A bit past our semester halfway point, I asked students to (anonymously, if they chose, as many did) evaluate the course: what they were or weren’t getting out of the class, which types of work were most and least useful to them, which aspects of my teaching practices were least or most productive. The results were informative and helpful, and also fairly consistent. What was most helpful were their perspectives on what types of writing they already felt fairly comfortable with, and what types of writing they felt hadn’t yet been adequately addressed in the class.
As I recently described, Essay 1 asks students to choose a personal context, to examine their own relation to that context, and to draw some conclusions about that relationship, supported by examples from experience. Essay 2 asks students to engage with a difficult text in the sophisticated ways that academia expects, to understand and then move beyond its argument and draw broader conclusions, and to support those conclusions using accepted forms of citing textual evidence. Essay 3 asks students to chart the complex rhetorical and logical interrelationships among a group of texts on a given topic, to analyze those relationships, and then to make an argument to a specific audience based on that analysis, supporting their arguments with examples appropriate to their audiences. Essay 5 will ask students to perform an analysis of their own writing both within and beyond the context of the course, looking not only at their own writing since September, but also to the past and future and synthesizing possible trends and tendencies. Looking at those assignments, and at my students’ progress, I anticipated (correctly) that they’d probably be burnt out on citation-format stuff by this point in the semester, and also that there might be a desire for more engagement with the nuances of style and questions of genre, since they seem to be doing quite well in terms of their writing’s content and structure. (More evidence that they really are a bright bunch this semester: in semesters past, working with students on structural concerns in their essays has sometimes felt like the teacherly equivalent of pulling teeth.)
And I was right. Their written responses to the mid-semester evaluations indicated a strong interest in tone and style and the authorial motivations for deploying certain stylistic strategies, an interest in the rhetorical strategies associated with other genres (including, from several students, concerns with film and visual literacies), an interest in textual juxtaposition, and from an overwhelming majority of students, an interest in doing “creative” work. This last interest is somewhat problematic, for two reasons: first, to be blunt, College Writing is a course in the essay. But that first reason supposes that essays are somehow less creative than other genres — which is, of course, the second problem.
Part of it, as well, comes out of my recent concerns with intellectual property and textual ownership, which — in the class discussion that followed my posing this assignment to my students — seem to be significant concerns of theirs, as well. (I’m again reminded of Casey’s insight that students today often consider plagiarism, collaboration, and illegally downloading MP3s to be issues wholly unconnected from one another.)
Students are to find a text of their choosing — written, visual, audio, video, or some combination — and analyze its essential characteristics, in writing. They then creatively remix some of those characteristics in order to produce a new text. Finally, they reflect in writing on those remixes, analyzing their relationships to the original texts, and how their work and the work of the original authors interacted to produce something entirely different in character.
In class last week, I offered these as possible starting points (yes, I have the luxury of teaching in a computer classroom):
As I see it, the focus in this assignment is on self-consciously combining the meaning-making act of careful and analytical reading (what we might call textual consumption; closely examining the text to be remixed) with the creative or originary meaning-making act of composing (what we might call textual production; remixing that text into something new) and then explicating the new text produced by that combination. Of course, these notions of production and consumption raise questions of textual ownership, and also make explicit the concerns of authorship and collaboration that were implicit in the work with citations in earlier assignments. With that in mind, I ask students to explore the possibilities of remixing texts made explicitly available for such use under a Creative Commons license and publishing their remixed work with its own such license (although they’re not required to do so), so that they might consider contributing the product of their collaborative authorial work as something for others to build upon, and so to participate in a broad networked community of authors and creators: in short, if they so choose, to take on the role of public intellectual.
We’ll see how it goes. In class discussion, there were a lot of good ideas, but more than a few students acknowledged some apprehension at undertaking what they see as a highly ambitious project.