Some 12-14 years ago I became disgusted with myself for falling asleep (or at least into a dull hypnotic trance) while reading yet another batch of essays from my upper-division Shakespeare students. It finally occurred to me, as a late-life epiphany, that my malaise was not the fault of the students, but rather my own. After all, they had simply delivered what I asked for: safe, careful, traditional essays on topics that the students knew that I understood better than they. And so I got the typical protective prose (passive voice everywhere and cautious thoughts at every turn: "as one can see," “it may be conjectured here that," "possibly Shakespeare meant," and so on, ad nauseam.) I therefore determined to strip the students of the double vulnerabilities OF HAVING TO PRETEND TO BE SHAKESPEARE SCHOLARS WRITING FOR AN AUDIENCE EVEN MORE KNOWLEDGEABLE THAN THEY THEMSELVES WERE. If pretense was the rhetorical game, why not put them into positions, postures, angles closer to their "real" personae and language styles--or even into different characters (Shakespearean or not) that would free them to use a less artificial rhetoric to raise revealing--and readable!--arguments about the nature of the players and the plays. In other words (since life is short and I remembered virtually nothing of thousands of previous essays written in the "traditional" style that I had so dutifully called for), why not ask for responses that I actually would look forward to reading? Radical, right? And so I came up with the "letters" approach.
The students love these assignments because they can be so creative, and they can even be wrong-without-being-wrong. There is form, there is structure, and there is the logic of argument implicit in the "stance" described in each "letter" assignment. (And no one could ever hope to evade these by going to the Internet for responses, I assure you.) I know this approach has been used before, but the secret is to make the "letters" assignments genuinely your own by asking for responses that YOU want to hear. My students just love this somewhat whacky way of penetrating Shakespeare's complex world without their having to pretend to be "experts." It doesn't even seem like work to them, yet they pour twice as much effort into these assignments, with real enjoyment. We read some aloud in class, usually with a little dramatic flair and always with some appreciative applause. I call this win-win-win. And I believe this approach is as applicable to a History or Biology class as to an English class.
EXAMPLE ASSIGNMENT 1: As a character in Othello, you realize at some point in the play that, to avoid a tragic ending, what Othello needs most is an informative letter from you. Write that letter—and indicate when in the course of the play Othello needs to receive this letter in order to avoid a tragic end. (Try to write the letter “in character.”)
EXAMPLE ASSIGNMENT 2: As the only traveling ophthalmologist in the British Isles (and being of extraordinary longevity!), you have found yourself at various times in England and Scotland where your most fascinating clients have been none other than the ruling monarchs, Lear and Macbeth! Each has come to you to complain about an eyesight problem. Lear says he can’t see other people clearly, while Macbeth maintains that he seems to see things that aren’t really there. Having ruled out all medical explanations, you ask each for a history, and each willingly provides the story of his life. You know something about psychosomatic illnesses and the phenomenon of “double vision,” of course—and, fascinated as you are by the histories you have heard, you think about publishing an article on the two cases in the England Journal of Medicine. But first you want to try your ideas on a trusted colleague, Dr. I.C. King. Write to Dr. King, explaining the problems and, in your view, the causes.
--John McDaniel, Dean and English Faculty, Middle Tennessee State University (TN)
* * * * *
One instructor responds...
The "letter" essay assignment is working quite well. I gave that as an
option to my remedial English 0990 class--the step below Frosh Comp--and most of the students chose it for their essay on James McBride's
Color of Water. They were intrigued by the assignment and actually excited about it. Some of the students did an outstanding job of
combining a conversational tone without sacrificing organization and details--much better than many Frosh Comp papers I've received in the
--Marge Geiger, Faculty, English, Cuyahoga Community College (OH) Marge.Geiger@tri-c.cc.oh.us
* * * * *
The ON COURSE NEWSLETTER publishes innovative strategies for helping students become active, responsible learners. To subscribe to this bi-weekly (monthly in the summer) e-newsletter, click here and send the resulting e-mail. No need to type anything. Our computer will automatically add your return address to the list of subscribers. You're always in charge of your subscription, with a subscribe/unsubscribe link in every newsletter. Have a best practice to share? Click here and request our publication guidelines.