This exercise was
Old and New Information
Identify/Generate the principle
Time: 15 minutes
You can make this exercise about any writer with a quirky, distinctive
style addressed to a regular group of readers, although the particular
reasons the style seems quirky and/or disjointed will of course
change with the writer.
I found that using a Maureen Dowd column from the New York Times
was an entertaining and effective way to teach topic strings. Since
her “style” is
so distinctive, almost any column will do: you can pick columns
related to something in the news at the time.
Directions: Hand out the text of the column beforehand,
or give your students a few minutes to read it in class. My students
exclaiming in one
voice that it was the most “disjointed” piece of writing they had
ever read. The exercise lies in figuring out why. Break the students
up in small groups and give each a part of the article to analyze.
If you break up the article by paragraphs,
they will likely
find that the topic strings are surprisingly consistent within
paragraphs. Then have the groups compare topics within paragraphs:
listing them on the board, you’re likely to find a pretty unified
cast of characters.
What’s the problem, then? Students go back
to their small groups to look at their paragraphs in context and
diagnose why the style still feels disjointed.
Various right answers, most true of any given paragraph:
1) Paragraph is 2-4 sentences long: topic string is not sustained long enough
before jumping to new one.
2) Although new topic is related, this relation is not made explicit: reader
expected to bring old information to reading themselves.
3) Author may use more than one name/nickname for the same character, which
students may or may not recognize, skipping between them at will
no warning: again, not a problem if reader is clued in—very frustrating
to students, though.
Discussion: Ask students who the intended audience is for the
piece and what they have to know/be aware of to a) understand it
and b) find it
amusing. To them, this works like a puzzle that they have to
piece together: they ask you questions, and, as you provide the
information, they make the connections that eluded them before.
Depending on the column, the students may or may not be familiar
with the political topic at hand. So it’s
a good opportunity for discussing different audiences and the nature of old/new