Thursday, May 8, 2008

Josh's Favorite Assignment

What is a cheeseburger? A piece of beef with cheese on a bun? What if it's soy cheese? What if the burger is really REALLY small? What if I take individual atoms off a McDonalds cheeseburger, one at a time, until there is nothing left. At what specific point did it stop being a cheeseburger? Which was the crucial atom?

The first milestone of the cheeseburger activity is to realize that the word "cheeseburger" is just a tool we use to organize our own thoughts and to communicate with each other. The fact that we have such a word does not necessarily mean that certain objects in the world actually ARE cheeseburgers and others ARE NOT. Rather, we use the word to denote a rather fuzzy collection of things. If we try to define exactly which things are cheeseburgers and which aren't, we find that language and reality do not have a 1:1 correspondence. As Korzybksi said, "The map is not the territory."

THIS IS TRUE OF MOST WORDS. Good. Asian. Conscious. Reasonable. Our private thoughts and communiques are so inextricably bound to language that we often forget that the words we use presuppose a set of categories the world is not obliged to obey. To forget this is to place undue trust in our own concepts, falling victim to false dichotomies in myriad forms. The designation of certain groups of people, for example, or even certain collections of cells, as being "human beings" has profound historical, contemporary, legal, and economic significance. Millions of fates and lives turn on the belief that words have meanings and realities beyond our own conceptualization. What if there simply "is" no such thing as a human being? What if there simply "is" no such thing as "right?"

Writing assignment (2 pages): Without using any form of the verb "to be" (e.g. is, are, am, were, was, etc.), critique ONE of the following statements: (1) "Human life begins at conception." (2) "Every American has a right to decent health care." (3) "We have an obligation to protect and preserve ecosystems."

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Incorporating Creative Writing

The three overarching University Studies writing goals for students are:

  1. Demonstrate understanding of the writing of the writing process (generative strategies, prewriting, drafting, revision).
  2. Produce various types of academic essays.
  3. Explore creative writing avenues such as poetry and short stories.

In the portfolio review last year it seemed that many students weren’t given creative writing assignments in their freshman inquiry classes or weren’t choosing those assignments as illustrative the UNST goals for their portfolios.

It makes sense to me that creative writing (CW) may get to different corners of the writer's brain than traditional academic writing assignments. In my experience CW sometimes allows students a greater sense of experimentation – an important ingredient to progress and growth for learning writers. Students see the evaluation of CW as being more subjective and therefore, expect the instructions and process to be less formulaic than traditional essays. In addition, these activities and assignments allow those students with a penchant for CW to shine.

Certainly, all instructors of freshman inquiry are academic writers. But if instructors aren’t creative writers themselves, they may not feel confident using these different genres.It is also possible that some faculty aren’t sure how to incorporate creative writing in their assignment sequences without making it feel “tacked on.”

Following are some suggestions of creative writing assignments/activities that are meant to help students understand academic writing principles. I hope they might give you some ideas for your own classes and inspire you to share your own applications of CW.

Use CW as a process. In a previous entry, I talked about using dialogue to help students get at the idea of academic discourse, as a way for students to move from summary to integration and innovation -- elements necessary to making more “academic” moves. This type of writing can work both as a formal assignment and a generative activity in preparation for something more traditionally academic such as a research, argument, or synthesis essay.

Asking students to rewrite a piece in a new form or genre can also be useful as a process of revision because it forces global changes. I’ve had students rewrite argument papers as short stories and asked them to notice how warrants and support change, and how concrete examples, imagery, and figurative language can influence their ability to convince an audience.

Particular forms in creative writing can be used as templates of analogies for the elements of academic forms. To get at the idea of thesis or claims an instructor I know had students write fables in order practice distilling ideas. I’ve used a poetic form called the haibun, a combination of prose and haiku in a similar way.

The Shakespearean sonnet is a poetic form that lends itself particularly well to practicing argumentation. I’ve had students write sonnets as a way to help them identify the elements of their argument. For example, the first four-line stanza is support or evidence, the second four-line stanza is the counterargument, the third is rebuttal, and the end couplet is the claim.

In my conversations with faculty, I’ve heard tell of Ann Marie F. asking students to rewrite and enact a scene from Antigone in her “On Democracy” classes and Scott P. saying he’d used scene writing in his classes. Some day when I have more time to tap my creative juices, I’m going to figure out how to translate text messaging into a creative writing cum academic writing process. Until then, I look to my colleagues for their innovative ideas. Please send your own suggestions and/or questions either as a response to this entry or in an email to