#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.


“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.