Building a mystery

I have assigned Davis and Shadle’s “Building a Mystery: Alternative Research Writing and the Academic Act of Seeking” from College Composition and Communication, 51.3 (2000): 417-446.

One day in class, I asked if students would like to talk about modernism and postmodernism as they inform writing instruction.  Davis and Shadle say, “We see in these strategies [their alternative research writing strategies] movement away from the modernist ideals of expertise, detachment, and certainty, and toward a new valuation of uncertainty, passionate exploration, and mystery” (418).  That seems like a great starting point for that discussion.

In class on Monday, I tried to explain that the “mystery” assignment is somewhere between the personal essay (literacy narrative) and the research paper they are all familiar with. I said we are seeking to combine some of the creativity and craft of the personal narrative with personal quests, “I-searches.”   D&S say “Alternative research writing is intensely academic, but it also strives to reconstitute the academy by reaching beyond the disciplinary thinking, logos-dominated arguing, and nonexpressive writing we have come to call “academic.” Alternative research writing inscribes an inclusive cross-disciplinary academy, which mixes the personal and the public and values the imagination as much as the intellect.”  That’s what I wanted to say.

The article lists four approaches to alternative research writing, but only the last type,  “The multi-genre/media/disciplinary/cultural research project” seems to really significantly push students and writers towards “mystery,” towards a significantly alternative approach to doing research and writing it up.  The authors describe quickly a number of projects their students have done; a couple of those seem particularly relevant to the one major constraint I am putting on the project, “Writing about writing.” D&S describe a number of student multi-genre autobiography projects: I can imagine students picking an author (JK Rowling comes up a lot) and maybe posing the research question, “What did JK Rowling need to know / read in order to write HP?”  That topic has probably been done already; the same could be tried with Rick Riordan (my 13 year old’s favorite author). Or for the more theoretically minded, I could imagine really pursuing the question I started with: “What does postmodern writing really look like? And how could I teach it?”  These questions could be answered through the traditional research paper, but the later would really benefit from the significant use of images so readers could literally see what it looks like.  And once someone starts researching postmodernism, they are unlikely to want to write a modernist research essay.

The article references the genre of “mystory,” a genre I have taught in other classes.  If anyone is interested in continuing their literacy narrative (roughly) they might want to try a mystory.  Twana Weiler’s example is very much a literacy narrative in multimodal form.

In addition to identifying a question, the “mystery” assignment does also give everyone a chance to work with new and/or different technologies of writing.  This might be somebody’s first chance to make a video (whether documentary or remix), do a screen cast, assemble a website, or work with paper and objects in ways that are significantly different than compiling a research paper on 8X11 pages of paper.  After finding a few things in, I wonder what a history of writing instruction, on video, might look and sound like.  I also wonder if Grammar Girl’s podcasts are available for remix.  She is great, but kinda modernist.  Maybe someone would like to try a post-Grammar Girl podcast.

This post has given me a chance to think through some approaches; I hope my students find it useful.


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