📂 This syllabus was created and taught by Dr. Alexandra Edwards in Fall 2022 as ENGL 10503: Introduction to Nonfiction Genres.

Course Description #

When you hear the word “anarchy,” you might think of chaos, disorder, even violence. And yet, as a political philosophy, anarchism opposes violence, promotes utopian ways of thinking, and inspires remarkably cogent and inspiring pieces of writing. How can we understand these seeming contradictions? Is there more to anarchism than chaos?

In this survey-style course, we will read, watch, and listen to anarchist (and anarchist-adjacent) nonfiction from a variety of genres, including memoir, reportage, manifesto, oratory, documentary, and more, with a goal of understanding how anarchist nonfiction has influenced and been influenced by culture, society, and individuals throughout history. We’ll explore threads that range from 16th and 17th-century European Christian Anarchism to 21st-century indigenous guerrillas operating an autonomous society in Mexico. We’ll apply a variety of critical approaches to these texts as we practice analyzing literary genre.

Since anarchism rejects hierarchies and is skeptical of authority, we will spend the semester investigating and resisting the forms of hierarchy and authority all around us, including how college classes are “usually” conducted. While I am, to the university, the “expert” at the front of the room, in practice I will strive to be a facilitator for your self-directed learning. For more about what this means on a practical level, see the section on “Assignments and (un)Grading.”

Assignments and (un)Grading #

What is Ungrading and Why is It a Thing? #

📖 This explanation is adapted from Monica Heilman. I have revised it to better reflect my values.

In this class, we’re going to “ungrade.” At the most basic level, ungrading is the idea of not assessing students with grades. In an ideal world, students would only take a class because they are motivated to learn. Grades and assessment wouldn’t matter, because the important thing would be whether you understand the material well enough to be enriched by it.

In reality, students take plenty of classes to fulfill degree requirements, meet a required number of credit hours, and graduate. Grades are required for a degree and high grades may be required for scholarships, grants, and graduate and professional degrees.

This focus on grades produces a problem. Researchers have found that grades might motivate students to seek high grades but do not necessarily motivate them to learn. The A to F system itself was not designed with student learning in mind but intended to streamline the grading process.

Letter grades and numerical points don’t communicate much information. As you know by now, what is required to get an “A” in one professor’s class can be completely different from another’s. Context also changes how we view grades. Which one seems more impressive: getting an “A” in an advanced physics class with a private tutor, or an “A” in a first-year history class while working full-time and managing a disruptive illness? For your GPA, these two A’s might be weighted equally, but you know that the work you put in for each class was not.

So we know that grades were not designed to improve student learning, do not motivate learning, and do not actually communicate as much information as we might think. Experts have identified even others reasons too; if you’re interested in reading more, Alfie Kohn’s “The Case Against Grades” covers a lot of ground.

Ungrading in Our Class: Self-Reflection #

While there are many forms of ungrading – and modified grading practices that get at the concerns above – I’ll focus on the form we’ll use in our class. I draw primarily on Jesse Stommel’s model of ungrading, which uses student self-reflection.

Stommel emphasizes self-reflection as a way of teaching metacognition, or an awareness of your own mental processes. In this case, we’re talking about an awareness of your learning. As experts in their course material, faculty can assess your output in a class (i.e. discussion comments, written work, exams). Yet output doesn’t always give a clear picture of learning. Maybe you have bad test anxiety, or you struggle with writing. Regardless of how well you produce output, you are the only one fully aware of your knowledge; after all, no one else can see inside your head but you. Improving your metacognition skills will help you think more consciously about your learning and become better at assessing your own performance.

But let’s bring it back down to this semester.

While you will propose your grade in one final reflection letter, self-reflection will be an on-going part of the course. There will be opportunities for self-reflection within your class discussions, your writing assignments, your midterm reflection letter, and in your final project. And, at the end of the semester, I will reserve the right to assign you a final grade that takes into account the learning and effort I have seen you demonstrate—whether that is lower or higher than the grade you propose for yourself. But don’t worry too much about that now; by the end of the semester, we will have built a rapport and trust that makes this caveat much less scary than it may be now, when you don’t know me at all. As I said in the course description, I will strive to be the facilitator for your self-directed learning.

Instructor Role #

Although self-reflection is a significant part of the course, this does not mean you will not have support. As your instructor, I will provide qualitative feedback on your classwork. Since we are using a system of ungrading, I will not be assigning points or letter grades to any individual assignments. However, I will provide substantive feedback on your work through individual comments.

In sum, you will:

  • Complete reading and assignments regularly throughout the semester
  • Direct your own learning, including articulating your goals and assessing your progress
  • Propose your final grade for the course

I will:

  • Comment on your discussion posts regularly
  • Provide written feedback on your writing assignments, midterm letter, and final project
  • Provide individual written and/or group verbal feedback on exams

I will not:

  • Provide points or letter grades on assignments

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion #

A diversity of experience and perspectives is necessary to create an intellectual environment that fosters inquiry. It is the responsibility of everyone—instructor and students alike—to share their perspectives and to seek out, listen to, and learn from the perspectives of others. While we may disagree, we must take care that the ideas we express do not deny or subjugate the experiences of others. Such care involves avoiding language that stereotypes or belittles groups.

In this class, all students will be treated equitably regardless of race, religion, sexuality, gender identification, gender expression, language background, ability, socioeconomic status, national identity, veteran status, or nontraditional student status. Inclusion means that everyone is welcome here, and that all of us have a responsibility to make others feel welcome; equity means that everyone should have access to the tools they need to be successful. As your instructor, I will do what I can to ensure that you have what you need.

As a predominantly white institution (PWI) committed to increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion, we have a special responsibility to study and learn from historically marginalized groups and experiences. Doing so involves becoming sensitive to the ways in which power and privilege have been and continue to be distributed unevenly, depending on one’s social position. Because power and privilege affect how we write, what we write, and how we are read by others, these issues will be a regular part of class discussion, assigned reading, and writing projects.

Together, we’ll establish guidelines for how to respond to each other and to class material respectfully. If you ever feel disrespected or uncomfortable as a result of any exchange related to this class, please share your concerns with your instructor so they can be addressed. Behavior that is deemed harmful to others may result in dismissal from the class and will be reported to the department chair or other appropriate administrators.