Writing Assignments for Literature, Rhetoric, and Inspiration

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This semester, I am teaching a second semester college writing class on writing about literature through a rhetorical understanding of academic writing. The class includes English majors and potential majors in the humanities, as well as students whose interest range from STEM to social sciences. The diversity of majors and the course constraints offer interesting questions for building a syllabus (as explained in a previous post) and for designing assignments. In selecting readings and tasks for the course, I considered the following challenges in critical thinking and motivation:

  • Critical Thinking.: What would encourage students to think outside the box of previous training? Whether students excelled as creative writers in high school, or studied literature for the sole purpose of succeeding in standardized tests, how might students discover new approaches to understanding literature?
  • Motivation. How can the class present students with opportunities to experience for themselves implications of literature for everyday life? How
    could students observe the persuasive power of language while challenging themselves to grow as writers through rhetorical practice?

Inspiration emerged as a keyword for both challenges. Inspiration allows us to think outside the box, while providing connections between the sublime and everyday life. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word inspire has these origins:

Middle English enspire, from Old French inspirer, from Latin inspirare 'breathe or blow into' from in- 'into' + spirare 'breathe'. The word was originally used of a divine or supernatural being, in the sense 'impart a truth or idea to someone'.

Inspiration as breathing is a powerful metaphor. Considering these roots, I understood that it would be important to choose the readings for our first day with great care. I offered the class this introduction to the course:

This section of the course is based on the principle of what the 19th-century poet John Keats called negative capability, inspirational power of beauty. Writing may not be easy, and sometimes writing is not very pretty -- but writing, both process and product, can be a powerful inspiration in our lives. Keats and James Baldwin (who we will read later this semester) believed this-- and so do I. This is the reason I became a writer and this is why I am a teacher. Welcome to this Spring 2019 community of writers!

Our next step would be to read and listen to the words of two seemingly different examples: Kendrick Lamar’s i (from the album To Pimp a Butterfly) and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the Marriage of True Minds.”). Yet these readings share a deep sense of the emotional labor of love and love’s connections to inspiration. Kendrick Lamar’s text repeats the refrain, “I love myself,” and his words and body language in performance underscore the hard work involved in honoring this love. Shakespeare’s sonnet, in describing what love is not, address the constant need for discovering what love is. Considered in the same moment, these readings point to literary approaches to questions of love, and the meaning of such questions for everyday life. I imagine that students will offer even more insights into these connections.

With these considerations in mind, we will work our way toward beginning the first essay of the semester that will hopefully inspire my students critical thinking and motivation in their writing.

Follow these steps to complete Essay #1:

  1. Write journal entries that summarize and analyze each of the poems in your own words. Use evidence from the poems and the literary terms to support your ideas. All journal entries are based on your interpretations and opinions using evidence from the readings.

  1. Select at least one of the literary terms|key words that interests you. Write a journal entry that applies the literary terms to one of the poems. Refer to previous journal entries to explain your selection. You can write the entry as a poem, or as a conventional journal entry in paragraph form. Refer to previous journal entries to explain your selections.

  1. Choose at least one of the poems from the list below as a focus for Essay #1. Write a journal entry that explains your choice. Refer to previous journal entries to explain your choice.

  1. Investigate negative capability in the poem, the inspirational power of beauty (Poetry Foundation Website). Write a journal entry that responds to this prompt:

Which Literary Terms|Key Words allow you to better understand this inspiration? Why? Offer as many details as possible. Include details from previous journal entries as appropriate. This entry serves as a draft.

  1. Revise drafts for a  final essay that showcases your best work on Unit 1. Make a google.doc for your final essay and share it with me. Copy and paste a link to your google.doc in the course management submission portal. Only submissions with shared google.doc links can be evaluated.

POEMS: Eight poems spanning more than 400 years of British and American Literature:

Sonnet 116: Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds (William Shakespeare 1609)

The Tyger (William Blake 1794)

Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers (Adrienne Rich 1951)

Harlem by Langston (Langston Hughes 1951)

kitchenette building (Gwendolyn Brooks 1963)

My Brother at 3 A.M. (Natalie Diaz 2012)

A Small Needful Fact (Ross Gay 2015)

i  (single version)(Kendrick Lamar 2015; performance 2014)

LITERARY TERMS: A poem is as intricate as a motherboard and just as complex. Just as there are specific words that can help users to explain a motherboard’s wiring, there also are terms that allow readers and writers to explicate the circuitry of a poem. All of the terms are applicable to your own writing for the course, and can be for rhetorical analysis to better understand the meanings of persuasive language and the impact of this language for the audience (Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric). Here are several of those terms: imagery, irony, personification, tone.

About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.