Evidence: A Creative Writing Prompt in the Composition Classroom
October 16, 2017 § 11 Comments
Over the next few months, author Stacy Murison will occasionally explore how she uses basic principles of creative nonfiction with students in her first-year composition classes. This is the first in the series.
We regularly ask our students for more supporting evidence in their essays, whether they are writing a rhetorical analysis, an argumentation paper, or a research paper. But it’s often challenging for students to understand what kind of evidence will support their ideas. Even with evidence, they don’t always feel confident making a hypothesis or developing a research question that may challenge them.
As their beginning research project for the semester, my students write an I-Search, which is a student-directed inquiry project. The main paper component is a 1,200-1,500 word narrative describing how they develop their question and conduct research. For this project, it’s the story of their research process that is important, not necessarily the results of their research. I spend most of the unit stressing the development of the best question they can ask rather than finding an answer to their question. This concept is often challenging as it is not a traditional research paper where students can expect to find at least the beginning of an answer to their question. The other challenge is getting students to write narratively about their research and question development, something beyond “And then, I went to Google Scholar.”
I decided to develop a creative writing exercise to help students understand how to craft a research question, how to gather evidence, and how to write their search narratives. While doing my own research for a young adult story I was writing, I had an idea for a group of teenagers who discover a well-preserved abandoned home to make their own. I spent weeks searching for “perfect” abandoned house photographs, which eventually became more interesting than my story. I was fascinated by the condition of some of these places, and was surprised to see that many of the articles that accompanied the photograph listed the contents of the houses, but the reporters often didn’t go the extra step of finding the family, interviewing neighbors, or sharing an educated guess with readers about what may have happened to the homeowner.
To guide students with both research and storytelling, I share my fascination with the abandoned house stories and photographs. I then show them a photo of this abandoned living room that also appeared to have functioned as a music room:
The prompt involves opening with the question: What Happened Here? I ask students: what was this room used for? and what time period was this room “frozen” in? The first is often answered quickly: a living and music room (guitar case, multiple record players, and chairs possibly arranged for “listening”). This helps students develop their “research question.” The next step involves some actual research—usually we look at the furnishings and the stereos/record players, but also the books, using image searches on the internet. I might give them some hints, such as stereos from the 60s and 70s and furniture from the 40s and 50s. I even allow them to use their cell phones to search the internet.
Instead of asking them to write an essay with supporting evidence, I then ask them to write a story about what happened to the family using the evidence as descriptors of the space—the molded guitar case, the water-damaged bay window, even the fake flowers looking like just picked from a garden, etc. After they complete the exercise, we spend time reading and talking through some of the stories and what led each writer to their story of the place and the homeowners.
The challenge with this example is that we all want to know what happened to the homeowners from the photograph. I then share the full article with the class. Although personal papers were found on the premises, the reporter doesn’t reveal the homeowner’s name, nor does it appear that she attempted to find the homeowner. Each piece of photographic “evidence” presented—vacant, fully furnished rooms, silverware, beauty products—only adds to the question of “what happened.” The questions become more refined as we discuss the images and the article, such as “Why would someone leave all of that expensive audio equipment behind?” and “a guitar in a case is easy to carry—why didn’t someone take it?”
When the students get more excited about the types of questions they can ask based on the evidence, then I know it’s time to introduce the full prompt for the project. As they prepare their research questions and start to find some evidence, they can discern what makes a more complex research question and how to tell the story of their search. I see students take more risks with the questions they ask, and also in refining their question through ongoing research. One student is at the point now where each new piece of evidence she discovers helps her reframe her question. She is not going to settle on one question for this paper—instead, as she garners more evidence, her question continues to evolve. What she’s writing about now is how to craft the “right” question. And she’s still excited about the project, rather than being frustrated at not finding an easy answer.
Filkins, Scott. “Promoting Student Directed Inquiry with the I-Search Paper.” National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). Accessed 30 September 2017
Rahman, Khaleda. “Untouched for decades: Photographer captures perfectly preserved home that was abandoned for years.” Daily Mail Online. Accessed 15 September 2017
Stacy Murison received her MFA in Creative Writing from Northern Arizona University where she now teaches composition. Her work can be found in Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, River Teeth, Hobart, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among others.