Monday, January 19, 2009

"You're not looking!!: A possible (sequence of) writing assignment(s)

By Leonardo Da Vinci. Click to enlarge. Image found here.

Many of my students are fond of saying that they like to get "right to the point" in their writing. While in some instances that's an admirable trait, I don't think it's one that they are consciously striving to achieve--it's reflective of either a hurry-up-and-get-it-over-with attitude regarding the assignment (this also reveals itself via a preoccupation with word or page counts) or, more likely--and sadly--a genuine lack of practice in developing their ideas. Whichever the case, these mindsets not only are not helpful ones to have when confronting many if not most writing assignments for college courses, they also produce dull, even lifeless writing . . . and puzzlement, not to say frustration, for students who get their papers back with queries from their instructor such as "Can you develop this more?" or (in the case of narratives, where the problems with this mindset really reveal themselves), "Where is this happening?" or "Who are these people?" or, in literary analysis papers, "Where in the text does this idea come from?", etc.

I'm going to be more optimistic here and say that what my students lack is, first, practice in closely observing something and then writing about it, and second, making connections between the particular and the general (as opposed to often mistaking the former for the latter). So, I've begun working out a series of interrelated assignments for my Comp I students that should give them practice in both these areas, sketched out below the fold. Feedback always welcome, by the way.

I usually give my students a range of options for each assignment, but this first one, tentatively titled, "You're not looking!!!", will be mandatory. If you're at all curious, it's inspired in large measure by the bit in this post about the brick, which will also serve as my demonstration for the assignment. And speaking of bricks, I also have in mind a moment from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance when Pirsig, frustrated with a student who isn't terribly imaginative, tells her to write an essay about the facade of the opera house downtown--specifically, to begin by describing one of the bricks in the facade--and she responds by writing a paper far in excess of the required length.

[Note to self: Yes, Pirsig eventually went nuts, but I don't that was attributable to teaching Freshman Comp.

The things we tell ourselves.]

I'll work out the precise wording later, but the essence will be this:

Choose an object--not a machine or device or animal or person--that, for whatever reason, you have around you and, for whatever reason, inspires curiosity in you or has meaning for you. The object can be any self-contained 3-dimensional entity, preferably one without moving parts, a photograph, a painting, or a song (the song can be part of a larger work, but it shouldn't itself contain multiple sections, such as a concerto or symphony).

Describe this object. Don't tell how it came to be in your possession or relate its significance to you or compare it to other, similar objects. Describe it. In the case of photographs and paintings, where are people/objects it depicts located in relation to each other, and what do those things look like? In the case of songs, remember that songs exist most fully when performed and thus exist in time as well as in space; also, if the song has lyrics, quote but do not interpret them.

Minimum length: 1000 words, firm. Papers shorter than this will not fulfill the assignment, period. You are, of course, welcome and encouraged to write more (that's what "minimum" implies, after all)--if you feel the need to write more in order to describe your object, by all means do so. In any case: start early!
Something like that.

The word-length requirement is a big deal for me: it's the first time I've ever set a specific requirement like that for a writing assignment. The goal is to get them to write more than than most of them would be likely to write and, paradoxically, get at least some of them to see that what will seem like an awful lot of words initially will in fact prove to be inadequate.

(He says as he crosses his pedagogical fingers.)

Here's what I'm thinking: I hope my students will a) gain a little practice in paying attention to what they see and/but b) an object in isolation, devoid of context, is semantically inert (that's a point, by way of analogy, that I want to get across when I talk about maps and GPS units on the first day). I hope they'll feel a little frustration by being restricted to description, that they'll spend a little time thinking about the fact that these things acquire meaning only in association with something/someone else. That's where the other rhetorical modes--narration, division/classification, cause-effect, compare-contrast--and argument will come in.

If this were the best of all possible pedagogical worlds, I'd insist that all their subsequent writing assignments be linked in some way to this object they've chosen. Those assignments would contain suggestions, but the starting place would be the object they use for the first paper. But I can't quite insist, especially when, as I've been thinking about my brick, I've had a bit of trouble coming up with one or two possible subjects for papers that would fulfill the assignment. But then again, I want them to be imaginative, to not take the easy way out. I also suspect that lots of possibilities will suggest themselves as they work on that first paper.



Cordelia said...

I've always wondered why (disingenuous to the last, I actually know the theory behind it) composition courses start with description. Description, while seeming so basic, is one of the most nebulous, difficult activities to do well. It seems to require some of the other modes (narration, definition, e.g.), or at least demands an idea of other modes, to do well. I think, though, you're right: analytical skills are hard to come by, and people in general have a hard time distinguishing, or feeling the need to distinguish, the particular from the general.I'm sure you know of him, but perhaps your students would like to see this piece (get the segment if you can) on John Stilgoe, who has the cool title of "Professor of Visual abd Environmental Studies" at Harvard.

John B. said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

You said that description "seems to require some of the other modes (narration, definition, e.g.), or at least demands an idea of other modes, to do well." I haven't had my first cup of coffee, but it seems to me we could state it just the other way around: that those other modes require a knowledge of description in order to be effective. At least, one thing I quite often find myself writing on students' papers, no matter the mode, is, "Can you be more precise here?" That's usually in conjunction with ideas, but ideas require description as well so as to make them more "visible," a little less abstract-seeming.

Camille said...

I so feel your frustration! I have been on both sides of this. I have similar drawing exercise I do with my students where they have simply spend 5 minutes drawing the lines in the palm of their own hand. It is important to make them stop and actually look at something, which is such hard work, but ultimately so rewarding. I realize that I have never, in front of the students, actually articulated why I think it is such an important skill. I also remember, as a student, getting those "develop this more" comments all the time, and being so mystified as to what that actually meant.

Thanks for bringing this up, so much to ponderate...