I have not yet blogged about Heath Ledger’s death, but I am—as are many of my readers, I’m sure—shaken to the very core of my being by our loss. Words hardly seem adequate to express my pain.
So I’ll use them for something else instead. To whit: assignment ideas.
I was thinking about Lars Von Trier’s film The Five Obstructions (read about it here or here). In this film, Von Trier works with an earlier avant-garde Danish filmmaker; the set-up for Obstructions is that the older director has to remake a certain classic short film of his five times, but each time Von Trier gets to set a different obstruction the director must abide by: to remake it as an animated film, to have shots of no more than three seconds length, and so on. The results are sort of mixed, and one’s interest in the film is probably helped by knowing the short film in question (I did not).
Nevertheless, Von Trier presents an interesting scene of rhetorical invention: how do you reach a goal under certain given conditions. In some ways, this is a fairly typical writing exercise: given a certain rhetorical situation (angry parents, community problem, scholarship applications, etc) students are asked to write an appropriate generic response that accommodates the demands of the given scene.
But I think Von Trier’s method would present an interesting challenge if we took it literally and imposed certain restrictions on student compositions. I don’t mean common restrictions like, for example, not using Wikipedia. Rather, I imagine starting with something fairly basic (and otherwise sort of dull) like a definition essay. Have students draft it as they normally would. Then . . . apply restrictions or obstructions: Don’t allow them to use their own definitions–they have to show how their chosen term is contested solely through research. Or: no definitions allowed from the past 150 (or whatever number you choose) years. Or: restrict the definitions to those from certain continents or cultures. Or: more challenging and interesting still: they can’t use the word they are defining in their essay. This final one fascinates me the most because I think it allows for the richest project options: it would be a great exercise in using metaphoric language, or in compiling scenes and depictions and discourses evocative of their word into a hypertext . . . a move toward a networked definition. Obviously, there would be ways to make this last version work in my long-gestating dictionaries syllabus.
Another idea for that syllabus:
Trying to think of possible texts for the dictionaries syllabus, I thought of The Rock Snob’s Dictionary and The Film Snob’s Dictionary. The point of using these would not, obviously, be to make rock or film snobs of 1020 students, but rather to demonstrate that pop cultural discourses can build lexica of their own (that the two books satirize this point would be worth some discussion). Rather, these books inspire a certain amount of rhetorical invention as well: they invite the reader to think about his or her own various lexica and how we move between using lexica with little or no reflection. That is, one thing I’m interested in is how lexica become naturalized–I don’t name drop Amon Duul during discussions in 7064, just as I don’t mention Peter Elbow at Record Time–but I don’t make conscious decisions about this. Rather, one thing that is interesting about thinking of cultural or subcultural lexica is the way they can call attention to rhetorical choices regarding audience, tone, diction, etc., in ways that are very often taken for granted (this is the point where the satire begins, I think: when being taken for granted that, for example, an audience will know who Rainer Fassbinder is becomes a point of pride for the speaker).
The assignment should be more than just either the compilation of such dictionaries/lexica or rhetorical analyses of each. What the assignment should do is collapse this lexica into other sub/cultural lexica inhabited by the student: so, for example, the lexicon of their major gets mixed with the lexica of the family, pop culture, religion, ethnic culture, etc. What I’m missing so far, though, is the way to make that mix work in a more than superficial way. It’s not enough to say: make a list of words unique to these discourses you inhabit and then put all the words in the same text. Research can come into it: etymologies, cross-references, etc. But the words themselves should be bound together by something more than just the student’s use of them, right? But how could that work?
I see a practical way to use this assignment, which is why my inability to figure out the last bit of the project is frustrating. But really, this could structure a whole semester: we could use one or both of the above books to do a unit on pop culture, use Raymond Williams’s Keywords as a way to introduce a unit on key terms in a field of study, and then (assuming I find appropriate books) dictionaries representing other discourses (maybe something like this to represent “the street”?). The final project would be to assemble the four lexica into one and to write an introduction or preface explaining or justifying the way the lexica works (here the text would be David Foster Wallace’s essay about dictionary and dictionary use).
Another idea, still more gestating:
A very vague idea about using a metaphor as the scene of invention for a research project: Lakoff and Johnson write about metaphor working through source domains and target domains: so, for example, the associations of a source domain get mapped on to the representations of another: Life is a journey, for example, associates the struggle and toil to reach a final destination of “journey” onto the ups and downs of “life” and its progress toward death. So, the project would use this model to generate research: after either finding or inventing a metaphor for . . . something . . . students would then conduct their research on the two domains to see if the metaphor exists on other levels or is they generate new metaphorical connections or . . . I dunno. I like this idea because it makes metaphor a scene of invention, but I’m not sure on what levels the research would need to work in order to be productive: would it be historical research? etymological? cultural? Hmm.