Richard E. Miller

Be Interesting! The Story Behind the Most-Read Student Paper in Human History

Blog Post created by Richard E. Miller Expert on Oct 14, 2016

In the last post, I discussed our “Be Interested” assignment and I argued for the value of giving assignments titles. So, what comes after an assignment entitled, “Be Interested”? “Be Interesting!”

 

This particular sequence emerged in a class Ann and I were team-teaching to work out the ideas in Habits of the Creative Mind. We’ve both had the not uncommon experience of thinking things were going well in a writing class because of the quality and tone of the class discussions and then finding ourselves with a stack of boring papers written on auto-pilot. With this assignment, we hoped to accomplish two things:

 

  1. To establish that you can’t be interesting, if you’re not yourself interested.
  2. To initiate a discussion of what “being interesting” looks like on the page.

 

Here’s the assignment:

 

Engaging with the sources you’ve found, use your writing to show your mind at work on the question, problem, or mystery that has emerged from your encounter with your sources. Begin with your interests and then be interesting: use your writing to create an experience for your readers that is designed to generate interest in what you’ve discovered.

 

We invite you to use any of our common readings as a model of how to move from being interested in a given question to creating writing that makes that question interesting to others.

This assignment generates in its wake further discussions about whether it really is possible to determine if a writer is interested or a work is interesting. And this is exactly as it should be: for our students to succeed in producing writing that is interesting to others, they need to spend time thinking in concrete terms about what interesting writing does.

 

An example will help to clarify what we value in interested and interesting student writing.

 

Let’s look at the first page of a breakthrough piece of writing by Donald, a sophomore communications major. Donald switched topics between the “Be Interested” and “Be Interesting” assignments because, in the act of completing the first assignment, he found that he wasn’t actually interested in what he had chosen to write about. (We view this as a way of successfully completing the first part of the project: creativity always proceeds via experimentation, and experimentation, by definition, always includes the possibility of failure.) Having pursued a dead end in the first assignment, in the “Be Interesting” assignment Donald turned to an experience that was haunting him.

 

I had just recently come back from what I was telling people was “the best experience of my life.” Over my winter break at Rutgers University, I decided to try something different and embarked on a ten-day trip sponsored by a Korean organization called the Good News Corps that eventually brought me to Monterrey, Mexico, where I participated in the IYF (International Youth Fellowship) English Camp. The camp aimed to teach English to Mexican students of all ages over the course of three days. The whole trip only cost $300.

 

The memories were still fresh in my mind: the laughing, the dancing, the singing, the half-dozen girls holding me crying, thanking me for coming. Except now all these warm fuzzy feelings were being replaced with something else, something much more unsettling. I was having trouble processing what I was reading on my computer screen.

 

It was an article about the trip that made the front page of nytimes.com, titled “Traveling to Teach English; Getting Sermons Instead.” [It was] sent to me by another student who went on the trip. The article details the account of two students who went home early in the trip while we were still in Dallas, Texas, for four days of “training” in preparation for teaching in Mexico. They felt they were victims of a scam, and were unhappy with how much of the camp centered on religion and the “Mind Lectures” of the program’s leader, Ock Soo Park. This wasn’t surprising, as I had met plenty of kids there who were upset for the same reasons, myself included, but most of us toughed it out for the sake of being able to go to Mexico. It was the comments section that was causing my state of disbelief.

 

“Evil. Creepy and Evil.”

“Sounds an awful lot like the bad parts of Jonestown.”

“While editorial concerns must have precluded Mr. Dwyer from calling a duck a duck, we all know these unwitting students got trapped in a recruitment session for a cult.”

“Typical cult strategies.”

“This sounds like the Moonie cult from years ago.”

“This organization is essentially considered a cult in South Korea, known as ‘Saviorists.’”

 

And they went on.

 

“This can’t be right,” was all I could think. Different flashes of my trip started replaying in my head. The mass baptisms in the hotel pool. The two-hour mind lectures. The lack of sleep. My moment of revelation. Could it be true? Did I willingly drink the Kool-Aid? Did I become part of a cult recruitment session for ten days?

When we have students read each other’s work (which is something we do constantly), we don’t ask them to say what they liked or didn’t like about what they’ve read. Rather, we ask them to use our rubrics to guide their assessment of the work the writer has done.

 

In this instance, they’d read Donald’s draft and considered the following questions:

  • Does it ask a genuine question or pose a genuine problem?
  • Does it work with thought-provoking sources?
  • Does it show the writer’s mind at work making compelling connections and developing ideas, arguments, or thoughts that are new to the writer?
  • Does it pursue complications (per perhaps by using words like but and or)?
  • Is it presented and organized to engage smart, attentive readers?
  • Does it make each word count?

 

Although we’ve only provided you with the first page of Donald’s essay, we think there’s enough in this sample to suggest that he is on his way to producing work that meets the criteria for being interesting, as we define the term.

 

The writer is trying to figure out whether he, an ordinary guy who is well grounded and content with his life, came close to getting caught in a cult. While Donald doesn’t present much research on this first page, you can definitely see his mind at work on a problem. He actively pursues complications in the shift he makes from his unsurprised response to the newspaper article to his shock at reading the readers’ comments. We don’t have enough to go on from this sample to say much about how he works with sources, and we can’t say that every last word counts, but there’s no doubt in our minds that Donald has done a great job of drawing readers into his predicament.

 

You can read the rest of Donald’s paper here.

We’ll return to this paper in the next post. But if, in the meantime, to read Donald’s paper online, you’ll see that it has garnered over 50 extended comments from readers around the world. It is one of the most visited pages on text2cloud.com. Donald has cleared the bar for producing interesting writing: he has attracted readers who aren’t paid to read his work (like his teachers).

 

Next up: How to evaluate whether a work is interesting or not.

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