Teacher Statement on Joel Glidden’s “The Basic Income Song”
by Professor Ann C. Dean, University of Massachusetts Lowell
In my advanced composition class, Academic Writing, I work with Joseph Harris’ Rewriting: How To Do Things with Texts. Every semester, I find that students like the idea that academic writers make moves, just as basketball players do. With practice, students can identify these moves in a reading. They struggle, however, to bring these moves into their own writing, especially when they are juggling all the new information and ideas they have discovered in independent library research. Harris quotes Kenneth Burke’s famous “parlor conversation” passage, and we discuss it in class, but it is difficult to internalize this model of scholarly interaction. Thinking about this problem, I seized on an assignment colleague Mark McBeth described to me. He has students write one-act plays, creating dialogue between the theorists framing his graduate seminar. I adapted this assignment for undergraduates. I asked them to write a play script, for performance by their classmates, or to create a video. Either project had to include dialogue between the scholars they planned to cite in their research papers, and also had to include an “interviewer” figure, asking questions the students would like to ask. I wrote a play script and made a video of my own, using scholars we had read in class, for students to use as models.
In my spring 2015 section, the assignment did several good things for the class: it demanded that students frame the scholarly conversation for themselves; it allowed students to present their work for their classmates, who expressed attentive interest; it created a less formal genre for working with ideas; it created an alternative to the rigid high-school-research-paper genre at the drafting stage. I saw significant changes in organization and integration of ideas in many students’ drafts after they had completed this assignment. Discussion after the presentations also allowed us to talk about the way a research question is developed and revised as a project progresses. This is something that frequently frustrates students – the changes I see as “refining a thesis” seem to them like “getting off topic.” Having heard each other’s plays, they could understand each other’s arguments. With that shared understanding, we could use examples to discuss how an argument develops and how writer can narrow and focus a claim.
I cannot take credit for Joel Glidden’s musical sensibilities, irony, or mannequin collection. He took the assignment further than I had anticipated. His video includes all the elements in the assignment: putting the various scholars’ ideas in the student’s own words; putting the scholars in dialogue; creating a student interlocutor to ask questions and direct the conversation. And you can hum it all day long. I’ll be working with this assignment again, and with video’s capacities to reframe dialogue and interaction in the service of students’ analytical flexibility.
Harris, Joseph. Rewriting: How To Do Things with Texts. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 2006. Print.
McBeth, Mark. “Expert One-Act Play Script Assignment.” Personal Communication, August, 2014.
Ann C. Dean directed the College Writing program at the University of Southern Maine when she had Joel Glidden in class. Professor Dean is now Director of the First Year Writing Program at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where she teaches composition, rhetoric, and 18th-century literature.