Let Your Students Write About Nail Polish

Here’s a common complaint among English teachers: Students write such boring shit. Marijuana. Euthanasia. Abortion. Texting while driving. Animal rights. Seriously? Yeah, teachers get tired of reading “the same paper” over and over again. To fix this problem, many of us have decided to ban these topics. “If you write about pot, I’ll fail your ass right now, and you can take English 101 again over the summer instead of filling up your Instagram feed with drunken selfies.”

But we forget one thing when we make these threats. These topics are new to first-year students. They’re 18. They’re still trying to figure out what they think about these kinds of problems. Don’t deprive them of this intellectual experience. Mainly, what they know comes from their parents and their high school teachers. Basically garbage. I’ve had students who didn’t even know what they thought about things like vaccines, rape culture, and drunk driving.

I’ve never told students what they can’t write about. Even if they want to write about conspiracy theories or creationism, we’ll make it work somehow. Why? Because students write better when they choose their topics. Don’t worry, they’ll enjoy the pleasure of writing things they don’t want to later (memos, budget requests, IRB proposals). Starting them off with prescriptive assignments kills their interest in inquiry.

Other teachers view my openness in various ways. Usually, they think I’m nuts. What do I mean they can choose their own topics? Doesn’t that hurt them? Are they prepared for that? Not quite. That’s why we give them mini-assignments like topic proposals and bibliographies. They can write about anything they want to in my class, as long as they do it thoughtfully and with purpose.

One time a student turned in a paper on why Batman is the best super hero. I didn’t fail it. I made him rewrite it completely. He had to use actual graphic novels and pop culture journals as sources and revise his argument. You can’t prove that Batman’s the best super hero. But you can explain the character’s evolution, why it has endured, and how it’s changed for different audiences over the years.

Sometimes people try to tell me how to teach my own class. For example, one time a student decided to write about Area 51. A librarian visited my office that week. After pleasantly chatting, he tried to explain (condescendingly) all the problems with me letting someone write about aliens. The student wouldn’t be able to find reliable sources. He wouldn’t learn critical thinking. So, how long had I been teaching? Was I new? Was I struggling with my assignments? Not to worry, he was here to help.

So I had to explain: First, my student wasn’t writing about aliens. I’d met with him twice and tweaked his topic. He couldn’t prove the existence of Area 51. But he could research why people keep talking about aliens in Roswell. What’s the nature of conspiracy? What is the discourse of those who believe in aliens? How many people believe in the alien crash and why? We call those research questions. Students can learn source evaluation, topic development, and critical thinking with almost any topic like that.

Don’t believe me? A friend of mine let one of her students write a research paper on nail polish. The paper won a university writing award, and that student now interns at a major company.

Some students come prepared to write about diaspora, postcolonialism, and simulacra. That’s great. The rest of them arrive polite, timid, and a little naive.

Every semester, I have my students present on their research to the class. The ones who write about sustainability often listen to crickets during the Q&A. Most of these young adults haven’t wrestled with such topics before. They’re afraid of looking stupid in front of their friends. They’re also scared they’re going to say something that gets shot down by the teacher or, even worse, one of the smart people.

And the students who present about the “common” topics? Students feel safe offering opinions about marijuana. Conversation gets rolling. Before you know it, we’re sliding into more controversial territory, like race and incarceration rates. You see, students are smart. They can work up to challenging material if you build their confidence and allow them some intellectual freedom.

Effective teaching is a matter of guidance, encouragement, and stimulation. The worst teaching happens when we slap training wheels on our students and keep slowing them down. How did your parents teach you to ride a bike? I hope the answer is that they didn’t. They bought you one, gave you some pointers, and watched you figure it out. Lots of falling. Scraped knees. Crying. At the end of the afternoon, though, you were pedaling along and feeling like a bad ass. All your dad or brother or whoever did was stand around and make sure you didn’t kill yourself.

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