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
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One instructor responds…
The “letter” essay assignment is working quite well for me. 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 The 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 past!
For this assignment, I asked students to select any character from the biography–major or minor character–and write a letter to that individual that addressed one or more of the issues in the book. The class did the pre-writing for the assignment by getting in their groups and listing “issues” that each chapter dealt with. For example, the chapters might deal with or show evidence of racism, rejection, acceptance, abuse, love, sense of community, the role of religion and/or education in one’s life, coping with death, courage, and many others that the groups came up with. The students also had to supply one specific example of each “issue” they found whenever and wherever they found it. By the time they finished the book, they had more than enough material to work with. Our second step was to organize all of this prewriting by having each group select what they saw as the most frequent 10 issues in the book, and then coordinate the chapter numbers and examples in one spot for each issue. Now that the third step arrived, writing an essay, each student had plenty of ammunition.
Here are a couple of examples of letters that students wrote. One gal wrote to the Jewish mother, Mameh (Hudis), who dies, saying “Too bad you didn’t live to see your daughter grow and to see how she handled life so courageously and raised such great children,” and then went on from there with great detailed support. Another letter addressed to Ruth, the major character, developed the theme of “I don’t think that I could have done what you did” and effectively combined a conversational tone with no lapse in organization or details–and these are students in a developmental class! (I HATE when some people suggest that developmental students can’t be challenged to reach way beyond what they themselves think they can do. After all, they ARE in college. Darn it! Challenge them, help them reach the challenge, and they succeed.) Enough soap box. 🙂
–Marge Geiger, Faculty, English, Cuyahoga Community College, OH