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That is why the reading assingment is just the first of four (and, depending on how you count, five) treks across the literary savannah of the course syllabus. Each day's quiz encourages students to think about the readings in different ways. Our class discussions give a third way of rethinking what we have already processed, and the weekly writing assignment is a fourth—and maybe the most important one of all.
That is what I want to talk about today.
Every Friday afternoon of the term (before students take a deep breath and remind themselves that college is about soooooooooooo many things beyond academics that they might want to unwind a little)...they will write. This reminds me of what one of my star pupils from the Class of 2010 (I'm referring to you, Ted) said to me in class one day. "All of this education you're giving us," he said, "is getting in the way of my college." He had a point. A whole lot of "stuff" is going on from the moment a first-year student arrives on campus, and only some of it is academic. My job is to remind everyone that only on a college campus can engagement with real ideas in books be combined with whole groups discussing them and concentrated assignments that bring out even more potential for understanding. This is so difficult to do on one's own that it is almost beyond hope. I know this because it remains a problem even for graduates, who write me for suggestions of what to read even long after they have graduated. Walking into even a very well-stocked Barnes & Noble (say, the Madison, Wisconsin store on the west side) provides such a hit-or-miss array of books on China, Shakespeare, the Civil War, the history of philosophy, or string theory that even the most serious readers will want to ask "how do I put this all together?"
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Yes, it is important that students do more than just read, study (these are not the same things for me), and write papers. I get that. As I mentioned, though, my job is to make sure that the reading, studying, and writing create a foundation that is truly lasting. That is why my first-year courses always include a peculiar kind of weekly assignment. Due every Friday by 5:00 p.m., it is deceptively simple. Students need to write 1000 words (about three pages) that tell the reader about a person, an event, or a "happening" somewhere "about town." Every student in my The New Yorker and the World seminar will write a brief essay modeled on The New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" section...every week. I'll have more to say about this strange little "Talk" genre in future posts, but suffice (it) to say here that it represents a form of reportage and personal voice that combines the best of journalism with all of the skills required of a consummate writer of fiction. People come to life in their own (accurately reported) words; writers describe the people they are reporting so that they are truly vivid in our readings.
That ain't easy, as we say back home. It only looks easy if it is done well.
The most ambitious students will keep a little notebook of writing ideas. Let's imagine that they meet the college archivist during an assignment for a completely different class. Immediately, they know that this could be an interesting essay. They will make a few notes, write down some direct quotations from his presentation, and then follow up (this is key) with a brief appointment that allows a few questions and answers to develop. They will be polite and respectful throughout. They will take good notes, and they will learn (over time) that good reporters do not (usually) need to make recordings. Usually. The very best students will then read a few of the college archivist's weekly blog posts, take some more notes, and think about ways to approach a brief essay on their newly discovered subject.
Let's say that one student really decides to make this happen. Her name is Gertrude. She will think some more—like focused daydreaming, if that is possible. She will pour herself a cup of tea, look over all of her notes, and start writing a draft of an essay. She will try to accomplish in the first paragraph what less gifted writers do—set the tone and have a point but hers will aspire to much higher literary quality. By the time she finishes the first paragraph, there will be the rough equivalent of a topic, a "take," or even what some teachers call a "thesis statement." The paragraph will answer (or hint at future answers) for all of the "Ws" (no, not a former president). It will give a sense of who, what, where, and when. It will promise in its rich argumentation, hints of a fifth "W." The reader will know that at least an attempt at a why is coming.
All of this will take forty minutes to an hour. But not at first. "At first" always takes longer with everything.
The other way doesn't work, and we'll be discussing that in class almost from our first session. Sitting down and slowly writing one draft of an essay is exactly the wrong way to approach good writing. Our skilled classmate Gertrude already knows this, and everyone in class will understand it by the end of the term. It will change lives, and make for better college writing and memos (not to mention reports) that will lead to promotions that make the difference between good career success and great. Hard work on this is the stuff of superstars.
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It is a wonderful thing...and we are almost done.
Gertrude has created an exquisite opening paragraph, revised it twice, had several cups of tea, and then written the rest of the essay. It is 1,055 words long, and is a very strong piece of work. The opening paragraph makes all of the difference, and the subsequent ones are pretty darned good (as we say back home). There is just a little more work to be done. Two things, actually. You can guess the first. Gertrude needs to revise the essay as a whole. The only curve ball in my telling of this is that she will not do that right away. And, no, she will not have another cup of tea (unless it beckons with such intensity that it cannot be ignored). No, she will very quickly (in ten total minutes) do the other part of the weekly assignment. Then she will revise her "Talk of the Town" essay and be ready to hand everything in by 5:00 p.m. on Friday (every week of the term) before heading into the rest of "college"—as Ted tells it—for thirty-six hours or so.
What is this extra bit? It is a shame that I won't go into as much detail as I did with the essay, but that is the whole point. It is much more flexible than the essay assignment you have read about up until now, yet it is equally important. Every student (every week) must write an essay, as we have just learned. The other (smaller, but no less significant) part of the assignment is that she must make a "sketch" and submit it with the essay.
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Yes, you heard me correctly. A "sketch."
Let me assure everyone that drawing ability has nothing to do with the grade. Nothing. No, the sketch can be anything. One side of one page, drawn by hand (sorry, techies), that brings out another dimension of the student's engagement with the week's course materials. It can be related to the assignment (say, a drawing of the college archivist) or be something completely different that is related in some way—like a strange cover of an issue of The New Yorker—to world events, our readings, our discussions, or life on campus. In short, it could be a drawing of the Mars rover (Curiosity), a map of library periodicals, a schematic for understanding the American electoral college, or a picture of bargains at the Beloit Walmart.
Anything. Drawn. Just draw it. Period.
This will take ten minutes, and will only amount to more if the student wants it to.
Finally, Gertrude will sit down to reread and make some changes to the essay as a whole. Because the first paragraph is so well-organized, so well written, and so beautifully reported that the reader (moi) is deeply moved already, the subsequent paragraphs will be relatively easy to edit and revise. It should take (after a week or two of painful practice that, mercifully, occurs while not a great deal of work is yet due) another twenty minutes or so. In the end, our hardworking Gertrude will have an elegant and nicely crafted essay of 1024 words (sixty-one were edited out on the final revision, while thirty were added), She will also have a funny and/or profound little sketch that "works" in much the same way as a New Yorker cartoon. Good stuff.
All of this will take two hours. Really. Maybe not at first, but (trust me) it gets to be a familiar process. It is the difference between "kind of" knowing the course materials and making them completely one's own. It is the very heart of everything we will be doing all semester long. There are two more assignments to describe (tomorrow's post), but this is the intellectual pivot that makes everything else happen. It will be "fun," at least as soon as it becomes a familiar process for students. And after they turn it in...they can begin the weekend, which lasts from dinner on Friday to the last bits of brunch on Sunday, when next week's work—in four different classes—begs again for attention.
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