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This staged and high stakes Urban Studies assignment was developed in conjunction with two Center for Teaching and Learning Seminars at LaGuardia Community College: “The Pedagogy of the Digital Ability” and “The Next Generation ePortfolio.” All Urban Studies courses at LaGuardia are writing intensive, and all are designated for the college’s Global Learning Core Competency and the Written Communication Ability. Urban Studies courses exist on different points of many programmatic curriculum maps for Liberal Arts majors, but students usually take it as a midpoint course. Dozens of different majors completed this assignment and take Urban Studies courses more generally, including Criminal Justice, Psychology, and Computer Science.

This assignment comes from a course called ENN 195: Violence in American Art and Culture. This course surveys the depictions of various types of violence and the use of violence as a theme or metaphor in North American literature, art, and popular culture. Emphasis is placed on New York City as a laboratory and resource for researching considerations of violence in poetry, drama, fiction, film, and other visual art forms as well as popular culture (e.g., lyrics, comic strips, advertising, horror and suspense stories).

My assignment asks students to compose an argumentative, thesis-driven essay that fulfills the similar criteria of both writing intensive courses and Written Communication. I decided to use this assignment to address Digital Communication as well, in part because I believed the multimodal elements of the digital ability would enhance the overall composition. The writing intensive skills we practiced in relation to Written Communication included the key modes of academic writing and professional communication: summary, comparison and contrast, analysis, close-reading, unified paragraphs, introductions, conclusions, bibliographies, arguments, supporting claims, key words and concepts, authentic audience, and research skills, including in-text citation. The assignment addressed the criteria of Digital Communication by asking students to compose multimedia “digital essays,” with sourced images and videos supplementing their argumentative claims.

I adapted the themes of ENN 195 to inquire more deeply into what the assignment entitles the “Global War on Drugs.” For this multi-stage assignment, we examined how art and literature represents the complex causes and effects of drug war cultures and politics in the present and historically in the United States, Mexico, and Colombia, whereby each nation anchored a different part of the essay. We began with the problem of racial policing and mass incarceration, pivoted to the migration crisis on the U.S.-Mexican border, and concluded with an investigation into Colombian visual arts and how they depicted themes of narco-violence, civil war, and indigenous land expropriation. We assessed how different kinds of media, including rap, fiction, and visual art, narrated the complex global sites of drug war violence. All students had to combine at least two parts of the three part essay.

Due to the multi-staged nature of the digital essay assignment, it took most anywhere from half to the entire course to complete it. We spent approximately 20% of the course addressing hip-hop and the New Jim Crow as an argumentative essay, 20% of the course addressing migration, the border crisis, and narco-violence as an argumentative essay, and 20% of the course addressing Colombian history, art, and culture in relation to narco-violence as an argumentative essay. We then spent approximately 10% of the course adapting these essays into one composite “digital essay,” using lab hours to peer review both the writing and the digital presentation. Each essay alone was worth 20% of the final course grade, while the digital aspect of the assignment was worth 10% of their course grade.

LaGuardia’s Core Competencies and Communication Abilities

Main Course Learning Objectives:

  • To demonstrate argumentative writing skills composing thesis-driven essays
  • To build capacities using Digital Communication, including integrating visual and video texts into argumentative essay
  • To build capacities in Global Learning and in historicizing contemporary culture and politics
  • To learn more about the global, political, and cultural dimensions of narcotics trafficking, particularly in relationship to racial policing, mass incarceration, immigration and migration, money laundering, and covert intelligence operations

Our specific, writing-intensive course objectives included:

  • understanding the historical context of drug war violence and mass incarceration;
  • defining the relation between drug cultures, economic inequality, and racial identities;
  • identifying the political economy of migration, immigration, and border violence;
  • analyzing how different media and literature represent drug war cultures and violence.


This resource is part of the Learning Matters Assignment Library.

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