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End of Term Writing Assignments

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New Yorker cover
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The New Yorker magazine

Brief Assignment Overview: 

We’re coming up on the midway point of this semester, and as we’re all currently planning the weeks ahead after Spring Break, I thought I’d take a moment here and share what I’m currently doing for my course’s final assignment. I’m teaching The Rhetoric of The New Yorker, and my students’ final assignment is to compose a New Yorker-style essay. Of course, with the rare exception whatever they produce is nowhere near New Yorker-quality. Nevertheless, this assignment grew out of two pedagogical realities and subsequently I think it’s entirely valuable. The first reality is that after a few semesters of teaching I realized that my students were rarely submitting end-of-semester work that met my expectations. I don’t admit this as any fault of my own teaching nor mean it as any disrespect towards my exceptional former students. Rather, I try to spend my time reading good writing and my students are journeymen writers – whatever they produce will inevitably fall short of what I like to read. Secondly, my former students have often considered submitted work to be in some way “finished,” and all us instructors know that writing is a process. No matter how much I told them that nothing is ever finished, they just persisted in thinking that A-level work is a finished product. So, as a result of these two imperatives, I thought I’d design an end of semester writing project in which it’s nearly impossible for any of my students to complete the work “perfectly”. The point of this assignment is the process, not the product.

Additional Pedagogical Goals: 

The goals of this assignment are for students to assimilate previous research into a coherent argument. More specifically, over the course of this assignment, it is my hope that students will learn how to: synthecize seperate arguments, articulate their uncertainties, learn to restrain themselves from writing about the obvious, and learn that writing is always an ongoing project.

Required Materials: 

This assignment doesn't not include a research component, so it's important that students have already compiled 7 or so relevant sources into an annotated bibliography. (In my course, the annotated bibliography is created in a mid-semester project, so by the end of the semester my students can focus entirely on compiling that research into good writing.) Ideally, they've compiled a variety of sources, such as several opposing arguments, interviews, historical accounts, etc. Other than that, it's important that students bring to this assignment general excitement and genuine intellectual interest in their subject matter -- without such things they'll be bored and their writing will suffer.

Timeline for Optimal Use: 
Full Assignment Description: 

In 5-7 pages, students are to assimilate previous research into a New Yorker-style essay. What "New Yorker-style" means is basically an essay that subtly combinds narrative and argument into a well written product intended for educated readers. Students' writing should be free of grammatical error, writen in correct MLA-style (unless Chicago-style is more relevant to their future academic work), and contain correct grammatical usage. Structurally, there is no one set way New Yorker essays are organized, so in this assignment students need to determine what kind of organization is most effective for the argument they are trying to make. Asking students to determine their arguments parameters is often challenging for them, but it's my hope that the hurdle gets them thinking about the writing process in productive ways. (In general, students' papers for this assignment tend to be organized as follows: introduction of topic or individual, argument about said topic or individual, background of said topic or individual, and finally some use of counter argument to confirm their own argument.) I encourage students to think of a New Yorker essay (or two) that they liked over the course of the semester, and to model their argument off of what's done in that essay.

Throughout, students are asked to always keep in mind the ways in which various arguments relate to one another. They shouldn't be thinking of arguments as islands of thought that operate within a void, but rather discrete bits of information that romantically mingle with one another. If students get confused or discouraged, they're encouraged to articulate their uncertanty, which if they learn this skill often puts them ahead of their peers in so far as their ability to write is concerned. Throughout the unit I stress that a solid part of the assignment's assessment is their level of intellectual engagement -- in other words, if they think of this assignment in terms of "what shold I write to get an A," they will probably struggle.

Suggestions for Instructor Preparation: 

In general, since I know that my course is leading up to this assignment, I always try to direct my class's discussion of New Yorker articles in the direction of noticing writing mechanics. (Therefore, if this is the type of assignment that you'd perhaps like to encorporate into your own course, be thinking about the ways in which daily class discussion might be relevant to the larger goal.)

More specifically, be prepared for students to have a lot of trouble making subtle arguments (like those found in the New Yorker). They've been told for years that thesis statements are always at the end of the first paragraph of a text, which of course rarely holds true outside stuff written for school. Induldge their attempts and give them the benefit of the doubt as far as effort is concerned. There'll be a range of student achievement, as usual, but with such a difficult assignment I think it's important to keep in mind that students here will learn by doing.

Instructions For Students: 

These are the instructions I give my students when presenting this assignment in class (I also include assessment criteria, see below):

"Your mission for Paper 3.1 is to take all of the research that you compiled in your Annotated Bibliography and turn it into a New Yorker-style essay. Your essay should be 5-7 pages in length and be in correct MLA format (doubled-spaced, page numbers, correct MLA citations, proper headings, etc.). Aside from these simple parameters, you’re free to go about this assignment in whichever way you determine to be most rhetorically appropriate given your subject matter. A profile of a popular sports athlete will look much different than a consideration of the social effects of our excessive cell phone use.

You’re encouraged to consider a New Yorker essay that you liked over the course of the semester, and use the structure of that essay as a model for your own writing. If you do this, what’ll probably happen is that you’ll start writing an essay structured similarly to the New Yorker piece, but then you’ll inevitably branch out a bit once your argument comes alive. You will probably even change your introduction to fit your conclusion and your essay will then be devoid of any resemblance to the New Yorker essay. (NOTE: DO NOT structure your essay based upon a New Yorker essay that considers your same topic – this will inevitably lead to a sort of plagiarism.)

Also, think about how often we went off on tangents during class discussion over the course of the semester. If I thought this was harmful to you as a writer, I would have worked to get us back “on topic.” Instead, most good writing often goes off on natural tangents, and these tangents are skillfully used to complete an argument and offer example. So as you think about and eventually write your essay, think freely and expansively about your content, just like we did in class."

Evaluation Suggestions: 

I like to assess students on:

  • their ability to communicate ideas clearly and humanely,
  • their ability to avoid the boring five-paragraph essay format that they learned in high school,
  • their ability to master and objectively present the competing interests that circle their topic,
  • their ability to embed their argument with subtlety and style.
Course Description: 

The New Yorker is a highbrow magazine that’s been around since the 1920s. Published weekly, the magazine regularly offers various forms of cultural commentary, from fiction submitted by respected authors, to investigative journalism written by first-rate essayists, to cartoons composed with unfailingly witty captions. Each issue contains calendars highlighting upcoming social events across Manhattan. Quite often longer content in the magazine relates to current events outside of New York City, and increasingly outside of the United States. This course will examine all the various rhetorics that surround the magazine. We will consider each week’s cover and the various rhetorical strategies therein at play. We will read several famous articles from the magazine’s past, as well as current articles commenting on the world in which we live. Ultimately, we will consider the various ways that arguments in the magazine are made.

Regular reading of The New Yorker will guide us as we practice research and writing over the course of the semester. Vital to your success will be your ability to “interpret” another’s argument, which basically means coming up with a cogent, interesting account of what an argument means, what it’s trying to do to/for the reader, what technical choices the author’s made in order to try to achieve the effects he wants, and so on. In light of this, you’ll also be asked to compose your own arguments. You will pick a controversy towards the beginning of the semester and, in addition to our reading from the magazine, investigate this particular issue. The goal of this research will be for you to produce a New Yorker-style essay by the end of the semester. This is all designed to enhance your ability to analyze the various positions held in any public debate and to advocate your own position effectively and responsibly.

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