Friday, November 21, 2008

Watershed Essay: the Assignment

I sent out an assignment to my composition students on Thursday. Today, Friday, they're turning in their research essays--really the capstone essay for the course. For the last essay of the semester, I thought they should have some fun, and see just how far they've come in terms of their writing. I plan on joining the fun. I thought the assignment (which I wish I could take credit for, but can only take credit for tweaking) sounded like so much fun I promised to do it with them. And the more I thought about it, I thought it sounded like enough fun some of you, those with blogs and without, might like to give it a shot as well.

Without further ado, here's what I sent out:

Here is your assignment for Essay 5, due in class, in hardcopy so that you may read it aloud, on the Wednesday after we return. This essay replaces the "Letter to the Editor" listed in your syllabus as Essay 5.

The attached .doc file is simply what follows, included here just in case anyone has trouble receiving attachments or opening Word files.

Watershed Essay

(Based on an assignment originally provided to me by Col James Rembert, himself something of a legend in the Dept of English at the Citadel. It came to him, I know not whence. In our profession though, the most flattering thing you can do for a teacher is steal his or her best stuff to use in your own classes.)

(Title: Anything descriptive of your contents, but must not be a sentence.)

Watershed essay—a description and analysis of the watershed event in your life, the incident or event that changed your life. Everything before the event was part of your life lived before this event changed you; everything after the watershed event is part of the you since then, the different you, the you with the new insight about the way the world really is, for better or worse. The incident or event can be something fine and positive, like catching the touchdown pass that won the state championship or hearing your father finally say he loves you; or, it can be something negative, like the car accident described immediately below.

1st paragraph: The first sentence must be the dramatic high point of the incident, the watershed event in your life. A bad example: “I saw that at this speed I could not make the turn in the highway but must go over the edge.” That is not the dramatic high point. This description is better: “I felt the car leave the road and sail through the air as my girlfriend screamed and braced her hands against the dashboard,” or better still, “I found myself hanging upside down in the car, held by the seat belt, brake fluid dripping from the floorboard onto my head, and my girlfriend lying on the ceiling, bloody and moaning in a fetal position, her now misshapen face inches from my own.” That changed your life, not worrying about not making a curve.

The rest of the 1st paragraph is simply describing what happened the next few minutes (only) after the event or incident: 911 call, police, ambulance, parents notified, etc.

2nd paragraph: Begin a week or a month before the incident in the 1st paragraph, and describe what led up to the event or incident. Pass quickly over the actual event already described.

3rd paragraph: Describe the aftermath, the results of the incident. What effect did the event have on your life the next week or month or year? Make the last sentence of this paragraph precisely this: “I learned three things from this incident: that (blah, blah, blah); that (bleah, bleah, bleah); and, that (blooey, blooey, blooey).” Instead of that, you may use first, second and last. [For Lt Col Campbell’s class, because we are striving to shatter the image of three as a holy number in composition, you may reduce the number of lessons to two, but no fewer.] Obviously you may use the first-person pronoun (I, me, my, mine, we, our, us, etc.)

4th paragraph: The first thing I learned is . . .

5th paragraph: The second thing I learned is . . . (or: I also learned . . .)

6th paragraph: The third thing I learned is . . . (or: Finally I learned . . .) [Unless you have only two epiphanies, in which case, adjust accordingly.]

7th paragraph: Explain what it all means. You must use the words “what it all means” or almost identical words. You must use the word “means.” What you say in this paragraph must differ from the 4th, 5th, and 6th paragraphs. This last paragraph is just this: what it all means.

You must follow these direction exactly, precisely, if you want to make a good grade. If you deviate and do your own “thing,” believe me you will make a lower or much lower grade than if you had followed directions. Use no vulgarity, no sex (pick another watershed), no four-letter words, no informal diction. As usual, we are writing formal English. We will read these aloud in class. You will like these. Don’t hold back. The more honest the paper the better received it will be, by your classmates and by the professor.

I promise to let you know how it goes.