Assignment of the Year?

andrea_lunsford
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I must be the last person on earth to get to the Taylor Swift party. I did know that my grandnieces stayed up forever in an effort to get tickets (they finally scored but had to fly to another city to attend it). And of course I have listened to some of her lyrics and had to see her attending Kansas City Chiefs games. 

But I finally got my act together and read a number of reviews of the Eras Tour and its accompanying film. And I spent some time studying the Time article following their announcement of Swift as Person of the Year. The article was long, and impressive; I began to understand something of Swift’s history and how that history relates to the absolute devotion of so many fans. About halfway through the article, though, I ran across a link to another piece—on how Time had chosen Swift over so many other people. That article fascinated me: the author, Sam Jacobs, essentially names and describes the criteria that the group used in deciding on Swift. Number of No. 1 albums: check; size of audiences: check; income that rivals some countries’ GDP: check; the “nuclear fusion” of art and commerce: check; symbol of “generational change”: check. And more. As Jacobs explored each of these criteria, he also rendered the experiences of so many concert goers, who claimed their lives have been shaped and changed by Swift and her music.

 

Taylor Swift at the 2023 MTV Video Music AwardsTaylor Swift at the 2023 MTV Video Music Awards

 

These articles got me thinking, hard, about who my Person of the Year would have been. I was impressed by the mountains of data produced by Time in support of their choice; in retrospect, might I have chosen Swift as well? And this thought led me to consider what students have to say about this same question: who is their Person (or Persons) of the Year? Would they be convinced that Time had made a good choice? Why or why not? I wanted to craft an assignment that would engage students in these questions. What would students list as the criteria necessary to be named Person(s) of the Year? How do they determine such criteria and how would they support them as most appropriate for choosing the person(s)? And given their criteria, who would that person(s) be?

I asked myself these questions and today, March 8, 2024, the first person to spring to mind is Alexei Navalny. Why did he immediately pop into my head? What does that choice suggest about what I value, and why? I wonder who students would think of first, right off the bat? 

On this day, like so many lately, I am missing the classroom almost more than I can say: the opportunity to talk with students about such questions—who is your person of the year this very minute, and why—provide so many opportunities for rhetorical thinking, for analysis, for evaluative comparison, for probing of values, and the assumptions that underlie them. I can imagine this as a kind of “assignment of the year,” one we would come back to every few weeks or so to revisit and re-examine and re-think. As always, I know I would end up learning some life lessons along with academic ones. Students have a way of teaching us these lessons—even in our post-pandemic malaise. 

 

Image by iHeartRadioCACC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.