The Influence of an Assignment
I was almost finished with these assignments when I realized that in all of them I was writing about freedom. That must be a major theme in all my work and I never knew it before. Thanks for the mechanism, which showed me this. I'm not sure how original this information is--but I know that all information is somehow eventually useful (maybe).
11/11/97 Word Shop
There is no question in my mind that the Word Shop that generated the most ire in my colleagues was the Word Shop that came out 11/11/97 on the I-Search paper. For me, it was a moment when I suddenly feared that some of my colleagues saw the research paper as onerous & tedious when I saw my role as teaching students the joy of pulling together an argument, adopting a voice, cultivating a strategy & finally polishing a well-reasoned and crafted research paper. The whole tone of the piece breaks the world into the we--who care about our students enough to give them an assignment that is fun--and those bad other academics--them--who give onerous analytic tasks.
APT - what about it??
Another writing assignment is a response to the American Players Theater production - the Devil's Disciple. The writing, I understand, must also relate to play.
I do not pretend to know about the dynamics of play writing. What can my response be except meaningless ramblings? Yet we expect freshmen students to write similar papers--responses to the various plays and concerts they attend. I've read those papers and bemoan the lack of substance. I've often judged these to be bad writing. And I now question--is the problem bad writing or bad assignments.
I don’t have specific memories of bad writing assignments during college. I do have memories of attempting to read paper guidelines very carefully, asking teachers many questions and listening intently to other students as they attempted to make sense of writing assignments. Guidelines from my recollection were very specific. I often found myself responding more to lists of items of information I was to include than creating arguments or expressing options about the rationalizations I had researched. I rarely felt I was creating my own ideas. The style of the paper was most likely a historical presentation of the facts I had obtained through the literature review I had conducted. This factual presentation has made it difficult to engage in more creative writing or argumentative presentation. This has consequently carried over to this retreat and its assignments.
In a high school composition course I'd learned how to construct a research paper from the ground up, including keeping references and research notes on 3"x5" cards. I continued using index cards for my college papers, arranging them in a loose order and handwriting my first draft from them, making connections and filling in blanks as I wrote. After editing the first draft, I typed the second (+ subsequent) drafts on my portable electronic typewriter. After editing the typed draft(s), I would quite literally cut + then tape it back together. Through this process, before the dawn of the spell check age, the final draft was fairly clear and coherent. This process served me well.
Then I became a second-semester senior. Abandoning careful planning, I pulled my first all-nighters. In one instance, the final paper for my Applied Ethics course, I wrote my one and only draft directly from my note cards. I worked all night, finishing the paper-- such as it was--early in the morning. The papers had to be under the professor’s door before he got in that morning, so I kept myself awake until security opened the building and I deposited my paper well before 8:00am.
A couple of days later, the professor asked whether I planned to hand in a final project. He said he hadn't received a paper from me.
Writing a Paper on Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads
I think the most memorable paper that I wrote in college was a paper on Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads. I say "memorable" not because I think it was worthy of resting in my memory for longer than the period in which I wrote it . . . & I'm sure it didn't rest in the memory of my tutor. But, nevertheless it was memorable largely because it was a completely open ended assignment--write about WW's LB--with no guidance. It was my first month at Lincoln College in Oxford. I wanted to say something worthwhile and here I had this huge black hole facing me--work on WW & an amazing resource--the Bodelian library in Oxford. I went that first day. Set out my pen & paper in my usual ritualistic manner, sent my slips down into the bowels of the library and waited about an hour for the books to re-emerge. One of the books I requested was the actual copy of The Lyrical Ballads. What came up was a fair copy of the LB--written in WW's hand. [five lines of crossed out words] There were words that were crossed out & punctuation inserted on the side. It was a rare moment in which a disembodied assignment suddenly connected me to an actual poet who wrote these short pieces.
On writing about writing about the play
I think I can write about the play in many ways, but I'm not sure I can write about talking about writing about the play, or write about writing as it pertains to, or via the play! It seems reasonable to ask someone to write about some aspect of the play and in doing so provide them with a decent vehicle for writing about a relatively easy topic.
Suppose, for example, I ask someone to write about the use of humor in the play. This may lack focus, but certainly not material, so that a student willing to try should be able to produce a decent paper.
Or, one could ask for someone to write about their reactions to the various actors and how well they felt the actors had carried out the roles. And, of course, one could also elicit general reactions to anything about the play - which I have clearly not done.
The Wisconsin woods were lovely, the company delightful, and the set interesting. I still couldn't focus. I didn't know how to enjoy the play once 250 words were tagged to it.
How horribly I've tainted my students' Marquis experience by tagging 250 words to it. No wonder they whined. It's hard to have clear vision of an assignment like this.
I removed my glasses and wiped my eyes and stared blindly at the blurred blobs on the stage. Hearing more acutely I began to focus and listen. Perhaps even if I didn't have clear vision I could still enjoy the experience.
My Experience at APT
Despite this assignment, I left my notebook and pen behind when we went to the theatre. I'd like to say I was decisive about his move, but I waffled. Should I be a diligent student? Should I be a responsible and hard-working writer? Shouldn't I get started?
In the end, I left it behind because I didn't want to be burdened with my heavy bag, which I was sure I'd leave somewhere accidentally.
Even without the notebook, the assignment followed me to APT & blocked my view of the play like a wiggly 5-year-old sitting on my lap. As the play started, I kept thinking, "How can I write about this in a witty, worthwhile, and satisfying way?" Next to me, my colleague jotted artistic looking notes in a black pen in her playbill.
Luckily, though, the play finally caught me up and wrapped its melodramatic arms around me with a laugh and my full attention. And I realized that this is what I love about being a reader--or an experience of life, for that matter–to be enveloped, swept up, caught up in the flow of something that perhaps is not possible when worrying about an assignment. Ironically, though, perhaps it was only having an assignment that gave me this insight.
My question now is: How can I help my students to have this experience and to reflect on what it means?
A Paper about Writing a Paper
I actually brought a notebook to a play. Not a big notebook, mind you, but a notebook nonetheless. This simple act is one example of how being assigned to write about an event or phenomenon in advance of its occurrence can actually change the very nature of the event itself.
It turns out that I didn't write a single thing in my notebook, but the evening was indeed viewed through the lens of "finding an angle" for this paper. My observations started right away, when we saw a dragonfly flit across the parking lot. "Saw a dragonfly," I thought, "what a relief! At the very least, that should be good for a poem." Were I the type of writer unencumbered by a sociologist's gift (or should that be "obsession") for social observation, this would probably be a poem about a dragonfly, and I would have enjoyed the play for the play's sake. It was not to be, however. Virtually everything else that I observed became potential "data" for my assignment.
At dinner, for example, Steven, John, Gavin, and I had a discussion about the phrase "have one's cake and eat it, too." We decided that this was ridiculous, since before one eats anything s/he must have it, so we ALWAYS have our cake and then we eat it, too. More appropriate phrasing would be to "eat one's cake and have it, too," implying the availability of the cake in spite of being eaten. Ah hah! That's it! I'll write about this conversation and the idiosyncrasies of idiom. While this topic is about writing, it really is not very relevant to the APT context, except for the fact that the discussion occurred during our meal there.
I briefly considered writing a short play about writing a play. This type of reflexivity is often entertaining to me on several levels. If I can't think of anything else, that's what I'll write about.
After dinner, upon entering the actual theater, I was bombarded with images and ideas: bug spray, bathroom lines, norms, etc. My mind was crafting drafts and spinning ideas before I was even seated. Once we were settled into our seats, I began to peruse the Playbill, as any respectable theatergoer would. After all, there might be some assignment ideas lurking within. Voila! Here I came up with an idea that, until I actually sat down to write this, was going to be "The" topic. A passage in David Frank's Director's Notes for The Devil's Disciple (p. 23) noted that G. B. Shaw found that he "delighted in adopting the forms of the moribund drama that had bored him to the point of physical illness." I asked the person seated next to me if he had ever been bored to the point of illness by the task of writing. He eloquently replied, "No."
Have I ever been so bored by writing? Not to the point of illness, but almost! When I was writing my prelims in grad school, for advancement to candidacy (i.e., to be declared ABD), I was working on the last question of my last set of exams. I had spent most of the morning devising a plan of action and had been writing my answer for a couple hours, producing just over two typewritten pages of text. The exam was due the next morning, but I was so amazingly bored with my own answer that I simply deleted it and started over, selecting a different question. Though perhaps more dramatic, at least Shaw's boredom was generated by another's writing, not his own!
So, why didn't I make this the topic of my paper? It was boring then; I suspect that retelling the story is not exactly scintillating prose now, some 5 years later.
Instead, this is a paper about writing a paper. Or, more precisely, about what one chooses to write about and the impact of this decision-making process. Although I have often considered the impact that observers have on the phenomenon of social research, and on the "social creation" of the news, I really had not given it much consideration in other contexts. However, being given an assignment can, in fact, have an impact on the very event being covered as the writer tries to find an angle, frame a discussion, and generate a concise-yet-witty conclusion.
As you can see, I'm falling a bit short on the last part there--the play was compelling enough to draw me in before I could "find" my conclusion!
The type of papers I recall from my undergraduate years were nursing care plans - laboratory reports of sorts. These papers were not the typical writing assignments discussed at our retreat, but effective assignments nonetheless. Care plans were structured in outline forms in a language generally not discernable to average college students. They met the criteria of good writing assignments in that they appealed to the interest and understanding of nursing students, and their aim was clear. For nursing students, the care plans forced a systematic and organized way of thinking about a disease process, its effect on an individual patient, and appropriate interventions to be implemented. The care plans, as other type of papers, also demonstrated to my faculty what I understood about the subject (e.g., pathophysiology and psychosocial components of illness) and offered an opportunity for clarification prior to care of the patient. Although I spent many late nights questioning the futility of the assignments, clearly I would reap the benefits of these excesses.
I’m glad Bob gave us the five assignments on Sunday evening. When I woke up Monday morning, partial drafts of all five were in my head. It was automatic. By breakfast there were three finished drafts; by Noon, something was down on all five. I needed that sleeping time after getting the instructions.
Notes on American Players Theater
I take notes to remember, so I’m always writing on scraps of paper–in lectures, in church, in the car listening to W.S.U.I. Unlike Dr. Martin Luther King’s eloquent ideas on pieces of newsprint, my scrappy notes are incoherent, marginally legible and move from an “important” pile to a “later” pile before they disappear. Tonight, in the corner of my program, I’ve written “I can do nothing but sit here and suffer,” “a house of children’s tears,” and “America is in a hurry,” thinking these might all provoke a good discussion, but other equally felicitous lines from the play have faded like images from an etch-a-sketch.
Before the play, I listened to chat about the theater. “Real seats! Not those old patched up ones.” “Did it used to have a concrete floor?” “They’ve revised the seating.” “Permanent toilets!” I read the biographies of the actors. Some are sober. “She holds an M.F.A. in acting from Northern Illinois University.” (I like the image of acting while obediently holding a degree.) Others are “pleased,” “happy,” “excited,” “thrilled,” “pleased and excited,” and “delighted” to return to APT. Some thank their family and friends for the gift of their unwavering support. (Do people get thanked for their wavering support?) Some are quirky, “To assure his zen is not too bent, Paul. . . ”and some effusive “[This is] a most magical of places to see these stories.”
This place is magical, an inspiring hillside where the stories work better for me. The sounds of wind and rain off stage create an intriguing dissonance with the lovely summer evening. Glancing briefly to the left at the patrons scrambling to their seats in the lowering sun, I turn to the right and to the storm buffeting the actors–and I relax into the show.
An Evening at the Theatre
One of the ways we define ourselves is by the places we love, the places where we feel at home. For me, one of those places will always be a small, rock-littered farm on the edge of the Flint Hills in southeast Kansas. Another place, one where I have invested so much labor for the last 22 years, is my backyard on Elmhurst Drive in Cedar Rapids. A third location that feels like a home is the American Players Theatre, a place where language and nature come together. The APT in Spring Green embodies the American pastoral, that middle landscape where culture and wilderness meet, both softened by the other’s presence. I love the beauty of the Wisconsin hills, the dusk songs of the whippoorwill, the star-rich night sky above the theatre in that brief moment at a play’s end before the lights come back on. But this is always nature tempered by the presence of Shakespeare’s language and an economic system which can support this large, complex organization. It is, unlike the other two private landscapes, incapable of becoming a permanent home. This is not somewhere that I can live and work–I’m always a visitor, just present for a few hours. But it is a lovely world to enter, a lovely monument to language’s enduring power for transforming reality, a charming place for entering into worlds created by the words of Shaw or Shakespeare or Racine. All produced by people’s love for words on the page.
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Email Dr. Bob Marrs with any questions, comments or suggestions.