Critical Creativity in the Classroom: A Call for Advice


I’m currently in the process of translating my fandom/geek culture syllabus into a syllabus for one of Oxy’s freshman Core writing seminars this fall.  This is a pretty fun prospect, because in addition to now being on a semester system (which allows me to bring back designated weeks on vidding and wizard rock that I had to drop for the quarter system at UCSC), my new position at the CDLR is actively encouraging (nay, insisting!) that I rethink what a “critical writing assignment” looks like.

As pitched to me, these core freshman writing seminars are centrally concerned with helping students learn how to craft a scholarly argument.  Now, I get to think about all the different ways, and on all the different platforms, that “crafting” might occur.  Added bonus that the class is on fandom and participatory culture, thereby presenting a truly symbiotic pedagogical exercise.  How better to teach about the many ways in which fans craft arguments about, and speak back to, media texts than to ask my students to use some of those same forms to analyze and speak back to the issues and literature we will encounter in class?

I have typically included theory/praxis options for students for their final projects, which has led to some truly wonderful student-created vids, comic books, fanfic, and short films, but logistics, class sizes and other factors prohibited me from building these components directly into the syllabus.  Now that I will have an abundance of resources and support encouraging me to do just that, and only 16 students, it’s a whole new quidditch match, as the kids say.  (Okay, maybe not ALL the kids…)

To give you a sense of the weekly topics and readings...gee, I wonder when class meets...

For some excellent examples of the sort of course design and assignments I’m thinking about, see these excellent examples from courses taught by Julie Levin Russo and Melanie Kohnen.

Early thoughts on these assignments include:

– Autoethnographic video blogs discussing their fan identity/modes of participation

– Weekly, informal writing assignment to post to our course wordpress blog, currently being constructed

– Vid or fanfiction analysis (this would be a more conventional response paper…gotta throw a few in there)

– Some sort of visual essay (via tumblr?  flickr?  Have them create vids? Still beginning to think about this) coupled with a written analysis, most likely as a group project

And for the final project…

– Peer review of first essay drafts in google docs

– Multimodal presentations of their central argument in class

– Accompanied by a more standard term paper

I’m clearly just beginning to think about this, and so I pose question for both professors and students (or anyone else who wants to weigh in on the topic): What works?  What doesn’t?  What do we stand to gain or lose by retaining conventional academic writing assignments or moving towards digital or multimodal alternatives?  Students, which digital tools do you think would be most useful to you in crafting alternative forms of argument?  Would you prefer to submit work and get comments back by google doc or email, or is my lovely penmanship something all future students should experience on hard copies of their work?

All thoughts on this are greatly appreciated, and obviously as soon as the syllabus is locked in I’ll be posting it here.

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2 Responses

  1. bboessen says:

    Sounds like a fun and engaging course and one that should work very well for an option in a Core curriculum. I’ve used some version of almost all of your options at one point or another, and as you suggest, they each have their benefits and liabilities in terms of learning.

    Regarding an emphasis on critical writing specifically, I want to point out that every assignment has a writing component, and can be mobilized in the service of critical writing without heavy additional effort on your part. I recommend making sure to have students focus on *process*, breaking open each assignment into distinct evaluated steps or moments. This has a couple of benefits.

    First, if they’re unsure about the best approach to process/practice of critical writing, the assignment structure itself essentially models it for them.

    Second, for most students, having to turn in discrete segments or chunks of an assignment like a video essay — say an annotated bib, script, storyboard, and finished vid — slows down their usual tempo and helps them be more aware of the value and import of each step in the process.

    Third, it allows you to take time within the class format to stop and discuss both general and specific issues they are likely to encounter at each step. If a major objective is a focus on critical writing, you can highlight the earlier print-based moments in the process and really spend some time considering them. (Although of course there is still a dimension of critical writing in later steps of a video essay as well. It’s just harder for most of us to recognize it as “writing” when you’re moving images around.)

    As far as specific recommendations for assignments, I like to have my students do weekly shared/blogged writing that is tied to things I’m having them read or watch because it keeps them regularly engaged with course topics, which makes class discussion more engaged as a result. I do not recommend requiring responses to others’ posts, but I do encourage them to do it, and I post all the links to class blogs in a central location.

    I experimented last semester with a new blogging assignment that I found quite useful in providing students with a sense of participation in the larger intellectual community, and that was to regularly (twice during the semester, thinking about increasing that to three or four) post a “critical summary” of another blog they have been following during the semester that is related to the course. I give them a dozen or so blogs I follow as possible options, give them the option to propose a different one with a justification, and then ask them to read it throughout the semester and become something of a minor expert on what drives that/those blogger/s to write. The critical summaries summarize (critically!) all the posts since the last summary/beginning of semester, highlighting key posts, explaining context, and making an argument about why those topics, in the opinion of the student, are important to the blogger. There is an element of the assignment that asks them to tie their summary to things we’ve been reading/discussing in class.

    As I said, I’ve only done this once, though I did it in both a TV Crit course and a course on Games culture, and I would say in general it was successful in getting individual students to engage with the broader scholarly community. As expected, some students really lean into the assignment and others only do the the minimum, but overall I felt like class discussion was more likely to include references to recent posts by prominent scholars in those fields as a consequence of their participation in the assignment. I would say that, as with all assignments, this one works best when there aren’t too many specific requirements, as then it can take on the tone of a laundry list instead of a coherent argument or engagement with the blog.

    Anyway, sounds like a great class, and I love your idea to solicit feedback about issues you’re addressing via your blog. We should all do that kind of thing more (and have the good fortune to be re-tweeted by someone as visible as Chris Becker (hi Chris!).

  2. suzannescott says:

    Hey Brett,

    First, apologies for the delay, I blame Comic-Con (which is both a yearly vacation/black hole of a week of prepping, attending, and recovering). Second, a hearty thank you for kicking off this conversation, it’s one I hope to continue throughout the year as I put these assignments into practice. Your points about coupling all these assignments with writing components, and placing an emphasis on process, are both vital. I had always planned on supplementing most of these with some form of response/reflection paper, but I will definitely keep some of your above suggestions in mind when framing the purpose of these pieces.

    The blog recap assignment you propose is fantastic, and something I will definitely consider adopting- I pointedly assign blog posts, open access journals, and fan sites, and for a core class I think it’s vital to contextualize and discuss the different spaces in which critical analysis now occurs. As the blogroll for our course blog keeps growing longer, the assignment you propose is additionally useful because you could build group assignments around it (so, in addition to summarizing which themes and pieces are most significant, we can debate how we define what is “important,” as those demarcations are often inflected by identity).

    I also think it would be interesting to ask students to select a particular topic (race and geek culture, for instance), and have them compare two or three different forms (peer-reviewed scholarly journal, a blog or tumblr, forms of dialogic multimodal scholarship along the lines of what in media res is doing, a fan vid, etc.) to consider how research and arguments are presented, how the author engages with or visually represents media texts, etc. Not only do I think this would provoke an interesting conversation on form, and its impact on argument, but I think it would help them consider more conversational modes of criticism.

    So, yeah…initial thoughts, and I do hope you swing back by to relay more of your valuable experiences and insights once traffic picks up here!

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