#WYOA: week five

To be or not to be … that is the adventure!

Monday was devoted to an in-class read-through of Ryan North’s To Be Or Not To Be. A read-through and a half, actually: after successfully killing Claudius as the ghost of Hamlet Sr., we played a bit as Ophelia (stopping somewhere around Hamlet’s fouling of his stockings). It was fun, and interesting to see what choices the students made—and their choices were often nearly unanimous, which surprised me.

Also on Monday, I gave them a post-paper cool-down assignment, due Friday: find a picture, and describe it in a thousand five hundred words. I haven’t read these yet, but most of them said on Friday that it was fairly difficult—perhaps because they didn’t choose images based on how easy it would be to write about them.

Wednesday was a bad day. I was being observed by one of the writing program’s senior faculty, who’s tasked with overseeing the grad students teaching writing. (She’s very nice, and this is the fifth semester we’ve worked together in this capacity. She’s a bit unsure about the CYOA approach I’m taking, but still very supportive.) The students came unprepared—all but one or two forgot the book I’d asked them to bring, which we needed for the paragraph-coherence exercise I had planned. I improvised, using Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” instead of student writing, and it did not work. They were completely disengaged—several students were reading for other classes, one was surfing the internet, several were about to fall asleep… it was a bad day, and I’m done talking about it.

…except to say that the students played a few rounds of Five Card Flickr, except with cards from the first Cards Against Humanity set.

Friday went pretty well, I guess. I assigned their second paper—an analysis of a contemporary cultural phenomenon, written as an outline (to emphasize structure and organization)—and we talked about it, briefly. We talked about the “worth a thousand words” assignment, and I had them describe a few of the images in far fewer words (15; 10; 5).

Then we returned to To Be Or Not To Be, and I had them spend fifteen or twenty minutes, in groups, mapping part of the book. I started them, as Ophelia, at the moment when she and Hamlet are trying to decide how to kill Claudius: stabbing, drowning, blasting into space (they settle for a hot air balloon, and he first suffocates and then plummets to earth), and a CYOA-book-within-a-CYOA-book. Each of the four groups had a different branch—Hamlet and Ophelia have different, diverging plans for drowning, so nobody got “blast him into space.”

I’m planning to map, as a class, a different section of the book on Monday—Ophelia and Gertrude’s “to the death” chess match, probably—and that will probably be the end of that. My hope is that these exercises are helping them think about structure and organization in a slightly different way, and that this will result in better outline-papers. We’ll see.

Now, I have to finish grading their first papers, so that I can hand back at least part of the growing pile of student work on my desk.


#WYOA: week four

Most of this week was devoted to the first paper, which was due today. The students brought rough drafts on Wednesday for peer review—which actually worked pretty well, for once—and Friday’s class was cancelled so that I could hold individual conferences.

Monday was our only “fun” day; I introduced the students to the “choose your own adventure” genre—only one of the fifteen had read them as a child, which sort of surprised me. I gave them a brief lecture on the history of the genre (Edward PackardSugarcane Island, RA Montgomery, Bantam’s CYOA series and spinoffs, Scholastic’s short-lived knockoff, French experimental literature from the early 1960s, &c). I showed off my recently-acquired ex-library book-club edition of The Third Planet From Altair (from 1979, before it was re-issued as CYOA #7).

Then I had the students form groups of three—which required more prodding than I expected, especially considering it’s not the first time I’ve done it—and gave each group a CYOA novel out of my private library (which sounds pretentious as hell, for some reason) (the novels were The Abominable SnowmanThe Perfect PlanetThe Island of TimeJourney Under the Sea, and Twistaplot’s Secrets of the Lost Island, if you were curious). The students spent most of class mapping the texts; they noticed the preponderance of unhappy endings, the outsize consequences of minor decisions, and the relatively simple branching structure that defines the genre (or these examples of it, anyway).

To end the class, I showed them this map of The Third Planet From Altair (which I found by googling the name of the book)—I could have given it to them as a guide, since it’s what I wanted them to do, but I think/hope they learned a bit more by fumbling with the task for a bit. Then, to give them a sense of the complexity of To Be Or Not To Be—which we started today!—I showed them this:

the poster of the book, which I wished I'd bought during the kickstarter campaign

…which is totally nuts.

 


#WYOA: week three

This has been a hectic and unproductive week for me—but it’s been a good week of classes.

Monday opened with some syllabus planning: the students decided to postpone our reading of To Be Or Not To Be—a book I am super-excited about—until after their first paper is due (the Monday of week five), and to put off their individual paper conferences until the Thursday and Friday before (so that we won’t have class on Friday, of course). Not major choices, but not minor ones either.

We talked about the review as a genre—I had to do some coaxing, but we compiled a list of common features (a “hook-y” opening paragraph, some short plot summary near the front, limited use of first and second person, no “I recommend” sentences, &c). Hopefully this will improve their papers—we’ll see how much they incorporate into their own writing. I tried to get them to talk about Fish’s How to Write a Sentence one last time—his division of sentence styles into “subordinating” and “additive” is intuitive and workable, and applicable to writing at all scales. They were unconvinced.

Lastly, we talked about the xkcd assignment a final time (last Wednesday, when they turned it in, we mostly talked about how they felt about writing it). I’d read and commented on all of them, and noticed that most of them were either totally implausible, or totally plausible, but very few managed to be both at the same time. (One that came close was about the civilization under the ice in Antarctica, built by NASA under Nixon; another was about the Coriolis effect necessitating rounded bullets.) I told them why I hate CARS—its premise is so totally implausible that I can’t even begin to suspend disbelief.

Wednesday we talked about three reviews of Man of Steel—in the New York Times, in WIRED, and at HitFix—that they’d read as homework. Our discussion of their responses to these reviews went well, and I hope it clarified for the students what things a review can be and do. Less useful was the “turn these reviews into outlines by taking the most important sentence of each paragraph” exercise—partly because I’d explained it by email, probably not clearly enough, and partly because only Dargis’s review worked that way. I talked a little about coherence in paragraphs, but that’s something we’ll have to return to.

The second half of Wednesday’s class was a bit more fun. I showed them this:

Page 15 of Ellis and Cassaday's Planetary, issue 1

…and asked them to tell me how to draw it. Then I showed them this:

Alan Moore; script for page 1, panel 8 of The Killing Joke

NOW WE ARE LOOKING AT THE POLICE CAR SIDE-ON SO THAT WE SEE THE UNIFORMED OFFICER STANDING FACE-ON TO US OVER ON THE LEFT AS HE STANDS WITH HIS BACK TO THE CAR AND COMMISSIONER GORDON FACE-ON OVER TO THE RIGHT, LEANING AGAINST THE CAR AND DRINKING HIS STEAMING COFFEE, MAYBE LOOKING UP WITH A QUIZZICAL AND CONCERNED LOOK OVER THE RIM OF HIS CUP TOWARDS THE EXTREME LEFT OF THE FOREGROUND, WHERE WE CAN SEE THE BATMAN ENTERING THE PICTURE FROM THE LEFT, IN PROFILE. SINCE BATMAN IS (a) CLOSER TO US AND (b) TALLER THAN EITHER THE COMMISSIONER OR THE PATROLMAN IN THE BACKGROUND WE CANNOT SEE THE TOP OF HIS HEAD HERE ABOVE THE BOTTOM OF THE NOSE AS THE FRONT OF HIM ENTERS THE PANEL ON THE LEFT. HIS EYES AND UPPER HEAD ARE INVISIBLE BEYOND THE TOP PANEL BORDER AND ALL WE CAN REALLY SEE IS HIS MOUTH, WITH THE BIG AND DETERMINED SQUARE JAW AND THE GRIM AND DISAPPROVING SCOWL OF THE LIPS. THE BATMAN DOES NOT APPEAR FROM HIS POSTURE TO SO MUCH AS GLANCE AT EITHER GORDON OR THE PATROLMAN AS HE WALKS PAST THEM EVEN THOUGH BOTH OF THEM STEAL GLANCES AT HIM WITH DIFFERING LOOKS OF UNEASE. THE PATROLMAN LOOKS UNEASY JUST TO BE IN THE BATMAN’S PRESENCE, WHILE GORDON LOOKS MORE CONCERNED ABOUT THE BATMAN’S POSSIBLE STATE OF MIND. RAIN DRIPS FROM EVERYTHING, INCLUDING THE BATMAN’S JUTTING AND GRIZZLED CHIN. GORDON GIVES THE LARGELY-OFF-PANEL VIGILANTE A PENETRATING LOOK OVER HIS COFFEE CUP, AND THE BLUE LIGHT ATOP THE CAR WASHES OVER ALL OF THEM AS IT CIRCLES.

…and asked them to draw it. (I’ve done this exercise several times, and stole it from SEK.)

I’m still reading through these; I’ll let you know how they were next week.

For today’s class, the students wrote three summaries of the book/movie they’re reviewing—one at 500-600 words, and two at 100-150 words (one spoiler-y, one not). We talked about their experience writing these for a few minutes, and then I had them write twenty-word summaries, on the spot. I haven’t read any of these yet, obviously—summaries are on the docket for next week.

We spent a big chunk of today’s class playing Five Card Flickr. We voted on which photos to use, and collaborated on the stories—we did two of them, neither of which ever really cohered, but they were wonderful and ridiculous and kind of violent. The students all seemed involved, even the ones who don’t talk much, which was nice. A good way to end the week.


#WYOA: week two

The third week is over, and I’m just now writing about the second week. This is an ominous sign.

Monday was lost to Labor Day—nice to have a long weekend, but it has always seemed counter-productive to take the second Monday of the semester off.

Wednesday we diagrammed sentences. I decided to add this exercise after reading this Opinionator piece; I’d intended to practice over the summer, maybe teach my ten-year-old how to diagram, but that didn’t happen. So when I walked in, I sort of knew what I was doing, but not really—and the students knew about as much as I did. In spite of our collective ignorance, class went pretty well: the students were fairly involved—some of them, anyway—which doesn’t always happen for me. I was trying to reinforce some ideas from Fish’s How to Write a Sentence (which the students did not like, btw)—specifically the idea that a sentence is a structure of logical relationships—but I’m not sure how much of that I got across. We’ll probably diagram some more sentences later, if/when I have clearer idea how to do it.

Friday … what did we do on Friday? *consults notes* Wait, apparently we diagrammed sentences on Friday, not Wednesday … so what did we do Wednesday? *consults other notes*

Oh, right. Wednesday I tried to get them talking about a number of things—the rhetorical triangle, their introductory emails, the xkcd assignmentHow to Write a Sentence … I did most of the talking, I think, which rarely makes for a good class. I did find out that they perceived the “introductory email” assignment as “casual,” which surprised me. I’d intended it to be a bit intimidating—I gave them very little direction, just “send me an email introducing yourself,” and I thought that would be anxiety-producing (but, you know, in a good way). Of course, I’d also told them the story of getting thrown out of college the first time I was an undergrad, so…

Finally, I assigned their first paper—a book or movie review—and had them hunt down three example reviews. They had varying levels of success with this, corresponding to how closely they were listening when I told them what I wanted. After some editing, we had a list of thirty or so, of which they had to read about a dozen, and which we talked about during the third week.


#WYOA: “xkcd: Questions” assignment

This happened on Monday:

why, why, why, why, why

As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to come up with a writing assignment based on it. So, over their long Labor Day weekend, my students are going to pick a question and answer it. Incorrectly:

Your answer should do two things simultaneously: it should be patently and outrageously false, and it should be as plausible and convincing as possible. Your audience—in this case, your classmates—should know that your answer is totally wrong, but still believe it when they’re done reading.

The full assignment is here; I’ll let you know how it goes.


#WYOA: week one

The first day of class went okay—nobody went straight to the Registrar’s office and transferred to another section, which has happened to me before.

I don’t like first days: they’re necessary, but always feel unproductive. I feel a need, especially with first-year students, to go over the syllabus—it seems to reduce the number of already-answered-on-the-syllabus-type questions I get—but it’s also kind of boring, for them and for me. It doesn’t help that I mentally rehearse the first day so much that I forget to actually say half the things I intend to say. Someday I’ll learn to make my first-day outlines more complete…

We could discuss the common reading, I guess, but the students participate in discussions as a part of orientation, and (in my limited experience) are already tired of whatever book by the time they get to my class. Also, I have no desire to discuss the books that get chosen as common readings: they aren’t particularly substantive, and dealing with their more problematic aspects would require more time and context than I’m going to devote to a text chosen by a committee without any real contribution from the faculty expected to teach it. </rant>

The one thing I enjoy doing on the first day is speed introductions. I number the students—1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3…—and have them form five groups, with one of each number in them (fifteen is a good number for this). They have 90 seconds to meet each other, and then one number rotates to the next group clockwise, one number rotates counterclockwise, and the final number stays put. It’s loud and chaotic, and the students seem to enjoy it (and this group of students grokked the concept really quickly, unlike some previous groups).

One consequence of the speed introductions is that I don’t really learn anything about the students on the first day—but I never really learn anything from the “go around the room and introduce yourself to everyone” model, either. This semester, I had the brilliant idea of having the students send me introductory emails. This was their first homework assignment, and it seems to have worked fairly well. There was a range of responses; several were quite long, and one was so terse that it told me nothing that I couldn’t have learned from the roster. So the students had a chance to make a crafted first impression, and the care they took in doing so told me more than they might have realized, and this exercise provided a point of reference for our discussion of the “rhetorical triangle” on Friday.

(On Wednesday, the students wrote an in-class essay—required by the department for reasons that change depending on whom you ask—which will serve as a “zero draft” for their first essay.)

Friday didn’t go as well as I’d hoped—a full third of the class was absent, presumably preparing for the evening’s football game against TCU. It’s distracting to have that many students gone—and on the third day!—but we went gamely on, anyway.

I introduced the students to the rhetorical triangle; not the most exciting lecture, but the terms and concepts are foundational to thinking about the process of writing, which is what I them to do. I brought up their emails as an example, and asked them to think about what they might have done differently if I’d assigned them before our first class meeting, and how they would approach sending an introduction to a professor who hadn’t asked for one—that will be the beginning of our discussion next week.

Finally, we looked at a few ads, and tried to think about them in terms of the triangle (this required standing on a desk to turn on the projector, as a crucial piece of technology—the remote—was missing). This went fairly well: it was a fairly short discussion, but most of the students seemed willing to talk, and to express opinions that were different than mine. We were talking about low-impact stuff—white iPhones and Siri—but it’s a start.

Not an amazing first week, but not a terrible one either. I remain cautiously optimistic.


“Write your own adventure”

I’ve been trying to write this post all summer; this is my third or fourth fresh attempt, and I’ve thrown away thousands of words. Like Tristram Shandy, I kept getting sidetracked by digressions from the first word, writing about this or that bit of unnecessary background, never getting to the point: the class I’m teaching this semester.

It’s called “Write your own adventure” [#WYOA]—I don’t really like the name, but I had very little time to come up with a title and description: nobody really knew I was teaching a section of first-year writing until after the Fall catalog went live in, like, February. I’d been thinking, in a hypothetical way, about how I might do things differently if/when I taught an introductory writing course again, so I wasn’t scrambling as much as I might have been. Still didn’t keep me from picking a goofy name, though.

#WYOA is based on choose-your-own-adventure stories in two ways. First, we’ll actually be reading some: I have a half-dozen or so “classic” CYOA books, including a “Super CYOA” and a “Twistaplot“; I’ll use these to (re)introduce the students to the genre, and we’ll probably do rudimentary plot-maps of them. We’ll probably also read The Most Boring Book Ever Written, which is a pretty clever take on the genre (as well as an uncomfortably accurate commentary on contemporary American middle-class life).

The centerpiece of this part of the class, though, is Ryan North’s To Be Or Not To Be, a choosable-path reinterpretation of Hamlet. (Read reviews at Slate, at NPR, at Comics Alliance.) I’ll write a separate post about this book, but right now I want to say that I’m really excited about teaching it; in fact, a big reason that #WYOA even exists is because I wanted an excuse to teach To Be Or Not To Be.

#WYOA is also structured like a CYOA story—the students and I are going to be making it up as we go along. I have the first week pretty carefully plotted out, and the next three or four loosely sketched, but October and November are basically empty at this point (their paper due dates are already set, however). I have a number of assignments planned (a few are even written!), but the order in which I assign them will depend on the way the class unfolds. And while I will constrain and guide their choices to some extent—I can’t let them spend every class meeting watching YouTube videos or something—it’s my hope that they’ll take an active role in what we read, watch, discuss, and write.

This way of doing things would probably terrify some people, but I think it’s going to work well for me: even when I “carefully plan” an entire syllabus, I still go into most class meetings with just a few bullet points and wing it. I think this approach will work well with this type of course, as well: my job is to help the students become better writers, and I think the best way to do that is to show them that writing can be exciting, liberating, empowering—and fun. Doing that requires, among other things, a kind of responsiveness and flexibility that a carefully planned syllabus hinders.

I’ll post updates periodically (ideally after most classes, but I’ll consider once-a-week a success), documenting what works and what doesn’t. Here’s hoping this adventure ends well.


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