Writing War: What Is It Good For?
Coming of age in a country that has been involved in several military conflicts during much of their lifetimes, our students live in wartime, but often experience war at a distance and through a rapidly changing media environment. I designed my Writing 101 class, “Writing War: What Is It Good For?,” to provide students with a space to think critically and historically about this situation, to understand what war means for themselves and for our culture, and to make meaning out of the stories that emerge from distant war zones. Taking my cue from Chris Hedges’ 2003 book, War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, and my title from Edwin Starr’s soulful Vietnam protest song, I foregrounded questions of meaning and mediation as the central inquiry of our course: How and why do we make meaning in war? What is the relationship between writing and war? How has the writing of war changed over time, particularly with the rise of new communications and digital media? While these questions provided the intellectual pulse to the class, my design for the course was also motivated by my desire to introduce students to the rigors and pleasures of literary analysis and archival research. Towards that end I created three interrelated writing projects that progressively introduced students to a) the close reading practices that are a hallmark of literary studies, b) the archival practices of historians, and c) the analytical tools necessary to both read critically and compose creatively in a multimedia environment.
The first writing project asked students to produce a critical analysis of a literary text from the course, situating their argument within a larger scholarly conversation about writing and war—in different semesters, students wrote on Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Civil War short stories by Ambrose Bierce, and World War I and II poetry by Wilfred Owen, Alan Seeger, and Randall Jarrell, among others. While our focus on the close reading of literary texts laid the groundwork for the analytical work of the semester, the structure of this first project modeled the recursive nature of the writing process, as students composed blog entries after their initial encounter with a text, expanded and revised those blog entries into more developed and complicated rough drafts, and finally revised and polished those rough drafts into final drafts. Our use of a WordPress blog as the medium for their drafting and commenting not only underscored the collaborative nature of our writing practice in the class, as students commented on each other’s blog entries and then used their peers’ feedback to revise their blog entries into more developed drafts, but also introduced students to a medium they would be analyzing later in the semester when we turned to contemporary war writing.
The second writing project asked students to conduct archival research in the Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library. In contrast to the first project’s focus on literary texts, the second project asked students to work with primary source material in the form of letters, diaries, and scrapbooks from different American wars, all the while applying the close reading practices of the first project to this new material. Students were amazed at the opportunity to work with such materials, marveling over the fact that they were holding letters written during the Civil War. While it’s one thing to analyze a literary text, however, students struggled with the idea that a letter from an ordinary soldier could be analyzed in a similar way. To facilitate this work and to manage (and showcase) the wealth of materials in the Rubenstein, I designed this project as a multimodal group project, but asked students to first conduct individual research in the materials from their group’s chosen war and write up their findings in what I called “research logs.” These research logs provided students with a space to practice analyzing “ordinary” texts as part of their historical analysis. After spending several weeks exploring materials individually, each group exchanged their research logs and conferenced with me to plan their multimodal presentation. We also spent class time discussing the inner workings of presentation software like Prezi and PowerPoint as well as learning how to create WordPress websites.
In many respects, this archival project is the gem of the class for me. It’s thrilling to see students get excited about archival research. Their realization that you could tell a compelling story about the meaning of a war through the analysis of letters and diaries by ordinary soldiers and their families made archival research and history more generally alive for them. More than that, students demonstrated a remarkable facility in moving between old forms of writing/media like diaries, letters, and scrapbooks, and new forms of writing/media like WordPress websites and Prezi presentations. The best of their multimodal compositions intertwined textual, visual, and audio elements to create a compelling argument and narrative about the research they conducted in the Rubenstein Library. By navigating and crafting their own texts out of these different media, they gained a deeper understanding of how media shapes the representation and meaning of war.
Having made excursions into literary analysis and archival research, our final writing project moved into the contemporary moment with a special focus on new forms of visual and digital media in war zones. We discussed blogs by American soldiers and Iraqi civilians as well as graphic novels by war journalists, building up to the primary goal of the final project: a cultural analysis of some genre or medium of contemporary war writing. By focusing on a single genre or medium, I wanted students to continue our semester-long inquiry into the relationship between writing and war, with writing defined capaciously enough to include visual and digital media like blogs, photojournalism, films, and graphic novels. How do our contemporaries make meaning in war and how does their choice of medium affect that meaning? One of the challenges of this kind of assignment, though, is developing nuanced close readings of primary texts while situating those readings within a larger argument that engages existing conversations about their topic. To prepare students for a project like this, I ask them to do two things once they’ve identified a genre or medium: first, read their primary texts and develop an initial argument or claim about those texts, and second, learn what other scholars have said about their specific texts or their genre or medium. These two things culminate in a literature review and prospectus. By narrowing their focus to a particular genre or medium, students were able to produce sophisticated arguments about contemporary modes of representing war and I was thrilled that one of my students’ final papers (Kate Preston) was selected for Deliberations: A Journal of First-Year Writing at Duke University in 2012.
Working as I do at the intersection of literary studies, print and media studies, and cultural history in my own research, I wanted to provide my students with a set of tools that would enable them to situate their contemporary moment within a broader historical framework. To understand how contemporary soldiers are writing about war or how the contemporary media environment affects the representation of war, for example, it’s necessary to understand something about how soldiers and civilians in the past made meaning out of their wartime experiences. My hope is that my “Writing War” class has given my students a chance to find their own way towards that meaning at the beginning of the 21st century.