What Works for Me–A “Killer” Assignment

killerwritingMurder Mysteries and English Composition: An Interesting (Dead Man’s) Bridge to Academic Literacy
by Sarah Justice, English Instructor, Columbus State Community College

My Composition I classes have the same topic: sustainability. I feel college students should engage in topics that are integral to the continuation of human society so that they can vote, protest, or perform other actions as informed citizens. It’s also hoped that within that context, they learn academic literacy.

I know sustainability isn’t the only worthy topic to elicit these goals, and in my sessions as a writing tutor in our Writing Center, I have the opportunity to see topics other instructors have used.

One instructor, whose name I failed to grab, chose murder.

The premise is as follows: A student must, for a research paper, argue for the innocence or guilt of a famous murderer, but the student’s argument must not be what the actual conviction was. The student will research court cases or other pieces of evidence from famous slayings, from the Manson murders to killings attributed to Jack the Ripper. They will then determine a specific argument: Who killed the slain if it wasn’t who was convicted or who is widely considered the culprit? What reasons present themselves for why that person is guilty? How, exactly, does the evidence prove guilt?

The topic, when looked at through a pedagogical lens, is effective. It teaches argumentation based on credible evidence; proficiency in source selection and citation; structure of research papers; and analysis of why the evidence proves the talking points and thus the overarching argument. There would also be a paragraph in which the student practices extended critical thinking and multiple perspectives by discussing the limitations of his or her argument given the research, but suggesting how his or her argument is not restrained completely by those limitations. Last, the paper teaches the importance of formality, a writing goal necessary for academic and professional achievement.

This subject matter could be taken to narrative, Composition I’s first assignment; students could write an eyewitness account of the assailant being taken into custody or of the scrambling response at the fateful scene. It could be stretched to visual analysis, the basis of our Writing Project 3. Students could analyze a film for the rhetorical tools used to further the audience’s beliefs in innocence or guilt. Or, and perhaps more interestingly, students could analyze the crime scene for an analytical assignment and suggest implications for what they’ve found. In any realm, it lends to student interest as well as interesting work, as it’s not the traditional course topic. In fact, it can be seen as refreshing.

However, the topic likely succeeds with students–and is interesting to this instructor–in large part because of its macabre nature. It hearkens to that side of human nature that moves beyond shuddering at our mortality to gazing at it with a curious eye. It speaks to the side of us that understands and yet can’t comprehend how we are a part of the same species that is capable of barbarity in one moment and exponential grief and compassion in the next.

The topic may still be frightening, but it also allows for what I aim for in teaching sustainability and, perhaps, moves beyond it: Understanding the human condition so that we can place ourselves and humanity on the path to utmost healthiness. And the only way we can do that is to acknowledge, in the case of sustainability and murder, what humanity is capable of.

We have many faculty in the English Department, and the trail to this colleague has grown cold. However, I pledge to thank her for her innovation when she emerges from the same mystery in which her classroom’s are, no doubt, excitingly shrouded.

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