Saturday Nov. 10, 2018

TEDxOshkosh Sparking Conversation in UW Oshkosh Advanced Composition Class

By: Christine Roth, Ph.D., Director of the UW Oshkosh Department of English Graduate Program

Editor's. note: When the TEDxOshkosh team discovered that UW Oshkosh Professor Christine Roth had incorporated TEDxOshkosh as a part of this semester’s Honors Advanced Composition class, we just had to ask her to write a guest blog post for us.

I teach Honors Advanced Composition at UW Oshkosh, and I have always asked students to write a researched critical essay as their final project. This fall, however, my students will finish the semester with a public TEDx-style Talk instead of a traditional academic essay. The folks at TEDxOshkosh learned about what we are doing in class and invited me to write a blog entry about the experience.

Part of the UW Oshkosh Honors College’s mission is “to challenge the university’s best students to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, and community leaders.” Since 1984, TED has presented us with a similar kind of challenge, connecting innovative thinkers with an intellectual community that shares their passion for ideas that make us think, that offers solutions and new perspectives on issues of the day, and inspires people to make a positive difference in their communities. The model seemed ideal for a group of bright, engaged students from diverse academic disciplines, backgrounds, and writing styles.

TED and TEDx Talks are created to “spark conversation.” This is important. Students feel a lot of pressure to be correct. And there is a time for that. In formal writing assignments, we want our research to be rigorous, we want our data to be sound, and we want our grammar and spelling to be free from errors. But I also want my students to be interesting. When a student makes an argument about a text, I want that student to be able to respond to the question “So what?” In other words, I want that student to know what makes the argument interesting to other people. If it’s not interesting, it might not be worth writing out. And to be interesting is to take an intellectual risk. It is to question what we think we already know and to offer a fresh perspective that makes people want to share their own thoughts and responses. It is the kind of exchange that lies at the very heart of academic work.

Unlike traditional student essays, though, TED and TEDx Talks are written for and delivered in front of an audience. This is also important. Students must shape their argument for a specific audience’s interests, needs, and knowledge base, and they are immediately accountable for the views that they express. No longer are they writing within a sort of vacuum, waiting for the professor to respond with private comments and praise. They are communicating with their peers, professors, and colleagues in a way that anticipates a number of professional situations for which I am supposedly training them.

Students prepare for the TEDx-style Talk in much the same way that they would prepare a traditional essay: they identify a topic that they (and their audience) will find interesting, they research that topic to learn what others have said, they respond to that conversation with an original but informed position of their own, and they craft a document in which they articulate, support, and comment on that position. But I see students thinking about this project differently. They want to say something meaningful to their audience. They want to say something that gets people talking. And they want to say it well.

Our whole class will be at the TEDxOshkosh event on November 4. We’re all excited about it. Many of the students are looking forward to hearing particular talks already—many on subjects that fall well outside of their disciplines. My hope is that this experience will help foster a lifelong pursuit of knowledge in my students and teach them not only how to do their jobs better (whatever those may end up being) but also how to live more curious, engaged, interesting lives in general.