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We all have writing tasks we dread. Higher ed faculty and administration are well-familiar with the kind of  bureaucracy that breeds these requirements.

One of the explicit, or at least implicit rationales for school-related writing is that it’s “important,” for grades if nothing else, and so students should to it whether they’re going to enjoy it or not. Even though we know it plays an important role in engaging students with their educations, implicit motivation is often given short shrift. However, if learning is our goal I think we do as much as possible to craft assignments that engender implicit motivation. I'd rather students not dread the work.

Still, we can’t avoid the fact that at some point everyone confronts the boring, dull, uninspired task, the assignment that makes us, in Nick Carbone’s words, “grumpy.”

Carbone believes one route to helping students with these tasks is to help them embrace their inner curmudgeons. By acknowledging some of the futility or stupidity or simple dullness that may be associated with a writing task, perhaps we can relieve some of the tedium, and in Carbone’s words, “that relief might be just the thing to make the writing work a bit better for the poor sap who required to read what was required to be written.”

This is good. Acknowledging that in some cases we’re coerced into performance can probably improve performance.

I think we can take an additional step to help students gain a deeper understanding of the kinds of issues that underpin forced and endforced writing. We can challenge them to bend, or even break the assignment. Think of it as kind of sophisticated “play.”

Two recent resignation letters, one from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, and another from a State Department science envoy, illustrate successful play within a genre. On the surface, the resignations were fairly standard boilerplate of the “resigning in protest” genre.

But in addition to the message of the text, the first letter of the first word of each paragraph sends an additional message, RESIST, in the case of the arts committee, and IMPEACH from the science envoy. 

Depending on your perspective these moves may be either juvenile or clever, but as a technical feat, we see that the authors themselves have increased their own degree of difficulty while also meeting the needs of their multiple audiences, the country, and the president, who the resignations are nominally addressed to.

Under normal circumstances, the resignations would barely be news, but the “subtext” helped communicate an additional message, that this is not a normal resignation under normal circumstances. At the same time, the standard nature of their resignation in the surface text dictated that the Trump Administration could respond with nothing other than boilerplate themselves, as they did in responding to the resignation of science envoy. “Today, Dr. Daniel Kammen made a personal decision to resign," the official said. "We appreciate his dedicated service to U.S. scientific diplomacy during his appointment working on energy efficiency and renewable energy in Africa as a science envoy.”

I once used this same technique on a paper in graduate school where I had to write on a book I thought was unworthy of such attention, and which I thought was chosen because of our professor’s close association with the author. I set the degree of difficulty considerably higher for myself, though, as the coded message was spelled out by collecting the first letter of every line, rather than every paragraph. I worked and re-worked every syllable to spell out a full-sentence that registered my disdain for the task. The content of the paper was uninspired – though sufficient – but I’m not sure I could’ve brought myself to even write it if I wasn’t also invested in my petty little game.

As I matured, I used my desire to self-entertain to more positive effect.

After graduate school, when working for a marketing research firm and having to write multiple reports on the results of focus groups every week, I realized that the standard outline – statement of objectives, summary of respondent comments, analysis and inference of comments, and strategic conclusions – could be bent into a dramatic structure of rising and falling action by parsing out the positive and negative responses in careful proportions and sequencing. I had no intention other than to entertain myself as I worked on one of these “dull” writing situations. At the same time, I had to deliver something that fulfilled the needs of the client.

The result was reports far more compelling not just to write, but to read. My audience of my supervisors and the clients weren’t even aware of what I’d done, but I’d stumbled onto something that worked. Later, when I moved up the ladder and people had to write reports for me, I tried to encourage others to follow my model, but this proved ineffective. My approach to finding my own angle of interest and engagement wasn’t going to be a fit for someone else.

On occasion, I have had students “bend” or “break” my assignments in ways that show me their deep understanding of what I’m asking them to do, even as they’re sort of refusing to do it. A student did this to me in a first-year writing when they wrote a researched argument on why it’s good to have a midlife crisis. On the surface, it’s a well-argued essay seeking to prove the central claim, but it also contained a subtext that implicitly questioned (mocked is more like it) a genre of solipsistic, quasi-psychological writing as well as the conventions of an undergraduate research paper . It was both the thing itself and a mockery of the thing, what the British call a “pisstake.”

Impressive. Someday I hope this student hires me to work on whatever awesome thing they’re up to.

I want student writers to work towards becoming “self-regulating,” which to me means not just being able to adhere to standards and strictures, but also learn how to express their own values while working inside the systems that may restrain them, or even to know when they may want to cast off those standards and structures. When students can produce work that simultaneously fulfills the requirements, and makes room for an expression of their values, they’re demonstrating a highly sophisticated understanding of all aspects of a writing occasion.

I hear students grumble all the time about “bullshit” assignments. What happens when rather than mandating they jump through our hoops, we let them fulfill the assignments in a way that allows them to “prove” the assignment just might be at least a little bit B.S.?[1]

Encouraging students to part the curtains and go looking for Oz seems like a pretty good route to the kind of critical thinking we claim to want for them.

It may be fun for us too.





[1] I’ve long believed that the best way for students to prepare for standardized assessments is to attempt to write questions that could plausibly appear on the exams. This is particularly true for the AP exams I’m familiar with.

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