Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Cool Writing Assignments... Do They Exist?

By Matthew Decker

Can there really be a “cool” writing assignment?  Do you think your professor could accomplish such an impossible feat? 

The truth is that cool writing assignments are more common than one would think.  Regardless of your subject of study, chances are you will receive an assignment that asks you to be creative—papers that give you the freedom to research what you like, incorporate ideas not traditionally discussed in your classroom, and produce a work that is completely your own.

Unfortunately, students have the tendency to get overwhelmed by these open-ended paper projects.  Here’s an example:

Elizabeth just received the prompt for her next research paper in her American Lit course.  The prompt asked her to relate a prominent theme from one of the books she read in class (let’s say Moby-Dick) to a contemporary work of American fiction, film, or visual art.  The paper should be 4-6 pages long, demonstrate a well-developed thesis, and make a unique claim about the text and the chosen contemporary work.

This is Elizabeth’s initial reaction to the essay prompt:

OMG!  I hate my professor for giving me this stupid paper!  How can I relate that impossible book to the modern world!?  I don’t know what to do.  There aren’t any white whales in the 20th century!  Gahhhhh!

Before you freak out like Elizabeth, do some research!  This paper has the potential to be fantastic, and if you give yourself the time to do a little library exploring, you will definitely find a constructive way to start your paper. 

Later in the day, Elizabeth revisited her essay assignment after grabbing a bite to eat in the dining hall.  Having the time to think about the assignment a little more before her next class, she began to play with the interesting topics she might explore in her paper.  Instead of giving into her initial panic, she did some brainstorming, and found herself thinking:

Hmmm, this is interesting.  I wonder how I can relate Moby Dick to another contemporary work?  I know I like art—maybe I can relate Melville’s view of nature to a work of modern landscape or seascape art.  I know I can find a modern seascape painting that captures nature’s effect on the mind.

Try to narrow your research to a topic you know you’re interested in and run with it.  Go to the library and check out the latest edition of ARTnews or American Art Review and find that seascape painting. 

Embrace the freedom your professor has given you in this assignment and don’t let yourself be overwhelmed by possibilities.  Make this paper your own!

Here are some quick tips for you to follow in the cool, open-ended essay process:

1.)    Don’t feel like you have to reinvent the wheel.  Open-ended essay assignments are purposely broad because your professor wants to see how you can take an all-encompassing prompt and fashion it into a specific and arguable paper topic.
2.)    Focus your paper.  Don’t try to write about Moby-Dick in its entirety because that is an impossible task.  Instead, explore a particular passage from the text—its imagery, symbolism, language, thematic components—and make one of those aspects central to your paper. 
3.)    Ask yourself questions.  Why do I think the imagery in Herman Melville’s novel captures a feeling of the sublime?  How does a particular seascape painting evoke that same sense of awe and inspiration in the viewer?  Why is this research important to my field of study? 
4.)    Make the paper your own.  Open-ended essay assignments are your chance to be as wild and crazy as you can possibly be in a college essay—take advantage of it.  Depending on your subject of study, you have the possibility to make intriguing claims about your topic and its relationship to modern technological innovations, Ancient Egyptian pottery, contemporary tattoo art, and even the seascapes of J.M.W. Turner.  
5.)    Run with it! 

At first glance, the open-ended essay can be a daunting task.  It asks you to demonstrate your capability as an original thinker and researcher, and it offers very little hand-holding in that process.  However, you should feel honored to have such a writing opportunity.  This is your chance to shine as a knowledgeable participant in your field of academic study, as well as to create a work that is entirely the result of your unique perspective and ideas.  Make sure you run with it!


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