Since writing academic papers requires placing sources in conversation, why not begin the writing process with an actual conversation on the page in the form of a play? That’s the idea behind the assignment developed by some of my former colleagues at VCU and one that I adapted for my own UNIV 111 classes.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993)

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993)

Rather than requiring each student to produce a play individually, I altered the project to focus on collaboration, assigning students the responsibility of producing individual preliminary drafts consisting of one character’s lines (quotations and/or paraphrases from one source), which they collaboratively place in conversation with their group members’ characters in a one-act play that they perform in class. The final product consists of quotations and paraphrases from three-to-five sources, a character guide with a biographical note on each source’s author, and a works cited list. I encourage (but don’t require) students to include a description of the setting and stage directions as well.

It’s an assignment that many of my former students at VCU viewed in hindsight as a particularly helpful exercise in synthesizing a variety of materials (articles, essays, books, etc.). Though it involves more compiling than composing—at least in the initial stages—it’s a critical step in the process of writing an academic essay.

Returning to this assignment with my ENG 131 students at Lenoir-Rhyne, I composed the following sample as a model for their preliminary drafts. I chose as my subject Sherman Alexie’s short story “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” and its film adaptation Smoke Signals—adapted for the screen by Alexie, himself—because my students are studying the story and the film in conjunction with Alexie’s appearance on campus March 27 as part of the Lenoir-Rhyne Visiting Writers Series.

Working Title: From “This is What it Means . . .” to Smoke Signals, or Sherman Alexie’s Road Trip from the Page to the Screen

Character Guide

Gordon E. Slethaug: An American-Canadian Professor of English at the University of Southern Denmark and author of  Teaching Abroad: International Education and the Cross-cultural Classroom (2007), Beautiful Chaos: Chaos Theory and Metachaotics in Recent American Fiction (2000), and The Play of the Double in Postmodern American Fiction (1993). He also co-authored Understanding John Barth (1990) with Stan Fogel.

Slethaug’s lines for the play follow.

Gordon E. Slethaug: “Although there has been some interest in depicting a more historically authentic view of Native Americans than that presented in the typical post-World War II Western, the reality of their lives and perspectives still seems sadly underrepresented and diminished in mainstream Hollywood film” (131).

GS: “Smoke Signals provides an important step in remedying this problem [of stereotypes]. It’s “based upon the first third of his collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” (131).

Smoke Signals (1998)

Smoke Signals (1998)

GS: “The film, however, presents a different perception from the short story collection [. . .] the short fiction gives a comprehensive representation of the entire Spokane reservation community and includes a typically Alexie critical and cynical view of the systemic problems of unemployment, poverty, hunger, inadequate housing, violence, drugs, alcoholism, and premature death in a culture removed from its traditional moorings; the film presents a warm-hearted, compassionate view of Victor and Thomas through the medium of the road narrative and engages the audience on the level of humor and sentiment even while it gently critiques white society and racist treatments of Native Americans” (131).

 Works Cited

Slethaug, Gordon E. “Hurricanes and Fires: Chaotics in Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.” Literature and Film Quarterly 31.2 (2003): 130-40. Academic Search Complete. Web. 17 Mar. 2014.

To develop this individual draft into a one-act play, I will place Slethaug in conversation with Alexie, using these sources:

Alexie, Sherman. “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona.” The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. 1993. New York: HarperPerrenial, 1994. 59-75. Print.

Smoke Signals. Dir. Chris Eyre. Perf. Adam Beach and Evan Adams. Miramax, 1998. DVD.

West, Dennis, and Joan M. West. “Sending Cinematic Smoke Signals: An Interview with Sherman Alexie.” Cineaste 23.4 (1998). Academic Search Complete. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.

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