When I was in grad school, one of my friends who focused on Composition and Rhetoric told me that until very recently, students learned to write expository essays by copying, word for word, essays from great masters, usually Greeks and Romans. There was no talk of pre-writing techniques, no discussion of revision. No, you copied out Cicero, in your own handwriting, day after day. Eventually, you might be allowed to write an essay that had your own original thought.
I saw a posting on Leslie Pietrzyk's blog that made me think of this technique of teaching Comp-Rhet, except it's a poetry technique. Guest blogger Judy Leaver describes a technique that Billy Collins used in a workshop that he led in Key West, where students used a William Carlos Williams poem, "This Is Just to Say": "Our homework was to ‘copy’ the exact form—same title, exact line length, same punctuation or lack of, and number of syllables/per line . . . ." Go here for more details about the assignment and to see the results.
Those of us who teach are getting to the point in the term where we often find ourselves saying, "Are you sure the term isn't over yet? We still have to keep going? For weeks? Months even?" Our initial enthusiasm has waned. We know we had good ideas at one time, but we can't remember what they were.
It's good to have an assignment like this one, one that would work in a Creative Writing class, in an Intro to Lit class, and even perhaps in a Lit Survey class. And it's a change from the analytical assignments that have begun to get so tedious. Why write about literature, when you can get right in there and wrestle with the literature itself?
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