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“Never Going to Make You Cry”: Why Students Should Choose Their Own Topics

posted: 3.5.12 by archived

When I was in high school and university, I dreaded writing assignments that didn’t allow me to choose my own topic and approach. As soon as I got a writing prompt in an English class, I would read through the different questions the teacher had provided, scanning for that crucial statement: “choose your own topic” or “write about a theme of your choice.” I realize some of my peers would never have wanted to choose that option; they liked being given clear parameters; and they would be uncomfortable if forced to choose their own subject material.  That didn’t make them lazy, less creative, or less confident writers.  It just made them different from me.

I try to remember this when giving my own students writing prompts. The difference is that I now start with the idea that all students can choose their own topic, but I provide extra help for students who need assistance doing so. I hope that I am accommodating all types of students this way.

A few weeks ago, there was a photo of a student essay making its way around the Internet. In the photo, a student highlighted how, on an essay  submitted for a class, he or she had started every single line with a few words from the lyrics to the Rick Astley song “Never Going to Give You Up.”

This student pulled off a Rickroll of epic proportions. When I saw the image, my thought was that this represented a way for the student to secretly protest and subvert the writing assignment. Ask me to write an essay about a field trip? I’ll Rickroll you (discursively)! The risk of being caught, the difficulty and awkwardness of writing around these lyrics—these were worth it if the student could do something truly creative. In fact, in setting him- or herself this new challenge, the student created a pretty tough writing assignment.

Maybe I am wrong.  Maybe this was just a simple prank. Or maybe, as a teacher, I should see this as a way for the student to avoid the real pedagogical goal. But I think maybe this essay validates my long-held belief that students should be given creative options, and take some responsibility for developing their own topics, subjects, and ideas. I believe this should be the default, and then if students want more support and guidance, I’ll be there to give it to them.

I think that coming up with your own ideas is an essential and important part of the writing process, that students care more about revising and polishing ideas that are their own, and that, in short, the entire writing process is enriched and activated when students have to start from scratch.

There is research to support this view as well.  Some sources include Vivian Zamel’s research on invention in TESOL, Anis Bawarshi’s work on genre and invention, and Janice Lauer’s relatively recent reference guide on invention.

The elaboration of this idea that students should choose their own topics is the idea that students might also be asked to choose their own genres (or even their own mediums).  But I will save that post for another day.

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Jay Dolmage, Uncategorized
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2 Responses to ““Never Going to Make You Cry”: Why Students Should Choose Their Own Topics”

  1. T J Geiger, Syracuse Univ. Says:

    Jay, I’m really intrigued by your post. The example of the Rickroll’d essay absolutely captivates me. “Right on!” I feel myself saying. It calls to mind Kathleen Yancey’s NCTE report “Writing in the 21st Century.” She discusses students who took the writing SAT in 2008, how they inserted the phrase “THIS IS SPARTA” from the movie 300 anywhere in their essays and crossed it out because crossed out words incur no penalty. A 30,000 member Facebook group developed around this cause, and some of the essay readers even got in on the fun, too. But these examples of guerrilla writing comes from a desire for something more than what’s offered, what expected, and what’s demanded by the assessment situation. And it’s a desire I totally recognize in my own motivations for writing. At the same time, I and lots of teachers use thematics for FYW, ask students to produce particular kinds of documents for specifics audiences or to achieve particular effects, and, for the most part, I’ve been pleased with the writing students compose. They seem to locate new interests, get captivated by something they didn’t know about. I’m constantly trying to negotiate a commitment to student freedom and choice in the bounded context of a thematic that provides us with shared content, vocabulary, questions, and lines of thinking that urge students toward their own original projects. Still, your post urges me to think about what kinds of motivation, engagement, and desire I want to see students touch in their research and writing.

  2. Jay, U. Waterloo Says:

    Thanks T.J —
    I am also always trying to balance some didacticism about helping students learn particular genres, with the feeling that the topic needs to be theirs. But then why not the genre too, right? It’s kind of hypocritical.
    And I also think that there are students who love sharing common ground with their peers and would get a lot from the kind of sustained “dialogue” that might happen with shared themes.
    One thing I say about any topic is that a student shouldn’t write about anything they don’t want to learn more about, and likely shouldn’t write about anything they aren’t open to changing their minds about.
    Thanks for the reply!