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UMS Faculty Focus

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Choose Your Own Ending: Students' Final Project Assignments in Their Own Words

When it comes to the end of the semester (it is coming), and when it comes to a group of students working independently within shared perameters and expectations, a truly individualized final project might best be written by each student.  In Illuminated Autobiography, an Honors 200-level course, we have embarked on a journey of self-discovery through words and images that began back in January with published manifestos on why autobiography matters at all.  If you don't write your story, someone else can; writing retrieves memories, reattaching meaning to symbol; writing makes something real; writing discovers the "radiance of the past" (a particularly lovely phrase taken from Patricia Hampl, whose book on memory and imagination leads our investigations).

From Hampl's "radiance of the past" we proceed through practical advice from Bill Roorbach, who exhorts us to just write, to find a time every day to read the hard books, to write our own apologies for rushed work, to play and experiment and accept that while a person may have innumerable good, bad, and indifferent characteristics in life, a character on the page will have two or three if they are to be credible.  Both writing mentors tell us that memory is faulty and invention necessary; both tell us that reality is always in service to art and artfulness, on the page.

My students - well, they have a lot to say too.  And so by mid April, I'm ready to give them a serious estimation of time that should be spent crafting a final project in this creative expression core course.  I'm happy to remind them of Hampl, Roorbach, the graphic memoir of Alison Bechdel in her debut Fun Home, the thorough-going comprehensiveness of Amy Tan in her later-career memoir Where the Past Begins.  "Writing is the witness to myself of myself," Tan writes, bearing out Hampl's insistence on world-recovery in writing the story of the inquiring self.  Tan's world is many pages of "quirks," chapters, journal entries, emails to her editor, letters, photographs, and drawings.

Students in my class are invited to make a book of their own - autobiography, memoir, or personal essay - from scratch.  I ask that they spend 7-10 hours on the project, which should include thinking time, planning and drafting time, writing and designing time, feedback-from-others time, and polishing/finalizing time.  I ask them to remember the many versions and examples of books we've read, viewed, touched, and visited over the semester.  Sometimes a book doesn't look much like a book, but it becomes its own new thing, a new form.  And always it carries a sense of its maker.  Always it uses a shared language to experiment with language, to expand our visual vocabulary.

Beyond these remembered points, conceptually, of our course, and the estimated time frame expected from the project, I'm reluctant to enumerate further detail.  To the teaching with technology angle, then, I have asked each student to contribute their own assignment to a shared Google doc, comprised with imperatives like "Write a three-chapter book on . . ." or "Design an accordion style book about . . ." or "Alter an existing book to reveal . . ." etc.  You see the pattern. 

This is a test.  But not only a test.  It's both more and less, really.  It's a test of a method, pedagogically: how much room can you give and still get good results from a group of hard working but over scheduled students?  It's a test of how well earlier parts of the course flow together in a meaningful way to now be more than the sum of parts.  But as a individually dictated direction, each final project assignment is exactly not a "test" in the objective sense of the word--it's a road map, a vision, an articulation of the place one wants to go.  And perhaps the reasons why.  And it gets itself read - by everybody.

Link to our class Google doc of individual student assignments for the Final Project in HON 207 Illuminated Autobiography, used with permission:

Whole class assignment guidelines on p. 1 and students' own assignments on p. 2.

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