Revisiting Hamlet and the Writing Process

[Ten years ago, I was Humanities Chair at Asheville School as we transitioned to a Humanities Department from separate English and History Departments.  One of our goals, in addition to incorporating art and music history into our teaching, was to improve our efforts to teach writing across the curriculum. During that first Fall as a reconfigured department, the Humanities faculty took a class called “Writing Across the Curriculum” with Dr. Peter Caulfield of the University of North Carolina-Asheville. We met every Thursday night for a couple of hours. As part of our work we each kept a journal, and recently I found mine in an old file on my computer–the fact that it had not been lost is amazing. I am including here one of my journal entries from that course with two ideas in mind: first, I like seeing evidence that I was actively re-thinking my work with my AP students, and second, I am thinking about how digital tools, such as Google Docs, might allow for another iteration of revising this assignment if I reprise it with Hamlet or with another work.]

I am trying a different route to our Hamlet essays this year (2000). In the past I have given out a topic, set a date for a draft, run writing groups for two or three days, and collected final drafts. While leaving the final steps intact, I am changing the starting point for the papers…

For homework Tuesday night, folks had to characterize Hamlet in a page to a page and a half based on what they know about Hamlet as of the end of Act 3, scene 1. From the start, they knew their view was an incomplete one. Theirs was the view of the first time reader who owns an ever-changing viewpoint based on the play as it unfolds before them.  In class Wednesday we read some of the responses aloud and discussed the relative merits of different ideas. Today (Thursday), after a quiz on the reading, students had the chance to revise their thinking based on what they read last night. My hypothesis is that this ongoing revision process will lead to some excellent thesis statements for their essays.  In fact, several students already produced some challenging ideas. The part I like best is that the writing is reflecting the organic nature of their thinking, and we are not pretending that the first idea will remain intact for the entire process. My intention is that we will revise these characterizations at least one more time before the catastrophe at the end of the play. Maybe then I’ll change the rules a bit so that they will have to revise to fit the more rigorous and formal demands of the essay, but at least they will have a starting place. I will add a critical research facet to the assignment that will require students to do some rethinking of their basic assumptions.

I also plan to provide another option for writing the essay: to take an idea or set of ideas from a timed writing they will do next week and let that response grow into an essay with some more demanding requirements than the original timed writing, including the critical research aspect of the assignment. Students will therefor have the option of choosing the Hamlet characterization writing or the timed writing expansion and revision as the source of their essay. For many students, I am certain, both assignments will inform their work

My hope is that this will provide enough options but not too many. I believe I gave too many possible paper topics on the Chaucer essay, and, as a result, some folks got lost in the selection process.

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