Student writing when the text isn’t literary

Hi all, I’d like to give you a little update about how my students’ first essay is going, since it’s a somewhat experimental assignment and it felt like a risk. In a nutshell, they are writing an essay about a person they know using three texts associated with that person. Common choices have been songs, text messages, Instagram posts, clothing, and (controversially) hairstyles. So far I have received and read the first two phases of this assignment: an initial analysis of just one text, and the first draft.

I was pretty pleased with the results of the first phase (analysis of one text). In particular, I found myself far more interested in what they were writing about than I have been with the typical “diagnostic” essay, which in past classes was frequently an uninspired Shakespeare commentary. I could tell that they were much more interested, not only in what they were writing about but also in how to write it. And they intuitively made the analytical moves that I’ve been trying to hammer into teenagers’ heads for the past four years, like the “although” thesis statement. For example: Although it seems like Angelina is confident person, those who know her well can see that confidence is her way of protecting herself. One of my students produced this argument without me having to say anything about “although.” Our workshop of this assignment also went quite well. With Joe’s workshop format, I found that people stayed on task remarkably well. The revision plan was an unexpected boon – to my great surprise, many of them successfully identified the things they needed to revise, which freed me up to praise what went well.

Of course, many of the essays weren’t so interesting, and in the usual ways – banal arguments, no engagement with form, etc. This became especially true in the first draft, in which they had to be a little more ambitious than they were in phase one. But some of the problems were new and interesting in themselves. One student wrote what was quite transparently an attempted homage to a high school crush, and his text was her hair. He claimed that the way she twirled her hair revealed a lot about her as a person. My immediate reaction was “what have I done!” Then I decided to engage with the essay at face value. In my comments, I asked him what he thought this girl might think about him “reading” her hair this way, and what the potential problematics of doing so might be.

How would you guys have responded? And how are your riskier writing assignments going? Any pleasant surprises? Horrors?



2 thoughts on “Student writing when the text isn’t literary”

  1. Hi Taylor,

    This sounds like a really cool assignment, and I’m glad to here it’s succeeded in getting students invested! I think I have maybe two thoughts in response.

    One is regarding the reading of form (and also the reading of context) – this seems to me the place where example readings / specific analytic concepts could help. I’ve done units before involving analyzing contact zones and advertisements, and have done specific steps in the sequence where students have had to apply analytic terms from readings (such as an excerpt from Foucault on panopticism, a textbook chapter explaining visual analysis, and an essay on photography and commodification) to their chosen topic. I wonder how Barthes’ Mythologies might work as an example in your case? I had a course as an undergrad where we read several and then had to write our own mythology of some aspect of campus life — it was a lot of fun.

    My second thought is regarding the worry about naive/uncritical interpretations. If there’s a way to at least partially reframe some aspect of the analysis as argument rather than interpretation, then you could have students also compose a counterargument (perhaps by writing the script of a debate, or by actually debating in class). I think your response to the student of concern was a great intervention – indeed, you might expand it as a task for everyone in the class to consider, since they are all writing about other people, it would make sense to have each consider how the one being interpreted might respond to the interpretation. That would be great training for our more prosaic practices of considering counterarguments and alternative interpretations when academically engaging in intertextuality.

    1. Thanks for these thoughts, Evan! Partly inspired by thought #2, I had the students do a free write the other day about to what extent they think literature can give us knowledge of other people. They were allowed to use one of the texts we read or their own experience writing about someone else as part of their response. Several of them did choose to write about the project and admitted that they felt the urge to protect the person they were writing about (I was part of this camp since I decided to do part of the project with them, about my dad). Others said they had shared their essay with the person they wrote about, and in some cases the person felt confused or betrayed. Since part of what I hoped they’d understand through the course was that representations of alterity are limited or problematic, I think this was a somewhat useful conversation. Of course, some people did feel that the project gave them privileged access to the other person – for example, one student who had unearthed his high school math teacher’s posts about the election on Facebook. Ha!

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