Prompts, Pedagogy, and Composition

Tanya Sasser has written a fascinating and important piece on the question of what truly constitutes student autonomy in first-year composition courses. While her piece is primarily about theory rather than practice, I want to discuss to one particular element of practice she does address: the writing prompt. She asks:

And how many writers start with a writing prompt (generated by someone else)?

The Censor Offers The Writer a PenI answer

More than you might think.

Witness the success of such projects as 52|250: A Year of FlashFiction-writer Meg Pokrass has gone so far as to say

When people say to me, “I don’t believe in prompts,” I look at them and think, “Okay, so you have your own secret prompts,” but what I say is, “Right, they don’t work for everybody.”

Using prompts consciously is truly not the right thing for everyone, and those of us who use word prompts and other exercises in writing (regularly), and admit to doing so, often face condescending smiles from other writers.

Optional Prompts . . .

Even so staunch an advocate of prompts as Pokrass acknowledges that responding deliberately to prompts created by someone else is not ideal for everyone, so one way to use prompts in the classroom without depriving students of real autonomy is to make the prompts possibilities rather than requirements. Certainly, this has been the approach taken in a number of creative-writing workshops and online communities in which I have participated. In EFL classrooms, I have introduced prompts as “things to write about if you get stuck” during in-class free writes.

The limit of this approach is that it reduces the potential for prompts themselves to serve as disruptions. Prompts can jar writers out of their habitual subjects and methods. Some of what I consider to be my best work has been written to prompts. Antlers and Venison, for example, were written in response to the theme of “meat” which is something I never would have considered writing about on my own.

The Rules by By Caro's Lines

By Caro’s Lines

. . . or Options with Prompts

There are other ways to use bring prompts into a classroom while respecting learner autonomy. One is to allow the class to generate them. This can be done online: image prompts can be pinned to a board on Pinterest, links to articles to serve as prompts can be added to a wiki page, and Tumblr can be used to collect all kinds of digital materials. Gathering prompts in one of these ways has the added benefit of allowing less tech-savvy students to practice using whichever online tool is used for a low-stakes activity. Once the prompts have been collected, students can choose which prompts to use from those gathered, or small groups or individuals can take turns selecting a prompt for the whole class to use.

Another approach is to teach students different ways to use (and subvert) prompts. Talk to them about using obscure or obsolete definitions of words (whether these words form part of a description of content or part of a description of structure) or playing with puns. Suggest that one way to talk about a subject is by addressing its opposite. Ask them to generate their own ideas for playing with prompts instead of being controlled by them. This approach will also help provide them with tools to let them be more creative in courses that are structurally less welcoming of disruption.

Of course, one can always use a combination of these techniques. Do you use prompts when teaching writing? How do you use them?

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