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Writing Program at New College

Elements of Inquiry: Assignments

  1. Literacy Narrative
  2. How Am I Connected?
  3. Research Question & Reflection

Literacy Narrative (750-1250 words)

Humans are naturally sophisticated communicators and storytellers. The strength or success of a story may be a matter of some debate, but we believe that everyone has rhetorical strengths. As a way of connecting with those strengths, we ask you to recall a time when you were successful rhetorically and to tell us that story.

Traditionally, literacy narratives tell stories about how a person learned to read or write. We would like to extend that definition to include instances when you, as a writer or speaker, or through some other medium (music or art, for example), achieved the goals you were shooting for with your particular medium.

Think of times you convinced people to take some action, lend you a car or donate to a cause, for example. Think of times you won an argument or wrote a letter that had just the effect you’d hoped for. Maybe you learned to read by surveying the morning headlines with your mother while seated at the breakfast table. Maybe you learned American Sign Language on your own in order to talk to a neighbor. The subject for the essay is up to you, but take care to reflect on your experiences in order to come up with vivid memories strong enough to sustain an essay.

Once you think of an experience from your past that fits the bill, write a narrative about it. As a narrative, you are telling a story. You will need to include important details about the context. What was the situation? What led up to the situation, and what was at stake? Who was your audience? What was your thinking process as you prepared to speak, write, etc? What strategies did you use, and why were they successful?

Alternate Assignment Focus: Write your literacy narrative about a time you failed as a communicator.

Finding your Focus

Above all, try to find a time when reading, writing, speaking, research, in short, communication, has had a big impact in your life. You may also find it useful to use these incomplete sentences to get you going:

  • What surprises me the most about my experiences with successful communication is _____________________?
  • I feel restricted when having to communicate my ideas because ______________.
  • What makes me the most concerned about communicating ideas that matter to me is _______________.
  • What excites me most about communicating my ideas is _________________.
  • Successful or unsuccessful communication had the biggest impact on my life when __________________.

Supplemental Reading

To prompt thinking about your project, we have provided some readings and a website.  The piece by Malcolm X is taken from his autobiography and documents how he came to teach himself to read and write.  The second essay is a student-written narrative penned for a college composition course much like this one. The final selection is a professional piece that appeared in the “Magazine” section of The New York Times; it chronicles the writer’s use and understanding of speaking multiple languages.

Sample Readings:    

Learning to Read by MalcolmX

Living in Tongues by Luc Sante


We cannot overstate the importance of finding a direction for inquiry and writing that is grounded in your interests. Not only do we believe that you will be motivated to do your best work when you are focused on something that is “real” to you, the chances are also good that you will have a decent store of prior knowledge from which to begin your research. It may also be that the issue you have chosen to pursue is based on specific life experience; the issue impacts you, your life, or perhaps the lives of friends, family, and neighbors. Your interest, in other words, is the result of a material connection to the issue.

This assignment asks you to write a narrative – a story – describing your history or relationship to the issue you have chosen to research (approx. 1000-1250). Your audience for this assignment is made up of your classmates and your instructor. Your goal is to use narrative as a way to demonstrate your connection to the issue.

Generating Ideas for Your Essay

The following questions and prompts are meant to help focus your thinking and get some raw material for your narrative. We recommend you write for 10 minutes in response to each question or prompt. If you take your time writing and thinking, you will likely produce rough material that can be used to help build your narrative.

  • When did you first become aware of this issue?
  • Did you learn about it first hand? Through news outlets? Through film or fiction? Through conversation with others?
  • Can you remember other details about when and where you gained this awareness?
  • As concisely as you can, explain why you think the issue is important.
  • Are there specific life events that demonstrated the importance of the issue to you?
  • Do you remember specific conversations you have had with friends, family, or others about the issue? Summarize them or write them down in as much detail as possible.
  • Has your relationship to the issue changed over time? For example, has it become more important to you? Why? Less important? Again, why?
  • Do you think about the issue differently than you once did? How can you account for your change in perspective?

For some inspiration, read some of the short essay at the “This I Believe” project hosted by National Public Writers. Searching by theme might be the easiest way to find the kinds of essays you’d like to read. Many of the essays recount life-changing experiences. Read and discuss a few to see what they have to teach us about capturing our own experiences in writing.

Structuring Your Narrative

You have the freedom to structure your narrative however you like. In fact, you might decide to do something other than a traditional prose narrative. How about a video? A web document?

This freedom can be a bit intimidating, and so we want to offer some advice about structuring your narrative by describing some of the most familiar narrative structures:

Chronological narration. Many stories are told from a beginning to an end. They move forward in time chronologically, over a matter of hours, days, years, etc. Sometimes there are big leaps in the narrative, and sometimes narration proceeds carefully in great details from moment to moment. Usually, there is a combination of “slowing down” and “speeding up” the narrative in a chronologically told story. Build your narrative around events as they play out over time.

Flashing back from the current moment. Many stories begin in the present, and jump back in time to one, two, three, or many moments in the past. Often, such flashback strategies move back and forth from present to past. In this way, a writer is able to convey much information about how her or his perspective has shifted with the passage of time.

Fragmented narrative. Postmodern narrative strategies often challenge readers by moving around in time, shifting perspective, including multiple voices, and generally leaving such dramatic disconnection between moments in the narrative that a great deal of the meaning is implied or created through stark juxtapositions of ideas, voices, and other elements of story. Writers approaching powerful experiences and ideas that boggle the mind through their complexity or intensity (either for good or ill) often write fragmented narratives as a way to perform the difficulty of fitting experience into the confines of traditional storytelling.

A successful response to this assignment will:

  • Provide a clear explanation of the issue and its importance to the writer.
  • Clearly communicate the life experience or events that “connect” the writer the issue he or she has chosen to research.
  • Include rich details about people, places, and events that contributed to or were involved in the writer’s connection to the issue at hand.
  • Employ narrative strategies to engage the reader: conventions of storytelling such as descriptive writing, characterization, non-fiction plot, dialogue, flashbacks, etc.
  • Demonstrate a recursive writing process that that includes invention, drafting, and revision.
  • Exhibit effective editing and proofreading skills.

Research Question and Reflection

 We have arrived at a crucial moment in the semester and in everyone’s individual inquiry process. Now that you have done preliminary research and reading about an issue you have identified as important, worked through several drafts of a formal research question, the time has come to finalize the research question that will bring even greater focus to your inquiry. In order to consider and assess your own learning thus far, we ask that you also write an informal but thoughtful reflection on the research question process. This assignment sheet recaps the Discussion Board posts, details the short reflection essay assignment, and concludes with a sample Research Question Reflection.

The research question and reflection assignment has two parts:

1. Revise your existing research question, and share it with your writing partner(s) for feedback. As a group, use these criteria (now familiar to you) to refine your research questions:

  • The question accurately reflects the issue about which you want to learn.
  • The question is neither too broad nor too narrow considering the time you have for research. Be ambitious, but not too ambitious!
  • Key terms and phrases in the question reflect the language used by other researchers inquiring into the same issue(s). In other words, your question clearly participates in the existing scholarly conversation.
  • The question is effectively edited and free of sentence-level errors.

2. Write a brief (approx. 500 words) reflection on what you have learned in the research-question process. The goal of this writing is to record how your thinking about the issue may have developed or changed, and perhaps, how your thinking about the process of research itself has changed. As long as you communicate these ideas, you may take this short essay in any direction you like. You may write it as a narrative, the story or your research process. If you prefer, write more of a thesis-driven essay in which you make a careful case about what you’ve learned. And of course, you might find some other way of responding. Just make sure your response reflects on and communicates what you understand as the heart of your learning process thus far.

A successful response to this assignment will:

  • Include the initial research question, a final version, and a brief reflective essay
  • Present a final research question that is clear, well focused, and appropriate given our available time and resources this semester;
  • Include a reflective essay that clearly communicates the writer’s learning process, using important details from that process in illustration;
  • Be effectively edited

Sample Response to This Assignment

Josephine Student

Revised Research Question:  How can ASU raise awareness about eating disorders as well as encourage people who may be suffering from eating disorders to seek help?

Reflection:  Given the freedom to write a research on paper on any topic you wish might be a dream come true to other writing students; however, I found the lack of restrictions quite challenging. My mind went in 100 directions when given the assignment. I thought about world peace, vegetarianism, and dorm food.  My first “real” topic then became starvation among African youth. After shooting down this topic because of its enormity and because my lack of personal connection, I decided to discuss eating disorders among college students – especially females. I have personal experience with this subject because I once suffered through a terrifying struggle with bulimia. Also, as a Community Assistant in a residential hall at Arizona State University, part of my job is to promote healthy life styles in general, including healthy eating habits. I admit that the process of starting, stopping, and reconfiguring my research question was frustrating, but I also came to realize the importance of that process.  I can now speak from experience and with passion – through my personal connection to the research question – as well as read and analyze the research materials with a more critical and careful eye because of that first-hand experience.

The next problem I faced in formulating my research question was the broad scope of my question.  I had always thought that bigger was better when it came to doing research. However, I quickly changed my mind about that after doing just a little bit of research.  After spending thirty minutes rummaging through Google Scholar, I realized I was having difficulty pinpointing relative and important information. In addition, the hugeness of it all made it hard to find something I wanted to write about. It was at this moment I decided to talk specifically about and to female college students at Arizona State University.  Since I am both a CA and a student at ASU, I decided to think about the project in terms of an actual program or presentation I could share with other students on campus. 

Another thing I found in my initial research was a National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.  Excited that I might be able to “do” something “real” with my research, I came up with “What can ASU do to prevent eating disorders?”  I really thought this was my final question, but my faculty writing mentor made me see that the question implies a single, identifiable answer exists to the question. This is something even I knew was not possible.  To avoid that frustration and to create a positive and proactive spin on the subject, I came up with this:  How can ASU raise awareness about eating disorders as well as encourage people who may be suffering from eating disorders to seek help? The answers to my question will not only allow me to learn about ways to prevent eating disorders; my research allows me to think of ways other than writing an essay in order to share that information.

Writing Program