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?