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Composition Forum 53, Spring 2024

Instructor Motives and Disciplinary Identity: Reconciling the Theme Course with Teaching for Transfer

Michal Horton

Abstract: The theme course has not held a distinct place in scholarship, despite being a longstanding practice in the field; meanwhile, it has come under scrutiny in teaching for transfer (TFT) scholarship, which perceives the practice as conflicting with writing-centered approaches. In contrast, scholarship on theme courses suggests that a resilient motive for selecting and implementing a theme is to support writing as subject matter. A survey of current practice confirms this motive. If the theme course is not in conflict with disciplinary values, and instead a proponent of them, then the practice should be studied with more intent as a peer or supporting practice to other writing-centered approaches. This article diffuses tensions between TFT and the theme course to reposition the theme course as a method for teaching writing as subject matter.

I. Understanding the Theme Course in Practice and Scholarship

The theme course has enjoyed a prolific but quiet life in the field. As a teaching practice, it has been commonplace for decades. As a subject of scholarship, however, it has evaded our attention for some time. The theme course has rarely been studied explicitly, a phenomenon I stumbled into as a new teaching assistant. Years ago, I first began researching the theme course because I wanted to teach with a theme, and I wanted my teaching practices to reinforce field-wide values. I therefore looked to scholarship for guidance but only found a few articles on the topic (Sponenberg; Dannen; Heiman). Furthermore, what I found localizes theme course study to personal practice, and I have since learned that this initial experience is characteristic of theme course scholarship: Theme course scholarship is difficult to find because it is disconnected from other scholarship on theme courses and because it is not yet contextualized as a field-wide practice.

Theme course scholarship is comprised of highly individualized contributions to the topic. That is, the absence of a field-wide discussion has created isolated accounts of theme course teaching, which makes initial study of the practice challenging. For example, it is common for articles on theme courses to use a creative title and to omit theme course from the key words. Furthermore, bibliographies of theme course scholarship generally do not offer a trail to more theme course scholarship, which is because most of these works are not part of a larger discussion of the practice. Scholars tend to give thorough explanations of how particular themes function in support of course learning goals, rather than contextualizing their theme course practice within the field (Black; Hiser; Hughes; Row-Heyveld). I know of only two articles that theorize theme course practice: James Thomas Zebroski’s 1994 chapter, Creating the Introductory College Composition Course, and my own 2021 article, The Theme Course: Speculating on Its History, Surveying Current Practice, and Encouraging a Reflective Methodology.

Given its sporadic appearance in scholarship, I was curious to learn if the theme course is in fact a field-wide practice. I conducted a survey of 88 theme course practitioners, who confirm that the theme course is alive and well. Writing instructors across the country have been teaching the theme course for decades and continue to do so, but this practice has endured without the resource of collected wisdom on how to implement a theme as a teaching method. It is time to study this longstanding, pervasive practice with more intent and place it alongside other teaching methods used writing studies.

II. Reconciling Tensions between TFT and Theme Courses

Theme courses have been an unknown pedagogical entity in a sense. We know them through practice, but not through study. Perhaps for this reason, theme course teaching has caused anxiety for leading voices in teaching for transfer (TFT), anxiety which stems from genuine and founded concern about solidifying disciplinary identity through explicitly writing-centered approaches (Robertson and Taczak, Disciplinarity; Yancey; Hansen). TFT scholarship names the theme course as counter to values in writing studies, which is why this article aims to reconcile the theme course and TFT. With no articulated aims guiding theme course teaching and with no cohesive body of scholarship to articulate what theme course teaching means to accomplish, TFT has grown skeptical of the theme course, treating it as a threat to writing-centered approaches and making it something of the disciplinary scapegoat; however, there is no compelling evidence that theme courses are inherently at odds with disciplinary values and related writing-centered approaches. Theme course scholarship actually suggests quite the opposite.

What theme course scholarship we do have indicates that a prevailing motive for teaching a theme-based course is to promote writing as subject matter, and my survey findings point to the resilience of this motive. If theme course instructors are committed to this central disciplinary value, then theme courses might be regarded as a peer practice to TFT and other writing-centered approaches, instead of being viewed as a competing practice, as is presently the case. Instructors of the theme course energetically promote writing as subject matter, as they teach about writing in creative and nuanced ways. Theme courses rarely share the same content (besides their inclusion of writing content, of course); however, the most common pattern across theme content is in themes of culture, racial justice, or diversity. The content of the theme course is rich in variety, yet it is consistently enacted through a steadfast commitment to writing as subject matter—and to the positionalities of writers. The theme course aims to respond to student interest and teach students about writing in meaningful, complex ways; these intentions seem very much in keeping with a sound disciplinary ethos.

Indeed, the tenets of TFT and the motives for teaching theme courses are in surprising harmony. TFT incorporates reflection, key terms, and writing theorization to engage students in writing as their subject of study. The theme course, when taught well, can similarly introduce a structure for studying writing as subject matter. Like the TFT model that asks students to theorize writing, Zebroski’s conception of a theme course is one that helps students develop a “writing theory” or an awareness of their own writing process: “the teacher needs to assist in providing secondary content that can help students get at the ‘primary content’” (17). Zebroski calls for (secondary) theme content that supports students in theorizing their (primary) writing content so that the theme directly supports learning-about-writing. The theme course can certainly look quite different from TFT, in large part because it explores writing through a topical focus. The theme course nonetheless can share with TFT the same fundamental value: the study of writing as a subject matter. This single point in common is the very point of tension between the two practices, as TFT positions theme courses as counter to writing-centered approaches even while theme course scholarship establishes that instructors select themes to promote the study of writing.

Finding cohesive motives between TFT and theme course teaching does not prove that these two practices are equally effective, or that theme courses always support learning about writing. Undoubtedly, there are enactments of the theme course that do not uphold disciplinary values, which is certainly problematic. Yet, we should not measure the full value of theme courses against these problematic enactments, especially when carefully designed theme courses share common motives with TFT. Indeed, there may be enough common ground to reconcile these two practices and initiate serious study of the theme course, not as a rogue practice but as a practice within the disciplinary mainstream. Theme courses should be distinctly writing-centered, and more study of them might codify effective methods and present its practitioners with guiding values. In the meantime, many theme course practitioners regard the theme course as a lively way to promote writing as subject matter. It seems a worthwhile endeavor to harness this enthusiasm for theme course teaching and direct it toward writing-centered enactments of the practice.

This article begins by tracing the theme course within composition’s disciplinary turn and the TFT movement in particular, where I suggest that TFT has prematurely dismissed the theme course. I also gesture toward the theme course’s proximity to TFT but suggest that the theme course might have value as a teaching method in its own right. After addressing the TFT-theme course tension, I review theme course scholarship, which reveals that instructors intentionally select themes to achieve particular learning-about-writing goals. Furthermore, theme course scholarship demonstrates several interesting patterns of practice among its practitioners: 1) a strong commitment to writing as subject matter, 2) the use of highly variable topics and source types, and 3) the enactment of a theme through variable topics and source types as a method for teaching writing content. My survey of current practice echoes the first two patterns in scholarship, indicating an overwhelming priority given to writing as subject matter.

As I wade through the complicated contrast between the stigma of theme courses in TFT scholarship and the actual practice of theme courses, my overall argument is simple: Theme course instructors should align with writing-centered approaches (as they generally aim to do), valuing writing as subject matter above all. The point of tension between theme courses and TFT should be a point of reconciliation, and theme courses should be seriously studied as a potential peer to other writing-centered approaches in the discipline.

III. Revisiting the Theme Course as a Writing-Centered Approach

For Rhetoric and Composition, the disciplinary turn has been entangled in the longstanding content question—those tensions about what we teach in composition classrooms. Liane Robertson and Kara Taczak identify our understanding and use of content as essential for solidifying disciplinarity, understandably taking issue with practices that coincide with the following attitudes:

As long as writing is practiced in the course, the content about which students write and read has been deemed by those in the field as relatively inconsequential—in other words, our field’s approach has been that any content will do in developing student writing, as long as students are writing, and as long as students practice writing about any subject matter, the better writers they become. (Disciplinarity 189)

These indifferent attitudes toward the content of a writing course have caused problems in the management of writing courses, not to mention with the advancement of the field. Writing should be the subject matter of writing courses (Boland; Downs; Miller), a position reinforced by movements like Yancey et al.’s work on TFT (Writing), Downs and Wardle’s on Writing about Writing (WAW), and Adler-Kassner and Wardle’s edited collection on threshold concepts, Naming What We Know. Indeed, contributors to Malenczyk et al.’s Composition, Rhetoric, and Disciplinarity promote both TFT and WAW as conclusive answers to the content question (Robertson and Taczak, Disciplinarity; Yancey; Hansen).

TFT, WAW, and threshold concepts are moving forward as legitimized methods and frameworks for teaching and understanding writing as subject matter; meanwhile, the theme course is getting left behind—not due to neglect or oversight, but due to an intentional (and somewhat uncritical) delegitimization by some TFT scholarship. TFT scholarship views the theme course as exemplifying the “any content will do” mindset that Taczak criticizes. With a disconnected body of scholarship, the theme course has little defense against such accusations. Scholarship simply has not yet uncovered the full pedagogical value of the theme course, and so the theme course is being dismissed before it has been adequately studied. The theme course may be a valuable peer to established writing-centered approaches, or it may have the potential to support and bolster writing-centered approaches. These possibilities should be explored, but first, the attitudes toward theme courses in TFT scholarship must be addressed so they do not stifle further development of theme course pedagogy.

In Writing Across Contexts, Yancey et al. criticize the prevalence of theme course teaching and its non-writing content: “Such content, some say, can be anything as long as the focus on writing is maintained… Given this view, it’s perhaps not surprising that many institutions—including many elite institutions in the Ivy League, as well as public institutions like Florida State University—provide additional evidence of this approach in terms of their numerous theme-based approaches to composition” (3). Following this statement, Yancey et al. imply that theme course content is haphazard as they contrast it against their characterization of Anne Beaufort’s model of writing expertise, in which writing “knowledge is not arbitrary, random, or insignificant” (3). As Yancey et al. go on to share the results of their study on transfer, they find that the TFT model is more successful in helping students transfer knowledge of writing than courses not designed to facilitate transfer. This finding shows that transfer can be an achievable outcome, which has resounding curricular implications for all institutions and instructors aiming to teach for transfer. This finding does not, however, necessarily delegitimize thematic content as an alternative path to learning about writing. It may simply be that poorly designed (and delivered) theme courses are no match for TFT approaches.

Yancey et al. study two non-TFT courses that they designate as “thematic.” One is themed “American Identity and Culture” (Writing, 69), the other “media and culture” (Writing, 71). Neither class led to notable success in facilitating students’ transfer of writing knowledge; importantly, neither instructor designed these theme courses to facilitate transfer. Instead, the class that was designed to accomplish the goal of transfer was best at achieving this goal. Looking back on these results in a more recent article, Yancey et al. reflect, “Students in the first two courses, an Expressivist course and a themed course focused on media and cultural studies, did not transfer. Without transfer as a course goal and without key terms framing new writing tasks and practices, students didn’t understand that they might read new writing situations for similarities and differences in writing situations” (Teaching 273). Yancey et al.’s research has implications for teaching for transfer, but it may be hasty to assign implications for other curricular structures, like theming.

TFT scholarship has claimed that the theme course is not conducive transfer, but theme courses under study do not incorporate a full TFT framework. In Mapping the Turn to Disciplinarity, Yancey notes the prevalence of theme course teaching: “[T]he larger question being pursued is whether first-year composition (FYC) content should be Writing Studies content, or whether it can be another content, especially as is so often the case, themed content,” citing Taczak and Robertson (Reiterative), to claim “[C]urricula with a themed approach—that is, without a Writing Studies approach—do not support transfer” (25). Taczak and Robertson’s work in Reiterative Reflection in the Twenty-First Century Writing Classroom suggests that theme content is not amenable to fostering transfer when it implements only part of the TFT curriculum. Their study examined if the TFT “reflective framework can work as a stand-alone component within a theme-based course” (Taczak and Robertson 47), finding it likely cannot. An effective TFT course must include three elements: “(1) key rhetorical terms, (2) reflection, and (3) students’ articulation of a theory of writing” (Taczak and Robertson 45). The theme course they studied did not incorporate each of these three elements, which means their findings do not prove theme courses cannot support transfer but instead indicate that theme courses need to integrate the full TFT framework before they are assessed against this framework. The theme course evaluated for the values of TFT was not fully supported with a framework for implementing these values. Furthermore, perhaps this theme course demonstrated writing-centered values outside of the TFT framework but still within the realm of writing studies.

At some point, proponents of the theme course must answer these questions: Should the theme course function as a distinct writing-centered approach? Or, should the theme course function in support of more established writing-centered approaches? If the former, then that approach must be a robust and researched response to writing-centered values; if the latter, then it must enact established approaches fully and then be studied. There is no inherent curricular conflict to prevent the theme course from adopting a full TFT framework. In this respect, the theme course is compatible with TFT, so rather than prove the theme course’s inefficacy, TFT studies have only reinforced that any course, themed or otherwise, needs to adopt the full TFT framework to measure the kinds of transfer that this approach fosters. For now, any claims that the theme course is counter to TFT are just hypotheses.

Yet, the theme course continues to be stigmatized. Dichotomizing the theme course from writing studies approaches dismisses a long-standing (and well entrenched) practice before we can even consider it as a method for teaching about writing in its own right. Reid and Miller note that a “recurring concern” surrounding discussions of disciplinarity has been a lack of consensus in areas of “epistemology, methodology, literature, pedagogy, even our objects of inquiry” (87). Their vision for the field’s direction is one that preserves its variety and nuance: “[W]e are not arguing for or against disciplinarity, but rather for an approach that conceptualizes disciplines as continually emergent intellectual categories of networked interests, goals, and practices” (Reid and Miller 89). Along these lines, we should explore modes of teaching and learning that implement emerging disciplinary foci on writing as subject matter in different but no less relevant ways—the theme course may be one of those ways.

Complicating our understanding of theme course practice, however, is the nature of the scholarship we do have on it: Theme course scholarship is rarely in conversation with other theme course scholarship, so there is not a field-wide sense of why and how to teach a theme course as a distinct method for reinforcing writing as subject matter. As mentioned, the scholarship we have that is expressly about theme course teaching tends to report on the rationale and workings of a theme within a single class or within the experience of a single instructor, leaving tenuous threads to connect knowledge of this practice across the field (Black; Dannen; Hughes; Hiser; Sponenberg; Row-Heyveld). While the lack of conversation within theme course scholarship has likely obscured our understanding of the practice, this method of sharing the enactment of a single theme contributes much to initial knowledge of theme course practice.

First, self-reporting on the workings of a single course theme—a characteristic research methodology for this topic—provides a foundation for studying different enactments of the practice and for considering how the theme course might uniquely contribute to knowledge about writing. That is, this research methodology provides points of comparison in theme course teaching, which might be helpful for locating patterns of practice and, from there, articulating theories of practice. For example, across this style of scholarship, a recurring pattern is the use of a theme to support the learning about writing goals in the course. A second contribution from this research methodology is therefore the strong suggestion, if not the outright establishment of the fact, that theme course practice has historically been an intentional method for reinforcing and supporting writing as subject matter.

Theme course practice has drawn criticism from those who understand it as operating separately from writing as subject matter, criticism that likely results from our limited study of the practice. Without extensive scholarly knowledge of the practice, we have relied on anecdote to promote arguments for or against it. Linda Adler-Kassner argues that “Writing classes, especially first year classes, must absolutely and always be grounded in Writing Studies, must always be about the study of writing. They should not, as I heard recently and anecdotally, engage students in writing about vampires—nor about political issues, nor about recent controversies, nor about other things that are not about writing” (132). Adler-Kassner is right that no writing course should be about anything except writing, but theme courses at their best are about writing. Like so many in the field, Adler-Kassner knows of flawed versions of the theme course through experience or anecdote, not through a body of scholarship discussing the theme course as a distinct method that supports learning about writing. Such a conversation is only now emerging. When Sandra Friedman responds to Adler-Kassner in defense of theme course teaching, she cites only two sources that explicitly mention theme content: Adler-Kassner’s own work and Beaufort’s College Writing and Beyond: Five Years Later. While Friedman promotes theme course teaching as connected to students’ “intellectual curiosity,” she has not had the benefit of a conversant body of scholarship on theme courses for reference (79), nor have many others in the field.

The field has much more work to do in gathering and building theme course knowledge before we can make pronouncements of efficacy (or of inefficacy). We do have a handful of studies on theme course teaching, including two dissertations (Kushkaki; Shank) and an article by Rinto and Cogbill-Seiders, who consider the impact of library instruction and “theme-based” courses on students’ learning. They report that “a combination of targeted library instruction and well-developed themed courses has the potential to deeply impact student learning” (Rinto and Cogbill-Seiders 20). These findings are preliminary, calling for more study of theme course practice and more inquiry into what “well-developed” theme courses might look like. Dianna R. Shank studies the use of race as a “topic” in her course, finding it productive to meeting learning goals: “Ultimately, the study at the center of this dissertation affirms that the use of a topic as an organizing principle in FYC, particularly a controversial topic with no easy answers, can be successful at promoting the objectives of FYC” (168). This initial research into the theme course displays optimism for using a theme to support the objectives of FYC, which suggests promise for promoting the larger values of the field, like prioritizing writing as subject matter.

A lack of collected and synthesized scholarship on the theme course contributes to limited understandings and maybe even irresponsible enactments of it: Not everyone teaching a theme course necessarily understands the theme as a method for teaching about writing. Growing our understanding of the practice is essential for enacting theme courses that support writing as subject matter. As we build this understanding, available theme course scholarship provides a starting point. It suggests that the overall purpose of a theme is to support writing as the subject matter of the course, with theme content working to reinforce specific learning goals (Dannen; Hothem; Hughes; Row-Heyveld; Sponenberg; Zebroski). Theme scholarship, however, generally stops short of sharing how to implement a theme and with what measurable results, but it does establish theme course practice as distinctly tied to writing as subject matter, as I will show below by explicating theme course scholarship for implicit theme-writing relationships—in which the theme structures learning about writing.

IV. Locating Patterns of Theme Course Practice in Scholarship

The first pattern of theme course practice is using a theme to support learning about writing as subject matter, though the primary criticism of the practice is that it does the opposite. Adler-Kassner et al. write, “In privileging process and instructor-selected themes, many writing courses seem to reflect the belief that a writing class can revolve around any content—because the role of content is merely to facilitate an often implicit focus on the development of habits of mind and strategies associated with the writing process” (Assembling Knowledge 19). This criticism reflects the general assumption that theme courses are primarily about theme content and only incidentally or tacitly connected to writing. Yet, existing theme course scholarship demonstrates a strong commitment to writing as subject matter, a salient pattern of practice in the scholarship. William Coles’s 1970s article The Sense of Nonsense sets a scholarly precedent for using theme content while claiming writing as subject matter.[1] As Coles writes, “Our subject is writing, writing seen as action” (27). He continues, “The seedbed of the course, obviously, is the set of assignments out of which our dialogue is generated. The assignments provide us with a nominal subject, something to think and write about, and they serve as a way of getting us from one class to the next over the course of a term” (Coles 27). Coles shares how a “nominal” theme like “Rebellion and Conformity” moves students through assignments and from class to class, even as writing remains the course’s subject matter. While Coles does not himself designate his course as a “theme course,” his use of thematic word pairings to structure a writing course influenced theme-based teaching into the 80s and beyond, with its legacy of using a thematic element to support learning about writing.

The practice of using theme content to support learning about writing has been consistent across theme course scholarship, although the kind and source of content in use is highly variable. For example, Coles made student writing the only readings in his nominal theme courses, while in the 1980s, Moldstad’s Winners and Losers course follows in the nominal theme tradition by using a thematic and contrastive word pairing, with the distinction that her enactment includes literature. Still, Moldstad indicates that her selection of theme (and related readings) was made with learning about writing goals in mind:

I wanted the students to confront the complexities of such concepts, as they saw them at work in their own lives and in the lives of fictional characters. And I wanted to encourage students to develop the habit of questioning their prejudices and preconceptions, as a means of moving them towards one of the goals which the faculty at Ashland College wants its writing program to serve, namely, critical thinking. (98-9)

Moldstad’s course responds to an expectation within the program that students develop critical thinking skills; the course therefore used a theme to support progress toward this goal, integrating literature as part of the theme. More recent theme course practice likewise implements literature as a facet of the course (Farris; Hiser; Sponenberg). Theme courses also draw from popular culture, as with Lindsey Row-Heyveld’s course that “introduced students to college-level research and writing through its focus on superpowers and disabilities” (520). She shares the relevance of films like X-Men: The Last Stand, The Amazing Spiderman, and The Dark Knight in connection to her explanation of “why superpowers in particular provide valuable context for the study of disability” and “how disability and composition’s shared interests in construction and the individual make them a particularly useful pairing” (Row-Heyveld 520). Commonly, theme courses mix media and source types, drawing from literature and pop culture, as with Jacob Hughes’s “monster” theme course, where the “primary aim is in instructing composition” all the same (98).

A second pattern of practice emerges: Theme courses integrate a range of content selections to support writing as subject matter. The presence of literature or other theme-related media does not inherently mean a theme course is about reading, literature, or pop culture (although such a misplaced emphasis can occur); rather, the extant scholarship suggests that theme content is capable of supporting learning about writing through careful course design and intentional teaching method. For example, Sponenberg’s “detective” theme demonstrates to students an inquiry process akin to the one they must follow in the course. Hughes shares how his monster theme affords an opportunity for students to engage in “rhetorical awareness, research acumen, sensitivity to multiple perspectives, and investment into a series of ideas in a body of work over the course of a semester and beyond” (96). In these examples, the theme engages students in an approach to writing that is specific to the course, focusing their learning about writing and even at times positioning them to apply this focused study of writing to contexts beyond the course. Sponenberg’s theme is designed to facilitate a form of transfer within the course, and Hughes’s theme is designed to establish mindsets toward writing that carry beyond the course.

A third pattern of practice emerges: Theme content informs the course’s teaching method. In a “monster” theme course of my own, students read Jeffery Jerome Cohen’s Monster Culture (Seven Theses), in which the seventh thesis states, “The monster stands at the threshold of becoming” (20). As we ask ourselves through Cohen’s essay what monsters say about us—considering why we have made them and what they indicate we are becoming—we recognize that monsters represent a co-creating process. We make them, but they also make us, as we become what they represent. This discussion pivots into our examination of writing as a similarly co-creating process. As we write, our writing changes us.

As we return to change the writing, we find our thinking is developing and possibly changing, too. Theme course teaching might meaningfully support this kind of conceptual learning-about-writing work, guiding students through threshold concepts of writing like “Writing Enacts and Creates Identities and Ideologies” (Scott 48). Yet, Robertson and Taczak see approaches like theme course teaching as avoiding or dressing up writing as subject matter: “[O]ur field continues to resist teaching writing as content in FYC. Perhaps we fear our content must be ‘sexier’ or more exciting to students and to instructors in FYC to be of interest to students, and that if we teach conceptual content about writing it won’t be very interesting” (Disciplinarity 191). Theme course teaching at its best increases the conceptual engagement in a writing course, guiding students through the conceptual messiness of writing.

Zebroski acknowledges that a poorly selected or mismanaged theme has the potential to detract from writing as subject matter:

There are dangers that a theme may well make the course so content based that aside from writing a lot, the student would hardly know whether the course was a literary theory, political science, sociology, or minority studies course. Writing courses do have content and form unique to composition… Selection and use of the course theme, then, is a delicate matter. (18-19)

Theme selection and implementation are equally important and intrinsically linked. For a theme to reinforce writing as subject matter, instructors must examine their motives for selecting a theme and their methods for implementing it in support of the course’s learning about writing goals. Overwhelmingly, theme course scholarship indicates that non-writing content is both selected and implemented to propel learning about writing forward.

For example, Thomas Hothem discusses an “environmentally oriented composition curricula, particularly what has come to be known as ecocomposition—a pedagogical approach dedicated to the notion that writing is contingent upon a complex web of environmental relations through which writers find expression” (39). In his use of “ecocomposition,” Hothem approaches environments in the general sense of the word, using this pedagogical approach to teach a “Suburban Experience” theme course. The course’s content includes a range of essays, literature, and pop culture, including excerpts of Emma and its retelling in the teen flick Clueless. These curricular selections work alongside the pedagogical aims of the course, which approaches writing as rhetorical and as environmentally situated. Hothem writes: “Given the course’s primary concern with cultivating writing skills, such precision lends itself well to the study of ‘descriptive/rhetorical environments’ alongside physical/natural ones” (42). As emphasized by Hothem throughout the article, learning about writing as rhetorical is a priority in the course, and Hothem’s use of theme provides a method for learning, guiding students through a conceptual engagement with writing and rhetoric as environmental. That is, writing as environmental is his teaching method and so becomes students’ learning method; the environmental focus of his course explicitly aims to support writing as subject matter.

A second example of using a course theme as a teaching method is in Row-Heyveld’s course on writing, superpowers, and disability:

[T]he most difficult part of teaching FYS is balancing content instruction with teaching research and rhetoric. Focusing FYS through the lens of superpowers and disabilities, however, makes striking that balance easier because of the unique overlap between the study of composition and the study of the nonstandard body. For instance, after my class listens to Tim Colvin’s story, we discuss how his disability is not simply the result of his biological reality but also a product of his social interactions and self-identification. This discussion requires students to parse meanings, see multiple points of view, and defend their interpretations with different kinds of evidence. In this way, the study of disability and the study of rhetoric happen seamlessly; instead of jumping back and forth between topics or trying to keep one from overwhelming the other, the two mutually reinforce and illuminate one another. (520)

In Row-Heyveld’s course, the theme is enmeshed in concepts concerning writing and rhetoric. Row-Heyveld engages students in studies of disability and superpowers, not simply because these are both relevant and interesting topics but primarily because they are relevant to writing, especially when brought critically toget her. The course theme lends a particular lens that guides student analysis, informs their evidence collection, and teaches them to account for varying perspectives. The theme emphasizes writing as subject matter while focusing discussions of writing. Perhaps not just any content can support learning about writing, but arguably, non-writing related content can become integral to learning about writing when a theme has proximity to the writing concepts an instructor wants to emphasize in a course and when instructors make the theme’s relationship to writing clear.

As a third example of theme as teaching method, Dannen implements a sports media theme to engage students in writing and argument as rhetorical. She explains:

“Interest” is one of the main reasons I eventually chose to make sports media and American culture the topic of my freshman composition class, and although this subject has really resonated with my students, meeting them where they are, this theme is not just fun and games… [T]he intellectual operations that take place in these sports readings make them an understandable, relevant, and engaging example of academic argument. The idea that an “argument” is not a fight between two people but a debatable and well-supported claim is frequently illustrated in today’s sports media… So while we certainly talk about sports in my class, we also think about what the rhetoric surrounding sports can teach us about argument and even our own language use. (Dannen 557)

Dannen has a layered rationale for theme selection. First, she wants the theme to interest students and resonate with them. Beyond popular appeal, though, the sports media theme orients students to argument as “well-supported” debate: The sports content is a mirror to an approach to writing in the course, helping students understand and engage in academic argument. Sports and rhetoric (and writing) are topics discussed together, with the theme having been selected and enacted to support learning about writing. Dannen enacts the theme as the methodological principle, which begins as early as theme selection.

Perhaps what instructors need to accomplish through a theme is the starting point for selecting one, a starting point that should be tied to the course’s learning about writing goals as exemplified in Dannen’s course. In review, the patterns of theme course practice exhibited in scholarship are as follows: 1) Theme course instructors are committed to writing as the subject matter of the course, 2) theme content is highly variable in topic and source type, and 3) theme content nonetheless serves as a teaching method for engaging students in writing-related conceptual content. To learn if theme course scholarship reflects current practice more broadly, I conducted a survey, the results of which are detailed below and indicate that helping students learn about writing is a primary motivation for selecting a theme. Theme course instructors have had sound motives, both in scholarship and in current practice; they believe that a theme can help promote writing as subject matter, which motivates them to first of all teach a theme course and secondly informs their theme selection—as demonstrated above and soon to be elaborated on below.

V. Locating Patterns of Theme Course Practice in a Survey

The survey was first a tool for gauging how prevalent theme course teaching is today and what motivates it, which lends insight into how relevant further study of theme course teaching would be. Second, the survey was designed to learn more about what current practice looks like, especially to learn if it coincided with any of the patterns of practice reflected in scholarship.

Taczak and Robertson locate the theme course as “arguably one of the most common content types in first-year composition courses across the country” (Reiterative 47), and my survey yielded 88 responses across 84 institutions of ranging type, confirming the practice’s continued popularity.[2] One purpose of my survey, to determine if theme practice is as common as we often believe it to be, is answered in part by the fact of having received 88 responses; however, I also incorporated this inquiry directly into the survey by asking where respondents taught the course, allowing us to “see” from a distance where theme courses are and how they are distributed across the country (see Table 1). To understand better how current practice aligns with scholarship, the survey asked respondents about the pedagogical, personal, and professional motivations for selecting a theme. Finally, the survey asked respondents to provide the title of their theme course to gather a sense of the range of content used by this self-selecting respondent population.

Table 1. Survey Explanation and Questions distributed on WPA-L

Explanation of survey for respondents:

While theme courses are a part of our disciplinary tradition, they are under-theorized in scholarship and operate primarily from our lore. I am therefore writing my dissertation on the theme course's historical presence in our field, also looking to bring its pedagogical purposes into focus. As part of my research, I am conducting a survey to inquire into the prevalence of theme courses and the specific pedagogical purposes of various theme courses. If you have taught a theme course, please consider filling out the brief survey linked here: (link to online survey platform).

Survey questions for those who have taught a themed course:


  • At what institution did you teach a theme course?

  • What were your personal, professional, and pedagogical motivations for selecting the course theme?

  • What was the course theme title?

A. Institutions Teaching the Theme Course

To show where theme courses are taught across the country, and to identify the range of institutions in which they are taught, I asked respondents to name the institution where they taught their course or courses. Some respondents named multiple institutions, and some opted out of answering. Together, 88 of the respondents named 84 different institutions where they taught a theme course (see Appendix A). The list of institutions includes mainly state universities, but there are several community colleges, private liberal arts colleges (e.g., Moravian College, Bates College, Gustavus Adolphus College), and even top-tier institutions like Carnegie Mellon and UC Berkeley. Based on this survey, the theme course, then, appears across multiple institution types, suggesting that it is a teaching practice with broad relevance. As the survey was distributed on a listserv, it is not possible to gauge accurately how many subscribers actively chose not to respond to my survey request, but the distribution of respondents here suggests that the data collected may be a useful indicator of perhaps dozens, if not hundreds, more theme courses offered in any given year.

B. Motivations for Teaching a Theme Course

Each theme course uses what David Carlyle Aitchison calls “idiosyncratic” content (168).[3] While Carlyle uses the term disparagingly in the interests of developing a writing course that will enhance students’ understanding of a liberal arts education, this idiosyncrasy is what makes theme course teaching a practice that is fluid, adaptable, and responsive to specific contexts. To learn if theme course practitioners generally maximize a theme’s flexibility in order to support writing as subject matter, the survey asked respondents, “What were your personal, professional, and pedagogical motivations for selecting the course theme?” Because this open-ended question allowed for lengthy responses, I needed a method for analysis that could organize the answers and identify patterns of connectedness clearly. I therefore coded answers according to the guidelines given by research methodologists John W. Creswell and J. David Creswell, taking their advice on creating a “preliminary codebook” in which I created working definitions whose subsequent development is informed by the data, which allows “the codebook to develop and change based on the information learned during the data analysis” (197). I based the preliminary codebook around the three motivational sources listed in the question: the personal, professional, and pedagogical. From these three motivational sources and from the emerging intersections and patterns of repetition I saw in the responses, I created a classification scheme that resulted in a preliminary codebook.

Motivations for selecting a theme were often overlapping and multiple, meaning that not all responses would point to a single motivation that could be categorized as purely personal, professional, or pedagogical. Instead, these motivations overlapped, and Figure 1 shows a Venn diagram used to identify points of overlap or points of singularity that recurred in the responses and that organized the codebook. Recurring reasons for selecting a particular theme or theme course title resulted in the following categories that I specified and defined in the codebook: personal (1); personal and professional (1); professional (1); professional and pedagogical (1); and pedagogical (3). In Figure 1, each circle represents one category, with areas of overlap only between the personal and professional and the professional and pedagogical. Responses pointed to three different pedagogical motivations (A, B, and C) that became three different sub-categories for the “reason for selecting a theme” in the code book.

A Venn diagram of the overlapping motives identified in the survey.

Figure 1: Motivations for selecting a theme.

While I read the responses for the three motivations listed in the question—personal, professional, and pedagogical—more specific instantiations of these motivations began to emerge, which I distinguish as “reasons.” I identified, defined, and elaborated on these specific reasons based on the survey responses. The five reasons for selecting a theme I found were:

  1. an instructor’s personal interest in the topic

  2. an instructor’s research interest in the topic

  3. a response to writing program & institutional culture

  4. to help students learn about writing

  5. perceived student interest in the topic

These are reasons for selecting a particular theme, not reasons for teaching a theme course (as opposed to a course without a theme).

After articulating these recurring reasons, connecting them to the three motivations listed in the survey question, and explaining them through a synthesis of survey responses, I used the final codebook to organize responses according to these five reasons for selecting a theme. I read through each open-ended response 6 times—one time for each specific reason—to see if a response aligned with a different reason in each reading. I assigned colors to each category and highlighted responses accordingly. Responses could include multiple reasons, and I located reasons for selecting a theme according to the “explanation of reason” section of the coding guide.

Table 2. Codebook


Reason for selecting a theme

Explanation of reason based on responses


Having a personal interest in the topic

An instructor has a content interest that is not necessarily connected to a research agenda; this interest reflects an already familiar content area or a content area with which an instructor wants greater familiarity. The instructor may have a connection to the content area stemming from regional, nostalgic, cultural, social, political, and other personal connections.


Having a research interest in the topic

An instructor has been researching a content area (e.g., a theme) and uses a theme course to further explore the area or uses the theme as a familiar content area. The content area is connected to the instructor's research agenda.


Selecting a theme in response to writing program and institutional culture

When an instructor responds to the specific conditions of a writing program, such as theme course guidelines or composition content requirements; when an instructor creates a theme course because of collaboration with other departments or programs; or, when an instructor responds to the broader institutional climate—such as its type, its resources, and even its values.


Using the theme to help students learn about writing

The theme is there to help students learn about writing, which might be mechanical or conceptual. As an example of how the theme might function mechanically, it might bring cohesiveness to the class or create transitions between assignments. As a conceptual example, a theme might help students see the socially constructed and community-driven aspect of literacy, writing, and language. Instructors might select a theme because they see a close connection to a quality of writing they want to teach students more about.


Selecting the theme based on perceived student interest

An instructor selects a theme perceiving that students will have or already have had in previous classes an interest in the content. Perception about what students are interested in may come from ubiquitous industries, common cultural practices, or other matters of broad relevance—e.g., participation in social media, television, music, food, fashion, and even shared career goals and areas of study.

In all, the survey had 88 respondents, but only 87 respondents answered this question. For this reason, percentages are out of 87, not out of 88. Additionally, because these were open-ended responses, answers were often multi-part and therefore spanned multiple categories, which is why the percentages I list here do not add up to 100%. One respondent might have given an answer with three different reasons for theme selection, making the number of responses seem to exceed that of respondents.

For the first reason, “Having a personal interest in the topic,” 21 of 87 (24%) respondents fit into this category. Sometimes responses fitting into this category were direct and short, stating the interest simply. For example, one respondent wrote, “I love baseball.” Another respondent prefaced a statement with, “As a Star Wars fan myself.” Not all responses were this direct. Sometimes reasons connected to personal interest were situated in the negative. One respondent did not want to be “the facilitator of rote practicing of writing skills”; another wanted to avoid boredom. While the implication in these framings is that personal interest was a motivation for avoiding disinterest or boredom, these two responses demonstrate that a degree of interpretation was required in placing some responses into this category. Overall, however, responses were straightforward by expressing a sense of curiosity, nostalgia, or other kind of positive attachment to the topic, and personal interest was a motivation for nearly one-fourth of respondents.

For the second reason, “Having a research interest in the topic,” there were 22 of 87 (25%) respondents fitting into this category. This research connection might be tied to a publication (“I was writing a journal article about the rhetoric of humor in a parodic film”), other avenues of research writing (“I selected the theme because I tied it to an NSF grant project”), or an instructor’s research specialty more broadly (“My area of research is rhetoric of science”). Responses in this category required less interpretation, as respondents often directly stated how a theme connected to a research interest. It seems natural that instructors would teach from their knowledge area and bring research and teaching together in a theme course. In some ways, I am surprised that only one fourth of respondents reported this connection, though instructors may intentionally incorporate idiosyncratic content outside a research expertise for reasons of personal interest, student interest, or institutional culture. In other words, as the codebook’s categories of reasons demonstrate, instructors have multiple motivations for selecting a theme, and pursuing a research interest may not always be a priority.

In fact, a rival motivation surfaces in the third reason, “in response to writing program & institutional culture,” with 20 of 87 (23%) respondents fitting into this category. One respondent wrote, “My school follows it,” suggesting there was no choice involved in theme selection. Other respondents reflect choice within constraints of writing program initiatives (like required textbooks or pre-selected themes) and interdisciplinary collaboration (e.g., “The College of Ed and the English Dept. [where I work] decided to group these students together…”). There may be variance in the degree of choice instructors have regarding selection of theme in connection to program and institutional constraints, but a significant number of respondents identify with this reason for theme selection.

For the fourth reason, “Using the theme to help students learn about writing,” 47 of 87 (54%) respondents fit into this category—receiving the highest number of respondents. These results show that over half of these instructors consider how well a theme will help students learn about writing during the process of selecting one. Over half of survey respondents approached theme selection as connected to teaching about writing: they looked for themes amenable to their teaching and learning about writing goals. Even more specific reasons for theme selection include bringing continuity to the course, giving students context for research topics, helping to build a “mini-discourse community,” and helping students conduct research on a complex topic.

For the fifth reason, “Selecting the theme based on perceived student interest,” 37 of 87 (42.5%) respondents fit into this category. This is the second most popular reason for selecting a theme, indicating that instructors value student interest in a theme almost as much as a theme’s potential to help students learn about writing. For example, some respondents wrote the following:

  • “Students would be engaged in content.”

  • “After I mentioned i[t] to some students and also had some conversations with students about the Daily Show [sic] and The Colbert Report [sic], I thought that this would be a popular topic.”

  • “I thought using real-world non academic writing examples and tasks would be both more interesting to the students and show them options beyond conventional essay assignments.”

  • “I wanted to give students a focus that everyone could relate to—everyone eats.”

  • “I always had a lot of students who were criminal justice majors, so I thought it would appeal to them.”

There is a strong sensibility among respondents that student interest in the topic, which can take various forms as defined in the codebook, matters for how students interact with the theme and for how they learn about writing in a theme course.

The results of this question (see Fig. 2) indicate that, more than anything, instructors consider how a theme will help students learn about writing and if students will be interested in the theme. As noted earlier, Linda Adler-Kassner claims that writing classes should not be “about other things that are not about writing” (132). One of my survey respondents also commented that: “I feel like I've had greater success since I moved away from themes. A theme had come to be a thing to fall back on—I found it easier to teach content than writing.” Adler-Kassner and this respondent are rightfully concerned with keeping learning about writing priority; however, what a theme course is “about”—according to the majority of respondents—is writing.

Other reasons for selecting a theme—personal interests, research interests, program, and institutional culture—are likely secondary reasons for theme selection. It is unlikely that instructors would select a theme based on every reason listed in the codebook, but the majority may prioritize learning about writing and student interest. Responses indicate that reasons other than learning about writing and student interest are secondary, with a nearly even distribution across these other reasons for theme selection. Local practice therefore indicates that helping students learn about writing is a theme’s primary work, and practitioners imply, if not directly state, that student interest is connected to the theme’s success.

Bar graph showing the results of the survey question about motivation.

Figure 2: Motivations for Selecting a Theme.

C. Themes and Theme Course Titles

Answers to the final question—“What was the course theme title?”—demonstrate the variety of theme content in practice (see Appendix B). The significance of this variety may be why theme courses do not receive serious study in scholarship. The theme course has reappeared across the field and across institutions for decades, but its idiosyncrasy, as Aitchison calls it, obscures it as a common practice in English studies. At first glance, these courses appear dissimilar: A course on “money” and a course on “creativity” are seemingly at odds. One might go on to assume that these courses are at odds not only with each other but also with writing-centered courses in general. Yet, as the survey results indicate, a common undercurrent does join theme courses: the selection of a theme that helps student learn about writing. Themes do not have to be the same in topic to have a unifying purpose, and this common purpose can connect theme courses to each other and to the field-wide emphasis on writing as subject matter.

The second implication of this variety is that theme course practice celebrates the prolific life of writing itself, which saturates how we interact and understand the world to such a degree that students are studying writing through topics as unrelated as food, horror, and Harry Potter. As an extension of this second implication, the variety of course titles listed here stands in for the variety of positionalities, practitioners, and practices in the course. In a time when we are striving for inclusion, when we want to examine long-standing biases and acknowledge that writing is for everyone, themes may be a way to give emphasis to these conversations as they matter uniquely to the writing classroom. Indeed, themes of social justice or identity recur in Appendix B: Slavery; Diversity and National Identity; Activism and the Struggle for Social Justice; Rhetorical Constructions of LGBT Identity; Social Justice Issues in Language Diversity; Gender and Sexuality; Disability and Inclusion; and Cultivation: Social Justice in Community Gardens. The theme course is a place where we can recognize the profound relevance of writing in our everyday lives, especially in those recurring and essential questions about identity and equity. The theme course is not only a method for teaching writing but also a manner in which we can acknowledge differences among writers themselves.

VI. Identifying Patterns of Practice as Points of Reconciliation

From the small study above, two patterns of current practice resonate with those identified in theme course scholarship. Most important is the priority put on learning about writing, with both scholarship and the survey demonstrating sound pedagogical motives for theme selection. Theme course practitioners at least intend for themes to promote the study of writing as subject matter, and so they intend to be in cohesion with disciplinary identity, not at odds with it. The survey also reflects that theme content is highly varied in topical focus, which is the second pattern in current practice that aligns with scholarship: Variety is a hallmark of theme course practice. Theme course instructors see different entry points to the study of writing. To some, the disparate topics enacted across theme courses might seem haphazard, even chaotic—as if instructors across the discipline have decided that anything goes (the very mindset its critics fear). Theme course instructors should, of course, be mindful in both selecting and implementing a theme by choosing theme content that will work in explicit support of learning about writing. Such mindfulness is demonstrated across scholarship and in survey responses.

When we acknowledge that theme course instructors do in fact have sound pedagogical motives, we might reconsider the significance of theme content and its variety—viewing it through a positive rather than negative lens. For one, the variety of themes in use might be a profound reminder of the prolific relevance of writing in our lives. Writing is so fused to our lived experiences that it would be difficult to list themes that have no connection to writing in some form. What is a facet of our lives that writing does not touch? We would be hard pressed to answer this question. The variety of theme content may also be indicative of the rich diversity of identities and positionalities who engage in writing studies; at times, theme content even explicitly addresses this richness. The few points of connection among themes in practice shared in the survey point to matters of culture, diversity, and social justice. As we aim to teach from and to diverse perspectives, theme courses provide the flexibility to customize field-wide values to the specific classrooms in which they are enacted.

TFT scholarship similarly uses non-theme content in its curriculum to bring in diverse perspectives: Yancey et al.’s TFT model promotes the use of readings like Letter from Birmingham Jail because it engages students in the course’s learning about writing goals (Writing 144). Yancey et al. encourage content that students take an interest in and find relevant: “[A]s important to students is relevance to their lives, and course material related to students’ interests can be included from the start of the course” (144). They write:

The themes of social injustice about which Dr. King writes… resonate with students who connect these issues of the Civil Rights Era to the injustices they see today. While the focus of the course work is on key terms and their role in composition, the reading material resonates as students explore the author’s use of the concepts to achieve a goal in a written piece. In other words, the combination of the concepts of composition, as well as the concepts of the article itself, make texts like King’s a good choice for a TFT course. (Writing 144)

This rationale for using King’s letter is not unlike the motivations we see in the survey results, where helping students learn about writing is the strongest motivation for theme selection—generating student interest is the second strongest. Integrating these motivations with matters of social justice is yet another pattern that aligns theme course practice to TFT. The strategic use of non-writing content by Yancey et al. is simply extended in a theme course, as it connects non-writing content under a specialized study of writing that spans the semester. As Yancey et al. welcome content that bolsters a course’s aims for learning about writing while drawing from student interests, I welcome the recognition that theme courses have long been operating according to this principle. Rather than points of tension, patterns of theme course practice are points of reconciliation with TFT.

In recognizing the theme course as a peer teaching method to TFT, I suggest we consider the theme course anew, removing the assumption that theme content inherently detracts from learning about writing. Presently, scholarship on theme courses largely privileges instructor motive and instructor experience, but these initial examinations of instructor perspective lay the groundwork for contrasting intended outcomes with actual outcomes—for studying student experiences of theme courses. For now, study of instructor motive has offered the discipline two significant reminders: 1) that we should celebrate the inherent variety across the field, in our writing and among our writers; and 2) that we should examine how non-writing content supports learning about writing as part of a careful teaching method. Examining teaching method is a relevant and necessary component of course design for all compositionists, as content in the writing classroom is unlikely to be always, only, or explicitly about writing—though content should always, only, and explicitly support writing as subject matter. We should be asking at every curricular and pedagogical turn, how will non-writing content work in harmony with the course’s learning about writing goals? How can we implement content to maximize learning about writing? Theme course practice nudges our thinking along in regard to these questions.


Appendix A: Institutions Where Instructors Teach Theme Courses

1. Truckee Meadows Community College

2. St. Mary's College of Maryland

3. Florida State University

4. Morehead State University

5. American University

6. Georgia Southern University

7. Northwestern College

8. Waynesburg University

9. Emory University

10. UC Berkeley

11. Santa Clara University

12. Pitt, New Economic School (Moscow)

13. Texas State University

14. Hofstra University

15. University of San Francisco

16. James Madison University

17. Old Dominion University

18. University of Michigan

19. UMass Dartmouth

20. Carnegie Mellon

21. Illinois State University

22. Southern Illinois University

23. Georgia Gwinnett College

24. Northern Kentucky University

25. University of North Alabama

26. University of Nevada Reno

27. University of Missouri Kansas City

28. Stockton University

29. Bates College

30. John Jay College of Criminal Justice

31. University of Tennessee (Knoxville)

32. University of Cincinnati

33. Eastern Kentucky University

34. College of Lake County

35. Wright State

36. Oakland University

37. SUNY New Paltz

38. Central Oregon Community College

39. Millersville University

40. Illinois College

41. Houston Community College

42. Indiana University of Pennsylvania

43. Wake Forest University

44. Fairfield University

45. Skidmore College

46. Northwestern Michigan College

47. University of Mississippi

48. George Washington University

49. The University of Texas at El Paso

50. Highline Community College

51. Murray State University

52. University of Alabama in Huntsville

53. Georgia State University

54. Georgia Highlands College

55. Gustavus Adolphus College

56. Miami University

57. Blue Ash College

58. University of New Mexico

59. University of Rochester

60. Southern Polytechnic State University

61. Arizona State University

62. Ohio State University

63. Lasell College

64. Columbus State University

65. Syracuse University

66. University of Louisville

67. Kent State University

68. Tennessee Tech University

69. Texas Tech University

70. University of Akron

71. Auburn University of Montgomery

72. Southeastern University

73. St. Louis Community College

74. Moravian College

75. (Two-year college in Mississippi)

76. UMass Boston

77. Towson University

78. University of Colorado, Colorado Springs

79. North Dakota State University

80. University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez

81. Boston University

82. St. Louis Community College-Meramec

83. Buena Vista University

84. Georgia Tech

Appendix B: Titles and Themes

Inquiry into Animal Life

Inquiry into True Crime

Nursing Across Cultures in New Mexico

Writing in the Medical Field


Getting the News

Modern Heroes

Parody and Satire

Researching about Writing and Education

Writing about Popular Culture

Writing about Authority

Writing about Digital Identity

From the Walking Dead to Superheroes: Exploring Human Challenges through Comics

Writing Our Future: American Creed

The Rhetoric of Games

On Campus: Writing About Higher Education

Writing about Science


Writing about Anything


The Rhetoric of Science

Education and the Self


Autoethnography: (Re)Writing the Self into Culture


Soldier, Students, Activists, Anarchists: Attitudes Towards Authority

Writing Wikipedia


The Comic Book

Writing About Writing


Technology and Internet

Designing the World

Academic Composition for Culinary Writers

Tinkering and Writing

Writing About Writing


Writing Wikipedia

Languages of Health and Illness

Writing as Inquiry

Star Wars

Writing in the Tang (a campus art museum)

Writing about Family

Diversity and National Identity

Sports and Wellness



Learning and Education


American Involvement in Viet Nam

Technology and Human Values

GMOS and Food

Technology and Web 3.5?????

Changing Perspective




Food and Culture

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

Rhetoric of Horror

Science Fiction

Writing about Comic Books

Food Arguments

American Higher Education

Objectivity and Bias


Comics and Gender


Ideological English


Better Than Sliced Bread: Food and Writing

Reading Matters



Nature Writing

Writing about Social Class

Activism and the Struggle for Social Justice

Honesty and Deception

Courage and Cowardice

Rhetorical Constructions of LGBT Identity

Evil Empire

Heroes and Villains

Harry Potter

Law and Order


Social Media


Please Like Us: Selling with Social Media

The Rhetoric of Health and Medicine

Critical Reading, Writing, and Inquiry: Food Writing

On Campus: Writing about Higher Education


Let's Talk about Death


Multimodal Composition: Making Sensations and Mapping Perceptions

Social Justice Issues in Language Diversity

Crime and Punishment

Re(vision) — Seeing with New Eyes

Representing Illness

Ethics of Food


Harry Potter

The Great (American?) Pastime: Baseball, Writing, and Community

Civic and Community Engagement

The Social Self

International Crime Fiction

English Composition and Your Profession

Place and Space

Gender and Sexuality

Writing about Pop Culture

Education, Literacy, and Power

Disability and Inclusion

Rhetorical Genre Approach

What is most meaningful to you?


Pop culture

Rhetoric, Language, and Literacy

Cultivation social Justice in Community Gardens


[1] While Coles initiates the first traceable thread of theme course practice in scholarship, the practice likely existed before Coles. In fact, one hundred years ago, Cornelia Carhart Ward of Hunter High School suggested “unified” composition courses, an approach she believed relevant from high school through “the Freshman year in college” (319). Ward does not refer to her teaching practice as belonging to any form of connected tradition in using course themes, yet the course under discussion employs the single theme of “French Life.”

[2] I distributed my survey on the listserv formerly known as WPA-L, which seemed an appropriate place at the time to get a sense of field-wide practice since the listserv was “intended primarily for individuals who are involved in writing program administration at universities, colleges, or community colleges” (WPA Council). I conducted this survey in fall 2017, prior to major upheaval in WPA-L threads in connection to social justice issues brought to the forefront under the Trump administration; these discussions led to many unsubscribing from the listserv. Ideally, theme courses (like all writing courses) respond to local contexts: the institutional and programmatic conditions that intersect in particular classrooms. The interplay of local contexts and larger, field-wide values was a longstanding use of the WPA-L, where administrators or those interested in writing program administration sought out counsel, shared advice, or engaged in arguments about writing, often in terms of how a writing-related topic unfolds in a local context. I therefore sought compositionists and administrators on WPA-L for feedback on their theme courses. I used WPA-L for recruitment only. I collected responses through online software (Qualtrics) that preserved respondents’ privacy. This survey received IRB approval.

[3] Concerned with the state of general education, Aitchison writes the following about theme course practice: “At our worst, we come off as idiosyncratic, giving glimpses of ideas and approaches that might fascinate but all too often do not mean enough to students in terms of their broader courses of study” (168).

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Yancey et al. The Teaching for Transfer Curriculum: The Role of Concurrent Transfer and Inside-and Outside-School Contexts in Supporting Students’ Writing Development. College Composition and Communication, vol. 71, no. 2, 2019, pp. 268–295.

Yancey et al. Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing, Utah State UP, 2014.

Zebroski, James Thomas. Creating the Introductory College Composition Course. Thinking Through Theory, Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1994, pp. 15–30.

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