A NOT Assignment: Goals and Applications


In my 382 discussion section, I used a NOT assignment. A student can still choose to write a close reading essay (argument from text to context), but the NOT assignment is an alternative to writing an essay. The NOT assignment option is only offered during the later part of the semester, after two conventional essays have been completed. In essence, I challenge the students to create an imaginative response to a reading assigned in class. The student chooses the form of the response (short story, dialog, poem, vicious footnotes, etc.), and the student must provide a rationale for the form that is chosen.


The goal is to allow students to create something as a form of interpretation or analysis. I pitch it as playful or deconstructive, but I have in mind Jerome J. McGann's distinction between "conceptual undertakings (gnosis)" and "specific constructions (poiesis)" (Radiant Textuality 83). This assignment encourages poiesis. This assignment requires monitoring of topics and forms chosen, as it is most interesting if students are steered away from impersonations of naïve or incompetent readers.


McGann, Jerome J. Radiant Textuality. New York: Palgrave, 2001. 




Handout for a NOT Assignment

The NOT assignment invites you to think critically about the ways in which literary works break down. You might think of a normal paper assignment as having a political dimension. In the paper 2 assignment works were presumed to be organic wholes, regular structures. The Paper 2 Assignment instructed you that a short passage functions as a microcosm of the macrocosm (longer work, larger context). Furthermore, I used the word “resonate” to describe the relationship between the short passage and the longer work or the larger context.

What if the relationship is not resonance but dissonance? What if there are only echoes? What if somebody smashed the guitar? Maybe the world is absurd. Maybe things fall apart. In a quantum universe, in which objects can have infinite mass and no volume, dark matter accounts for 80% of the postulated universe, time moves at different speeds depending on gravity, and light functions both as energy and as matter, maybe there are no things to fall apart. And more germane to the time period that we are discussing, things seemed to be falling apart. In particular, the French Revolution happened at the end of the 18th Century: end of the French monarchy, Reign of Terror, and then Napoleon. The other book-end on this section of the course is the American Civil War. A nation fell apart.

So while it is useful to think of close reading as an analytical process that yields an interpretation, it is also useful to play, to explore tensions, to read backwards. Emily Dickinson put it this way:

Did you ever read one of her Poems backward, because the plunge from the front overturned you? I sometimes (often have, many times) have—A something overtakes the Mind— “Prose Fragment 30”

For your third “paper,” do one of the following or do something interesting.

·       Submit a 3-page exploration or deconstruction of a single text or multiple texts. Interrogate one or more texts for inconsistencies, silences, or outrages. In Cooper’s The Pioneers, trees falling? Expose what the text buries to hold itself together. This can be in the form of a sober academic essay.

·       Annotate a text. Write a series of long satirical or vicious footnotes in response to a text.  Pretend you are someone else. Mis-interpret a text from that perspective.

·       Find a critical edition or scholarly article that discusses variants in one of these texts. See, for example, Jefferson’s variants in the Declaration of Independence. Read the variants. Find the errors. Why are the texts different? If the text is different, does it matter?

·       Read a multi-versioned text or a text in two or more formats. For example, compare an online and a print version of a text. Or compare two different print versions. Submit your response as a paper in dialogue form, or submit a web-linked hypertext.

·       Interrogate a cultural formation from different perspectives. Create a highly self-conscious discussion group on the ToolKit site with 2 or 3 participants. Each person contributes to the discussion based on readings of one or more texts.

·       Read a text against the author’s biography. Given Wollstonecraft’s passionate attachment to Godwin, did she really believe that stuff about married couples needing to be friends. What does it mean for Jefferson to blame slavery on King George III?

·       Read or mis-read a text into a current context. For example, read Cheney’s duck hunt in terms of Cooper’s allegory in The Pioneers. Write a “Rip Van Winkle” story in which a person falls asleep with a President Bush and a war with Iraq. Wake up 12 years later with a Bush as president and a war with Iraq. This too can be in the form of a sober academic essay.

·       Mix and match or combine and break apart any of the above.

With great freedom comes great responsibility. I’m not interested in half-baked thoughts. Think. Have interesting insights. Make a reasonable effort to respect the 3-page limit for your contribution. 

The Rationale

In order to ensure that yours is not a half-baked idea, please send me e-mail with a 100-word rationale a week prior to the due date. In the e-mail, explain the form that your assignment will take, what you hope the form you have chosen will accomplish, and why that form is more appropriate than a typical academic essay. If your idea is half-baked, I’ll have one of the following responses. I’ll either send it back for revision, or I’ll discourage your participation in the NOT assignment option. 

When you turn in the assignment, please include a revised and updated formal version of the rationale (no more than one page) in which you explain the form you have chosen, explain why you think the particular form is especially suitable for your concerns, and explain what insights about the works you achieved with your NOT response.