I suppose I should have been an English teacher. While what I’m about to suggest would work with any story, it always seems most natural to me use Hamlet as my example. You can replace it with any other story, fictional or otherwise, that you think your students should know. The important thing is that it be well documented and widely discussed in your discipline; it should be the subject of your expertise and there should be a good body of evidence associated with it. The story should contain a lot of knowable facts, some of which can be (and have been) contested. There should be a range of “standard” interpretations and some “fringe” ones too and your students should be able to tell the difference. Like I say, I will use the text of Shakespeare’s famous play as my example, but you’re free to imagine the Mann Gulch Disaster or the Apollo Moon Landings or the Glaxo/SmithKline Merger as you like.
Imagine that you have devoted a full semester to studying the play and that your class meets for three hours per week over twelve weeks. During that time you’ll of course read the text of the play but also a great deal of commentary and you’ll no doubt watch some performances, live or on film. One thing you can ask your students to do is to summarize the play. It should immediately strike you that the play has five acts and the first act in fact also has five scenes. At the end of the first week, it would be reasonable to ask your students to submit a five-paragraph prose account of what happens in Act I. You can either tell them outright to structure their essay into five paragraphs, one for each scene, or you can simply give a one-thousand-word limit and let them figure it out for themselves. Make it clear that you are asking them to tell the story, not to analyze it in any way. You want a series of significant facts and events, but not yet an explication of their significance. To do this the students only need to read and understand the first act of the play.
I know people who will call this assignment trivial, or boring, or even easy. But I would counter that in a class of 25 students we would expect, not only that each student found a unique way of doing it, but that the quality of their work would be gradable. That is, we would be able to identify the top 5 essays, the next 7, the next 8 and the bottom 5. We’d be able to assign As, Bs, Cs, and Ds and Fs accordingly. The As would tell the story accurately but also compellingly. (Remember that it’s a ghost story and includes both a murdered father and a seduced widow.) In addition to getting them right, the students would have to decide what facts to include and what order to present them in. Would they start with the backstory or with the soldiers holding the watch? Would they begin with recent events or with the sledded Poles? This distribution of quality and variety of approaches speaks to the existence of a craft and an opportunity to develop a style.
That is, telling the story of what happens in Act I of Hamlet requires both knowledge of the play and an ability to write effectively. Even in the first week of a course, these skills and this knowledge can be demonstrated, and there are all sorts of good reasons to demand such a demonstration. Not only does it give the students an occasion to make up their own minds and experience the problem of writing down what they think, it gives the teacher an insight into the level that the students are working at. How well have they understood the play so far? How easily do they write about it? How conscious do they seem to be of the discourse? What is the relationship to the reader?
The assignment can be set up in any number of ways but, however you approach it, you should impose serious time constraints. You can give them 72, 24 or even 3 hours to do it. You can let them do it at home or have them write it in class. You can decide whether or not to let them use the text of the play or make it a closed book exam. You can even have them submit one paragraph per day. Different conditions constitute essentially different tests, since you can expect different results and treat different features as signs of competence. Whatever you do, don’t give in to the temptation to see this assignment as absurd, or meaningless. Don’t let the students see it as “merely” providing an exegesis. Emphasize to them that they are to tell a compelling story in no more than a thousand words. Emphasize also that they are telling arguably the most important story in canon. Don’t let them approach it as somehow boring, or stuffy, or academic, or ancient. Like I say, it’s a ghost story. A king has been killed and a queen has been seduced by the murderer. The murderer is the king’s own brother. The old king’s ghost has come to demand that his son avenge him. There are rumors of war. It is bitter cold and the guards are sick at heart. What more do you want?
Writing assignments are not given only by English teachers. At a business school, you might be teaching the financial crisis, or high-reliability organizations, or trade in the European Union, or container shipping, or public administration, or influencer marketing, or Lean innovation. Elsewhere you may be teaching the anthropology of the Nuer or the sociology of homelessness. Or you may be teaching intellectual property law or the criminology of the Internet or NATO’s anti-terrorism efforts. You may even be teaching structural engineering or biomedicine. No matter what knowledge you are trying to impart, there are stories to be told and you can ask your students to tell them — indeed, you can demand that they be able to tell them. It is not a pointless exercise. It is the first act in the performance of a comprehensive craft skill.