Awesome lessons in college writing?
January 17, 2014 10:59 AM   Subscribe

What really great activities, exercises or lessons do you remember from your undergrad-level writing or composition courses?

Asking for a friend who's looking to punch up his composition syllabus with particularly creative, illuminating, and/or fun classroom activities relating to academic writing.

A broad range of topics is fine-- anything from mechanics to higher-level stuff like forming an argument, synthesizing sources, etc. And even if you don't remember all the specifics, feel free to just give a vague description or a couple snippets. Thanks!
posted by yersinia to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Don't know if this qualifies as "academic," but: Sit in front of a work of art, ideally at a museum. While there, write about it. Difficulty level: you must look and write for 30 minutes straight.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:25 AM on January 17, 2014 [3 favorites]

One of my favorite college courses was a creative writing class. We received about two prompts each week, and they were always short - usually 200-500 words. The professor had us try out different voices and perspectives (my favorite prompt was to write a story in the second person - I had a blast with that assignment!) and share them with the class on a shared webpage. We were given prompts that made us reflect on a particular setting/place, and others that made us shape a character and his/her backstory. There were also some poetry assignments, so we got to practice sonnets, free-form, etc. I liked it because it introduced me to many different styles in a relatively short period of time, and because when I encountered a style I didn't really dig, it was just one prompt (usually), not a whole sequence of them.

Undergrads should already know about mechanics and synthesizing sources and preparing arguments - I wouldn't teach that in a college course, but it would be helpful for your friend to have sources on hand that he could offer to struggling freshman.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 11:27 AM on January 17, 2014

The first exercise in my business writing class was to have students write directions (no illustrations!) for making a paper airplane. Then they switched instructions with one another and tried to build the planes. Oh, the complaints about unclear materials! It gave us a way to be on the same page (so to speak) from day one about the point of the coursework.
posted by MonkeyToes at 11:31 AM on January 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

I had a prof that would cross out extra words and write MUMBO JUMBO on it.

e.g. "I was probably thinking about going to talk to my teacher" --> "I spoke to my teacher about"

Hard to come up with examples on the spot, but she helped me see the extraneous words I put in all the time.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:32 AM on January 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

oh and syntax trees... once I learned them in linguistics, I never misplaced the word "and" or created ambiguous phrases again.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:36 AM on January 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

There's a neat "write about a wall, start with the top left brick" trick described in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In the book, I think he goes on to have a classroom write about the face side of a penny. (Similar to above, I think the idea is to write non-stop for a set length of time.)
posted by juliplease at 11:56 AM on January 17, 2014

The challenge described in the beginning of The Big Father Essay seems like it might fit the bill.
posted by Sokka shot first at 12:19 PM on January 17, 2014

I haven't had to use them as a student, but Scholes, Comley, and Ulmer's Text Book and Ulmer's Internet Invention are ridiculously jam-packed with thoughtful composition exercises and writing prompts. Really, they're almost too rich, and what I'd suggest is getting used copies for inspiration instead of simply assigning them.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 12:42 PM on January 17, 2014

It wasn't in writing or composition, but I had an Anthropology professor cross out all my instances of "people that" and replace them with "people who" and I think of it every time I want to throw a "that" in.
posted by jabes at 1:29 PM on January 17, 2014

One of my freshman college professors HATED passive voice and did a great job pounding the horror of it into my head. I think twice every time I write a sentence with any sort of passive voice.
posted by anotheraccount at 3:19 PM on January 17, 2014

In an anthropology intro class, we read "Body Ritual among the Nacirema" (for insight on authorship/authority, point of view).

From a creative writing class: synopsize feature news stories or films - one sentence (for plot, narrative, story). I struggled with this ("where does an event begin and end, really?").

And, this was never brought up in the context of any writing class I took, but I think psychology stuff around schemas might be helpful re getting a grip on narrative. Because we do think in stories, and not, naturally anyway, about multiple & interacting (vs simple, grossly estimated) causal forces. Trying to get at the skill of handling causes and effects within a given convention such that you've accurately (enough) captured an event or process and communicated it in a psychologically useful way. (Which is, um, writing, I guess.)

Also: if you can, stop them from becoming as addicted to embedded clauses, parentheses, and digressions as I am. Won't offer tricks because whatever I was taught didn't stick.
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:38 PM on January 17, 2014

I just completed my mandatory undergrad comp class, after dropping the first one because it was so boring.
The theme was debt, consumerism and the environment which was more engaging than most, it was kind of a shock to read about what a waste of money college might be in your college class.
what I found the most interesting was watching documentaries and analyzing filmmaker's choices as you would an author's. Even now when I watch TV I think, "Oh, this is to build empathy for this character" or think about why the director chose not to include something that seems obvious. We chose between three documentaries the instructor selected and wrote one of our major papers on how the director made their argument.
posted by rubster at 7:42 PM on January 18, 2014

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