To avoid students’ cutting and pasting in response to writing topics/prompts, design is crucial. Students often need to be coaxed out of regurgitation mode (lethargy, comfort zone, apathy) – at its worst, this mode takes the form of cutting and pasting or direct transcription. In Stolen Words, Thomas Mallon writes these compelling thoughts about this transcription mode:
For student, especially, the Internet may sap the very need to create, it’s all there already, or so it seems; all the knowledge on a given subject, and all the competing viewpoints, in a machine you can carry around like a book. What’s there to add – and why dig a well instead of turning on the tap? (246)
Alice should go down the rabbit hole rather than pass through the looking glass that merely represents the environment. The experience must be a journey, in order to be meaningful. She must interpret rather than merely report. She must take intellectual risks and shape understanding from primary source information. Students today are inundated with the secondary: immerse them in the primary.
For example, Meursault in The Stranger (primary source) makes for an excellent character analysis discussion board posting and if students search online they will come up with ample e-resources (secondary sources, for the most part) to integrate into their response. And there may be some genuine dialogue among students in the asynchronous forum, substantiated with details from the novel, the primary source. But often — because students lack confidence and then find information readily available, as Mallon points out — they may merely report the findings of — at worst — the diluted study guide sites or — at best — scholarly sources (secondary materials). Authentic interpretations may be few and far between. Consider other ways of getting an authentic response. Encourage them to wade in the primary only and take interpretive risks. Later in the process open up access to a variety of e-resources, when they are prepared to meet them eye to eye: to recognize that some of these scholarly ideas validate their own authentic responses, while others challenge them (they will find points of intersection and paths of divergence). The foundation for research and exploration must be established by allowing students to think for themselves so when they encounter the ideas of the outsider (scholars/specialists) they better understand them because the student has been through the journey him/herself.
My topics are somewhat broad to allow students to find a path into the topic on their own: an authentic journey. Students are encouraged to document their own interpretations using primary sources only. I am constantly working on designing assignments — as I travel through life: in art museums, at the movie theatre, listening to music, reading (literature, history, science, social science).
The following may be used as topics for blogging or for discussion forum postings. I encourage students to free write responses rather than have them work toward constructing formal compositions in their blogging or posting. I think an informal response imposes fewer parameters to constrain their ideas and is better suited to blogging and forum posting (conversations). Quality of ideas/interpretations and substantiation (details from the primary source only) are assessed. I do not emphasize writing structure in these assignments. (In my next blog, I will include a sample rubric.)
- Compare/contrast Meursault of The Stranger with Munch’s subject in The Scream.
- Referencing Machiavelli’s The Prince, determine whether or not the fictional Prince Hamlet would be praised or upbraided by Machiavelli.
- Study Madeline Usher of Poe’s story and Beloved in Morrison’s novel. Note points of intersection and paths of divergence in a synthesis response.
- Synthesize Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, with particular focus on Godot and Hamlet.
- How is the ending of the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink en homage to the epiphany scene in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?
- Write a dramatic poem from the point of view of one of photographer Diane Arbus’ subjects.
- How is the tarn in “The Fall of the House of Usher” like the pond that Flora crosses in “Turn of the Screw”?
- In what ways is Roderick Usher’s character somewhat derivate of Prince Hamlet’s.
- Collaboratively, using a google document, write a short play adaptation – one scene of 10 pages only (10 minute play is a legitimate genre) of Camus’ The Stranger or Kafka’s The Trial.
- Consider the broad theme of the flesh versus the spirit as it emerges in Dostoevksy’s Brothers Karamazov and Hamsun’s Hunger.
*My book, (Preventing Plagiarism: Tips and Techniques NCTE, 2007), explores the topic of authentic writing (cultivating an authentic voice and vision in student writing) in greater depth.
Read Chapter 1 of the book using this link: https://secure.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Books/Sample/45937Chap07_x.pdf