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First Year Communication Seminar: Identity and Values

Dr. Katherine Cruger, Chatham University (Pittsburgh, PA)

Shared with Permission1

In 2016, Dr. Katherine Cruger participated in a Teaching Interfaith Understanding faculty development seminar, run in partnership between the Council of Independent Colleges and Interfaith Youth Core, and generously funded by the Henry Luce Foundation. For information on future seminars, and to access more resources created by seminar alumni, visit

Course Description

This First Year course will share a common syllabus and meeting time to allow for shared speakers and activities. Texts will engage identity formation and values clarification, will employ active-learning pedagogy of discussion and debate, and will examine issues of race, gender, class, ethnicity, and systems of belief. Communication skills will include analytical writing, critical reading, oral presentation, critical listening, technology management, and information literacy. 

Student Learning Outcomes

Course-Specific Objectives:

  • Students will use key constructs of social identity and difference, including race, class, gender, ethnicity, and systems of belief.
  • Students will demonstrate the ability to communicate across differences, including race, class, gender, ethnicity, and systems of belief.
  • Students will use multi-modal technology to articulate obstacles to valuing difference.

Written Communication:

  • Students will be able to produce coherent, focused, organized, clear and correct written documents using general academic conventions as well as appropriate discipline-based conventions.
  • Students will be able to use the tools of persuasion to reach a variety of audiences.

Oral Communication:

  • Students will demonstrate the ability to formulate opinions and support and defend them effectively.
  • Students will demonstrate the ability to articulate ideas, reach, and persuade a variety of audiences.
  • Students produce an effective presentation using a variety of strategies and technologies.

Information Literacy:

  • Students will demonstrate the ability to locate information sources, including electronic sources, and the ability to analyze, interpret, and evaluate their quality/reliability.
  • Students will demonstrate the ability to conduct research using a variety of strategies and sources.
  • Students will produce an effective written document analyzing and synthesizing research materials and leading to a conclusion supporting an argument or hypothesis.

Required Texts and Materials

  • Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (2010), Eboo Patel.
  • Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity, 2nd ed. (2011), Brenda J. Allen.
  • Emerging: Contemporary Readings for Writers, 2nd ed. (2013), Barkley Barrios.
  • A Pocket Style Manual, 6th ed. Eds. Hacker and Sommers (2011).

Course Requirements

1) Paper # 1 (100 points)
2) Information Literacy Project (150 points total)

  • Annotated Bib = 50
  • Presentation = 100

3) Midterm Exam (100 points)
4) Paper # 2 (150 points)
5) Technological Literacy Project (250 points total)

  • Proposal = 25
  • Draft = 25
  • Storify Essay = 100
  • Persuasive Prezi Presentation = 100

6) Final Exam (150 points)
7) Participation/Informal Assignments (100 points)

All requirements are explained in more detail below:

Paper # 1

600-650 words in length
100 points

A central goal in this course is to develop your ability to read and think critically. For your first paper, therefore, we ask that you take a stance on one of the reading selections listed below.  You will want to begin the paper with a clear introduction stating your view on the reading selection you chose. Next, you will provide a brief summary, clearly articulating the author’s key points (approximately two paragraphs). Remember that a summary is a brief restatement of the central idea of another author’s essay, including the key arguments and the ways in which the author presents his/her arguments to his/her audience. It is not the place for reaction or personal opinion. That comes afterward.

In the second half of the paper we would like you to respond to the author’s views.  What do you think of the author’s stance?  Do you agree or disagree with his/her perspective(s).  Perhaps you both agree and disagree?  How so and why?  Consider using the text of your own experience to substantiate your views.  Remember, specifics lend credibility to your writing, and strong writers show the reader why their points are persuasive (rather simply telling the reader what he or she should believe).  You may elect to use the first-person voice in your paper, though your summary should be accurate and objective. You must cite your reading selection properly, according to APA (American Psychological Association) Citation Style.

*Writing tip:  Unless you are writing a long essay, there is no reason for your introduction to be more than three to five sentences long. For this paper, be sure your introduction includes the author’s full name and title of her/his essay, the general focus of your paper, and a clear thesis statement (i.e., what you are showing your reader). For this paper, your thesis should state your response to the author’s key view(s).

Reading Selections (Choose ONE):

  • Aburawa “Veiled Threat” (Barrios pp. 27-33)
  • Allen Ch 3: Gender Matters (pp. 41-63)
  • Pozner “Ghetto Bitches, China Dolls, and Cha Cha Divas” (Barrios pp. 396-409)

Information Literacy Project

150 points total (Annotated bibliography + Presentation)

Goals: The purpose of this project is to work in a group to formulate a research a question, locate and select resources, evaluate your resources, and appropriately use others’ materials in the service of an informative and engaging presentation. This project will also develop your skill at delivering oral presentations using PowerPoint.

Process: Because this is a relatively large project, we will be tackling it in steps.

Step 1.  Submit list of four topic preferences (in order of preference) on [insert date]. We will discuss possible topics in class.

Step 2. Collect and evaluate information with your group.

  • Be sure you have 6 academic sources appropriate to topic for annotated bibliography
  • Keep in mind that at least 3 of these must be academic resources (not websites)
  • Consider reviewing your sources with a research librarian

Step 3. Assign different elements of topic to each presenter. For example, a group of three might have

  • topic overview
  • pro view on topic
  • con view on topic


  • topic overview
  • specific case examples/studies
  • key debates on the topic

Step 4. Each individual prepares their 5-minute presentation. PowerPoint is required.

  • Do not use font below “28.”
  • Effective PowerPoint presentations use short phrases and meaningful images (no videos please; screen shots are fine).
  • Each presentation should be 5 minutes in length; rehearse—time yourself.  
  • Q&A will follow group presentation; each member will get at least one question.

Additional tips for success on presentations:

  • Ensure that presentation “one” provides what is needed for presentation two, etc.
  • Presenters should not repeat what their partners have said.  
  • There should be a “transition” between presentations and a clear arc (a beginning, a middle, and an end.)  
  • Presentations should complement and build on each other.  While you will be evaluated individually, doing this well requires that you are in communication with the rest of the members of your group.

Step 5. Create an annotated bibliography for the group, following APA citation format.

  • Bibliography should include 6 annotated sources total for the group.
  • Double check citation style. Double check it again.
  • Confirm that you group has at least 3 academic sources.

There are many different ways of crafting annotations in an annotated bibliography. For our purposes in this class, annotations will by only 2-3 sentences long. The first sentence articulates the author’s thesis. Sentence two identifies the audience for the source and what specific readership would find the source most useful.

Step 6. Presentation day:  Be polished and prepared.

  • Be sure your PowerPoint is uploaded to Moodle.
  • Deliver presentation in front of class using PowerPoint.
  • Respond to questions from class.

Midterm Exam

100 points
Takehome Essay
700-750 words

For your midterm exam essay, please show how a key concept, issue, or perspective is threaded through three distinct pieces. Please identify and develop a common linkage or thread in the three pieces you selected. Strong essays will be specific, and articulate clearly how the three essays are linked.

Hint: You will want to write an introduction, three body paragraphs (or 4), and a conclusion. Use of the first person is fine. Self-reflection is encouraged, but do not sacrifice analysis or specifics in order to reflect on your own learning or experience.

Think carefully about how you will yoke the three pieces together.  What issue is common to all three reading selections? Do all three offer the same perspective? Might you use one reading selection to “analyze” two others?  

You may select from the following pieces:

  • Allen
  • Magala
  • Aburawa
  • Pozner
  • Hvistendahl
  • Shlasko
  • McIntosh
  • Olson

Paper # 2: Analysis Essay

800-850 words in length
150 points

For paper #2, please revise your midterm exam essay.  You will want to revise your exam essay into a full paper by adding more depth of analysis and textual evidence. Your goal here is not simply to add more to the end of the paper; rather, go into the paper and make your points and connections more clear and persuasive.  You may want to tweak/alter your initial focus/thesis. You might want to change the order of the reading selections or your ideas. You may add new content or bring in additional readings that we’ve read since the midterm. You might even decide that you only want to write the paper about two of the reading selections that you used in your midterm essay. The midterm is just a starting point. In this paper, we are looking for more than a five-paragraph essay.  Revising is not merely a matter of “correcting” writing errors (though you should, of course, fix any infelicitous writing), but rather a matter of reconsidering and polishing your focus, your organization, ideas, writing style, and mechanics.  

Strategies for Success:

  • A good trick is to “outline” your paper after you have finished the paper; if you can’t make a tidy outline, you probably need to rethink the structure of your paper.
  • Remember that the default form of a paragraph is (1) topic sentence, (2) lead into evidence, (3) offer evidence (usually a quotation), (4) analyze or comment on evidence, and finally, (5) round out point of paragraph in relation to your overall point.
  • For more details about how the paper will be evaluated, please consult the “Criteria for Grading

Technological Literacy Project

250 points

Goals and Purpose: This semester, you have worked on critically reading, summarizing, and analyzing arguments presented in narrative essays, science writing, film, and many other kinds of composition. In your midterm essay and Paper # 2, you will begin to reflect on and include your reaction to these arguments and examine your own assumptions as well as those guiding each author. Now, you are ready to take your knowledge of persuasion and consciously employ it in your own work. Your purpose in this assignment is to persuade your audience to adopt your position on your topic and alter their behavior in some way. A shift in perspective is not enough here; you must call your audience to action based upon your arguments. You will use Storify to present your argument and call to action. Once you have crafted your persuasive Storify essay, you will then present that same argument to a real audience -- your classmates -- during a 5 minute formal presentation using Prezi.

This assignment is an opportunity for you to explore modes of communication beyond the standard print essay. Different topics and audiences are not all suited by the same modes of expression. This project gives practice in honing skills and voice for digital media and public speaking. We will explore Storify and Prezi in detail so that you can make informed decisions about what content work best for your topic and target audience in each medium.

You may work individually on this final project, or you may work in pairs.

You should choose a topic that is interesting and important to you, even the same topic of your Information Literacy assignment if you wish. However, this assignment requires that you spend a lot of time and energy learning about your topic, crafting careful arguments, and persuading others of your stance. You will find this easiest and most rewarding if you choose a topic that you care about.

Process & Components: This project has many components. It is best to read through this entire assignment description before you determine your project topic or begin working on your proposal.

Project Proposal
25 points

In 150 words or less, answer the following questions in paragraph form:

  • What topic will you/your team be addressing and why is it important and timely?
  • What do you think your thesis statement and stance will be? [NOTE: this can change over the course of your research and writing process, but you need to start somewhere.]
  • Who is your target audience and why?
  • What action do you want your audience to take or not take after reading your piece?
  • What kinds of evidence do you plan to use to bolster your argument in your Storify Essay and/or Prezi presentation? Be as specific as you can be at this juncture.
  • How do you think this project should be evaluated? Based upon what criteria do you think these projects should be graded?

Storify Essay
25 points for draft
100 points for final essay

Storify is a curation and storytelling tool that allows writers to pull web and social media content together, craft that existing content into a story, and publish that story online. Because of the nature of the tool, traditional word or page limits are not appropriate ways of describing the assignment.

Your Storify essay must include the following:

  • An introduction that woos your audience.
  • An argumentative thesis that is a call to action about which reasonable people could disagree. In other words, it should be a sentence in which you articulate your position on a particular topic. Be careful not to take a position that is either 1) obviously the most logical choice---meaning no one would think differently or 2) so outlandish that no one would agree.
  • A body that elaborates on the logic behind your thesis. It should offer support for your claims, meaning that you should provide evidence to back up your opinion and beliefs. Remember, opinions are not argumentative---people believe what they believe---however, the reasoning behind those beliefs is often a point of disagreement between individuals. Each section of the body should contain a claim (in support of your initial thesis), followed by support (evidence), and an explanation of how this evidence does, in fact, prove your claim.
  • A refutation section, in which you acknowledge the most believable arguments of the opposing side and address why you are unconvinced by them. For example, if you are writing about why we should not shop at WAL-MART, you might address the argument that WAL-MART is no different than Target and K-Mart, so why should we boycott WAL-MART while still shopping at Target? Or, you may want to address why people shop at WAL-MART in the first place—low prices and that WAL-MART offers working class families access to goods they might not otherwise afford. Then you would need to explain why you are unconvinced by these arguments. It is very important that you address these arguments fairly or else your readers and viewers will dismiss your own argument because you have dismissed theirs.
  • A conclusion that leaves your audience with something to think about and, most importantly, something to do.
  • Two or more images. You may include many more than two images, videos, audio, etc.
  • Two or more hyperlinks to other content on websites or social media.
  • Proper citation of all sources (including images and web content!) according to APA citation style.

You will upload the link to your Storify essay to the Peer Revision Discussion Forum on Moodle by November 9th. A draft is not an outline. It is a first (or fifth) attempt at your final product. It should be well formatted, free from errors, and written in full sentences with proper citations, clear images, and active hyperlinks. For this technological literacy project, you will still adhere to the citation guidelines of APA. The more developed your draft, the better feedback you will receive from your audience.

Your final draft is due for grading via Moodle upload. As a class, will craft evaluation criteria for these projects, available on Moodle.

Persuasive Formal Presentation with Prezi
100 points

You will adapt your thesis and call to action from your Storify Essay into a 5 minute persuasive presentation (7 minutes for team projects.) Your goal will be to persuade your classmates to do or not do something through your speech. You will use Prezi as your visual aid for this project.

At the end of the presentation, you will distribute a survey with a single yes/no question in order to gauge how convinced the audience is of your argument. These results will be shared with the class, but will not be factored into the final grade for the presentation.

Additional Tips for Success on the Technological Literacy Project: Organization is very important in a persuasive project. Often, communicators start with the least controversial arguments (those more people are likely to agree with) and then work towards the more controversial arguments (those less people are likely to agree with). In order to make this organization successful, you will need to have strong transitions that illustrate why each argument relates to or warrants the ones that follow. You will want to think carefully about what type of evidence you will use to support your claims.  BE A CONSCIOUS COMMUNICATOR! Know what strategies you are using and why. Know who your audience is and what you want to convince them to accept and do. Know what assumptions underlie your beliefs and what assumptions underlie the beliefs of those whose opinions differ from yours.  

Final Exam

150 points
700-750 words

In the opening to Chapter 8 of Acts of Faith, Eboo Patel (2007) quotes the American political theorist Michael Waltzer, who asks “How are we, in the United States, to embrace difference and maintain a common life?” (p. 151).

  • What is Patel’s answer to this fundamental question and what arguments does he offer in support of his position? Do you agree with Patel? Why or why not?
  • Which of the vignettes from this book (meaning the illustrative personal examples Patel uses to support his thesis) do you find most compelling and why?

You may respond to both of the above questions in one essay, or break them up into two shorter pieces. This final exam is an opportunity for you to display many of the different skills we’ve been working on this semester, such as:

  • Summary of an author’s main ideas
  • Critical engagement with a text
  • Constructing and supporting your own thesis with evidence from the course texts and your personal experience
  • Proper citation of sources
  • Self-driven revision, proofreading, and editing


100 points total

This is a class about discussion, dialogue, and difference. Participation from all members of the learning community makes the course better. In-class assignments, informal writing assignments, peer reviews, workshopping, and participation in classroom discussion will make up 10% of your grade in this course.


Students may earn up to 1000 points over the course of the semester. The correlation between points and letter grade is as follows:

A: 93% and above (>930 points)     C: 73 – 76.5% (730 – 769 points)

A-: 90 – 92.5% (900 – 929 points)     C-: 70 – 72.5% (700 – 729 points)

B+: 87 – 89.5% (870 – 899 points)    D+: 67 – 69.5% (670 – 699 points)

B: 83 – 86.5% (830 – 869 points)     D: 63 – 66.5% (630 – 668 points)

B-: 80 – 82.5% (800 – 829 points)     D-: 60 – 62.5% (600 – 629 points)

C+: 77 – 79.5% (770 – 799 points)     F: 59% or below (< 599)

The instructor is happy to discuss grades with students, but requires that you wait a full 24 hours before bringing complaints or concerns if you feel you’ve been graded unfairly. In order to address any such grievances, you must arrange to meet with the instructor in person within seven days of the assignment’s return. After one week, you forfeit your right to argue about a grade, but you are always encouraged to ask questions about past assignments or discuss how to do better in the future.


Course Calendar

Class meets three times per week for 16 weeks

UNIT 1: Difference and Other Important Matters

Week 1:


  • Review syllabus


  • Read Allen, Ch. 1 (pgs. 1-22)
  • Student introductions + preferred gender pronouns


  • Read Ravi Mangala’s “Airmail”
  • In-class diagnostic essay (ungraded) + discussion

Week 2:


  • Read Barrios, Introduction (pgs. 2-24)
  • Discuss Paper #1 assignment (and writing, more generally)


UNIT 2: Gender Matters


  • Read Aburawa (Barrios pgs. 27-33)
  • Discuss Info Literacy Assignment


  • Read Allen, Ch. 3 (pgs. 41-63)
  • APA Workshop
  • Due: Info Literacy Topic preference sheet

Week 3:


  • Read Pozner (pgs. 396-409)
  • Form groups for Info Literacy Assignment


  • Read Hvistendahl (Barrios pgs. 249-254)
  • Info Lit Session with librarians


  • Paper workshop in class – bring laptop
  • Due: Paper #1 draft

Week 4:


  • Read Shlasko
  • Students will meet outside of class for Jessie Ramey campus talk


UNIT 3: Race Matters


  • Read Allen, Ch. 4 (pgs. 65-91)
  • Due: Library Modules


  • TED Talk
  • Discussion of Oral Presentation Skills
  • Due: Paper #1 for Grading

Week 5:


  • Read McIntosh
  • Due: Info Lit Annotated Bibliography


  • Read Olson (Barrios pgs. 333-347)
  • Viewing of Little White Lie (pt. 1)


  • Viewing of Little White Lie (pt. 2)
  • Discussion of film

Week 6:


  • Info Literacy Presentations
  • Due: Individual PPT slides


  • Info Literacy Presentations


  • Info Literacy Presentations
  • Read Novack
  • Due: APA Citation Fixes Worksheet

Week 7:

Monday: Long weekend – no class


  • Public speaking in-class activity
  • Due: Midterm Exam


UNIT 4: Social Class Matters


  • Read Allen, Ch. 5 (pgs. 93-113)
  • Read “On a Plate” Cartoon, NYT interactive graphic on social class

Week 8:


  • Read Guo
  • Due: Tech Literacy Project Proposal
  • Discuss Lit Tech Project and Develop Class Rubric


  • Read hooks, “Coming to Class Consciousness”
  • Discuss Paper #2


  • Persuasive Writing Workshop

Week 9:


  • Librarian visit to discuss Prezi + Storify
  • Discuss Revision Activities Experience


  • Due: Paper #2 in class for workshopping – bring laptop


  • Due: Paper #2 Final for grading


UNIT 5: Communicating Social Identity

Week 10:


  • Viewing of Tough Guise, pt. 1
  • Read Allen, Ch. 9 (pgs. 183-197)


  • Viewing of Tough Guise, pt. 2


  • Debrief Tough Guise
  • Read Alvarez (Barrios pgs. 45-65)

Week 11:


  • Paper workshop in class – bring laptop
  • Due: Tech Literacy Storify Essay Draft


  • Public speaking exercise in class
  • Due: Tech Literacy Storify Essay for grading


UNIT 6: Cultural Differences Matter


  • Read online links to Mizzou protest coverage

Week 12:


  • Watch Crossing Borders outside of class
  • Chris Michelmore talk + Chris Musick visit in class


  • Tech Literacy Presentations
  • Read Patel
  • Due: Prezi (even if not presenting today)


  • Tech Literacy Presentations
  • Read Patel

Week 13:


  • Tech Literacy Presentations
  • Read Patel

Wednesday: No Class

Friday: No Class


UNIT 7: Systems of Belief Matter

Week 14:


  • Read Patel (finish book)
  • Due: Three questions to ask Patel (upload to Moodle)


  • Patel talk during class


  • Debrief Patel talk
  • Read Wallace (Barrios, pgs. 497-512)

Week 15:


  • Read Appiah (Barrios pgs. 66-87)
  • Appiah Ted Talk
  • Discuss Final Exam


  • Read Gladwell (Barrios pgs. 230-240) and Gilbert (Barrios pgs. 210-229)
  • Reflective Write on Semester’s Writing Progress


  • Final Reflection Essay + Wrap-up Discussion

Week 16:

Monday: Final Exam


1In consultation with the author, this syllabus has been edited for length, removing details particular to the author’s context such as office hours and location, absence policies, honor codes, and other instructor-specific (or institution-specific) details.