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Just add water

English professor brings relevant theme to her composition course to grow student learning.

October 26, 2016

By Meghanne Shipe

Nearly every college student takes English composition. It’s a required course despite major or interest.

So, how does a professor make a required class into an inspired one?

For Lorna Hutchison, Ph.D., affiliate professor in the Department of English, it’s about making the class relevant – or in the case of this semester, by adding a little water.  

“I’ve been focusing my comp courses on human rights and ethics for a number of years now,” said Hutchison. “Water has always been a great interest of mine, and it’s also become such an important and timely issue that I brought it under that umbrella theme of human rights.”

The composition classes, offered through the First Year Success Program, are built around a relevant theme to give students a stepping stone into assignments around a common interest, says Hutchison. They engage in meaningful discussions and leave the class with information and experiences that can inform their lives.

To introduce students to the theme, Hutchison brought in Tom Cech, director of the One World One Water Center at MSU Denver, as a guest speaker. Hutchison says this allowed students to see their university in a different way and understand how their education connects to the broader world.

“They can see that there are different resources and ventures, different people working together to create community, and that those boundaries that are around campus are easily crossed through something like water studies and human rights awareness, into the larger communities.”

A group presentation is the primary water-studies assignment for the semester. First, students present a rhetorical analysis of an image of water, breaking down and analyzing the different meanings they derive from it. Second, each group proposes a water activism project.

“One student proposed a blog about water awareness and another looked at heightening water conservation in Denver public schools,” she said. “It can be a very small project … it can be a personal project, some kind of act that we integrate into our everyday lives.”

Students seem to be making connections.

“I think this class really helped open our eyes to the water crisis we have ? how much pollution we’re putting into our waterways here in the U.S., everywhere,” said student Kristina Smith.

Hutchison recalls another student sharing a story about a grandmother who fills every family member’s glass with water at meals, even if most don’t touch it. The student lives in the mountains and can actually see the level of the lake going down.

“She made that connection between what we may think is obvious and maybe doesn’t seem that important, but there’s a clear correlation between a typical family practice, and what we see in our environment.”

That type of learning is exactly what Hutchison strives for in every class she teaches – learning that helps students find meaningful ways to shape the world in which they live.

“It’s not just a question of their environment impacting them; the connection is that words, meanings, interpretations, analysis, go a long way to solidify how our students interact, and even control, somewhat, the spaces they occupy. I hope that what we do in class opens up different avenues for them, or contributes in some way to their education and their growth.”

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