Talking Texts: Writing Dialogue in the College Composition Classroom
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 2
Date: Spring 2002
Summary: Is it possible for an inexperienced writer to juggle the ideas of several authors to create a coherent, analytical essay? Levine encourages students to get these writers talking to one another.
We're five weeks into the semester, and things are heating up. I just handed out the assignment sheet for the third essay. The first assignment was something of a slow lob, a personal narrative piece, which proved to be well within the comfort zone for the entire class. The second assignment was more challenging: a textual analysis of an essay by Richard Rodriguez drawing on the ideas of David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky in their introduction to the anthology Ways of Reading. This assignment required that I do some scaffolding, leading students through a series of steps in a way not required by the first assignment. And now, with the third assignment before my students, I face expressions ranging from blank stares to baleful grimaces that tell me that, this time, I may have gone too far.
"Any questions?" I ask. I wait. No one says a thing. A couple of heads are now down, belonging to students who are, presumably, rereading the assignment sheet. Here is what it says:
For your third assignment, frame a discussion of Paul Auster's essay "Portrait of an Invisible Man" and John Edgar Wideman's "Our Time" using the terms and ideas of Adrienne Rich as they appear in her essay "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision."
We have spent the better part of the last two weeks reading and discussing these three selections from Ways of Reading. The class discussions have been lively; everyone seemed to connect to the readings on one level or another.
One student finally speaks up. "So you want us to write about all three of the readings? In one essay?"
"That's right." Maybe they do get it, I tell myself.
"You mean, like, compare and contrast them?" another student offers.
"Not exactly," I say. I ask the class if anybody has any ideas about how we might deal with three different readings, other than comparing and contrasting them. I remind them that they worked with two readings in their last assignment. More stares, more grimaces.
I press on. "You all read Auster's, Wideman's, and Rich's essays. And we've had some great discussions about each of them. Now I want you to bring them all together. In a dialogue. One text `talking' to the other."
"So you're saying we can't compare them," the compare/contrast student tries again.
"You can, but I think what I'm asking you to do is more interesting. I want you to engage the three texts in a dialogue," I say.
A collective groan.
Time to take a new tack.
"Please get out a piece of paper. . . . I want you to imagine that you are the moderator of a panel discussion on revision
(`re-vision'). The distinguished members of your panel include Adrienne Rich, Paul Auster, and John Edgar Wideman. Construct an imagined dialogue among the four `voices' (the three essayists plus you) on the topic of writing as `re-vision.'"
I explain that I want them to format the dialogue as though it were a script. They are to write the panelist's name, followed by a colon, followed by his or her words. I put a model up on the blackboard.
Rich: Xxxxx xxx . . .
Auster: Xxxxx xxx . . .
Wideman: Xxxxx xxx . . .
You (Your Name): Xxxxx xxx . . .
. . . and so on . . .
I give them approximately thirty minutes in class to work on their dialogues. To my surprise, the entire class gets busy writing, and it is not until I tell them that time is up that they stop. We spend the remaining class time sharing in pairs and then it's time for them to go home and develop rough drafts of their essays based on at least some of the ideas that came out of their in-class dialogue writing. The rough draft is due in one week, and they are to hand in their dialogues, along with their drafts.
The next week I'm impressed by the dialogues that I receive. Here is an excerpt from one student, Parker:
Auster: For me, when writing of my father, I found it very difficult to look back on past events with new eyes. I had a very sure idea of who my father was. But, ironically, it was that resistance to look back that finally led me to re-vision my relationship with my father.
Rich: I want to follow up on what Paul said by showing that re-vision is inherent in writing and life.
Parker: I see what you're saying. Is it synonymous with the idea of "the key to the future is the past," or something like that?
Wideman: I think that's the basic idea.
I'm pleased with this dialogue for two reasons: the student is allowing the three texts to interact with one another, and he is weaving his own commentary into the exchange of ideas. He also uses Rich's text to build on one of Auster's ideas.
Another student, Peter, discovers dissonance between two texts in the following excerpt:
Rich: I was very impressed when I read John's essay "Our Time." In my essay "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision," I state that "until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves" (604). John recognizes his prejudice towards his brother, he casts it aside, and ends up discovering a new side to his brother. However, I feel Paul has a problem in this area. I believe that Paul is unable to recognize and therefore dispose of his previous conceptions of his father. Due to this, his essay is not a revision in which he realized something new but, instead, he simply reaffirms his outlook of his father.
Peter: Well, Paul, I can imagine that you would like to respond to Adrienne.
Auster: Indeed. I avidly disagree with Adrienne. I agree that one must enter a revision process with an open mind. However, it is ludicrous to say that in order for one to properly revise something they must discover something new. I revisited my father's past with an open mind; I just did not happen to have my point of view changed by this revision.
Although his speeches go on a little too long, Peter's dialogue demonstrates his ability to use Rich's text to comment on Wideman's and Auster's texts.
Getting students to construct dialogue is one thing. But how does this dialogue exercise transfer when the students write their essays? Before going on, I should explain how and why I came to use this approach in my writing classroom.
My background is in dramatic writing and, as a playwright, I felt less than qualified when I first began teaching English composition. But when I graduated from San Francisco State University five years ago with a master of fine arts degree in creative writing, no one came banging on my door looking for college playwriting instructors. Fortunately, while at San Francisco State, in addition to my creative writing degree, I had completed a twelve-unit certificate program in teaching college composition.
When I began teaching my first freshman composition class at Rutgers University, I had already compartmentalized my graduate studies into two categories: my playwriting toolbox and my composition toolbox. I told myself that my composition skills would pay the bills so that I could pursue my playwriting ambitions in my spare time. In other words, teaching composition would be my day job. If someone had told me then that my work as a dramatist would be invaluable to my composition teaching repertoire, I would not have believed her. As it turns out, someone—the director of the Rutgers Writing Program—did tell me just that. He assured me that playwriting is an ideal background for teaching expository writing. The two genres are complementary in their use of multiple perspectives. I appreciated his words of encouragement. But, I didn't believe a word he said.
Fast forward five years. Plays are a staple of all the classes I teach, from developmental writing to freshman composition to advanced critical thinking courses. I have used works by David Mamet, Anna Deavere Smith, David Henry Hwang, John Guare, Athol Fugard, and others. In the process of analyzing play scripts, I talk with my students about the function of dialogue in a play. And I also explain that when I write plays, I often begin with dialogue as a means of getting started. Dialogue, for me, is a great brainstorming tool. Even if I did not use plays as texts in the classroom, I would draw upon my knowledge as a playwright in helping my students to interact with reading selections as a means of complicating their arguments.
Back to Rich, Auster, and Wideman. Here is how another student, Alicia, develops an essay from her dialogue. Her draft begins:
What exactly does the word revision mean to a writer? This is the question Adrienne Rich tries to answer in her essay "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision." If the word revision were broken down into two parts, it would look like re-vision. Vision means "to see something," and the prefix re- means "again" or "back." The word re-vision means "to see something again." Rich takes it a step further, saying it is important to see it with new eyes, and to look at it differently than before. . . . When studying the works of Paul Auster and John Edgar Wideman, one can see how they use many of the same principles of revision to help them in their writing process. Auster is making an attempt to describe the man his father was, but uses many of these steps of re-vision while making his discoveries. Wideman uses many of the ideas of re-vision while giving a narrative of how his brother ended up in prison.
Alicia goes on to discuss Auster and Wideman in greater detail, using Rich's ideas about re-vision as her guide.
Nancy asserts in her introductory paragraph that "Paul Auster and John Edgar Wideman are using their writings to act out Rich's definition of re-vision to persuade readers to believe that their writings are based on actual facts instead of a make-believe fairy tale." This concept of using revision to separate fact from fiction presented itself to Nancy in her dialogue exercise. Since Auster and Wideman both write fiction in addition to nonfiction, and both allude to their fiction-writing selves in their essays, Nancy zooms in on this duality as she applies Rich's concept of re-vision to Auster and Wideman.
However they feel about their final essays, most students enjoy the dialogue prewriting exercise. When asked to reflect on the entire process of putting together the third assignment, Sohrab responds: "[The] dialogue initially helped get some ideas out, but those ideas proved to be just the tip of the iceberg." Peter writes, "The prewriting assignment was like an improvised brainstorming for me. The majority of my main ideas streamed from the exercise." And Alicia explains that the dialogue "forced me to look at what all of these people think and how `re-vision' can be applied to their writing."
Admittedly, not all students make the leap from writing dialogue to framing two seemingly disparate texts using a third, equally dissimilar text. But even if their final drafts of this assignment are not perfect, these first-year college composition students have begun to enter the larger conversation of academic discourse. And it all begins with dialogue.
Bartholomae, David and Anthony Petrosky. 1999. Ways of Reading. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's Press.
About the Author John Levine is a lecturer in the College Writing Program at the University of California, Berkeley, and a teacher-consultant with the Bay Area Writing Project, California.
This article is featured in the NWP booklet 30 Ideas for Teaching Writing.
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Related Resource Topics
The college essay is tough. It’s not writing it that’s the hard part – it’s deciding what to write about that can be difficult. What’s most curious about the college essay is that many of the topics on this list (those that should be avoided) also happen to be some of the most commonly used topics out there.
But, why? Why are students writing about boring, tired out subjects?
A lack of creativity? Certainly not! Students know how to be creative.
A lack of gumption? Doubtful – many students even take it upon themselves to create their own version of an anti-essay (see number seven on the list).
For many students, the issue is the narrative, which begins at the essay’s focus: the topic.
A boring essay details a summary of Joe’s mission trip to Guatemala, where he volunteered at a local school with his family.
A great essay details Joe’s experience during his mission trip to Guatemala, where he volunteered at a local school with his family. It was there he met Anita, a local elderly woman who wanted to learn how to read but came from a poor family so she never had the opportunity. Joe and Anita developed a friendship…
See, you want to read more of the story, right? But, the first essay example didn’t make you want to continue reading on to learn any more details. That’s the difference.
You may think you know what you’re going to write your college admissions essay about but, before you do, read this list to learn what topics you should avoid and why.
1. A Summary of Your Accomplishments College essays are similar to life and, in life, nobody likes a braggart. These topics are broad, unfocused and make a boring read.
You may have accomplished a lot, but let your essay speak by allowing the reader to get to know you as a person through your experiences – not through you telling them how accomplished you are.
After reading your essay, a person should be able to come up with their own assessment of you – people don’t like to be told how to think.
2. Highly Polarized or Sensitive Topics The key topics to avoid here are the same as those at the Thanksgiving table: politics and religion.
Avoid preaching about sensitive topics, no matter how passionate you are about a particular one. You never know who is going to be reading your admissions essay and the goal at hand is to gain admission into college.
3. Sports The sports essay is predictable and should be avoided, if possible. Everyone knows how an athletic story will play out, regardless of the story or the sport. Find another topic that is unique and hasn’t been covered a million times over.
Admissions officers have heard enough about “the thrill of victory” and “the agony of defeat” in relation to high school athletics and they are sick and tired of pretending to care.
4. Humor Stop trying to be so funny. You may have a story in your essay that’s funny and that’s okay – but that’s different. Make sure you’re funny for a reason and not just funny because you’re attempting to be. If it comes out naturally in your essay, great. If it doesn’t, then don’t force it. Admissions officers will see the futile attempt – and likely not find it amusing.
5. Why You’re SO Lucky We get it. You’re privileged and you appreciate it, which is great. However, discussing it doesn’t make for a great essay. It’s actually super boring and, perhaps, may cause some eyes to roll.
Avoid this topic at all costs unless you’re starting with that followed up with some along the lines of, “…so I decided to leave my cushy private school to switch places at a public high school in Detroit with an inner-city teen and this is what happened.” Now THAT would make for an interesting essay.
6. Volunteer Experiences & Trips This may be one of the most popular essay topics out there…and it’s also one of the most boring clichés around. Nobody needs a summary of your vacation – people know what happens on mission trips and during volunteer hours.
While you should feel free to mention a great experience or trip, but your entire essay should not talk about your one experience volunteering during a mission trip in Costa Rica.
If you do want to bring up these topics, try to think of something interesting or unexpected that happened during your trip.
Did a particular person or experience have an impact on you? Specific happenings can make great topics – try to think of something unusual and craft your essay around that experience, instead. (See example within the opening of this article.)
So, you’re creative, smart and so over this whole essay thing. You’re not going to be put inside a box with a regular essay; you’re going to do your own thing. You’re going to whatever you feel like writing. Some of the best and brightest students do this: basically, they create the anti-essay.
Fine, but be prepared to write whatever you feel like writing from a college that may not be your first choice.
Whether it’s a poem, a random stream of thoughts, sarcasm, or some other form of writing in order to feel more creative, it’s not always the best idea. Before you do this, remember one thing: the sole purpose of your college essay is to get into college. You can show off later.
8. Illegal or Illicit Behavior Drug and alcohol use, sex, arrests and/or jail time are topics that you should steer clear of, even if they are life issues you’ve worked through.
You would not want your judgment to be called into question for the decisions you’ve made (even if they are in the past) or for making the decision to write about the decisions you’ve made. Either way, it’s risky business to go this route and is not recommended.
9. The Most Important [Person, Place, Thing] in My Life Read this aloud. Doesn’t this topic sound like an assignment that a second or third grader would write about? It really does and, if a child can handle it, it probably won’t gain you a lot of points with college admissions officers.
10. Tragedies Topics like death and divorce are cautionary because they can be extremely difficult to write about.
While these topics are tough, if you feel passionately that a particular tragedy impacted your life significantly and you do want to write about it, try to keep the essay’s focus on you.
Think about your feelings regarding the situation, how it affected you and what you learned from the experience rather than just simply recalling the situation or the person you lost.
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