Future assignment: The reverse-engineered essay

Among the ideas behind assignments like Mashup Scholarship and Pop Up Scholarship are that students need lots of practice writing and that they need to perform this practice in different ways. By explaining why and reflecting on how they perform academic writing instead of just producing 4-5 essays over 16 weeks, I like to think that more is happening here. The performance, i.e., the essay, is but one way of showing proficiency. The ability to reflect on that performance before, during, and after is just as important.

Such assignments also challenge how we should conduct ourselves in relation to academic writing. We need not be serious as a heart attack when discussing particulars of the kinds of writing students will be expected to do in college. There is no reverence in Pop Up Scholarship, given how much I encourage students to approach the assignment in much the way Pop Up Video did its own subject matter, i.e., with an affable, critical, knowledgeable, and playful edge. Furthermore, Mashup Scholarship invites students to do what other writing instructors may balk at.

However, both assignments focus on somewhat specific aspects of writing, including audience, grammar and syntax, organization, and source materials. Neither account much for argument or idea development, though, focusing and reflecting instead on the end result over whatever process produced it. This is not to say that my first-year writing courses are bereft of discussion concerning argument, idea development, or writing processes, only that I haven't devised a clear assignment addressing them. I think I might have something for my Fall 2011 class that does, though.

During my first year at UM-Flint, I had the privilege of working with a fourth-year student on an independent study project about comic-book writing. The student's semester-end project was a 25-page script of an origin story for a new superhero. Helping the student get to that point was an earlier assignment in which he reverse-engineered Dennis O'Neil's Batman: Birth of the Demon, breaking it down into constituent parts for further examination, seeing how the frames, panels, and pages fit together, and where O'Neil likely began.

A recent column on plagiarism got me thinking about reverse-engineering again. Even if a student were to reverse-engineer a plagiarized essay, they will undoubtedly still learn something worthwhile in the process, yes? Both Mashup and Pop Up Scholarship as well as some of the required reading in my first-year courses lean toward the idea of reverse engineering. This is something I want to explore more with students. So, similar to Mashup Scholarship in that I ask students to do something they and/or other professors may have reservations about, reverse-engineering an essay asks students to fill in the steps that led to final publication.

I'm still working on the specifics of the assignment, but here's some starting language:

Choose one of the longform articles below or submit another for approval. In an entry this week, provide context for and a summary of your chosen article. That is, note the author, the publication in which the article appears and when, etc. It's pretty much impossible to reverse-engineer an essay you haven't read.

Using either the sample steps provided below or your own identified process, reverse-engineer your chosen article. Over the next two weeks, we will move from revised drafts to shitty drafts to outlines to brainstorming to initial curiosity/perplexity. In other words, we will work backwards until we have reached a satisfactory starting point for your chosen article.


I welcome any/all feedback on this. Do you see particular use in devising such an assignment?