Saturday, November 27, 2010

Story of Stuff

Every semester that I've taught at the college level, I teach my students the Proposal Paper. It's not a paper usually assigned by instructors; it's something that M. has been teaching for a while, too, and after I considered the assignment, I thought it was a much better option for my students than, say, writing a simple "Argument Paper." I think of the proposal as a type of argument (an argument in favor of acknowledging and resolving a problem), and it teaches my students valuable skills--after all, they'll most likely write proposals for a future employer, or for a graduate application. The proposal is also just good practice in getting others to listen to you--it teaches students how to appeal to an audience, how to be respectful, and how to accept a compromise in order to get something they want eventually. Here is how the beginning of the assignment goes:

For this paper, you will define a particular problem close to you (one here on campus, at work, or in your home community) and propose a specific solution. The action should be one for which you can provide ample reasoning and supporting argument. Keep in mind that not only is it important to present your proposal coherently and persuasively, but it should also be a proposal that has a realistic chance of success.
Aside from practicing how to write an argument, it is of course my goal to encourage students to effect change in their lives. Too often we ignore small problems and not make anything happen. I have students writing on a range of topics--from installing more recycling bins in their school to fixing potholes in their neighborhoods. Overall, the proposal is usually their most successful essay, not just because they write it late in the semester, but because they are invested in the issue. I always advise students to revise proposals after I have graded them, and to send them off to their intended audience--after all, they'd have nothing to lose, and their proposal would already be written. I suspect that not all my students actually send their proposals off, but even if it's just one or two from a class who take that initial action, I think it's worth me teaching for two weeks of the semester.

In addition to writing proposals, my classes also view and read a number of texts that propose action. We start of with "A Modest Proposal," read "My Amendment," and watch "The Story of Stuff." The latter is an ambitious, but very necessary project--and a proposal, too. I know that I have a soft spot for stick-figure animation (as in, Don Hertzfeldt's work), and I know that's part of the reason why I like "The Story of Stuff" so much. But of course, I also like Annie Leonard's explanations, thoroughness, and urgency. It turned out that this year I showed the video two days before Black Friday--in class discussion it was clear that even if some of my students don't plan to halt their holiday shopping completely, they were going to be more thoughtful about it.

And I, too, have been thinking about it more. I've seen "The Story of Stuff" at least six times (in preparation for class discussion, and once for every three of my sections of composition), and each time I get something new out of it. The last time around, I really zeroed in on "...recycling will never be enough..." And yes, Leonard urges, yes recycling is good, but it doesn't address the core of the problem. If you haven't seen the short video, I encourage that you do--and maybe you'll take something away from it, even if you're already aware of the state of the planet. Leonard is empowering, in a way, and although her proposal offers a very large problem, I think that she is effective in inciting her audience towards a solution.