WAC Highlight: Kurt Vonnegut

The following blog post is based on an assignment found on the website Slate.com, reprinted from Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, edited by Dan Wakefield and published in October of 2012 by Delacorte Press.

 Professor: Kurt Vonnegut

Course:  Taught in 1965 at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Vonnegut says, “This course began as Form and Theory of Fiction, became Form of Fiction, then Form and Texture of Fiction, then Surface Criticism, or How to Talk out of the Corner of Your Mouth Like a Real Tough Pro.”

 Assignment: Term Paper

After having read a collection of 15 short stories, Vonnegut asked students to create their own table of contents for the book, giving each story a grade from A to F based on their enjoyment of the story. Students were then asked to pretend to be an editor at a literary magazine that is considering publishing 6 of the stories. He asks students to write a letter to their imaginary boss in which they argue for the publication of 3 stories that pleased them the most, and against the 3 that pleased them the least.

What WAC principles does this assignment exemplify?

First, this is a highly original and unusual assignment. As such, it has plagiarism prevention built into its design, as students would be hard pressed to find resources to copy from. Furthermore, the personal nature of the writing discourages cheating, as individual student perspective and voice are central to the assignment, rather than traditional models which privilege reiterating the ‘facts.’ Second, students are being invited to participate in a sophisticated level of academic discourse and analysis used by professionals in their field, i.e. editors, but in a way that is accessible to novices. Lastly, students are writing in a way that involves them in an ongoing and open ended critical conversation about literature. The assignment promotes critical thinking by having students engage with the texts in a way that forces them to reflect on how the stories make them feel, and argue convincingly based on that feeling. They will have to make strong connections between their own unique visceral, impressionistic responses to the stories and the particular elements of the stories that affected them in such a way, and out of this relationship craft an original argument.

How might this type of assignment be used in other courses across the curriculum?

An assignment like this could be used across the curriculum to engage students in drawing on their personal experience with a text, idea, concept, lab experiment, film, design, compute program, etc… and developing a sophisticated argument grounded in that experience. Students could write similar reviews of architectural designs and structures for an imaginary magazine; they could review dental hygiene technology or practices; students could argue for or against philosophers being included in a philosophy course syllabus.