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Dangerous Games

dangerous[This is a guest post by John Laudun, an associate professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His research focuses on folk culture and cognition -- that is, how the human mind manifests itself in daily reality. (Look for his book on crawfish boats this spring.) You can find him online at johnlaudun.org, or follow him on Twitter at @johnlaudun.--@JBJ]

At the end of the spring semester, Jason Jones asked if we had a favorite assignment. I did not then have an immediate answer, but now at the beginning of the fall semester and not teaching my usual favorite freshman honors seminar, I now know what my favorite assignment is, and I miss it.

As a folklorist in a rather large omnibus department with linguists, rhetoricians, and literary scholars of all stripes and periods running about, I don’t teach many literature courses. The one course where I do get to interact with literature is an honors course for freshmen meant to introduce them not only to the study of literature and to academic writing.

And so my first task is to rid them of many of their preconceptions about what those two things might be from their various secondary educations. The most success I have ever had comes from spending an inordinate amount of time with one, and only one, short story, Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game.” We read it six ways to Sunday but as we approach that moment of exhaustion, where they simply can’t take yet another trip through the text, I give them their first group assignment of the semester: their own version of the story.

The rules are simple. Every group must present a dramatic interpretation. Each of the four members of the group must play a part. The presentation must run at least a certain number of minutes (usually 8-10 minutes). I typically ask the class to come up with the evaluation scheme, and thanks to normalizing from so many reality television shows, they reliably come up with criteria that give weight to creativity, to quality, and to having some relationship to the original text.

Usually I give them at least the first class to organize themselves, and then encourage, if not require, them to meet outside of class. Their very first meeting is to decide how they are going to respond to the gamified twist in this assignment: I place six sticky notes up on the whiteboard, each with a possible interpretation: “The Most Dangerous Game” as a musical, as set in Louisiana (where we are located), as a psychology experment, as enacted by women, etc. I rotate these possibilities from semester and have also introduced the “mystery” category wherein a group can negotiate their interpretation. After fifteen minutes or so of discussion, each group nominates a “runner” who is charged with grabbing their preference, and, failing that, with grabbing their second choice. (This leads occasionally to cross-group cooperative efforts, where the entire class negotiates who is going to take what option.)

The results of the performances have always been enlightening across a number of dimensions. (You can see one group’s silent film version here.)The groups that cohere quickly and/or work the hardest almost always do the best, and the groups that don’t know it, so it establishes without me having to say anything how much time spent out of class can matter to what happens in class. It’s also the case that the groups that take the biggest risks usually enjoy the most adulation in class. The musical option has only ever been chosen twice in my time in giving this assignment, and in both instances those groups ran away with the votes. The closest runner-up was a very involved interpretation of “The Most Dangerous Game” as a corporate take-over by a chocolate magnate. (It was, I think, a way to treat Connell’s fascination with Zaroff’s lips.)

The best part of the assignment is watching the students take over the classroom both during the assignment and after the assignment. They immediately feel connected not only with their fellow group members but with everyone else: they have all endured the same nightmare of performing in front of a group of relative strangers. With that done, we can press onto the dangerous game of trying both to learn how to read complex texts as well as to write about them all in one semester. Release the hounds, indeed.

Do you have a creative assignment you love, or one that you especially miss this semester? Let us know in comments!

Photo “Most Dangerous Game” by Flickr user Matthew Miller / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

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