“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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