Today I met with a new class of first-year writing students. As one of our first-day exercises, I asked my students to read Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B,” which I’d included as the final page of the course syllabus. My students and I had spent part of our class time meandering around our classroom interviewing one another, trying to learn one interesting thing about each person present (myself included), so the poem Hughes’ speaker offers in response to his teacher’s prompt to write a page about himself seemed to be an apt way to conclude class. Given the opportunity to describe yourself in a single page, which details would you include, and which details would you omit?
Before our next class, my students’ homework is to take the instructions in the poem and write their own page:
Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.
I’ve taught this particular course–Intro to College Composition–before, but only online, never face-to-face. Although I’ve read “Theme for English B” with first-year writers in the past, I’ve never asked them to try out the poem for themselves, writing a page that is “true” because it “come(s) out of you.”
This is, in other words, an experimental assignment: something I’ve never tried with a real live classroom of students, and it’s a writing prompt I’ve never even tried myself. Faced with the seemingly simple instructions in Hughes’ poem, what would I write? I’m not sure–I’m both excited and intimidated by the prospect of the blank page this assignment assumes–and this is why I chose to start the semester with it. Sometimes it’s interesting to try something completely new–something you’re not sure will work–something that actually frightens you a little.
I remember one of my own college instructors once making a distinction between “real” and “fake” questions. When a teacher asks you something she already knows, that’s not a real question: it’s a fake question, something designed to test your knowledge or even trick you. When a teacher asks you what you thought of Hughes’ poem, for instance, is she honestly asking what YOU thought of it, which she can’t possibly know unless you tell her? That’s a real question, because there’s no predicting how you might respond. But if a teacher asks you what you thought of Hughes’ poem while secretly expecting you to interpret the poem the same way she did, that’s a fake question. That teacher isn’t asking for something she doesn’t know; she’s asking for corroboration of what she already assumes to be true.
I honestly don’t know what kind of pages my students will bring to class on Thursday: this assignment is, in other words, a Real Question. Will my students bring poems? Lists? Song lyrics? Will anyone bring a resume? A personal ad? An ode or epitaph? Like any first-year writers on the first day of class, my students spent a lot of time today trying to figure out “what I want” from this and future assignments: how much do page lengths really matter? How much do I care about document format? How many points will I deduct for This, and how many points will I give for That?
As a teacher, I need to care about official course outcomes, policies, and other formal requirements, but as a writer, I want to say, “Surprise me.” Where’s the fun in reading a pile of papers that all give me what I want, as if I could describe exactly what that would look like? If I were given an assignment like the one I gave my students today, I’d be both terrified and a bit exhilarated, wondering just how creative my teacher wants me to be. Having given this assignment to my students today, I’m more than a bit excited, wondering just how creative they dare to be.