One of My Favorite Assignments: “Remixing 1984”

(Note: I recently completed a set of materials for an award nomination packet. This post is part of those materials.)

Prompt Question: “What is your favorite lesson plan or assignment, and why? Please describe the assignment in answering this question.”

It’s difficult to say that I have a favorite assignment. It would be more apt to say that each of my assignments operates differently from one semester to another, depending on the students in the course. This unpredictability is one of my favorite aspects of teaching writing. One of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had recently was last semester with an assignment titled “Remixing 1984” (the second major assignment in a three-part sequence.) As part of the assignment, I asked students to watch three different YouTube videos: a scene from the feature film adaptation of Orwell’s novel, 1984; Apple’s remake of that same scene in their 1984 Super Bowl commercial introducing the Macintosh computer; and a remixing of Apple’s iconic commercial, during the 2008 Presidential campaign, warning against Hillary Clinton as a “Big Brother” figure. As part of the assignment, students are tasked with understanding, articulating, and demonstrating how each of the texts serve as a remix of existing material. There are several reasons I like this assignment.

First, the assignment challenges students not only to understand and recognize how remix works as a writing tool in contemporary culture, but they are also required to create their own remix of the these texts as a way of communicating this concept to their audience. In order to effectively complete this assignment, students have to employ multiple skills and understand concepts essential to 21st Century writing practices. They need to be able to offer close readings of texts—in this case, video texts. They also need to solve the problem of acquiring these texts—ostensibly available only as streaming YouTube videos—in order to remix and incorporate them into their own text. They need to be have an understanding of and remain responsible to principles of “fair use.” They need to overcome challenges of making their own multimedia elements publicly available (via their own YouTube account) as well as embedding those media elements (through an HTML embed code provided by YouTube) within a blog they create and maintain as part of the course.

This past semester, the students in all three of my Writing and Rhetoric I sections responded with energy and focus for this particular assignment. In talking with them about it as part of our semester-ending discussion reflecting on the class, several students mentioned that they hadn’t really understood how YouTube could be a place where a writer could do academic work. They also mentioned that it hadn’t occurred to them before that it, if you want to engage or talk about multimedia texts, it’s important (some even said “necessary”) to be able to manipulate and incorporate those same types of media into your own text commenting on it. And finally—especially in my Enhanced section (read: students likely requiring more individual attention and support)—the students revealed that they felt they were forced to learn more about “writing” because the assignment didn’t really resemble the sorts of assignments they had always been asked to write.